Ebay Tool Buying Different than Seeing First Hand

Buying Tools Secondhand

Ebay differs from conventional secondhand sellers, flea markets, garage sales and so on. You don’t pick up the tool, twist it around, flex the steel or ping it with a flicked finger to hear solidity, as you do on location with the seller in front of you. So, just what do you need to look for when you buy your secondhand or new on eBay?

There is vernacular used on eBay that should pop up a red flag. I literally just went through some of the terms currently used on eBay this evening. Here are my brief thoughts:

Vintage – is the single most common and acceptable term used in connection with anything old on eBay, but just because that’s so, don’t necessarily think it means everything you see or even anything at all. You should look for additional corroboration in the tool itself, split nuts, brass instead of steel studs, zinc-plate substitutes, handle shapes, wood and steel colour and things like this. “Old’ and “vintage” mean different things to different people. Sellers frequently use these two terms, but it is your responsibility as the possible buyer to try as  much as possible to authenticate the reality behind the claims. Vintage and old are relative terms and mean absolutely nothing on eBay.

Antique – is less acceptable as a legit term because of context and accountability. If we were to follow the US Customs law for a definition half the saws would be removed. US Customs law states an antique must be 100 years old prior to the date of purchase. In the UK we generally accept the same term as acceptable. Saws that look old because of greasy dirt and grime doesn’t mean old, antique or vintage at all. Follow the criteria for Vintage above.

Rare – does not mean rare in most cases. It can mean the seller didn’t see one before but it is likely the seller is limited in actual knowledge. You must do your own research before buying, to see if rare fits the particular tool you are looking at. Tools can be more scarce than rare.

Superior, Primitive, Early, Old, Very fine, Fine and so on – are all relevant terms on eBay. Adjectives like these have become quite generic, sometimes they do substitute for truth and honesty but mostly they are little more than bulking.

Drop-dead Stunning – These terms are more irritating than reality. Overseas sellers mostly adopt these types of openings. Look beyond the opening statement to the start price and then at the shipping costs. It’s here that reality hits.

Check for location – Overseas shipping can be prohibitive. Many costs are indeed highly inflated, most often because the seller can’t be bothered offering the real shipping costs or they don’t want to fill out customs, package for overseas and so on. I do click the button for the country I am in before I begin my searching unless that restricts me for some reason. Most often it is as irritating to find the seller is in the US it is for buyers in the US.

Images of Deception – are easy to manipulate the way we perceive the product. Honest images are the most helpful. As an example, some saws are shot from the end toward the handle. This makes the saw look longer than it is. One image of a gents saw regularly sold on ebay gets me every time. It looks like a 10’ saw yet it is only 6”; not a saw I would buy. It’s an attractive image, well taken, good colour and sharp. I can’t really fault the picture at all, but it still looks 4” longer than it is.

Pitting, cracks, chips dents are sometimes described as “the usual” and sometimes not shown in images. This can be deceptive, not always, but I think more often than not. Just look at the image and ask yourself the right questions.  I am sure that often enough the images are not intended to deceive, but being open to the possibility helps to see things more realistically.

Some sellers often use old images of tools that are not current to the new. I have found many makers and distributors using images of former products to sell current products that look similar but are not the same. Marples chisels sold by distributors are often sold with the old bluechip chisel image even though when you receive them they will say Irwin Marples on them. That’s because the old ones were made in Sheffield by Record Marples using Sheffield steel and the current ones are made in Asia. The profits for Irwin Marples, which should be Irwin really tripled when they went to overseas manufacturing because they kept the brand without the integrity of the former company that was bought out. Other companies do the same. I have exposed Nicholson US, the manufacturer of files who’s long-standing reputation meant nothing to the current owners and this is proved by their making the files south of the border in Mexico. There are more.


  1. I notice the Stanley Sweatheart planes are made in Mexico. Are they worth more than just one I can get off the shelf at Lowes? I purchased a Kobalt from Lowes, and after I made some adjustments and sharpened it, it worked fine but since it is the first one I ever bought I can’t judge if it works as well as one of the more expensive ones. I am asking because now I am after a new plow plane, and I can’t seem to find one of those for less than about $300 USD new. All the ones on eBay seem to be older, “Vintage” ones and I don’t know what to look for perticularly to be sure I get one I can at least use effectively (not missing parts, etc.).

      1. How well do you think the Stanley 45 would work? There are several of those on eBay here in the US.

        1. I usually advise caution when buying a 45 because people are enamoured by the components and the complexities of a plane that worked very ineffectively for most of what it was intended to do. On the other hand, if you can pick one up cheaply enough, you can use the ploughing and rebating cutters the same as the lesser plough planes. I would say buy one if the price is right because they are good for some things and not others. Moulding is one of them.

  2. I certainly agree with you. In the world of eBay, let the buyer beware. I make frequent use of two very good online references; supertool.com and hyperkitten.com. I also ask the seller questions before bidding on tools. I found it useful to just track sales for awhile as well to get a sense of bids offered, who is selling tools regularly and who is just getting rid of something they came across in their basement.

