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Consider Buying Used Tools

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Blog entry by Blake posted 11-28-2007 11:52 PM 4769 reads 0 times favorited 20 comments Add to Favorites Watch

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



20 comments so far

View Thos. Angle's profile

Thos. Angle

4441 posts in 2717 days


#1 posted 11-29-2007 01:12 AM

Good information, Blake. Timely as well. We have many members who would like to have better tools but have a very tight budget. This will help them a lot.

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

View Jeff's profile

Jeff

1011 posts in 2849 days


#2 posted 11-29-2007 02:27 AM

Nice post, Blake. I sometimes wish I had taken more time to research all the avenues when I was tooling my shop. I spent more time researching what I should get and not where I should acquire it. I did buy all but one of my planes from ebay and have good tools that I could not get today unless I bought Lie-Nielsen or Veritas.

I also completely agree with the Craigslist advice. I have to curb my visits there because it kinda bums me out. I find great deals all the time. Everything from old planes and braces to old Rockwell/Delta drill presses and bandsaws. I hope some folks take your advice seriously.

-- Jeff, St. Paul, MN

View Liam's profile

Liam

5 posts in 2592 days


#3 posted 11-29-2007 02:49 AM

So true. My brother just got Me a 3 1/4 horsepower Hitachi router and 18 jorgensen I beam clamps for
$200!

Another good thing about buying used is that if you ever want to sell it you don’t really lose money because the first owner took the deprecation, or sometimes you can even make money.

View dennis mitchell's profile

dennis mitchell

3994 posts in 3069 days


#4 posted 11-29-2007 05:17 AM

Great post Blake! I’m a big fan of used tools. What I really like is taking a fingerprint of folks who sell you tools. Our local pawn shops are just legalized fencing operations to support meth addicts. Then they sell the tools at maybe 10% under the cost of a new tool. Not a great bargain. I once dreamed of starting a used tool store called “Fools for Tools”. Sounds like you work at the real deal. Maybe we should start a internet store for used tools.

View Dadoo's profile

Dadoo

1777 posts in 2745 days


#5 posted 11-29-2007 05:18 AM

Another good one Blake! Wish I had a used tool store around here, which brings up the question: Do you guys have a website?

-- Bob Vila would be so proud of you!

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8791 posts in 2854 days


#6 posted 11-29-2007 05:28 AM

Great post full of first hand insight, knowledge, and experience Blake.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana, http://americancraftsmanworkshop.com

View dalec's profile

dalec

613 posts in 2643 days


#7 posted 11-29-2007 05:37 AM

Hi Blake,

I bought a used table saw (contractors). It was before I became as informed as I am now. So the result was I bought a saw that needed more work than I should have bought into, which made what seemed like a good deal not such a good deal.

It was in large part timing in so far as my interest in woodworking and learning about table saws. The saw I bought is a good saw, just, it ended up costing more than I had planned because of the need for repair. I have to admit I was mislead by the seller that the repair needed for the saw as a minor amount, when in facxt it was nearly equal to what I paid for the saw in the first place. I was fortunate in that I got the saw for a good price, otherwise.

Thought you might have some thoughts on what to look for in particular used tools It seems there are probably some very good value out there, but only if one is armed with some good info on what to look for, brand names, models, and what may be some indicators of a gem of a find. What to look for in a jointer or a band saw for instance will tell us its a good value.

Thanks for considering this idea.

Dalec

View Alin Dobra's profile

Alin Dobra

350 posts in 2643 days


#8 posted 11-29-2007 10:36 PM

Blake,

Great post. I agree with what you are saying but I bumped into the following issues when it comes with buying old tools.

1. I do not have an used store around so I have to buy form individuals. Most sellers simply do not know what they are selling. Unless I take the time to drive to their place, I do not get much info from them. It is even hard to tell if what they sell is worth the look given the price.

2. A lot of sellers do the following reasoning when it comes to pricing their tool (especially if it is somewhat rare). I payed 2000$ for it in 1990 so I’ll ask for 1500$ now. Trouble is, a good tool now might be cheaper. This is especially true for routers and other powertools (but not machinery). The newer routers, drills, etc. tend to be better due to significant progress in magnets (rare earth magnets that are used not allow the motor to be significantly more powerful and smaller).

3. A lot of people do not take care of their tools. If I have to spend time refurbishing a tool, that time is not spend woodworking (which I always prefer). Fixing old machinery is a pain as well.
I purchased a random orbit sender from the flea market. It looked good when I got it but turned up to be junk (ball bearing busted, the screws that attach the pad were bad, after 10 minutes the machine would act erratically, etc).

4. Old machinery tends to be larger (more metal, less vibration). This is good from the quality point of view but I do not have the space for large machinery.

5. Old machinery does not have laser guides (just kidding, laser guides are a waste of time for me, at least).

Most of the above things do not apply if you have people like you that know what they are doing. I would definitely consider buying used if a good used tool store would be near by.

