The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Old and busted vs new hotness

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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.

 

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8 Comments

  1. Wesley Beal says:

    I’d vote for vintage for rip and crosscut hand or panel saws. Even though it’s harder to sharpen a crosscut saw, it’s a skill worth learning. Short of that, there are still a few people you can send a saw to and get it restored and sharpened. That service plus the cost of the old saw comes out to less than a new saw. And odds are quite high that it will be a higher quality saw than a new one. Very few new saws have taper ground blades.

    Another advantage is that old saws are very common. Chances are you can collect a half dozen, and determine which one you like the feel of best. Buying a new tool of high quality either means making a trip someplace likely far away, or buying without trying it out and having a feel for it first. I’m fine with doing that based on the reputation of some of the makers out there. Still, it’s nicer if you can get a feel for a tool first.

    • billlattpa says:

      I agree with you at this point. I’m more or less thinking of somebody who had just started. I may just be slow, but it took me several years before I finally sharpened a cross-cut saw, and probably another 6 months before I was actually decent at it. But you are absolutely correct in that a new, high quality panel saw can be very pricey. I’ve used the LN versions at their hand tool events and they are just awesome (I will purchase one when they come back around this coming Fall) but a newbee probably doesn’t want to shell out $200 for his first hand saw.

      I’ve noticed that vintage back saws are more difficult to find on the open market. For something half decent they seem to be pricey. A woodworker can pick up a dovetail saw, carcass saw, and tenon saw all new from Veritas for about $200, and those are high quality tools.

      Like you, I like to handle a new tool before I purchase it, which is why I attend the LN handtool events whenever they are in the area, because many other vendors are usually there along with them. We also have a Woodcraft around 40 miles from my house. It’s not what I would call close, but it’s close enough that I can go there to check out a tool if need be. Truthfully I the only thing I purchase there is wood, and small portions at that (mainly stuff for making planes, tools, handles, etc.)

      Thanks
      Bill

  2. Well done Bill. You’ve explained your preference and experience in one blog post. Some need a whole book. Kudos!

    • billlattpa says:

      Thank you buddy! Woodworking isn’t rocket science (is it?) I’m sure there are swap meets and such where good quality vintage tools are much easier to find. I’m speaking very broadly here, because region to region things can obviously change. But I like to think that my logic here is pretty sound.
      Bill

  3. David says:

    Interesting. For me the vintage or new idea is more about how to get the vintage tool. I have all vintage except chisels and some Veritas back saws.I have found everything at flea markets. Since I’m directly buying it, the tool is pretty cheap. I mean really cheap! If I was buying this tool online or from another tool seller, it gets more expensive. The price goes up the more hands that deal with it, then I could see more of a debate between vintage or new. For me, I like wooden planes over metal so new isn’t much of a viable option, plus I would never pay $200-300 for a plane. I do find some romantic notion with a vintage tool too. Especially if it has owners name stamped on it!

    • billlattpa says:

      I love vintage tools myself. The problem is that they aren’t as common in this region as they should be. Flea markets are the way to go, but they can be hit or miss. In the Midwest I hear that vintage tool shows/swaps are much more common than in my area.
      I prefer wood planes as well, but they are very scarce here, and like you pointed out, a new wooden plane costs as much or more than a new plane made of iron.
      I enjoy the restoration process as well. I’ve found myself drawn to vintage saws, and they seem to be plentiful both here and elsewhere.
      Thanks
      Bill

  4. TaDa Man says:

    I have actually split the difference in a few cases. Both my large router plane (Stanley #71) and my spokeshaves (Record A151 smooth and round bottom) I found as vintage NOS (New Old Stock) so they are old tools that are still new. The balance I drew was I was able to buy these tools in new condition for the same or less than buying a new tool. My Stanley #71 was about $20 cheaper than a new Veritas and it was 100% complete, all the cutters and accessory bits including the box. The Record A151 spokeshaves I think are a bit of a special case because they are made with ductile iron and are equivalent to a Stanley 151M which I don’t think are made anymore and definitely sell for a premium on eBay.

    So far I have built up a good set of hand tools and only paid more than $100 each for my vice and Stanley #71 hand router. I have mostly vintage tools with the exception of the Veritas apron plane, Veritas dovetail saw, and Veritas small router plane (Stanley #271 size). Those three new tools at the time were cheaper than a similar quality vintage tool so they seemed to provide a better value.

    At the end of the day, buy what you feel is the best tool for your needs at the best price.

    With everything in life YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

    • billlattpa says:

      I’m always on the lookout for NOS. The only glaring new vs vintage tools I’ve really come across are backsaws. It’s seems that for some reason a vintage backsaw in decent shape is priced very close to the cost of a new tool. Backsaws have come a long way, and luckily there are several good makers out there. Router planes can still be gotten on the vintage market for a decent price, but that cost is rising. Plow planes in good shape are often more expensive than a new Veritas.
      Like you, I pretty much have s blend of old and new. And I kind of like it that way.
      Thanks
      Bill

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