Is eBay Reliable Resource for Traditional Hand Tools?

A few months ago I bought half a dozen 3/8” I. Sorby mortise chisels via eBay for what was really very little money, I think around £3 each and they were in almost perfect, little-used condition. It was just one of those days I suppose when bidding didn’t happen and this has happened a couple of times specifically with I. Sorby 3/8” mortises chisels, probably some of the best made alongside Ward, Marples and a few others. Though made and sold in sets from 1/8”  to 5/8” in 1/16” increments in the past, the most commonly used sizes were 3/8”, 5/16”, 1/4” and 1/2” in order of most-used sizes.

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Three fine user chisels for £3 each is good value for money but I would still have preferred to walk into a high street store, talk to a person, and buy them there.

This past week I picked up three 3/16” Marples chisels in one collective group for £9 for the three in the same way, but they were obviously wrongly sized as the description said they were 3/8”. Probably no one would normally have wanted 3/16” chisels for mortising with but they are actually a practical size I know to be useful when making thin cabinet doors where a 1/4″ is a tad too much and 1/8″ a tad too small. The three had never been actually used at the bench before and still had the Marples lables on the traditional ash handles.

Anyway, over the last couple of weeks I picked up a range of about ten top notch moulding planes and another tiny I Sorby brace for my collection and to pass on to my grandkids, an older Stanley wheel brace (remember these were the first cordless drills but you have to turn the handles) and so on but I have a point in saying all of this so hang in there. 

Listening to the radio today the talk was about the falling levels of footfall in shops after Christmas when people hunt for the less illusive bargains at the fifty-percent-off sales. Arguments went back and forth for the dilemma we face here in the UK is that if people don’t shop locally we will end up with only mega suppliers and online purchasing and there is indeed much truth in that. 

In the UK the hardware store is just about gone and what is here are stores that sell cheaper, lower-grade import stock and it’s unlikely that that will change. You see you can’t walk into a shop and buy say a decent brass backed saw or a good plane well made in Sheffield by a reputable maker as in times past. It’s not that tools of quality aren’t still made, more that the high street hardware store is indeed one of those lost entities we once thought we would never lose. Of course the demise of woodworking as a craft hasn’t helped the cause and woodworking, furniture making, joinery and so on, as trades, no longer rely on hand tools but machines, be that battery driven or plug in the walls.

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These two planes are the same but look at the length of the cutting iron on the better looking model at the back. These are things to look out for.

This week I also bought these two # Stanley bench planes. I actually paid the higher price of £14 for the rusted one and £13 for the other, but I did that on purpose. These two planes  for me reflect the success of my work here on the blog over the past few years and also our making videos too. I think five or six years ago I could have bought these two planes for as little as 99 pence and rarely more than £5. These two planes cost me under £15 and generally here in the UK you will now pay between say £15 and £30 depending on age and condition. This to me shows that people are realising the true worth and value of these incredible tools. In my view, even if they were selling for £75, provided all the parts were there and not too worn away, they would be well worth the money. I have probably bought well over a 100 such planes in the past 12 months with no issues at all with any one of them that couldn’t be fixed in a matter of minutes.

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Some of the planes after restoring them. These planes match any modern maker without any retrofitting with thicker irons and handles and such.

Here in the UK of course we are more privileged than any other European country and indeed any country in the world when it comes to the availability of good tools secondhand Mostly that’s not because we are brilliant but because our history in providing top quality hand tools once spanned 300 years. The old tools keep recycling through as people like myself pass on and the next generation became computer literates and, as some say, saw sense in showering to go to work rather than showering when they arrived home.

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Moulding planes, top notch complex moulders like these, go for about £8-12.

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A very beautiful boxwood and brass square for under £15 and pristinely made by a man’s hand! How is that not good value for money via eBay and where else would `i have found it`/

I say all of this because being in Bicester Village in Oxfordshire last weekend  with family, this Outlet Centre was wall to wall people with lines to get into many stores snaked around the streets for three and four hours with people looking to save £50 on any item they bought but would not dream of wearing in a years time. I am talking hundreds of thousands of people over a few 12 hour day spans of time. now of course I know eBay may not be the preferred way of buying secondhand tools, but for me and many others it has proven to be one of the most reliable resources in a world where woodworking hand tools have lost value and meaning. Even stores that could have a high street presence can no longer engage face to face with their customers as in times past because of cut pricing and time-is-money constraints. I think that they are wrong but perhaps I am. Without being able to offer direct service and face-to-face shopping, service business in the UK these days is an ever-diminishing  trade thats been traded off. I’m very thankful for eBay as a resource for buying secondhand woodworking tools. It’s very surprising what turns up in any given day. This hand made 12” by 24” square made from boxwood with brass fitments came to my house for £18 including shipping. I put a tape to the increment markings and they were spot on every one even though each one was cut and stamped by hand. It was also dead square against my Rabone Chesterman square.

