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The Beauty of Antique Tools

Classic hand tools can be collectible, sure—but don't relegate them to the display shelf just yet. Hit the country's largest antiques market with TOH master carpenter Norm Abram

The Feel of a Well-Worn Hammer

Photo by Russell Kaye

Iron darkened with weather and age, wood worn to a rich sheen in all the comfortable places, old tools feel like the past frozen in a black-and-white photograph. Lining the dusty shelves of little-used workshops and the cobwebbed corners of a junk-filled garage, they may seem pointless today, easily replaced by some sharp new power tool with lasers and digital readouts. But hand tools from your grandfather's day are actually worth checking out. With a little tune-up, these antiques are just as functional as they are beautiful.

This Old House master carpenter Norm Abram learned his craft at his father's knee, and many of the vintage tools in his own working collection were once the instruments of his father's trade. So we asked Norm if he would take a day at the famous Brimfield Antique Show in central Massachusetts to pick out a collection of tools that a modern homeowner—you, say—could still make use of. Norm walked the show's acres of aisles and perused the chock-full tables. What he came away with includes many familiar favorites, as well as a few forgotten innovations that, surprisingly, might still be the best tools for the job.


Photo by Russell Kaye

A brass-bound level is a beautiful thing. For around $100, you can find one made from rosewood or mahogany. It's always best to make sure the top plate unscrews so you can adjust the vial, in case all those years of use have thrown it off-kilter.

Folding Rulers

Photo by Russell Kaye

A folding ruler never gets outdated: Norm borrows a handy magnifying glass from a collector to examine the markings on this one.

Hand Drill

Photo by Russell Kaye

This works like an egg beater and can do the job as well as any cordless power tool—even better when the batteries run down.


Photo by Russell Kaye

A flea market is a great place to stock up on wrenches, which come in many shapes and sizes. The alligator wrench in the foreground here is used by pipe fitters to hold different sizes of tubing without adjustment.


Photo by Russell Kaye

Don't expect these to be sharpened when you buy them—dealers say it's not worth the effort for them to do it before selling the items, as many buyers are particular about how they want their woodworking tools sharpened. You'll want to pick out a few different profiles, say a 1-inch beveled-edge chisel, a thin, rectangular-mortise chisel, a tapered paring chisel, and a gouge or two.

Norm Says: "There are a lot of jobs you can't do—like make a really clean hinge mortise—without a good, sharp chisel."

Mining for Old

Photo by Russell Kaye

If you've got yourself a true miter box and saw, who needs a power miter saw? But good saws are harder to come by at flea markets, as decades of use and sharpening have worn them down to a point at the tip. Watch out for rust and pits, which make it harder to get the teeth very sharp.


Photo by Russell Kaye

These are a dime a dozen—or, in this case, $5 a piece; look for ones with a handle fit tightly to the head and that aren't too worn out in the V of the nail-pulling groove.

Norm Says: "The hammer that's going to do the least damage to your arm as you use it is one with a wooden handle."


Photo by Russell Kaye

These are among the most common tools sold at a flea market, often missing the blades, called irons, which you'll have to replace; some can fetch into the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

Plane Set

Photo by Russell Kaye

"I have a set from my father just like this one. It has all the cutting irons for all these different profiles, but not the box," said Norm, upon seeing this $450 find.

Sliding T-bevel Square

Photo by Russell Kaye

This is still the best tool for copying an angle, say to cut molding on a corner that's out of square.

The Day's Haul

Photo by Russell Kaye

The tool kit Norm assembled, which, once tuned up, will rival the collection in any craftsman's workshop

(counter-clockwise from bottom left):

• A set of chisels

• An adjustable wrench

• Sliding T-bevel

• 3-foot level

• Hacksaw

• Spoke shave, which once did just what the name implies—shave curves onto wood wheels and spokes. Still great for rounding over sharp edges on a table or box

• 1-foot level, for tight places

• Plumb bob, which is hung by a string with a tip that drops to a point directly below, creating a plumb line

• Whetstone, for sharpening chisels

• Router plane, for committed hand woodworkers, as it requires planing away a little bit of wood at a time as you move the tool through a groove in a board

• Scribe, to get trim or cabinets to fit tightly; curved-claw hammer

• Straight-claw hammer, handy for stabbing into roof shingles if you ever find yourself sliding off a roof

• Clapboard gauge, for locking onto a board that's already been nailed up

• Folding ruler

• Yankee screwdriver, which is a spiral racheting driver that turns with a push of the handle

• Ripsaw, for tearing through wood grain lengthwise

• Monkey wrench

• Hand drill, from the 1870s

• Brace, which is a form of drill that has been around for more than five centuries

• Try square

• Classic wooden toolbox