    I’ve managed to pick up a three or four nice users without raiding my son’s education fund. A little elbow grease to clean them up and I get to use a plane that’s 80-100 years old and has probably been used by far better woodworkers than me (I?).

    1. Just to be sure, I am not saying eBay is overly risky at all, just be aware that the vernacular is not necessarily contractual or even an accurate term often. I buy half my tools on eBay and half from flea markets and car boot sales. This works very well for me and most of what I buy is for research and articles, films etc. Vintage goes in there on anything no one knows the age of. yes there are dealers out there and I know Patrick leach has been around a long time and kept a good reputation at Supertool.com (Superior Works and Patrick’s blood and gore).

  3. Josh at Hyperkitten is a knowledgeable and honorable dealer. His prices are very reasonable compared to some of the other well known dealers. Sign up for his monthly list of tools or call him to let him know what you are looking for. He is definitely one of the good guys in the “vintage” tool business.

  4. I’ve never had a problem with either Josh (Hyperkitten) or Patrick (Supertool). I’ve recently dealy with Gary Cook (Hackney Tools) and was most pleased with his efforts to locate spare parts for my 405 and #50.

  5. Paul. I could not agree with you more: Caveat emptor is all I have to say about buying tools on eBay.

    Many, if not most, sellers there have no idea what they are selling, nor can judge condition or use of the tools they sell. Yes, you may get lucky, fine deals may be struck, but they are far and few between. It is far better, and less expensive in the long run, to deal with reputable tool dealers who can fairly judge a tool’s worth and condition. Of course you will have to pay more for this knowledge, but it’s worth it.

    Buyers beware of eBay!

    1. I am far from saying don’t buy via eBay. I buy regularly enough to say I find it reasonable provided you take precautions as outlined in the blog. I buy from dealers too, but the prices are significantly higher and not always risk free there either. I don’t want to at all deter buying via eBay. Their reconciliation process has always worked well for me and most of the sellers are willing to take returns including paying shipping.My objective was to say take care and be aware really.

  6. Another that irks me is “great condition for its age”, which tells you nothing. A 100 year old tool can be in beautiful shape if wellcared for.

    1. Yes, another cop-out phrase. Thanks for sharing. I do advise people to make sure they seek solutions if the tool is not fully fault-declared beforehand.

  7. If a seller shows a photo of the back of an iron, cap iron removed, my trust goes up immensely.

  8. What do you think about the transitional planes? I have acquired two Sargent planes a 3408 and a 3410.

    1. I like all of the transitional planes very much. They were not really a part of the development here in the UK or Europe though. We were already sold on infil planes and so were also used to steel soles to planes.

  9. I am not a huge fan of E – Bay and will admit I got burned more than once through my “OWN” fault and ignorance. When I was starting to get interested in Hand Tools I had very little knowledge and I was to trustworthy, not good. I buy regularly from a few people on another Wood Working Forum and have had great success. I concur that Patrick Leach and Josh Clark are also good people to buy from along with Walt Q. ( Brass City Records and Tools ).

    Unfortunately where I live is not a tool haven and there isn’t any decent Flea Markets close by and the same with Antique Stores so I have paid probably more in some case’s but I believe what I have paid has been fair.


  10. This reflects very precisely my experience with musical instruments on Ebay. The common phrase is, “I’m not an expert, so don’t ask me how well it plays [works].” In the instrument market, this is code for, “Unless you want to hang it on the wall as decoration, keep looking.”

    Thanks for the blog and the videos; they’re both helpful and encouraging.

  11. I’ve been on eBay for about 16 years but only recently started buying second hand tools. eBay has been extremely positive for me. There have been a small number of issues but these have be resolved for me.

    My experience of buying, and selling, second hand tools over the last year or so is that:

    * you get what you pay for
    * if it looks like an exceptionally good deal, it probably isn’t
    * most people are reasaonable
    * eBay’s resolution process works
    * Every time I auction some potetentailly high value item, I always get offered some ludicrously low buy-it-now price

    The extra thing that I have noticed, for tools with multiple parts, are Frankenstein tools. I once bought a Stanley No. 4 plane to discover that it consiststed of a Stanley sole, a Record frog, mismatched plastic handles, metric and imperial screws and “no name” irons. I complained to the seller, they refunded me in full and didn’t want the plane back.

    I have found it more profitable to buy whole but neglected tools, without boxes or instructions, that I can then do a little time restoration. Or I pay a little more, but way below the price of an equivalent new tool, for a better, obviously genuine but less sought after version. I have just bought a Woden W78 rebate plane for £31 + P&P – it’s complete (possibly without the nicker) and no box or instructions.

    I once bought a job lot of really rusted saws, useful for training myself on saw sharpening and restoration but I’ll never repeat that: it was too much work and I’d rather make something.


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