Whether you buy new or used woodworking hand tools, is entirely up to you. I didn’t write these blog posts to convince anyone otherwise. I simply wrote about my experiences. Everyone has a different perspective on tools, woodworking, and how they like to spend their time. I agree that tuning up a perfectly good tool from 1910 is a worthwhile endeaver but like everything it has it’s break even point. If it took me a week’s worth of work to do it, (or much more time than I bargained for) I’d have to think long and hard about it. My first thought would be, was this really as good of a tool as I thought it was when I started? How much more work will this thing take before I’m satisfied? Will I ever be satisfied with it’s performance no matter how much effort I devote to it? Maybe it’s just a bad one? All of these are valid questions, and something to consider when taking on the challenge of restoring old tools. It gets even more complicated when we find out there’s new tools being made that look alot like the old tool. In fact, not only are there new ones, they range in price from a happy meal to a new HD TV. What’s a guy (or gal) to do?
We’ve all heard the saying that “They don’t make them like they used to…”. Everything from cars and houses to sledgehammers and ham sandwiches used to be better, right? And just like everything else, when it comes to woodworking tools this is true but also false. Cheap versions of almost every tool exists along side high quality, finely made tools. Which one is better? Is the price worth it or should I just get the cheap one? Is there a middle of the road I should be looking for? These questions along with every other ultimately boil down to one simple question: Does it matter to me or my work?
Since we don’t really know the answer to this question when we start out, often times we choose based on two things we all relate to. Time and money. Some of us feel it’s easier to sacrifice our time instead of money. For others, the opposite is true. Most of us land in the middle somewhere. Whichever burnt offering you use to appease the wood gods, is entirely your choice. Both of these choices can affect how you travel the rest of your way in the journey. I would argue there’s a third item we should take into account and that is quality of performance. Whether or not a tool is expensive doesn’t always indicate how good it is at doing it’s job, but in real world cases, there’s reasons why a screwdriver cost $4.50 and others cost $25.00. Sometimes, a more expensive tool can indicate the possibility that it is more capable and durable, especially if used by knowledgeable workers. Sometimes, it’s just that much nicer to use.
Money can be relative when it comes to hand tools. John Economaki of Bridge City Tools once said (and I paraphrase), “some people are never willing to spend more than the price of a hamburger for a tool.”. Other people spend copious amounts of cash for spectacular one-of-a-kind tools. Still others settle somewhere in the middle. Wherever you fall in this mix, you decide how much money you’re willing to pay and whether it’s worth it or not. In 1921, a common eggbeater drill cost approximately $2.21. The average yearly household income was about $1,600 give or take $200 or so. If you change the income to todays numbers, lets say about 50,000 per year, the same drill would be sold for approximately $69.00. That’s about 31 times the price difference. I’m not accounting for inflation, overall monetary value, advances in manufacturing and materials, etc.. but you get the idea. If a Stanley jack plane cost $12.50 that would mean a similar plane would today cost about $390.00. Suddenly the prices that Lee Valley or Lie-Nielsen charge for their products, most of which have some real improvements, doesn’t seem so out of reach. Whether or not you agree with my slightly specious math, that’s another good argument for buying new tools.
Now for the other factor, time. Even though we hate to admit it, time is just as important as money. Maybe even more so. Sure, you could find an old block plane for $5.00, spend 3 days cleaning and tuning it up until you’re happy with it, but you’ve traded 3 days of time plus $5.00 for that block plane. There’s an old saying that goes something like this: No one on their death-bed wishes they spent more time at work. The same goes for any activity we trade our time for. If you like water skiing, but spend all your time fixing the boat, you’re simply not doing something you like to do. Sometimes it’s a neccesary evil, sometimes it’s just our own inexperience, but the road to knowing what will pay off isn’t really quite that smooth. It might seem simplistic to say so, but if you’d rather be working wood than restoring tools, maybe you should think about buying good quality new tools or finding old tools in a ready-to-work state. But, if you’re passionate about the tools and finishing a woodworking project is a plus, revitalizing an antique tool is time well spent for you. Just as I can’t tell you what candy bar is your favorite, neither can I tell you what you will like to spend your time doing. I can tell you what I did, but it’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it or not. There’s another variable in the mix as well. we all know that in woodworking, just as in any other activity, there’s always the necessary maintenance that needs done. For instance, there’s really no getting around having to sharpen your tools once in a while or wiping down a tool after use. It’s just something we should do regardless of how old a tool is or what we spent on it.