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If a square is not square then it’s not a square.

I am thankful also for those online retailers that have stayed the course and given much to their customers by making themselves as available as possible. They do a good job generally and are always helpful on the phone. Even buying a mortise chisel for £40 isn’t so much when you think it will span 100 years of use. Perhaps you’ll bear with me if I say it can get a little cost-prohibitive when you reach 65 though!!!

14 Comments

  1. Gary Blair on 31 December 2014 at 6:47 am

    Paul, I couldn’t agree more. Going into a hardware store here in the US and seeing what has happened to the old companies like Stanley makes me sad (plastic combination squares, disposable saws, and “Fat Max”??)…. Though in the USA, we don’t get quite the bargains you do, I’ve still gotten some really good deals on eBay: Stanley planes, Groves & Sons tenon & dovetail saws. and a remarkably good deals on Starrett combination squares. Have a wonderful New Year!

  2. Dennis on 31 December 2014 at 7:09 am

    A big reason those hardware stores are gone and quality tools aren’t selling is also because we, (the middle class, though we have been shrinking for a while) have only gotten poorer or remained stagnant for decades.

    We’ve shipped out well paying industrial jobs for ages, and sure that gives us cheaper products and tools, but of shoddier quality. Sure it helps the companies to get richer and it fuels temporary consumption booms and made everything seem happy go lucky there for a while in the 80s and 90s… But it doesn’t help the average joe make more money to put into the economy. It’s really obvious when you look around and think about how it is now and how it was then.

    Back then you could support a family on a single income from a factory job and have your house paid off before retirement. Nowadays we have both parents working ever more hours and barely getting by despite that.

    In addition rampant over-urbanization (because jobs are being concentrated in a few places) contributes to more crime which increases costs everywhere, and everyone trying to squeeze together into smaller areas results rising housing costs, eating up more of the ever increasing amount of monetary resources we can muster. We are in a race to the bottom here, we have less money to move with and so far we’ve only had “growth” because of cheap, basically slave labour from the 3rd world, but we’re approaching the limit now where it is starting to become impossible to go any further.

    The only people who have gotten richer are the top percent and global corporations who keep consolidating and merging into ever bigger monopolies than standard oil ever was. All the rest of us are poorer. So we buy poorer tools and we shop old quality machines that where made locally, longing for the days when we still made things. But we’ve already given away the keys to real economic power, that of manufacturing, to the chinese and others, thinking the financial sector could support us.

    We’re now being proven wrong as no amount of austerity and welfare for banks and the rich seems to be working to boost our faltering economies. Giving people local, well paying jobs is the foundation for a sound economy, not speculation and investment and handling imaginary money in wall street.

    • Jon on 5 January 2015 at 6:55 am

      Hey up Polly Toynbee!

  3. John Z. Zhu on 31 December 2014 at 2:33 pm

    Strange to know Paul Sellers could be one of my competing bidders. I recently bought a Stanley 604 1/2 that was covered in rust. After inspection, most of the rust is superficial. The rust also hidden that the lever cap was broken and was welded back together. I have managed to get all but frog screw loose using WD40. I think I over paid a bit for the plane, but it’s a 604 1/2 I think after restoration is going to be a nice user.

    I have bought many planes from ebay, but not saws, my local antique store sells unbacked saws for ~$5; all the backed saws are folded steel, feels too light to me. So I buy the saws and make new handles and/or add my own solid bras backing. My go to saw was made from a blade that came off a $10 gents saw, hand sharpened using the methods you have demonstrated. It’s on my youtube channel if you are interested in seeing it.

