Collector's Corner: No more DIY if you can sell antique tools

Rare hand tools can be beautifully crafted artworks valuable in their own right, explains Gwyn Jones
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The Independent Online

There are two sides to the antique-tool market. Some buyers actually use the pieces that they buy because an old tool can be better for a skilled job than its modern equivalent. Others simply collect.

Tony Murland, of the Tool Shop, holds an annual international tool auction, and has been interested in the market since the late 1970s. He recently sold an axe head for £17,600, a new British record for a hand tool. "Since the Seventies, more people have started to collect antique tools, but there has also been an increase in awareness among woodworkers, who appreciate using older tools," he says. "There are certain tasks in cabinet-making, for example, that can only be done using an antique hand tool - there is no modern equivalent.

"Somebody who might want to make an 18th century-style chest of drawers might also want an 18th-century tool with which to do it. We are getting increasing amounts of people coming in for second-hand wood-carving tools that were made in Sheffield at the time when Sheffield made the best steel in the world. Doing woodwork is increasingly popular as a way of relieving stress."

The pure collectors' market is also split into two distinct groups. "Some collectors want every single numbered plane ever made by Stanley, say, but the more sophisticated end of the market is people who collect tools on aesthetic grounds," Murland explains. "They see beautifully designed and made tools as objets d'art."

Such fine tools can make great investments because they are a developing niche of the antiques market. Relative to other rare and beautiful objects in the antique world, collectors believe that tools remain underpriced. But values are rising quickly.

Probably the best-known manufacturer of British planes was Norris of London, and its tools are very sought-after today. They function very efficiently on difficult woods and there is no modern equivalent, but Norris also made some quirky and unusual planes, which are highly prized by collectors. A Norris A5 smoothing plane would have sold for around £40 in 1980. Now it would command around £450.

David Stanley, a tool auctioneer, says: "Items such as wooden planes, of which millions were made, are at about the same price as 25 years ago because supply is plentiful, but metal planes made by such companies as Norris, Spiers and Mathieson have increased considerably in value because they are relatively rare and extremely well made.

"Generally people are now looking for the earlier and rarer items."

It is still possible to find original pieces lurking in garden sheds and garages. The £17,600 axe, for example, sat in a house for decades - it dates from 1650 - and was found by a house clearer. However, over the last 10 years or so, such finds have become much rarer and supplies are drying up.

Look out for items previously owned by a skilled craftsman. The majority of tools that have any value are those that were used by men who woodworked as a trade, rather than people who just did a bit of DIY. Cabinet makers, boat builders, musical instrument makers, furniture makers and coach builders all required specialist tools that are likely to be far rarer than the more generally used tools.

But even if the tools aren't collectable, they might still be worth some money simply because of their quality. Old chisels aren't collected but some people want to buy an antique chisel because they are made from better steel.

The most interest is in planes, but any tool that has been beautifully made, is rare and early will be sought-after. There's also a big market in the US for British tools. In the past, many good examples crossed the Atlantic, though Stanley says that the current economic situation in the States has curbed spending, while European interest is on the rise.

It is unlikely that tools will ever rival ceramics or paintings in popularity - it's a heavily male market and few families want old tools hanging on the living- room walls. But the pieces can be seen as works of art in themselves, and it's these attractive tools that are the best investments.

A tool that has been held and used by generations of craftsmen almost takes on a life of its own, wearing the signs of use and age as its character. A tool with its own history is infinitely more valuable than a modern equivalent, and compared with the rest of the antique world, this is a relatively young market.

So, enough excuses: there has never been a better time to clear out the shed!


Tony Murland Tool Shop/Auctions: 01449 722992

David Stanley Tool Auctions: 01530 222320

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