Buying vintage tools online

I have been buying vintage tools for quite a few years now – both from vintage tool shows like “Tools of the Trades”, online tool sellers, and even *shock-horror* – eBay. My experiences have been mostly positive – even though some people decry buying tools from eBay.

When buying a vintage tool, the primary concern (excepting the price of course), is its condition. Buying online, tool sellers often have some sort of classification system, e-Bay however is a little trickier. The most commonly used tool rating system was established by Vernon Ward and the Fine Tool Journal (FTJ). Reputable sellers will post multiple photos of the tool, clearly showing any defects, and possibly either describing the defects, or posting them as “for parts or repair”. In a recent eBay post for a Stanley No.62 plane, photos were posted showing the defects associated with the plane, i.e. the pitting on the sole, and the chip in the throat opening, and marking the plane as “for parts or repair” in the posting description (I annotated the figure below). Both these defects are challenging to fix, but the plane still has parts that are usable, and as a show-specimen, the plane isn’t that bad (it sold for close to US$100).


Here are some general guidelines for purchasing off eBay:

  • If a tool on eBay seems too expensive, then don’t buy it – remember that you will have to factor in shipping as well.
  • If a tool seems like it is damaged, but isn’t marked as such, query the seller – you can always ask for more pictures to be posted.
  • Be wary of tools where there is only one picture posted, or the picture is low-resolution or blurry.
  • Be wary of posts where the postage is extremely high – except of course if the tool is very heavy.
  • Wait until near the end of an auction before bidding – best to jump in quickly at the end, than have the bidding escalate by putting in an early bid.
  • Check out the average price of the tool elsewhere.

Sometimes you can get a really good bargain on eBay. Other times you really have to read the ad. Here is a case in point. I found this ad for three “antique” block planes – marked as being from circa 1900. The ad made the following statements:

  • “tools are in good condition but have heavy wear due to age and use”
  • “there is surface rust, and peeling paint”
  • “they are all complete with blades and no missing parts”
  • “all levers and knobs work too”

The planes are Stanley No.’s 120, 220, and 18. Now look at a photo of the planes:


Clearly the tools are not in good condition – the No.220 has a reasonably heavy coat of rust, the knuckle lever-cap on the No.18 has maybe 50% of the nickel plating remaining. The block planes have all their parts, however there is a large piece of the lever cap on the No.220 missing. The No.18 has a patent date of 2013, and a SW (“Sweetheart”) trademark, dating it between 1920 and 1934 (the years the Sweetheart trademark was used). The other two planes are too generic to date properly (i.e. No.110 – 1876-1973; No.220 – 1898-1973). I would likely classify these as Good- (18), Fair (220), Good- (110) according the the FTJ classification system. The asking price was $125  – which is a lot considering the No.18 may be worth between $30-40, and each of the No.120/220 about $10 each (unless they were early types, which they are not).

Note that recently US eBay starting adding “import charges” to their  listings for buyers in Canada – all to “make life easier for the buyer”. The thing is with all the “used” tools I have bought on eBay and had shipped from the US, very few have arrived with import charges. So watch the import fees. Listings from the UK, and other countries don’t seem to add these charges on. One last trick – sometimes there are excellent tools to be had on overseas eBay sites like Germany, France, and the UK. They don’t always show up on the local eBay site – partially because they use different search terms. Search on the eBay website of the particular country you are interested in using the local search term, for example on use the French term for plane – rabot. Then select a tool and copy the eBay item number into the search box of your local eBay. It will tell you if they ship to your country or not. Sometimes there are good bargains to be had. Even better if you can find someone in Europe to ship to as an intermediary – often large collections only ship within Europe. Here’s a real bargain, 40 wooden planes for €90.25 – but they only ship to the European Union.


If you still don’t trust eBay, then try one of the online resellers like Liberty Tool Co. (who sell online, but also have three locations in Maine packed with vintage tools), Rose Antique Tools, (online only) or Walt Lane at the The Great Adirondack Tool Co. (online and a store in Johnstown, NY). Walt is great, I bought a Sargent No.306 off him a few years back. His prices are very reasonable, and customer service is excellent.


Tools of the Trades – Tips

Here are some things I’ve learnt along the way over the past three years attending Tools of the Trades.

  • Don’t haggle too much – if an item is marked at $40, don’t offer $20. With something tagged as $42, a $40 offer might be accepted, but low-ball offers are distasteful. Don’t forget, the tool sellers have spent time scouring flea-markets and the like looking for tools so you don’t have to – you have to take this into account.
  • Use Frank’s method from “American Pickers” and bundle. You’re often likely to get a couple of bucks off if you bundle 2-3 items together.
  • Check plane bodies (and all tools) for cracks, welds, and missing pieces. Some parts can be replaced from parts resellers such as “New Hampshire Plane Parts” on eBay – cracks and welded parts detract from the usefulness of a plane, and are hard to repair. Fixing cracks in cast iron requires brazing, and is not for the faint-hearted – you basically need a welder and machinist.
  • Don’t spend too long waiting to make a decision on an item – next time to the stall it may be gone.
  • Don’t be surprised if the plane you buy isn’t “ready out of the box” with a perfectly sharpened blade. Even Lee Valley plane blades need to be sharpened. Sharpening a blade is something you have to learn to do yourself. The same with restoring tools. I’ve listened to the stories from sellers about people that have run their fingers across the blade and almost severed them- yeah it’s stupid but apparently it happens. Best to sell planes with blunt blades than razor sharp ones.
  • Do a little homework on what you want to buy. There are sometimes so many tools it can become somewhat overwhelming. Looking for a basic set of hand planes – block plane, smoothing, jack? You don’t have to limit yourself to Stanley – Millers Falls are good too, and even a brand like Craftsman are okay – they were often made by the likes of Sargent and just branded Craftsman.
  • If you’re looking for a particular tool and you don’t see it – ask. Sometimes not all the tools are on display, or the seller may not have brought their entire inventory with them.
  • Oh, and bring a bag, or something to carry the tools you buy in. I’ve forgotten it before, and schlepping an armful of tools can become tiresome quickly.