Finally Sorted My Tools

The reality of COVID-19 is that I finally found a few days to work through many boxes of collected and gathered woodworking tools garnered from 55 years of daily woodworking. Many memories floated out from the cardboard boxes to waft into my nostrils with some of the most wonderful memories I can recall. Plough planes made from wood are the most evocative with their complexities held in the chunky clunkiness of vintage beech stretching back 150 years, but then I recall a single plate of steel saving me from a situation when I delivered the pieces to the White House and discovered a glue run we all missed for some very strange reason. Additionally, scents from eras well beyond my timespan came in oils and shavings seemingly locked into the wood as a time-lock message. Some say that if you could bottle the smell of a new car you would have a saleable commodity. If we had a choice, mine would be the opening of a toolbox sealed by a man sometime in the late 1800s.

One day these tools will end up in the auction rooms but until then I will keep them safe for my work, experimenting, researching, and so on. These tools gave me the greatest joy in so many ways not the least of which was likely finding out what I did not know about them and could never have known without me questioning the whys and wherefores of what this or that was for. I thought the Sandusky plough (plow USA) plane was an amazing tool and mine came from a carpenter selling this with a full set of cutters so he could be half a chopsaw.

I am grateful for these rose-smelling commas and periods punctuating my life that make sense of a life sentence in woodworking. Opening up the cases and boxes took me back to Merlin’s bench and then I drifted to old Bill’s box with his ultimatum braces and rolls of ward chisels. Tonight is the culmination of two weeks immersed in sorting out.

26 thoughts on “Finally Sorted My Tools”

  1. Daniel Currie

    Hi there where is the best place to sell vintage tools .I have a Norris 20 1/2 joining plane never been used .Just dont want it to go on eBay and not get what is worth thanks

  2. Wayne Whalen

    Maybe you could open a woodworkers museum and be its curator and demonstrate the use and history of the most interesting pieces. You could build the display cases made with joints of all kinds to dazzle the curious. Would there be room in your castle for such an undertaking? It would be a nice fit for the school and your wood shop i would think.

    1. Aah, not a museum, thats the end if the line. These tools need to be out there, being used!

  3. Peter Richards

    Paul, it’s been nigh on 2 weeks since your last post and I was getting worried for you. Whew! Now I know you were concentrating on your sorting. It’s always great when you finish an organizing task with everything tidy, categorized, and in its place. At 56 but still in my woodworking infancy, I find I have to do something similar at the end of each project. I will reorganize my tools back into their place and at times wonder about the previous owner and how he/she did it. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and insights. I look forward to them daily. Maybe not so long until your next one? 🙂

  4. Thomas Locatell

    What I wouldn’t give to have access to that kind of hoard. I let slip through my fingers a solid collection of hand tools, some vintage, that I had collected in a brief amount of time in California. They followed me across the country and were finally stolen from a root cellar that I had rented as storage. The upside of that was a nice story I heard from the 85 year old owner of the property. When I had returned to clear out and discovered the theft, including machine tools and anything else of value, I also found a three gallon stoneware jug, a big, beautiful piece of work. When I brought it to the owner, she told me how she hadn’t seen it for going on sixty years. It was the jug that her dad had used to store the moonshine during prohibition. It was something to see her face light up when I carried that jug through the door! I collected the wood that I had been saving, not valuable to thieves for obvious reasons, packed up my van and went on to find a new home for what was left. The wood is ensconced in a barn I built. Who knows if I’ll ever see that again. I just hope the rough sawn, old growth redwood doesn’t end up in a farmer’s chicken coop.

  5. Every once in a while I get the “sorting and organizing” bug. It takes from a half a day to several depending upon how messy I’ve allowed the shop to get; how experience with the present setup has revealed shortcomings in the organization; what tools I’ve used and what tools I haven’t used.

    In general the number of tools I have goes down not up. And what gets sacrificed are power tools. The only woodworking power tools I have left are a bench top drill and a hand held circular saw.

    Anyway cleaning and sorting has the effect of clearing my mind and making me feel better about working in the shop. My work gets better.

  6. Power tooled woodworking is so impersonal. When you look at woodwork that was made with power tools you just think “factory” but when you see something made with hand tools there are always telltale signs of a slip of the chisel or an errant saw cut or a plane line in the top. It says “hey, someone actually made that piece of woodworking and it wasn’t Ikea, wow, that piece has a story and then you start to build it in your mind how he might have planed the top with a lovely old hand plane and cut the tenons with a vintage hand saw and chopped out the mortise with a keenly honed chisel”. Those imperfections tell us that an actual human being made it relying on his skill and effort to accomplish the perfect treasure.

