This is a topic I’ve thought about quite a bit over the past year.
For background, I’ve been involved with buying and selling tools for over 20 years. Over that time I’ve seen different types of tools rise and fall in popularity. I remember early on big wide crown molding planes were popular, while at the same time handsaws were often relegated to the “$5 each” piles at swap meets. Back then British molding planes got almost no attention at all. Anvils were fairly cheap (I bought my Peter Ross for less than $2/lb and that was considered expensive!). Over the last 20 years we’ve seen significant changes in the tool market.
Collectible tools are always popular. Collectors want the best or the rarest tools. I’m not going to talk about collectible tools here. Almost all of my interest in vintage tools is related to working tools or “user tools”. User tools are the vast majority of the what’s out there.. User tools are what has been driving the market. The price of user tools has risen slowly and steadily over the past 10 years or so, mainly due to the influx of new woodworkers who want hand tools for their shops. Thanks to the Internet people are finding communities of like-minded folks to share their hobbies with and learn from. This has makes it easier for new people to get involved. This is much welcome, and not a surpise to anyone reading this blog.
What happened over the past year was a surprise. The pandemic changed everything. People were home and looking for things to do with their newly found free time. This resulted in a huge increase in the interest in woodworking, and almost every other hobby. I experienced this phenomenon here at home myself. Last spring it was almost impossible to find a new bike for the kids, a chess set, roller hockey skates, baking yeast, plant seeds, etc. The demand skyrocketed and the supply chains couldn’t keep up.
So, what happened with vintage tools? Simple supply and demand economics meant that the prices went up, some drastically. The most obvious example is the price of vintage hand planes. I see decent Stanley planes selling for more than twice what they were just two years ago. Decent handsaws, (especially backsaws), are both very hard to find and much more expensive. Basic, essential tools like layout tools, chisels, auger bits, and are likewise selling for much more than previously. This is compounded by the fact that the few modern makers out there, like Lie-Nielsen and Veritas, have been out of stock of these tools and continue to have long back-order times.
So.. what does this mean for me, as a tool dealer, and you, my loyal and much-appreciated customers?
From my perspective I believe I need to re-think how I price some of my tools. I always try to sell tools at a price I would pay if I needed that tool. I think my internal tool price-guide is still stuck where it was 10 years ago. Take that ubiquitous Stanley plane for example: Lately I’ve been shocked when I see a nice Stanley no. 4 or 5 plane sell for $100. At first I thought it might be a blip in the market, or an overzealous pair of auction bidders. I’ve seen it enough now to understand that’s probably the new norm. I realize I need to adjust my price expectations. If I can pay more for tools I will have more tools available for sale. This isn’t about profit-My profit margin on Stanley planes, whether I buy them outright or sell them on commission, is very small. That’s fine with me. I make money through scale and efficiency, not mark-up.
What does that mean for you? I think you’ll see somewhat higher prices for some tools- especially planes and saws. I think molding planes, most edge tools, and other tools will stay pretty stable with maybe a modest increase for the best of them.
Whether this will be a long-term trend or just a passing phase I’m not sure. More than a year on and it’s still very hard to find a bicycle for sale. Will the surge in demand result in a glut of used bikes in a year or two? Will there be a similar glut of woodworking tools on the market? We’ll have to wait and see. For now this is the new normal.
Overall I’m very optimistic. As a woodworker and tool collector I love seeing so many new people getting involved in woodworking. A new generation of people interested in woodworking means that the tools I have in my shop will have value should I get hit by the proverbial bus at some point in the future.
That’s my take. I’d love to hear what you think.