Buying used tools is an under-looked option for low-budget woodworkers.
First of all, I should tell you that I work in a used tool store. So this issue is close to my heart because it is not only a hobby for me but also what brings home the bacon.
Every day at work I inspect, research, appraise, test, buy, clean, fix, restore and then re-sell used tools.
But before I was an employee of the Used Tool Store I was a customer. The Used Tools Store happens to be across the street from the weekend flee market, which I frequented every week. I also regularly hit up yard sales and Craigslist on the internet. I love collecting old tools and I believe strongly in buying used equipment for a few reasons.
The first reason is that I would never be able to afford the shop I have now without being able to buy used. Everything in my shop was bought for pennies to the dollar. What looks like ten or twenty thousand dollars of equipment represents less than a fifth of that from my pocket.
But the main reason I encourage buying used equipment is that for the price you usually get much better quality. The old tools have proved themselves in the test of time. Plus, much of the old stuff was built a lot better than what is available now. It was all USA made steel and is hard to break. If it was taken good care of it just lasts forever.
Quality New Machinery Comes At A Premium: The new tools and equipment that is made to those same high-quality standards these days are in a price range that is prohibitive to many hobby woodworkers. And the brands or models which are affordable are often second-rate. They are covered with plastic parts and pot-metal. The electronics are usually cheap and don’t last.
Used tools and machinery can be found for half-price, quarter-price or even lower than the new equivalent even if they are in great shape. I see it every day.
For example, you might be looking into a certain big-box store contractors table saw for $600 to $800 bucks. It is shiny and gleaming in all it’s plastic and glory. But for half the price or less you could find a used Delta or Rockwell saw which was really built to last. We sell those saws in our store for about $200-$300 (but imagine what we bought the saw for in order to make profit…) For $200-$300 on a new saw you are scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Or, you could probably find a Delta Unisaw with a Biesemeyer fence for your same initial price-range on Craigslist from someone who is moving.
Buying used tools take patience. If you need a jointer NOW you won’t necessarily find the good deal. I have built up my arsenal of tools by keeping an eye out and taking advantage of a good deal when it came along. For example, I recently had the opportunity to buy a Delta mortising machine in great shape for $50. I haven’t used the thing yet but I am glad I have it. (I do intend to get into small furniture some day.)
Get Informed: For this to work you have to be knowledgeable about the tools. A little research goes a long way, but this is easy for anybody these days. Obviously if you are a LumberJock you know what the internet is. There is tons of information on old tools out there. One of my favorite is Old Woodworking Machines (OWWM.com). But doing a search on just about any tool will give you information about its quality and value.
Stolen Tools: When I have brought up this issue in the past a few Jocks have brought up the possibility of buying stolen tools. This is a great point. At our store we always take and copy a photo ID and a fingerprint of anybody who sells us tools. We also keep in constant contact with the local sheriff.
We are not afraid to ask where the tools came from and we are pretty good at sizing someone up after pretty much “seeing it all.” That simple question seems to discourage people from coming back with hot tools. Anybody who we suspect of illegal activity we simply refuse to do business with.
People come in to our store all the time saying that their tools were stolen and they were wondering if we had acquired them. We always follow through but it is extremely rare that we ever find anything of theirs in our shop. Plus, it is illegal to knowingly buy stolen merchandise. If he were to get caught the owner would loose the business, which is all he has. So we take it very seriously.
How can you avoid HOT tools? Use your senses. If something doesn’t seem right it probably isn’t. If it seems too good to be true it is. Like us, don’t be afraid to ask. You have the right to know the history of the tool anyway. How was it used? Etc. If they don’t know who used it or how they used it, that’s a problem for many reasons.
Stay away from pawn shops or stores which you don’t trust. Ask the store owner how they avoid hot merchandise. People ask us all the time. At flee markets I tend to stay away from the “regular” vendors. I have asked a few of them where they get their tools before and I get a sheepish shrug or “I no speak English.” But other people at the flee market are more like yard-sale style and seem more honest. They usually have a random assortment of items and some of “grandpa’s old tools” in a box, and they are just cleaning house.
Craigslist: When I found Craigslist I thought I had discovered a gold mine. Unlike ebay, you are dealing with locals. So shipping is not an issue with large tools. Also you can see the item and talk to the person face to face before committing to a sale. And of course, you can use cash. I see radial arm saws for $25, table saws for $50, great old drill presses for $50 bucks, etc! If you keep your eyes open and visit the site often you will get some amazing deals. A lot of the time it is because people are moving. Maybe they tried to sell it at a yard sale but couldn’t get the asking price and now they just have to get rid of it or leave it behind.
Want ads: You might be amazed at the response you get from posting a want ad on Craigslist or even in the local paper. The few times I did need something relatively urgently I posted a want ad and had a lot of people reply. They had been meaning to sell something which was just “lying around” but hadn’t gotten around to it until I reminded them with my ad.
The “Harbor Freight” syndrome: It is common for low-budget woodworkers to gravitate toward the “deals” at the discount tool stores, where everything is shipped from overseas. Even during the short time I have been on the LumberJock website I have heard a similar question asked several times… “Those cheap clamps can’t be all thatbad, right?” etc.
We sell a similar version to Harbor Freight in our store. This is only because people come looking for “cheap” tools and if we don’t have it used, at least we have it from overseas. But these products frequently come back to us in the form of returns. They break, blow up, don’t hold, don’t work, and always have the following warning: “This product contains a substance known to cause cancer…”
There are so many reasons not to buy that crap in my opinion. Right next to the knock-off clamps (for example) we have a pile of good old US made clamps. They are so much better and even less expensive. We encourage people to try those but the want the one wrapped in plastic. (When they come back with their receipt in their hand they finally buy the US made clamps.)
Conclusion: Overall, armed with patience, knowledge and some common sense street-smarts, buying used tools can be a great way for the hobby woodworker to have access to the increasingly consumer-oriented pastime of woodworking. The old machinery and tools were made better than most of the new tools in the equivalent price range. Restoring and using an antique tool in your shop can be a rewarding experience and add character and conversation to your shop. This overlooked option should at least be considered when it comes time to make a decision of where to make sacrifices on buying tools on a budget.
-- Happy woodworking! http://www.openarmsphotography.com