    1. Wayne,
      During the recent lockdown i have been doing a few projects and each one bares the mark of a hand made item ha ha. One slip up of a split second is there for me to reflect on for years to come and with each new project I try to ensure it wont happen again but there is always a moment when i slip up. The latest was starting to cut a stopped dovetail on a long draw piece and then looking at the other end to discover Im working on the wrong side!
      The kids say to me “but what are you going use that box for?” and I reply you can have that one to remember me by, that brings a smile to their face.

    2. gregor ritchie

      We all love working wood and the tactile sense of leveling rough lumber, with the various planes and winding sticks, etc, is mind settling. However let me add that our forefathers of the workbench would have gladly used power tools and hand tools. I have so many projects to do and at age 66 the use of power is a time saver that allows me to get more done and concentrate on finer aspects of hand work. Scrubbing down 8 foot lengths of rough hardwood I will bet was a task given to apprentices in days gone by and the finer work left to more advanced journeymen. ( side note- Paul, please comment on the term journeyman) Scrubbing and leveling , although we can all do it is time consuming and a physical workout to say the least. Furthermore, if a client is purchasing your work they will not pay for hours to have lumber dimensioned by hand when a machine can do it in minutes in my experience. If I had room for only one piece of power equipment it would be a band saw ( the bigger the better ). I will place my bet that a commission of furniture built entirely by hand is only the luxury of the famous wood worker and the likes of a Bill Gates completing the equation. Do I enjoy building smaller projects by hand? Surely! I just finished my first ever traditional Euro workbench by hand but it took 3 months and about 200 hours but what a joy using a bench that I’ve had on the bucket list for over 30 years. Times a wastin’,…..I’m off to my small shop to cut some hand joints. I’d like to know if Paul has blogged this issue. At my age I say ” learn to do it by hand first , do it often enough to keep those skills but use power machines to do the dirty grunt work.”

  7. Thanks Paul
    You have no idea how you have inspired me to slow down and really enjoy the hand made projects I have done.
    Watching your video’s and seeing you shop has made me completely reverse my shop and now I don’t wander around saying to my self, now where did I put that.
    Please continue the great work of teaching all of us this almost lost trade

  8. My grandfather was a carpenter for 30 years and I always loved going into his garage and smelling the smells that were all around me. The only other smells I really remember from my childhood is walking into a good butcher shop and smelling all of the hanging sausages. Those are very fond memories.

  9. Paul I discovered your videos at Woodcraft. Then I bought your woodworking books and have been following you on You Tube. Thanks. I built my own bench 30 years ago but I want to build the one you teach, (the 2×4’s not the plywood version).

  10. Mark D. Baker

    Aloha Paul,
    With this ‘shut-down’, being shut-in, takes on a new feeling. It’s all good, to be healthy and safe. But soon you run out of things to tidy up, to sharpen, to draft and design or your scrap pile just gets too small to do anything useful from.
    Since my accident 9 years ago, I’ve had a head-start on being a ‘shut-in’. It’s good to remember each morning, you have been given a gift, another day to live. The ‘gift of life’ is from our creator , Jehovah God. With my woodworking, beekeeping, or studies of fields of science, I’m always in awe of there always being more to learn and benefit from.

  11. I’ve been reorganizing my shop; sharpening chisels, plane irons, scrapers, saws and edged tools; moving tools in benches to match my ever-changing workflow and builds. Rag in a can is a real time saver for my tools Paul–thank you.

  12. Carlos Alvarado

    It has taken me a while but I have finally started doing some work to be able to store my tools. I definitely do not have the amount of tools that you have Paul but I do have more than I expected and have them scattered around so I am trying to put them in some kind of order. I have been collecting materials so hopefully I will be able to make the area more organized. Thanks Paul for all your help with ideas for doing woodworking.

  13. Hi Paul, after having sorted out my hand tool kit to begin my journey for hand tool woodworking, I am looking for one more tool. The No.71 router plane. I was wondering if you would have an extra one you would be willing to sell. If not, theres no harm. Take care, Keith.

  14. Thanks for taking a break. Welcome back.

    I follow blogs on a few different subjects, and some of them seem to think they need to post something regularly, even when they don’t really have anything to say.

    I never tire of yours,

  15. My grandfather and great uncle were both carpenters and woodworkers by profession. I was blessed with receiving a number of their hand tools which I count among my most cherished possessions. Every time I pick up one of them, I think about the fact that their hands held them. Both had passed by the time I was 16, and unfortunately, I was unable to benefit from the wisdom of their experience. I continue to try and refine my craft with these tools and follow you closely as the surrogate for my ancestors. Thank you Paul, for the informative and detailed presentations. I always learn from you.

