Buying Guide For Secondhand Tools

Secondhand tools can save you money without sacrificing quality. Learn how to find bargains on used, but useful tools.
Old Secondhand Pliers

Old Secondhand Pliers

Buying used, or secondhand, is something that never really goes out of style, but it's certainly more popular now, considering the current condition of the economy and that frugality is now more common. People are usually quite proud of themselves when they score a good deal on a used tool. And buying secondhand is considered green because the item is given new life.

But how do you find good-quality used items, and how do you know you're not overpaying?

Old Hand Saw Still Has Life

Old Hand Saw Still Has Life

Buying brand name tools doesn't always assure that you will get a good deal but it helps. Quality tools like this hand saw may have years of serviceable life left in them. Do your homework to know the most reputable places to find deals on good, old hand and power tools.

Start With Research

If you are completely unfamiliar with tool brands and the features available on tools, do a little research. Visit the websites for Sears, The Home Depot, Lowe's, Menards, True Value, Ace Hardware or any retailer that sells tools, and take a look at their new selections. Most websites organize tools in a straightforward way so you can easily find what you're looking for.

Head to a local store to get a firsthand look – many tools will be on display and out of the box so you can actually pick them up. You'll see the most-recent models, from low-end to top-of-the-line. Make notes on the prices and available features (especially relating to safety). This is your base from which to work when evaluating prices.

Keep in mind that these retailers may also have tools on clearance or closeout – items that are going to be discontinued, have been returned or are refurbished. We'll discuss that more later.
The next step is to look at online auction sites, such as eBay, to get an idea of prices for used tools. This gets a bit tricky because you'll need to really look at the age and condition of the tools as described by the seller. But again, make notes for a range of features and prices. Don't try to list everything you see – just make a list of price ranges for the tools, with notes on the variances in relation to brand. For example, for circular saws that range in price from $30 to $60, jot down what separates the bottom-priced tool from the top.

Head over to pawnshops as well. Pawnshops only buy items they know they can turn around and sell, so they won't have tools that don't work (everything they purchase is tested), and a pawnshop won't carry poor-quality brands. Also, the prices will accurately reflect the current value of tools in the marketplace. Make sure you visit operations that are members of the National Pawnbrokers Association, as these businesses abide by a code of ethics established by the association.

There isn't an official “blue book” for tools, but one site does tout itself as being a “blue book” for various items, including power tools: You can look up tools by brand and model. It's a subscription service, so it might only be worth subscribing if you're considering purchasing a premium tool.

Name Does Matter

Now that you have an idea of what you'll expect to pay, it's time to consider how you'll evaluate and decide what to buy.

First, consider brand. As with anything else, many folks have their own preferred brand, which they think is superior to everything else. To each his own. But, when considering secondhand tools, a recognizable brand is vital.

As a brand-new purchase, the entry-level bench-top models, which may range in price from $80 to $130, aren't necessarily a bad choice. But unless they're still sealed in the original box, these tools probably aren't the best to purchase secondhand. The same goes for some cordless combo kits, which usually contain two to four tools and sell for about $100. And certainly steer clear of used store-brand tools from discount operations, such as Harbor Freight's Chicago Electric Power Tools. Again, for a novice or as a backup tool, these may be sufficient, but they will probably have outlived their capacity by the time they're sold as used.

New Chainsaws

New Chainsaws

As a brand-new purchase, the entry-level bench-top models, which may range in price from $80 to $130, aren't necessarily a bad choice. But unless they're still sealed in the original box, these tools probably aren't the best to purchase secondhand.

Brands of power tools you can trust and that hold not only their value but also capacity include DeWalt, Bosch, Ridgid, Makita, Milwaukee (all considered “job site” tools and used by the pros), Hitachi, Porter-Cable, Skil and Delta. Skil or “Skilsaw” is often used interchangeable for a circular saw, which tells you how recognizable and respected it is for that function. Delta, in its own way, is regarded as the woodworking brand. For outdoor power equipment, brands such as Husqvarna, Poulan and Stihl are all good choices when looking for used tools.

Be an Inspector

On corded power tools, examine the electrical and basic mechanics of the tool. Aside from plugging it in and turning it on, thoroughly inspect the cord. Look for any visible defects, such as a crimp (what looks like a big dent), or if the cord is bent at a severe angle. A thick wad of electrical tape will be a big tip-off that something might not be right. Also take a look at where the cord meets the tool to see if it's heavily worn or loose. Closely examine the prongs of the plug. A slight bend on one of the prongs isn't a big deal, but if the metal looks heavily worn at the bend, it may be close to failure. And don't forget to check out the switch to see if it is loose or cracked.

Cordless tools present their own challenge. If you've ever looked at the price of replacement batteries, you know they can be quite pricey. Some are very expensive in relation to the cost of a new tool and can be as much as half or more of the cost of a new tool. Plus, it's hard to tell if the battery will hold its charge for any length of time. Sure, it may work fine in the short time you test it, but it's difficult to determine if it will hold a charge for longer than a few minutes. Only opt for cordless tools that you know are at most a couple of years old. Refurbished units are your best bet here.

