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Posted by Kevin Stevens | Feb 10, 2011

15 Old Tools That Are Better Than New

Kevin Stevens explains which tools were made better back in the day.

Photo: Minimalist Photography/Flickr.When I was growing up I spent hours exploring the nooks and crannies of my grandfather’s workshop.  As a depression era individual, he knew the value of things, and much to my grandmother’s dismay, he tended to collect a wide variety of things.  Years later, when I was in college, I was given a hand full of some of these tools, and when the time comes I hope to pass them on to my children, or future grandchildren.

Small Hand Tools

One of the many tasks my grandfather did to earn a living was watch and clock repair.  Deep in the recesses of that workbench, I recovered a pair of tools I still use today:

  • Jewelers Saw:  This tool is one of my favorites with a sturdy L shaped frame and a smooth wooden handle, it has a nice balance and can be adjusted to take small saw blades. I have not seen anything available new that even comes close.
  • Planishing Hammer:  This little tool again has perfect balance and a time smoothed wooden handle. A hammer never really wears out so the life left in this could easily outlive me or my kids.

Other Carpenter’s Gems

 

  • Hand Planes: Back in the day, Stanley was a leading manufacturer in bench and block planes. Today, some high-end companies are reproducing these classics.  One of these companies is Lie Nielsen. Their No.4 bench plane, in bronze, will set you back about $350. I broke down and bought one, and it is a dream to use. However, a tool like this bouncing about in the back of my truck would be disrespectful. So I looked into a less costly alternative. The modern Stanley No. 4 lists for about $75 and features a plastic tote and front knob, but plastic just doesn’t work for me.  I found an old Stanley No. 4, with original wood handles, on E-bay for less than $40. With a little TLC, its now the hand plane of choice in my truck.
  • The 4’ Wooden Level:  This workhorse in the carpenter’s field can last for generations when cared for. New units may have bright yellow aluminum bodies and integrated lasers, but a spirit bubble works just fine and it does not need batteries.
  • Plumb Bob: Like a hammer, these don’t really wear out. Older classics were often engraved and highlighted with bronze. Modern versions are often cheap Chinese castings.
  • Framing Square:  I have two of these. The first one I got was made from yellow plastic, and it lasted about a year.  Its replacement in machined aluminum is now over ten years old. This was another E-bay find, and unless I lose it, it will last forever.
  • Bench Chisels: Steel quality dictates how well an edge tool will stay sharp. Back when things were hand sharpened on oil or wet stones, this quality was obvious.  Most modern versions have plastic handles and wimpy steel, so keeping these sharp is a real challenge.
  • Brace and Bit:  This was the precursor to the cordless drill. They are lightweight and they never needed charging. After spending $89 for a new pair of batteries for my 18V cordless, one of these may be in my future.
  • Bevel Gauge: In their prime, these tools were often made with rosewood and brass. The modern versions are plastic and basic steel. High end modern reproductions are out there, but you are going to pay dearly for them.

Power Tools

  • The Hand Drill: My grandfather’s hand drill was made by Black and Decker.  They still make tools today, however, I have never seen one with a solid machined aluminum body.  This drill had a few nicks and scratches but was generally built like a tank. 
  • Table Saw: My grandfather’s table saw was a full sized 3 to 5 Hp cabinet saw and had about an acre of cast iron for its top. With that much mass, the thing must have been as stable as a mountain. The table saw in my shop, by comparison, has some cast iron, but the rest of the top is melamine-covered particle board. I missed a big opportunity there when my grandmother “cleaned up” years after he passed away.

Architectural Items and Furniture

  • Doors: The saying, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” applies to more that just tools and machines. Last week I was resetting a door at a client’s home that was not closing properly.  The modern door consisted of a molded vinyl skin on a particle board and MDF core.  Back in the day, this would have been a solid wood 6-panel door with mortise and tenon construction.

Some other old classics include:

  • Mantles: When the fireplace was a focal point and provided the home’s heat, mantles were often elaborate works of art with turned posts, and dentil molding.  Modern versions are often set above a gas or electric image of a fire and are comprised of painted MDF. 
  • Claw Foot Tubs: 300 to 400 pounds of enameled cast iron…or 60 pounds of acrylic? Installation may be harder with some of these old guys but a classic look is worth it.  Modern reproductions can run into the thousands, while plenty of originals still exist at prices most can afford.
  • The Highboy Dresser:  In another 150 years or so, I doubt the Antique’s Road Show will still be showing on PBS, but the classic furniture of the 18th and 19th century will still be around.  While the modern Ikea equivalent, with its vinyl wood print veneer set on particleboard, will be moldering away in some buried and forgotten landfill.

I’m glad we live in today’s era, where we have the ability to choose. Many modern devices can perform circles around their former counterparts, and often make the best choice.  But we still can select classics from the past if so inclined. New is good, but sometimes old is better.

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