  16. mark leatherland

    I bet there must be about half a million people who would love to add a Paul Sellers tool to their collection. I know I would. I think that given a choice I would go for a dovetail saw freshly sharpened by Paul, I would be interested to know how sharp the teeth feel to the touch and how it feels in the cut. I know that my saw sharpening on my dovetail saw must be lacking somewhere, perhaps the angle of presentation with the file or something but it doesn’t sound or behave like Pauls seems to.
    I imagine that they would command a silly high price at auction, though I think Paul wouldn’t want them to go only to the rich…

  17. Paul
    Watching your show, I had the chance to peak beyond your bench out of my curiousity to see what tools you have, that you “never use” but they’re in the cabinet begind you…
    You always are using your Bailey style #4 as your number one preffered hand plane.
    As a Master craftsman you know well the advantages of the Bed-rock style Stanley and I noticed that you have a Lie Nilsen plane (how could you not) in you cabinet behind you, however I’ve never saw you using it, despite of the advantages that it has over the Bailey.
    I’m sure it’s a nice conversation piece but still you never presented it even (as far as I can tale, you shwed the Veritas low angle jack plane, but never a Bed-rock).
    I understand (a little bit your phylosophy of using the “simple tool” rather or to be a “minimalist” but I don’t understand why not even presenting even the possibility of using a “superior” tool to us…it’s American just like Bailey is…
    I’m pretty sure that many of us the readers, would like an answer on that.
    Thank you sir for your great work that you’re presenting us, you sure are “one of a kind”.

  18. I have been making a bench to go to my granddaughter’s new Victorian home. It is made from a 150 year-old oak pew from a 900 year-old local church. The wood is as hard as nails and quickly blunts my tools. But as I was planing a piece I caught a definite smell of smoky candles and old prayer books so reminiscent of ancient churches.

  19. Stephen McGonigle

    For those in the UK mentioning museums, may I recommend a trip ( once Covid 19 is over ) to The Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield. This holds the Ken Hawley collection of woodworking hand tools, and it is magnificent. The curators are very helpful, and I was allowed into the back to see more or the collection. Those same curators are still cataloging this collection as well as other donations. I never met Ken Hawley but I wish I had, he sounds like a real dynamo of an enthusiast. As the many and varied tool makers around Sheffield closed, Hawley would turn up and ‘persuade’ them to donate to the collection. I understand that the persuasion was more akin to badgering them, but maybe that’s what it took.

    Here’s a quick quote from his Wikipedia page:

    ‘Hawley said that he had no interest in history until 1950, when he visited a customer to demonstrate a machine. While at the customer’s premises, he noticed a joiner’s brace of a design that he had not seen before and was able to acquire it. Perhaps the most significant single development to his collection came in 1965 when he paid a business visit to the William Marples company and discovered that the firm’s plane-manufacturing workshop was being closed. The Marples company was the last maker of a specific type of wooden plane and Hawley asked whether he could have some examples. According to Simon Barley, writing an obituary in The Guardian:

    Before long he was carting off the entire contents of the workshop in his Volvo estate. “The only thing left was the benches,” he said, and after a phone call to the owner he took those as well.[2]’

    There’s a lot more at the museum than just tools, including the The River Don Steam Engine, still working and demonstrated. This engine’s power is 12,000 hp! You can see it on YouTube.
    It’s fascinating stuff, however it’s also tinged with a sadness that it’s now the subject of a museum rather than the thriving trade and livelihood it once was.

  20. I had the privilege to look through the contents of an English style tool chest that had been unopened since before WWI.

    It was probably collected over 2 generations. There was a full set of wooden planes from coffin smoother throug a 30” joints, but also Stanley numbers 4, 45, and 78, dozens of chisels and auger bits, and a massive timber framers slick.

    A bit of tarnish, but no rust. Everything was as sharp as the day they had been packed away and dropped off on some aunt’s porch in Michigan.

  21. Personally I don’t hold with worshipping or mothballing woodworking tools in a museum. They were made to be used, and should be. Loved, cared for, and valued of course, but above all used. Many of those who made furniture in previous centuries hadn’t the luxury of an armoury of fine tools from makers that are now eagerly sought out by collectors and (some) woodworkers alike. Many had the basic tools and made, borrowed or made-do. That didn’t stop them turning out some of the finest work we’ll ever see.
    It’s the marriage of the tool to hand and eye, and the skills picked up through practice that I hold dear. I have a pretty motley collection of hand tools, including one or two shop-made ones (thanks Paul), and although I have a nice set of Sorby chisels, more often than not I find that the chisel I’m using is one of three yellow-handled Marple chisels bought nearly 50 years ago now. Likewise with bench planes; only 4-5 Stanley and Marple ones – including the cheapest Stanley with plastic handles that belonged to my Dad. He was no woodworker, and I looked down my nose at it when I acquired it when he died. Yet that plane iron holds a truly excellent and long-lasting edge despite it getting some of the roughest work to do.

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