The Value of Old Tools  

Joshua Munchow writes about the value of old tools, why they deserve to be resurrected, and getting them into good shape again.

The Value of Old Tools

submitted by Joshua Munchow



Antique starrett needs a facelift


The value of old tools, why they deserve to be resurrected, and getting them into good shape again

Old tools. If you are like me, those two words may have just given you a shiver down your spine and a glint in your eye. I have a true soft spot for old tools for a variety of reasons: they were made better, looked cooler, they have a history behind them. But really, the reason I absolutely love old tools is because, in many cases, you can pick them up for pennies on the dollar if not free and with a little bit of work in restoration, have a better, longer lasting tool than one you could buy new.

There are people who devote their lives to restoring old tools, and with the internet taking over commerce as much as it has, there can be a lucrative business built around it. But for the model maker, home machinist, heck, even the typical “dad with a shed”, spending time saving old tools can be a rewarding hobby and money-saving endeavor. Sometimes, when it comes to precision machinery, restoration can be the only way to obtain certain pieces of equipment that simply aren’t made anymore and are getting rarer by the year.


Before and after

Thanks to the internet (or perhaps, sadly, because of), it is not as easy as it once was to find the hidden gems of equipment that need restoring and are just sitting idly in a barn or a widow's basement. Still, garage sales, flea markets, auctions, business closings, Craigslist, and eBay are fantastic places to find old tools that deserve a second shot at life. The process of restoring a tool or piece of equipment can also build a bond with that tool, or at the very least, an intimate understanding of how it is made, how it works, and what to look out for when buying other similar tools.

I have restored a few tools in the past; a rusty sledgehammer found on the side of the road, an old Stanley plane that was passed down from my grandfather, to my father, to me, and even an old set of screwdrivers that needed refinishing and reshaping of the tips. The effort required to bring the tools back to life was miniscule compared to how much use I have gotten out of them since reviving them. The patience learned from restoring old tools has even helped with repairs of newer equipment, and with the setup of new tools. It gave me the understanding of what to pay attention to when working on anything.


Tools of restoration

A few years ago, in our company shop, I needed to repair and replace a bunch of components on a Delta drill press, including the main spindle. I knew that if I took the time to do it right and focus on getting the components as close to perfect as possible, the drill press would not only function well again, it could function better than it ever had. This led me a couple years later to purchase a brand new, inexpensive, imported drill press with the understanding that I would need to completely disassemble it, replace a couple of easy components, and refinish some others. Most people would simply want to invest in a better machine to begin with, but I knew that since I was on a budget, for the price I could turn it into a decent machine with a little patience and care.

And you know what? The finished drill press functioned better than any person online thought it could, it even compared to machinery many times its price. And that was only because I had learned the value of restoring old tools, and applied it to other machinery.

Now, I am undertaking one of my biggest restorations yet, a 60-year-old precision Swiss watchmakers lathe complete with accessories. It isn’t in complete disrepair and it functioned when I bought it, but the previous owner hadn’t used it in over a year while letting it sit in a barn open to the elements. Needless to say, many of the components are rusted, including both of the precision chucks, the dividing attachment, dual cross-slide, tail stock, and tooling. Paint is chipping, many of the collets are in need of refinishing or cleaning, and the entire machine needs readjusting to ensure it still is within tolerance.


Lathe needs some work

I was lucky though, as the owner that the previous owner acquired it from had written a letter (yes, a letter) back in 1994 to the manufacturer, Simonet, inquiring about all the tolerance specs and where to acquire parts. This led to a response from the company with a spec sheet for the specific lathe (serial number and all!) for the purpose of maintenance, setup, and restoration. This is almost unheard of these days as many of the manufacturers of old tools and equipment haven’t been in business for decades.

So with that in hand, and a great amount of patience I have begun the process. I’ve started with the chucks and accessories, and will finish with the main lathe headstock and bed. By that time, after working with all the smaller precision components, I will have handled, inspected, and likely refinished nearly every piece from head to tail (stock). If I am successful, then I will have turned a “good deal for what it is” into a machine worth much more.


Letter from the manufacturer

Old-school Swiss

But it’s not about the money, it’s about the value. An exquisitely-made tool or machine that, with proper care, will outlast you, is what all tool addicts search for. If you can create that with a little elbow grease, some files and abrasives, careful inspection and assembly, and a huge helping of patience, you would be mad to pass that up. Knowing that old tools and machinery have literally been thrown away or recycled for scrap metal money is hard enough, so taking the responsibility to give tools another lease on life is the best response I can think of.

Perhaps you don’t have the time or desire to restore an old tool, but chances are you know someone that would. So don’t ditch that old drill, don’t chuck that old chuck, and don’t hurl that old hammer. Save them, use them, pass them on. Find the joy in restoring an old tool or piece of machinery, it really is a great investment.


 Joshua Munchow 

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