    It seems that the steel used in “cheap” tools are comparable to older steel because of the the homogenized nature of steel production. What’s is gone is the fit and finish. Instead of buying a heap of cheap tools, I try to save up and pay more for fewer quality tools. I find quality tools are more enjoyable to use and to look at.

    Some people do not appreciate quality and chases trends, forgetting that quality is timeless.

  4. Bill Warnock on 31 December 2014 at 2:56 pm

    And. . . a 3/16″ chisel might be handy for clearing out the waste when chopping a 1/4″ mortise.

  5. Mike on 31 December 2014 at 5:07 pm

    I buy all of my planes on Ebay. I’ve found that I can get a great Stanley plane for a great price. I also appreciate that there is a bit of history with the tool. It seems as if I’m carrying on tradition.

  6. gblogswild on 1 January 2015 at 1:37 am

    I’ve purchased nearly every old tool I own from ebay. I hate that I have to go online to find many of them, but I am glad that there is a place where they can be found. That said, there are many other places to look, as well:

    Antique stores should never be overlooked. I’ve found some wonderful deals at them. I got my 8″ Stanley bit brace for $15 and my Millers Falls hand crank drill for $12. I got a Stanley 1902 patented #5 plane for $13.71 including sales tax, and a Millers Falls #56 low angle block plane for $25 in almost perfect condition with its original box (not that I need the box…). I can’t get new tools with this quality for these prices. If I could, I’d buy them and I wouldn’t look back.

    I bought my first 10″ bit brace, first expansion bit, several screwdriver bits for the brace, my keyhole saw, and a great oilstone all for $1 each at a garage sale. I also bought 30# (as in, 30 POUNDS) of bit brace augers of assorted makes and sizes for only $20 at an estate sale – no full sets of any one make, but I have at least two usable bits in every size originally made and all of them have now been cleaned of rust, oiled with WD-40, and sharpened. I’ve made test holes with each and every one of them.

    There are many places to get usable tools for hand tool woodworking, so many in fact that it is hard for me to fathom that anyone in the US would have any trouble finding any tool they need as long as they are not collector snobs. Ebay is a large part of that. I wish I could have found everything I have locally, but if I can’t, ebay is the next stop.

    • gblogswild on 1 January 2015 at 1:43 am

      Oh, I should mention – my holdfasts are new Gramercy holdfasts from toolsforworkingwood.com, as is my auger file (yes, I know Paul doesn’t really believe they’re necessary!) and my honing compound I use on my strop, a technique that I learned from Paul. I have a micro-adjusting brass cutting gage from Lee Valley and my standard-angle block plane is an English-made G12-220 Stanley I purchased when I went to cabinetmaking classes in a local technical college. Also my Buck Brothers back saw, Vermont American dovetail saw, Stanley awl, and many other items were purchased for that course. These are NEW tools that were purchased for a good price, so not everything I own is antique, and not everything new is plastic garbage!

  7. Steve Massie on 1 January 2015 at 2:12 pm

    I will start again ( lost my connection ) first by saying “Happy New Year” everyone.

    Paul you do find some very nice tools at good price’s on E – Bay, for me not so much. I have had a couple bad experience’s which has left a bad taste in my mouth, maybe I need to revisit again.

    I love and more than happy with my Vintage Hand Tool’s which I have bought mostly from the S & S ( sell and swap ) forum on Woodnet.net and the occasional find in a Antique Store. Unfortunately where I live is not a tool or wood haven in any stretch of the imagination but I wouldn’t trade the weather for anything.

    Paul as you have mentioned several times these tools work as well as any $300 – $500 plane or $300+ new saw etc. once you have spent a few moments cleaning and setting them up. One also has to learn how to sharpen first before any tool will perform wether it is $20 plane or $200 plane. Sharp is a must and if you don’t learn that you will never succeed or enjoy this fine hobby.

    I am retired now and about the same age you are and really am enjoying learning how to work wood with hand tools and wish I would have taken this more seriously 35 – 40 years ago instead of going the full power shop and the “Norm Craze” like a lot of us did. I like Norm and am not knocking him in the least bit, but I am having more fun with the hand tools now.

    Being retired also means have to budget my money a lot closer than when I was working, and the $$$$$ don’t go as far as they once did. I really hate in this Society Today everything is made rather poorly compared to years past, and everything keeps getting more and more expensive and goes up except WAGE’S.

