Buy Vintage

February 9, 2012 Comments Off on Buy Vintage

If you are ready to buy woodworking tools, one of the first considerations is whether you should go new or old. Most people like new things. New is clean, shiny, and the assumption is that it will work correctly right off the bat. If there were no difference in quality between the two, only cost would prohibit us from buying new almost every time. One could argue that woodworking hand tools being made today by a variety of boutique tool makers are as fine a quality as has ever been produced. These hand tools are being made to last generations, and as woodworkers we are all fortunate to be a part of this resurgence in tool making. But if a tool needs to be plugged into an outlet to make it work, nine times out of ten I would vote to buy vintage.

Power tools used to be made to last generations as well. If you are on your third cordless drill/driver in the last ten years, that statement might seem completely unbelievable. (My Dad’s corded American made Black and Decker drill – 35 years and still going strong). American manufacturing in the first half of the twentieth century produced some of the finest woodworking machinery ever made (many would argue the finest machines, period). They were built heavy, strong, and meant to be the last machine of its type you would ever need to buy. For a myriad of reasons American manufacturing declined in the last 50 years, and much of the work was shipped overseas. As price competition took hold, machinery was built with less quality control and lower-grade materials. This resulted in power tools that were meant to be used up after several years and thrown away. Even their parts are hardly worth salvaging.

Woodworking forums on the web are full of strong opinions about power tools. Many people become brand loyal, and stock their shop with tools from only one or two manufacturers. And then they get on the web and staunchly defend them. Most of the time the argument is over the usual suspects – Porter Cable, DeWalt, Delta, Grizzly, Powermatic, Jet, Bosch, etc. For me, there isn’t much difference between these companies. Some of them used to build their tools in the U.S., but almost all have since moved their production overseas for a lower price point (and lower quality). I’ve used a vintage Powermatic tool that looked horrible. And I’ve used a shiny new Powermatic. Even to my untrained eye there was no comparison – the vintage one was more solid and ran smoother (and quieter). They don’t make them like they used to.

If you are ready for a power tool purchase, I would suggest that you consider a vintage machine. There are some disadvantages. You may have to wait for the one you want. You can’t go to Woodcraft tomorrow and walk out with a Crescent bandsaw. Except in rare cases, you will have some cleanup to do with vintage machines, and you may have to replace a few parts. I don’t see this as necessarily a bad thing, though. I’m currently restoring a vintage Rockwell Delta bandsaw and a Walker Turner drill press. By taking them apart and giving everything a good cleaning, I’m better learning how these tools work. It also allows you to identify any parts that might need replacing. And with the track record of some new machines, maybe those should be taken apart and inspected after purchase as well. One other disadvantage might have to do with your shop location. Vintage machinery was typically made with cast iron – heavy, stable, and built to last forever. That’s a good thing, until you have to lug that behemoth down to your basement shop. I’ve decided against a table saw for my shop. Mostly for the safety reasons, but also because I don’t see any joy in trying to muscle a cabinet saw into my basement. A planer will also be a difficult decision for me. Part of me (well, most of me) wants a 400 lb vintage Delta or Rockwell stationary planer. The more practical part of me realizes that a Makita lunchbox planer will be far easier to manage in my shop. Below are pictures of some of my vintage tools in various stages of restoration. Worth every penny.

More:
If you are considering a vintage tool purchase, the very first place you should go is VintageMachinery.org. Besides being the repository for the most comprehensive information on vintage machines, the pictures of tool restorations are truly inspirational, and a testimony to the enduring quality of our once great manufacturing. You could easily kill an afternoon on this site.

Jameel Abraham shows off his exquisite restoration of a vintage Powermatic drill press here.

On the hand tool side of things, this mitre box restoration by Brendan Dahl is to be envied.

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