Last but not least, is the quality of performance. Only through investing some time and gaining experience can this last point be satisfied. Someone can rave all day long about tool x, but if I never bother to pick one up and honestly try it out, I have little reference to work from, other than “so and so says”. A point of reference is crucial for our experiences with a tool and how we evaluate it’s performance. You can make nice furniture with a sharp rock and some broken glass if you’re skilled enough. To that person, maybe a Spears and Jackson infill smoother is overkill. Or maybe they really appreciate it, since they can tell the difference between it and a 1960’s Handyman from Stanley. Tools are extensions of our hands and meant for certain tasks, not every tool excels at every task. Defining the task dictates the tools to use. You wouldn’t use a backsaw to pare the last 1/32nd away from the inside of a dovetail socket, nor would you use a chisel to crosscut through a panel. Beyond the absurd examples I just gave is a deeper meaning. Tools are more refined than that and we can detect much finer differences when we get a little experience under our belts. Once you know which tool to use, using it well is the next hurdle. Quality of performance isn’t measurable unless you already know how a good tool is supposed to perform. Before you can even get a good tool to perform well, you have to practice using it. Trouble is, you might have a bad tool to start with and never know it until you either get a chance to use a good tool, or you compare your work to someone elses who has one. Bottom line is, without experience, you will never be sure.
If the tool works correctly, it makes it easier to accomplish the task. Defining “correctly” is a whole other topic. . This is where experience coupled with skill comes in. Maybe you’ve spent some time researching and restoring a few old tools. You’ve learned how to sharpen, clean and fine tune them. You are reasonably certain that the 1922 block plane you restored will accomplish it’s ordained tasks and you’ve used it frequently enough that you’re comfortable with it’s results. You’ve learned how it behaves in hard and softwoods and you’ve learned (the hard way) what it’s like working in endgrain (back to the sharpening bench!). It’s not flat to within .0001 of an inch, but it’s close enough. The chisels you’ve acquired at the flea market, however, have some issues. You’ve flattened the backs, but the 3/8 size took three times as long to flatten. The back was really cupped. Your fingers ache and your thumb is sore from where you slipped and ran it across the diamond stone (or sandpaper). You grumble about the quality, but rationalize it since the others weren’t nearly as bad. Now you’ve sharpened each one up, and you’re pretty happy with the edge you’ve attained. After a few hours working in some tough wood, practicing your chopping and pairing skills, you’ve noticed that the 1/2 size loses it’s edge very quickly. It just doesn’t cut well past the first few times. On closer inspection, you realize the steel edge rolls over after a couple whacks. The steel is too soft and it’ll probably require a heat treatment of some kind to make it perform in tough wood. Maybe it just needs ground down a little bit to get past the soft part? Maybe you should just use it anyway and not worry about a little extra sharpening? Who knows. At any rate, you’ve learned the hard way more about that tool than you ever intended to, which is a good thing.
In this age of instant information and gratification, we forget that some things are only learned through first hand experience. We eagerly seek out advice from an article or a tutorial to “teach” us some fundamental that is best learned through sweat and effort. Sometimes there’s no substitute for digging in, getting your hands dirty and finding out for yourself. No matter how you choose to acquire your tools, you have to spend the time to get familiar with them. Just like a musician learns every aspect of their instrument, not only how to play it, but how to take care of it, and how it feels and sounds when it’s performing at it’s best, so too a woodworker must learn his what his tools can do, how to set them up, and how they perform. Patience and preseverance are key.
This is why seasoned professionals and craftsmen call it a journey, not a race.