An Introduction to Collecting Early Tools

An Assignment for the National Fisherman Yearbook in 1989

“If I only had the right tool for the job”- this is often the do-it-yourselfer’s lament. When you have áll the tools you need, another problem may threaten your workspace – where to put them all! If you have ever found your tool collection expanding beyond the shop, you can sympathise with Keith Rumgay. His interest in tools grew too big for the house or the garage; so he built a barn out the back!

From the outside you might guess this purpose-built space could hold all the equipment to run a small farm, but the reality is far more surprising! Like a growing number of enthusiasts, Keith finds that tools are not just the means of production, for him they have become an end in themselves. The result of his labors is nothing less than a personal museum.

Inside he has created displays of hand tools of every description – all the essentials that any 19th century craftsman would have needed to fill an order. Whether the visitor is interested in boats or barrels the reality of life before mass- production is self-evident: the good old days were muscle- powered!

Keith Rumgay is one of 300 members of the Pacific Northwest Tool Collectors, and although his life-long passion is something of a stand-out, many members have extensive collections where a visitor can easily pass a few hours. Behind the march of progress, from covered wagons to fine furniture, a tool collector sees the implements that made a craft-based technology possible. What’s more, the kind of tools that created early masterpieces in wood are still available and some cost relatively little to own.

Exactly what type of tool is collectable? Anything from blacksmith’s anvils to pre-revolutionary ebony and ivory plow planes. The cast-iron Stanley 55 plow plane set–produced until the 1960’s–is now worth ten times its original $60 price. There is a newsletter (Plane Talk, PO Box 338, Morristown NJ) to report the latest finds, auction news and prices on planes.

The PNTC membership list suggests that no two collections have the same focus. They vary from the desire to have “one of everything” to an interest in one specific tool, maker, place of origin, material, function or time. In the NW Oregon area a cross-section of PNTC members offers an insight into some possibilities. Peter Abrahams is a woodworker who produces turnings and carvings when not doing more general carpentry.

Like many carvers he has a complete collection of shapes and sizes of blades–but his collection runs to hundreds of obscure gouges and chisels. Make, quality and appearance are important to him, along with age and rarity. But any of them may be called into duty when he requires “just the right tool. “Originally they were used to carve signs, nameplates, chair leg. Sculpture in terms of art is a new task for my tools, he explained. Peter isn’t limited to chisels, he also enjoys finding anything stamped “Made in Portland” and soon convinced me that our home town once had a flourishing foundry tradition.

That’s just a reflection of the basic truth that every town had its own brands. It was an essential part of the economy before mass-production that local metal workers could produce any tool in demand. More importantly, they had to be able to repair them. There were no spare parts, everything was at least slightly unique and needed parts that were tailor-made.

Many patented planes were produced in the last century, and these have become a specialty for some. The first cast-iron bench plane was registered by Knowles in 1827 and the ubiquitous Stanley Co. bought out the various rights to the Bailey plane designs until the 1880’s. Many intricate variable designs were marketed to replace the numerous wooden moulding planes carried by carpenters. Some of these transitional planes are now worth several thousand dollars!

Catalogs, labels and signs may add to the re-creation of a period display. More general antiques such as fire irons and pots, toolchests and workbenches can also find their way in-if space allows. A display off braces and bits showed me a more dramatic evolution: that of the drill.

It’s a fact easily passed over by historians and scholars that the fastenings for thousands of buildings, wagons and ships were driven into holes drilled with downright primitive methods! The brace and bit were one fixed unit and the drilling point just a sharpened spoon shape.

1772 saw the first mention of a “Spiral Auger”, 1855 the twist bit, one of the first designs to be self-cleaning and threading. Only in 1859, was the split-chuck introduced. Patents are a useful clue in finding the history of obscure tools, I was told. Many are stamped with the date of patent and nothing more. Collectors use the records of the patent office (available at public libraries), to discover who made the device and what exactly they thought it could do so well.

In retrospect these “breakthroughs” don’t usually look so brilliant. A developmental cul-de-sac was reached, for example, by the Lowentraut company with their strange but ingenious combination drill brace/pipe wrench/screw driver. It has certainly failed the test of time. Such a background, however, only adds to the interest for an enthusiast.

Antiques like these are for admiring not for using, but Sam Johnson has a different focus. Aside from a fine display board in his study all his tools are used in his basement boat shop. From Japanese pull-saws to well-honed draw knives, Johnson sees utility in everything he has collected. That they make a handsome wall display is just coincidental.”They work better because they evolved to do one specific task”, he emphasised. “There’s no comparison, for instance, between a wooden saw handle and a streamlined plastic one.”

While some diehard woodworkers may complain that good tools are rapidly passing out of circulation, the collectors reply that they are preserving our heritage from the scrap heap. Certainly, something like the Rumgay collection, where we began this investigation, is a joy and an education to behold. Since it is also the bi-monthly meeting place of the PNTC and was once fllmed by “The Collectors” program for PBS it is more visible than many museum storage rooms.

The barn has been divided into sections by trades. As only befits Oregon, it begins with blacksmithing and logging equipment–the basics for life at the end of the Oregon Trail. Upstairs one finds a selection of farm implements and space for the meetings. Keith runs a small farm himself–when not driving a truck or searching for additions to his treasury.

The west was settled on wagon wheels, all of them custom built by the wheelwright. Adzes, drawknives and spokeshaves were the tools of the trade-later hand-turned machines were devised to reduce the labor of cutting the tenons. Wheelrims again meant work for the smith. Rumgay has obtained a hefty hoop-joining device that drew the two red-hot ends together to ease forging the weld.

The millwright’s skill is barely comprehensible in today’s world-he built “wooden machinery”, was able to thread wood to fill many needs barely sensed now. Wooden clamps and vices that are still serviceable suggest how well the screw-box was used to cut threads.

Many traditional tools, like wooden-handled chisels, hammers, braces and saws are still in use, as are wooden clamps squares and bevels. With a little polishing they can form the modest nucleus of collection. Everyone may have a treasure of some sort hidden in their tool chest. It becomes a question of retiring these tools-before they are too worn or broken-and letting them live out their years in comfort.

If you are seriously interested in picking up a few good tools where could you start to look? Collecting really begins at estate sales, rural auctions and markets and antique shows where a little knowledge of the subject would be valuable. Many fine examples of early production–cast tools like wrenches, braces and grips are still to be found in used tool stores. While these may never be valuable they are nonetheless collectable if they have interesting names, shapes or functions or just add to a display. Anyway, we’ve all heard it said “No one can have too many tools!”

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