9 Tips for Buying Used Woodworking Tools

Getting second-hand tools is a great way to get good tools and save some dough.

By: Dan Lipe

Looking around the shop, I have to say that a majority of my machines and at least 2/3 of my hand tools are second-hand. One of the first tools I purchased for myself was a second-hand table saw. A buddy of mine had bought the floor model for a good price and had lightly used it for a few years, mostly cutting wood for his blossoming letterpress business. It was missing the blade guard, but for the most part is a solid entry level tool. I say “is" because I still have it 10+ years later. Here are a few tips from what I’ve learned in the process of buying used tools.

Used Woodworking hand tools ready for sale.

Used Woodworking hand tools ready for sale.

Photo by: Photo by Dan Lipe

Photo by Dan Lipe

You’ll have to replace a part. Or two. Or ten.

The blade on this pocket plane is so pitted from rust there's no saving it, however the body looks like it's workable.

 

Photo by: Photo by Dan Lipe

Photo by Dan Lipe

The blade on this pocket plane is so pitted from rust there's no saving it, however the body looks like it's workable.

 

This is where most purchases come back to bite you: parts. When machine manufacturers get bought, go out of business or introduce a new model, oftentimes parts become difficult to obtain. Depending on the age, parts won’t be available at all and your best bet is a machine shop. My bandsaw is just such a beast. I’ve replaced knobs, the spring, the tires, the cooling blocks, the whole bearing assembly and the blade guard - which I had to modify to even fit right. I’ve spent a ton of energy and some cash on parts to get about to the place where buying a new saw would have been a better choice.

You will likely be trading cost savings for time spent.

I scored this Craftsman table saw for free. This is the second time I've taken it apart, but all it's really needed is a little regular maintenance. 

 

Photo by: Photo by Dan Lipe

Photo by Dan Lipe

I scored this Craftsman table saw for free. This is the second time I've taken it apart, but all it's really needed is a little regular maintenance. 

 

Work is usually the trade-off for price. Instead of paying for a pristine model, your used tool probably has some miles on the motor, a part or two is broken (or missing) and here in the South, it’s rusty. Most of the time some elbow grease will get rid of the rust, a new blade can be purchased at the local hardware store and the plug can be rewired. I got a second-hand table saw for free. It had belonged to the owner's grandfather and the “saw didn’t work”. I did very little rehab on it and still have the saw in service today. I wrote about that little project a few years back.

What condition is the tool in?

I found this Delta 6" jointer on CraigsList for about half of the price new. The blades were still sharp from the factory.

 

Photo by: Photo by Dan Lipe

Photo by Dan Lipe

I found this Delta 6" jointer on CraigsList for about half of the price new. The blades were still sharp from the factory.

 

Machines that have been abused can be easier to spot than hand tools. The first step is giving it a visual inspection. If parts are broken or missing, you’ve got a cue to get a break on the price. Rust can be tricky. Just because there is rust doesn’t mean that the tools is no good. In fact, a perfectly good tool can be hiding under a coat of rust. Try to get a test drive if you can or at least plug in the machine and listen to it run.

Research the tool

This transitional smooting plane looks romantic. It's beautiful, feels nice to use and works like a champ. With a little tune up, it should turn into one of my go-to tools. Even if it doesn't work out, it looks cool enough that I don't feel $15 is a waste.

Photo by: Photo by Dan Lipe

Photo by Dan Lipe

This transitional smooting plane looks romantic. It's beautiful, feels nice to use and works like a champ. With a little tune up, it should turn into one of my go-to tools. Even if it doesn't work out, it looks cool enough that I don't feel $15 is a waste.

It’s not always possible to know exactly what a tool is worth, but if at all possible, know a little something about the manufacturer or the time period in which the tool was made. Buying tools in general (new or used) can yield mixed results. Some companies made stellar tools 60 years ago, but their modern counterparts don’t meet my standards. If you can, arm yourself with a little knowledge about what the tool is supposed do and what maintenance looks like. What does a full rehab take? How much do they typically cost on eBay or on Craigslist? Then you can have a fighting chance on whether you are getting a deal or getting taken. If it feels like junk, walk away.

Have a game plan

Before you head out to the estate sales/garage sales etc., have a plan for what tools you are looking for. The unexpected gem might pop out at you, but for the most part, that box of new wrenches won’t look any better then the last box you bought.

How much should I pay?

This Stanley #80 scraper plane wans't a steal at $15.00 and it didn't have a blade. Knowing what it was and that I was looking for one helped me make the decision to pull the trigger.

 

Photo by: Photo by Dan Lipe

Photo by Dan Lipe

This Stanley #80 scraper plane wans't a steal at $15.00 and it didn't have a blade. Knowing what it was and that I was looking for one helped me make the decision to pull the trigger.

 

That depends (of course it does). Like all things, know how much you are willing to pay. Last year I ran into an estate sale of a tool rehabilitator. I’m not sure he actually worked with the tools, but he sure had a garage full of tools he’d fixed up. They weren’t free by any means. I parted with $50 for a 1960s Stanley #4 smoother. It’s in great shape and is about what they go for on eBay. A brand new one is $70. Considering the five junk planes that came through my door beforehand, it was well worth it. 

Not every tool is a deal

This little jig saw looks cool, but I wasted $20. It about vibrated my hands off and the blade had so much play that it would hit the sides of the foot - thus instantly dulling the blade.

 

Photo by: Photo by Dan Lipe

Photo by Dan Lipe

This little jig saw looks cool, but I wasted $20. It about vibrated my hands off and the blade had so much play that it would hit the sides of the foot - thus instantly dulling the blade.

 

Enough said. Sad to say, but from time to time, you’ll get a lemon. Cut your loses and toss that thing back in the garage sale pile. Or take it to the nearest metal recycling facility.

Just because it’s rusty, doesn’t mean it’s junk

Rust can be removed. The question is "How much metal is left under it?"

 

Photo by: Photo by Dan Lipe

Photo by Dan Lipe

Rust can be removed. The question is "How much metal is left under it?"

 

Most of my hand planes were rusty when I bought them. Well, not the new ones, but I sold those at a garage sale last spring. When you’re inspecting a hand plane, check the mouth (the opening on the bottom). Check for cracks on the sides. You don’t want it if it is cracked. Don’t mind too much about the blade. A deeply pitted blade is no good to you anyway, so assume you’re going to buy a new blade. Buy a new one from Hock or IBS or Lie Neilson. Even if it isn’t pitted, trade that old one in for a great new one. 

Enjoy the heck out of the process

It’s exciting to hunt for tools on CraigsList and in the estate sales listings. It’s fun to meet people and hear their stories. And it’s rewarding when you take that flea market find and turn it into a servicable member of your shop. It’s easy to get frustrated with busted knuckles and broken parts. So at the end of the day, have a good time with it. Take your time, take a breath, and be sure to take photos of the before and after. 

Used Woodworking hand tools ready for sale.

Used Woodworking hand tools ready for sale.

Photo by: Photo by Dan Lipe

Photo by Dan Lipe

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