Bygone Treasures: Out in the Workshop

By Michael Rice

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My Dad never owned a power tool. He used hand tools, instead, lovingly cared for throughout his life. His workbench in a corner of our basement, lit with a single bulb, was covered with jars of nuts and bolts, a chisel rack, screwdrivers and sharpening stones, with lubricating oil stored in a wooden plugged Stubby Orange soda pop bottle. This was mysterious stuff to a small boy in the '50s, and I was always amazed by Dad’s useful creations made from scraps of wood and bits of copper pipe.

Tools just accumulate; you can never have too many hammers, can you? But I’ll bet you have other useful, but seldom used, gadgets stacked away that last came out when you repaired the light fixture on your front porch back in 1972. And unless you’re seriously involved in defending the Oak Bay borders, you probably haven’t used your wedgelock wrench for adjusting the cannon on your front lawn in a long time, either.

To have value to a collector, tools must still be in useable condition with perhaps a few dings and scratches, and wear consistent with normal handling. Once tools show excessive rust or pitting, glued splits on handles or warping, then interest falls faster than a plow plane dropped on your foot.

I’m not a handyperson, but even I know the name Stanley, a company famous for wood planes, folding rules and squares, and their products are collected enthusiastically. In fine condition, a Stanley No.1 bench plane books at $1,500, a Stanley No.4 boxwood two-fold rule at $500 and a Stanley No.98 brass-bound level at $400. Having the original boxes these came in adds to collectability, and the old wooden tool chests they were stored in are collectable too.

Tool manufacturers put their names on everything, and gave loads away free as premiums to encourage return business. Some examples were carpenters’ aprons, celluloid tape measures, calendars and even small toy trucks. Mind you, this was back when there was such a thing as a free lunch, a coffee cost a dime, and HST meant, “Having a swell time.”

I find use for such giveaways in my antiques work, and a recent arrival was a tiny sparkplug measure with four flat screwdriver heads that is great for popping the backs off old pocket watches. It’s stamped “Tom Plimley The Auto Man,” recalling the long-gone dealership on Yates Street in Victoria. An example of a high-value premium is a 1929 Kelly Axe & Tool calendar listed at $100.

While I’ll admit to owning a few simple power tools, and can sometimes figure out the operating manuals, my tool cabinet has many of Dad’s old odds and ends, a nice hammer I found on the road, and that Stubby Orange soda pop bottle that saw service in the oil business over 50 years ago. Probably just as well I never dreamed of a career selling hardware.

If you’re hanging on to your tools, keep them cleaned, oiled and sharpened, as it’s depressing to visit a damp basement and see a box filled with corroded and rusted implements. If you’re passing them on, check with your kids before you plan too far ahead. Could be they don’t need a brace and bit or a fret saw, preferring to wait till they can frame their new garage using an App on their iPod while fishing at the lake.

If you’re selling them off, phone a few folks you know who still have workshops, or, if the tools are well-known brands or vintage, give the local auction houses a call. Another excellent option is to donate tools in very good condition to Habitat for Humanity who sell building material and supplies, and whose revenue is directed to providing affordable housing for those in need.

Many memories rattle at the bottom of a toolbox. There was that soap box racer you built as a kid, using mismatched wheels from discarded baby buggies (and you wonder why you tilt to the right when you sit down?), there was that pirate sword made from a chunk of plywood, and there was that time you nailed your sister’s door shut - well, maybe we’ll forget about that one!




Comments and suggestions for future articles are welcome and can be sent to Michael Rice PO Box 86 Saanichton, BC V8M 2C3, or via email to

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