    OK enough ranting from me and am looking forward to the coming year for what you may have in store for us Paul. And again Thank You for carrying on this Legacy and sharing your talents and knowledge with us. Even my 8 year old Grandson and 3 1/2 year old Granddaughter is taking a interest in what you do, we ( they ) had fun making some star’s and painting them.

    Steve

  8. John on 1 January 2015 at 10:18 pm

    Bought two record 521/2 bench vices 9″ jaws opening to 13″ with quick release. One I used and other a little surface rust……….for 99p on eBay….bear that

  9. gav on 3 January 2015 at 1:59 pm

    I was at a weekend market in Sydney a few months back while visiting friends and there were a few “tool” sellers there. Picture a large amount of uniformly rusted material dumped onto the bitumen-literally, uncovered, in the rain. The “big ticket” items were second hand rubbish power tools in generally poor condition. For fifteen dollars Australian a Stanley sweetheart sliding bevel, Disston sliding bevel and a Stanley spokeshave. Leftover bits of abrasive paper, scotchbright pad, solvent and some oil did the rest. The spokeshave looked the worst, until the realisation hit that at some point someone had cared about it enough to grease everything which was why it looked so grungy. I presume this was for storage purposes, it came up a treat. In the realm of sustainability I find it hard to see a better way of reducing consumption and furthering the lifespan of manufactured goods that perform well in a given task for not just myself but for the next person who may be able to use these tools if they are stored correctly. Aside from the cost and difficulty in some respects to purchasing an equivalent tool new (any, not just the few I picked up this time) there is no need to acquire the raw materials, process them, transport them, package and wharehouse them etc. Every activity we indulge in has an embodied energy and cost to it, sometimes the amount of embodied energy and cost in an item invested by a person(s) can be suitably honoured by our own contribution and ensure a longevity that does make that investment a worthwhile and rewarding effort for a great number of people. Occasionally as a bonus because of the collective interest of people such as ourselves we can see the value in tools available which were manufactured and either never, or rarely, used and understand the much greater value they possess then the mere raw material cost or the aesthetic oldie worldie whimsical claptrap place it on a shelf and look at it briefly mentality. Best of luck fellow treasure hunters.

  10. Jeff Polaski on 6 January 2015 at 1:01 pm

    Having recently retired (at age 67, Paul), I have yet t buy tools on eBay. I used to buy my phoographic equipment on eBay, including a Leica camera over half a century old, and a Kodak folding camer over a century old. A bit of cleaning and refurbishing, and they will make photographs better that this retired photographer. eBay is the epitome of the free market. Sometimes gems float to the top, and becuase of a spelling error or a seller’s ignorance, you can do extremely well. There’s a Stanley Bailey #4 plane in my future, but the research and careful watching is not yet over.

  11. Brett Ryan on 10 February 2016 at 6:59 pm

    Hi Paul. I’ve just started using eBay here in Australia to get myself started but what is on the AU sellers is quite pricey and inferior compared to what I can see from UK sellers. I’ve been tempted to buy items from the UK but the postage is a killer being upwards of 100AUD (around 50GBP).

    Is there any known alternative to shipping cheaper? I’m stretching a limb I know 🙂

    • Paul Sellers on 12 February 2016 at 7:02 am

      I am afraid Australia more followed the American way of building construction and pretty much abandoned more traditional ways in favour of stick building framed homes and structures because speed building a new economic entity became more important I suppose. This reflects the abandonment of hand tools as such for decades and the invention of so called “power tools” took over. I am sure none these will be preserved as of value past 5 years hence. I sometimes see “vintage black and decker router” on ebay, but not like the many hundreds of planes and chisels and saws and such. I doubt that a blue plastic handled Bahco saw will ever have the term “vintage’ in the title. So, I am afraid you will have to make a few holiday breaks to the UK, buy all the tools you need, and pay the excess baggage. I still think that even with shipping the prices are more reasonable for a lifetime tool than we think. Here we are just used to picking the cherries and paying peanuts and even then we complain. I rarely ever pay more than £20 for a #4 and will not pay more than £6 shipping unless I pay less on the price of the tool; I still complain because 5 years ago you could pick them up for £1. Sorry, to brag and make you lament all the more. Britain has its faults and its faulted past, but I am glad that vintage tools and availability is not one of them.

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