Why do I buy old tools instead of saving up for new ones?

I like Christopher Schwarz as a writer. I think I’ve made that abundantly clear. Hell, as much as I talk about him, one might be forgiven for thinking I’m some kind of a fanboy.

However, reading his Handplane Essentials has given me the impression that he’s not really a fan of vintage tools. More specifically, of new people buying vintage tools in need of restoration in order to be usable.

And that’s precisely what I did all those years ago and why I bought a Sargent 5306 low angle block plane last night.

Here’s my thinking on why that’s a good idea for new woodworkers.

If you’re interested in woodworking, you usually have two options on learning. You either work in someone else’s shop and learn from them, or you set up shop yourself and learn the hard way.

For me, there was never really a choice.

While I know there are woodworkers here in Albany, I don’t really know any of them. I don’t have anyone I can go to and ask for lessons. I’m having to set up shop myself, make educated guesses as to what will fit my needs, and make adjustments after the fact.

Because of that, literally everything I’m spending is a gamble.

And contrary to what people like to think, hand tools can be expensive. After all, just the basic three bench planes cost $1,100 for Lie-Nielson. The Veritas versions come in a little cheaper at just over $1,000.

And those are just the basic planes. Throw in another $165 or so for a low angle block plane with an adjustable mouth.

That doesn’t touch saws, chisels, marking gauges and knives, or any of the other things you may find yourself needing. Just three chisels (1/4″, 1/2″, 3/4″) from Lie-Nielson will set you back another $165. A dovetail saw will cost you $125 all on its own from them as well.  If that’s all you get from Lie-Nielson, that’s still $1,555 for what is, at best, a basic toolkit.

The same toolkit from Veritas is $1,458 (the chisels are what get you).

Now, you can buy new tools for less money. This was sticking with one brand and taking what they manufacture regardless of the cost. This is more for the sake of argument.

By now, though, I hope we can agree that new hand tools aren’t exactly cheap. Still cheaper than an entire set of machines, mind you (but that’s a post for another day), but still not cheap.

Or, you can buy vintage tools.

I can rarely find anything worthwhile locally, so I bought most of mine off of eBay. As such, let’s look at what we can find over there. These are all Buy Now options and based on cost alone (shipping varies, so we can’t really use that very easily). It’s also for complete tools, but they may be in poor condition.

  • Smoothing Plane – $19.00
  • Jack Plane – $18.99
  • Jointer Plane – $44.95
  • Low angle adjustable throat block plane – $35.00

That’s $117.94 for the four “essential” planes. Unlike the new planes, many people can do that out of a single paycheck. Couple that with a dovetail saw for $33.00 (and Disston’s are great saws), and you can

But, as you may notice, all of those tools require a good bit of work.

Well, when I started out, money was tight. It always is at my house. It seems that no matter how much I make, it goes right back out the door, so cash is tight as hell.

But all tools require an investment of both cash and time. Ever new ones need a bit of fiddling with to get the blade sharp, get the settings right where you want them, etc.

I didn’t have a lot of cash, but I did have time. I could put my own effort into tools.

For me, it made sense to spend more of the resource I had plenty of (time) so I could spend less of the resource I had less of (money). In the process, though, I got to know my tools pretty well. I know how they go together, what works well and what doesn’t, how the frog on each of my planes looks just by memory.

Plus, there’s the added bonus that if something happens to my tools such as a flood–my area has had two massive floods in my lifetime and several other more minor ones…including one right now–and I know that if my tools get rusty due to the flood waters, I can fix them.

Seriously.

Look, I’m not going to look down on anyone who buys new tools. There’s definitely something to be said about taking a tool out of the box and going right to work. I’m a little jealous.

But let’s also admit there’s something to be said about restoring tools as well.

Schwarz refers to it kind of like it’s a second hobby, and on that, I agree with him. It is. But it’s one that I truly enjoy.

As I wrap this post up, I’m going to disassemble a couple of saws and place them in the vinegar to soak for the next 24 hours or so, then shower and meet my father for his birthday lunch.

Tomorrow, I’ll fix up these saws so they’ll be ready to go for me.

I can’t afford to buy brand new 25″ saws, either rip or crosscut, but I can fix up these old tools and breath new life into them again.

I can’t invest the money, but I can invest the time.

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