When buying a vintage tool, how do you classify the condition of the tool? The easiest way of course is via some classification system, such as the one outlined by The Fine Tool Journal. But what do each of these categories look like visually?
It is relatively easy to distinguish the New/Fine and Fair/Poor ratings, the Good ratings are somewhat more challenging. Honestly, don’t buy tools in the Fair/Poor category unless you want to engage in heavy restoration work. Note that the visual analogies below are only an approximation.
A New tool is completely functional, the surface of the tool is 100% metal with no rust, any wood has its original finish, no wear or need to repair. Here is an example – a new Veritas Apron block plane.
A fine tool may have a trace of rust, and a finish that is greater than 90% intact. On wood parts there may be some edges slightly rounded, parts may show a dark patina, maybe with a slight cracklature in the finish. There is minimal wear and no repairs. Here are two examples, a Millers Falls No.206 and a Sargent No.5206. The MF No.206 has a trace of rust on the depth adjustment lever, whilst the Sargent No.5206 has slight wear on the anodized sole of the plane.
A good+ rating on a tool means it may need some tuning, has some light rust, and a finish which is 75-90% intact. Wood parts have a well-patinated appearance, may have minor surface stress. Wear is normal with minor or no repair, a few dings and scratches. Here are two examples: a Millers Falls No.7, and a Stanley No.18. The Millers Falls No.07 below has some slight rust in the cross-hatched area of the lever cap, and the blade depth adjustment mechanism. The metal of the body has some patina, yet the Japanning is at least 90%. The nickel plating on the lever cap is nearly 100%, and there are no parts missing (which is often the case in skew block planes). The Stanley No.18 has some tarnishing on the lever-cap, slight rust on the mouth-adjustment lever, and retains approximately 75% of its Japanning.
A good rating has 50-75% of the finish left, with light rust, and light to moderate use. For this rating there are four examples: a Sargent No.206 (Type 2), a Stanley Excelsior 9 1/2, a Sargent No.306, and a Stanley No.102. The Sargent No.206 has light rust, predominantly on the body of the block plane under the blade, and regions where the finish has worn off. Regions of the plane that are regularly handled have more patina, a sign of extensive use. Japanning on this plane may be close to 50, especially on the lever cap. There are no missing or broken parts except a few minor chips on the mouth opening, which will not impede its function. The Stanley Excelsior similarly has some regions of light rust, although some restoration and a coating of lacquer seems to have stalled the rusts progress. There seems to be extensive loss of Japanning, and some moderate wear on the screw for the blade adjustment mechanism.
The Sargent No.306 has 75-85% of it’s original Japanning, but only 70% of the nickel-plating on the lever cap. The body is generally free of rust, except for the lever adjustment mechanism, which also has traces of red paint on it. There are some traces of rust forming on the underside of the lever cap. Minimal wear, the metal of the body has a dark patina. The Stanley No.102 has a body with near perfect Japanning, yet a lever cap with maybe 10% left, (lowering it’s overall finish %) yet the plane has only small traces of rust.
A good- is probably usable, has moderate rust and pitting, and only 30-50% of the finish left. If the plane has wood it is likely refinished or has warping, chips, minor splitting, some patination, prominent staining or discolouration. The wear is moderate to heavy, repairs (if present) are correct. Below is a Fulton block plane, with significant loss of finish, and semi-moderate rust. The finish on the wooden knob is cracked and chipping off. It is possible to restore this plane, but it will require restoration of the entire finish.
A tool rated as fair has a maximum of 30% of the finish left, but more often than not 10-20%. It is likely not usable, has moderate to heavy rust and serious pitting. The wood shows poor refinishing; extreme discolouration with warping, splits, major cracks, or chunks missing. The plane shown below (Capewell), would require serious restoration of every component. There is very little finish left on the lever-cap, the plane body is encrusted with a heavy layer of rust, and pitting.
A poor rating usually implies that the tool is not usable. There is no finish left on the tool and the metal has major rust and heavy pitting. The wood has rot, and a rough surface. Wear is excessive, the tool is damaged or missing major parts. Here is a case in point.