Alin

-- -- Alin Dobra, Gainesville, Florida

View Blake's profile

Blake

3439 posts in 2629 days


#9 posted 11-30-2007 10:06 AM

Ah hah!

1. Sellers not knowing what they have could be a good thing… just ask them to look at for the model number on the tool before you waist the time driving out their, then you can look it up.

2. After they see that nobody will pay $1500, or $1000, or $750, or even $500, eventually they will enter the realm of the realistic and they will take your $200 offer for that $2K machine.

3. Don’t waste time with broken tools unless you know you can fix them. But a lot of the time it is only the brushes, cord, belt, blades, etc. Simple fix.

4. I think the size range of older machinery is the same as today. There was large and small. However many people tend to think of some of the monstrous bandsaws or other dinosaurs of the past.

5. OH MY GOD, I THOUGHT YOU WERE SERIOUS!!! Thank you for clarifying that was a joke.

5 1/2. Maybe you should open one… sounds like there is no competition?

Actually, all good points Alin. I just thought it would be fun to spar a little. Thanks for playin’.

-- Happy woodworking! http://www.openarmsphotography.com

View MsDebbieP's profile

MsDebbieP

18615 posts in 2916 days


#10 posted 11-30-2007 02:38 PM

Blake, you are a good salesman

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (https://www.facebook.com/DebbiePribeleENJOConsultant)

View Alin Dobra's profile

Alin Dobra

350 posts in 2643 days


#11 posted 11-30-2007 03:31 PM

Brake,

You are of course right. Our perspectives are also a little different since my main motivation for woodworking is to relax and do something I enjoy not necessarily to save money. I just got frustrated with some old handplanes that took a day to put in shape. I also got frustrated with Harborfreight kind of tools that broke or were unusable. Nowadays, I try to be safe and I only buy good and new tools. The way I see it (and sell it to my wife) other people have extravagant holidays, shiny new cars and what not. I only need good tools; I have a 2 hour vacation in my garage every day so why bother go in the Bahamas?.

About opening a used tool store, my professor job is way more interesting and profitable. There is no way I would have the same income from a used tool store (or from making furniture for that matter).

When it comes to choosing between Harborfreight tools and old tools, I think it is a really bad idea to pick the HF in most cases. Strangely, every now and then you can find very good stuff at HF (HSS turning tools, 8 for 30$; this is a steal since the steel is M2).

Another issue that you did not mention, mostly true about hand-tools, is that a lot of sellers think their tools are collectibles and they ask for a very high price. For example, I never saw a decent shoulder plane under 100$ in a flea market/garage sale. With a little more, I can get a modern Veritas that qualitatively is better than most old tools. I would say the same thing about any chisel and most hand-planes.

Alin

-- -- Alin Dobra, Gainesville, Florida

View Blake's profile

Blake

3439 posts in 2629 days


#12 posted 11-30-2007 07:24 PM

Alin,

Who’s Brake?

I agree with you about people thinking that their planes should fetch antique prices. That frustrates me all the time. I can’t help noticing that every time I walk into an antique store I see old hand tools (old wrenches, screw drivers with wooden handles, hand planes, etc.) and they are the same tools that we have dozens of at our store just lying in a pile for $2 each. But they want $25 for theirs. I just have to laugh at the people who call themselves antique experts and pay those prices. Its not worth that much!

But that is true of anything. People go to antique stores looking for art. You can buy a toilet at Home Depot for $50 but if some famous artist calls a toilet “Found Art” and puts it in a gallery they can charge $50,000 for it.

Moral of the story: Don’t go to antique stores looking for tools unless you want to pay for how pretty it looks instead of what it is really worth.

Thanks Debbie, I have to be in order to sucker people into buying used tools… (Ok, Ok, Kidding!)

-- Happy woodworking! http://www.openarmsphotography.com

View MsDebbieP's profile

MsDebbieP

18615 posts in 2916 days


#13 posted 11-30-2007 11:32 PM

lol … I think you can sell more than just tools :) You have a way with words. keep them coming.

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (https://www.facebook.com/DebbiePribeleENJOConsultant)

View Dadoo's profile

Dadoo

1777 posts in 2745 days


#14 posted 12-01-2007 12:18 AM

Soooo, Do you guys have a website??

Brake! Haha! That’s a good ribber. Kinda like Flyed Lice!

-- Bob Vila would be so proud of you!

View Blake's profile

Blake

3439 posts in 2629 days


#15 posted 12-01-2007 01:05 AM

We do have a website but it’s kind of a work in progress. I am trying to get my boss to let me work on it. It won’t be of much use to you if you are out of the area. You can’t buy anything off of it. It just has some information about the store for now: Drewstools.com

But if anybody needs anything just ask me, especially advice on buying/selling or appraisal.

Most of the tools are larger and we don’t really ship anything.

-- Happy woodworking! http://www.openarmsphotography.com

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