One of the more hotly debated topics among woodworkers is the choice between purchasing a tool new or vintage. To me the debate is mainly pointless because in the end most woodworkers end up with a mix of the two. The real question is which tools should be purchased new, and which should be purchased pre-owned, and that is where I come in.
For the sake of brevity, I’m going to leave off items such as screw drivers and hammers, and stick with only the big guns: Hand planes, table saw, hand saws, chisels, and a handful of others. I understand that this topic has been covered ad hominem and in depth, and I likely have touched on it myself. This list, however, will be my definitive entry based on all of the experience I have acquired. What makes my list different? I have absolutely nothing to gain; I am not trying to make a sale or push a specific tool. I am only trying to help.
I’ll start off with the big three bench planes: smoother, jack, jointer. I own all three, with the smoother and jack being purchased new and the jointer being vintage. All three are excellent tools and I have no complaints with any of them. But if I could start over, I would do the exact opposite and purchase vintage jack and smoother planes, and a new jointer. Why? The jack and smoother planes are by far the most common hand planes on the vintage market. Often, high quality versions of each tool can be found easily for less than a hundred dollars. In fact, I’ve seen many nice examples in the $65 dollar range, which is less than a quarter of the cost of a new tool. Of course you will likely need to do some restoration on these tools, but these tools are the easiest of the bench planes to restore. A vintage jointer, on the other hand, can cost close to $200 for a decent tool, and that tool will likely still need some work. Good jointers are not as easy to find on the vintage market. And if one has twist in it’s sole it is near impossible to fix by hand. A high quality new jointer can be purchased for around $100 more than the cost of a vintage model, and it will come with a guarantee.
As far as panel saws, a rip filed panel saw is probably the best tool to purchase the vintage route. Rip saws are the easiest to re-sharpen for beginners (in fact, I would recommend practicing saw sharpening on a rip filed saw). And there are still a decent number of rip saws on the vintage market. As far as a cross-cut saw is concerned, I would purchase a good quality new saw before going the vintage route. Cross-cut saws are not nearly as easy to restore as a rip saw. It’s best to have a new saw that was professionally filed and set.
When it comes to back saws, I would stick with all new saws. There are still good back saws on the vintage market, but the problem is that they are often the same cost as a new model. In my experience, most decent backsaws on the vintage market are more “collector” tools than “user” tools. There are many high quality new back saw makers, and the price for them is generally reasonable enough to not even consider a vintage tool.
Purchasing a table saw either used or new is a tough call. You can get a good quality, woodworking table saw for between $600 and $1000. You can also go much higher, in particular if you go the Sawstop route (which I would never discourage). I’ve seen used, good quality cabinet saws cost between $300 and $500. The problem here is two-fold. Firstly, it is not easy to just eye up a table saw and know if it was abused. Electric motor problems are not simple to diagnose, and could crop up at anytime. Secondly, for the most part if you are purchasing a pre-owned table saw you will likely have to find one in your region, because the chances of finding a seller who is willing to take the saw apart and crate it up for shipping are slim to none.
Chisels I can go either route. I’ve seen some good quality vintage tools for a decent price, and I’ve seen some real junk. Luckily, it is not difficult to find good chisels both new and used, and it is easy to put together a mixed set.
Block planes are another example of newer is better. Almost every vintage block plane I’ve come across looks like it was used as a framing hammer. The good quality vintage tools are disproportionately expensive for what they are. I’ve heard some say that the vintage blocks are better, but I can’t imagine any being as good as my LN, and that tool was no more than many high quality vintage tools I’ve seen.
If you use a brace and bits, you want to go vintage. Vintage braces are a dime a dozen, inexpensive, and easy to restore. The same goes for vintage bits. Good quality new bits are expensive, and I’ve never come across a new brace that is as good as a vintage one.
Spoke shaves, on the other hand, I would only purchase new (or if you’re as stupid as me you can try to make a few). Every vintage spoke shave I’ve ever seen has been beat to hell. A new, high quality spoke shave is not overly expensive, and it comes with no worries. Are there good, vintage versions out there? Probably, but I’ve never seen one.
Joinery planes such as a router plane and a plow plane I would only purchase new. Here, I will name a specific brand and say that Veritas offers great tools, fully guaranteed, and very high quality. Vintage joinery planes that are in decent shape usually are the same price as a new tool. And trust me, when it comes to these tools, the newer versions are better than the vintage versions in every way.
The last tool I’ll mention is a high quality square. Once again, there are some good quality versions on the vintage market, and once again they are pricey. Good quality new squares aren’t cheap either. In this case I am on the fence, but if I had to choose one over the other I would probably stick to the new tool route. To name another brand, Starrett still makes great squares, and they are not much more in cost than their vintage cousins. As I’ve said with other tools, in this case you are getting a new tool that comes with a guarantee from the maker. You’re not getting that with a vintage tool.
I could mention tools such as a coping saw, marking gauges/knives, and so on, but I’ll stop here. My list covers most of the major woodworking tools, so I’ll leave it at that. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not an expert. But you can trust me that this list and the logic behind it is sound. Whether or not you choose to heed this advice is completely up to you.