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
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.
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.
A folding ruler never gets outdated: Norm borrows a handy magnifying glass from a collector to examine the markings on this one.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
"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.
This is still the best tool for copying an angle, say to cut molding on a corner that's out of square.
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
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
Yankee screwdriver, which is a spiral racheting driver that turns with a push of the handle
Ripsaw, for tearing through wood grain lengthwise
Hand drill, from the 1870s
Brace, which is a form of drill that has been around for more than five centuries
Classic wooden toolbox