Old Repaired Electrical Drill

Old Repaired Electrical Drill

On corded power tools, examine the electrical and basic mechanics of the tool. Look for any visible defects, such as a crimp (what looks like a big dent), or if the cord is bent at a severe angle. A thick wad of electrical tape will be a big tip-off that something might not be right. Also take a look at where the cord meets the tool to see if it's heavily worn or loose.

With both corded and cordless power tools, be sure all the parts and guards are there. It's a bonus if the case and operating manual are included (although you may be able to find a copy of the manual on a tool manufacturer's website). You can easily find replacement accessories, such as saw blades, for many tools because the standards for accessory sizes are pretty consistent.

While you can't exactly take a small screwdriver and dismantle a power tool to look at its inner workings, you can search for a few telltale signs that all may not be well. Be prepared to use all five senses.

Take at look at the motor vent area of the tool (which looks like little slits in the housing). Ideally, you want this to be free of any sort of dirt, grime or buildup – a tall order for a used tool, but a good indication of how well it has been maintained. While inspecting this area, look for any burn marks or smoke trails (take a peek at the switch area as well). These would be clear indications that there's been an electrical problem. But just in case the evidence of a fire has been cleaned up, give the vent area the old sniff test for odor of smoke.

Keep the focus on this area and turn on the tool. You don't want to see smoke or sparks emitting from the housing. Notice how the tool feels in your hand while it's running. Look for intermittent operation or jerkiness. Yes, a power tool will vibrate in your hand, but you should be able to control it. If it feels like the tool could jump right out of your hand, there could be issues. Listen to the tool. Is it making erratic sounds or grating noises? Think back to other tools of the same type you're inspecting. Does the used tool sound significantly different?

You can look for specific things such as the movement of the blade in a circular saw or table saw. With the tool off and unplugged, move the blade around to see if there is a significant wobble to its motion. An old blade may be the culprit, but the arbor (the metal rod on which the blade is attached to the saw) may be bent. It would be difficult to replace and not worth purchasing the tool.

Old Belt Sander

Old Belt Sander

Old electrical tools, like this old belt sander will need a bit more scrutiny to see if it's worth investing time and money in. You will need to look for tell-tale signs that the equipment may have experienced an malfunction or an electrical short during its lifetime.

With every power tool, inspect the housing for missing assembly screws. This could simply be a missing screw or an indication that the tool has been disassembled, which means it's either been inspected for problems or had parts replaced.

You may want to think of some power tools as off-limits when it comes to secondhand purchases, or at least have the expectation that you may not get a lot of life from them. These would be tools that do heavy-duty or specialty work, such as tile saws, hammer drills or stump grinders. These are often difficult to find on the used market, as they are typically kept for longer periods of time and until they are no longer useful. It's often better to rent these specialty tools.

Hand tools are a lot easier to judge in person than power tools, as it is pretty much a “what you see is what you get” situation. As long as they are in good condition, don't have cracks or massive buildups of corrosion or rust, and don't have moving parts that are frozen, you'll most likely have a good tool. However, you will do better if you stick with recognizable brands, such as Stanley or Craftsman, rather than a tool with no brand identification at all.

Where To Buy

You can start your shopping by revisiting some of the places you accessed when doing your research. Clearly you'll save money on shipping if you go to a local operation or an individual. Remember to test and examine tools closely no matter where you shop.

As mentioned earlier, pawnshops are a good bet for buying tools. You're going to find better-known brands that are probably on the higher end of the quality and price spectrum. Although, you're going to have little to no negotiating room on price compared to if you were buying from an individual.

Thrift Stores
A thrift store may be a little less reliable for quality, and you'll probably find a lot less availability, especially at a thrift store that obtains its wares through donation. However, those that aren't donation-based aren't going to want to develop a bad reputation by selling inferior items.

Live Auctions
Check local notices for potential auctions in your area. You may have a good chance of finding quality tools, but “auction fever” may set in, and you could wind up overpaying if you are bid up. These may be a good source for large equipment.

Vintage Carpenter's Planes

Vintage Carpenter's Planes

With a new or sharpened blade, these old hand planes can have new life. Garage sales and even pawn shops are great sources for good but serviceable tools like these planes.

Garage Sales
You could score the best deal at a garage sale, as the seller may be less likely to know the value of the tools being sold. Sellers will also be more open to price negotiation, and you can offer a bundle price for several items. Quality is going to be your biggest concern, so look these tools over really well.

Flea Markets
These are similar to garage sales when it comes to negotiating, but the seller at a flea market will probably be more knowledgeable on price. Some flea market vendors have access to surplus or closeout suppliers, so you could see a potential mix of newer and older tools that haven't sold well at retail.

Search online or newspaper classifieds under the equipment and tools categories. You may see a set or combination of tools listed as one price, which can be a good deal. As with garage sales, look these tools over carefully.

Websites offering tools are almost too numerous to mention, but eBay is certainly one that comes to mind. Check the seller ratings and reviews when shopping on auction sites. You'll also want to take a look at Amazon, which offers a lot of items, both new and used., for example, has surplus items and may be a good source for refurbished items. You can often get limited warranties.

Speaking of refurbished items, you may do well by looking at the clearance aisles at hardware stores and home centers. Sometimes they will heavily discount tools that have been returned. Check the reason for the return because it can be merely cosmetic.

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