Tales from the saw sharpening shop: The Pawn Stars Effect

Vern Burke SwiftWater Edge Tool Works

In this post, I’m going to talk about an evil trend in old tools that I used to curse Antiques Roadshow for. Now, as entertaining as shows like Pawn Stars and American Pickers are, they’ve made this even worse.

I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve been out with my refurbed old planes and handsaws on display and had person after person stroll by and comment “Oh, so that’s what my old tools are worth”. Well, in short, NO. These shows convince everyone their old junk is worth a fortune and, after listening to the crowing about how much money the pawn boys and the pickers expect to make, anyone buying this stuff is just trying to take them to the cleaners.

So, here’s a list of why your tools probably aren’t worth what mine are:

1. Mean and unclean. You’re not going to get top prices from anyone for a dirty tool. Rust, pitch, paint splatters, handles painted with house paint and a brush, I think I’ve seen nearly everything that you could coat a plane or a handsaw with. There’s a reason your tools don’t look like mine. It takes time, effort, care, and skill to recover a filthy tool.

2. Amateur cleaning. Vintage blades with a bright polish, etches polished off the blades, tools derusted with naval jelly, sandblasted tools, I think I’ve seen nearly every awful thing someone could do to a tool in the name of making it look pretty. Damage your tool by destroying a delicate etch or original label and that’s what you have, a damaged tool.

3. Amateur refinishing. Covering the tool with a coat of varnish, painting a handle with latex paint (usually with a brush), stripping and repainting a perfectly good japanned surface. Yeek.

4. Amateur repairs. Bad welding or brazing repairs, handles repaired with household glue and almost every kind of fastener not made for the job that the local hardware store stocks, vintage fasteners replaced with obviously different modern ones, bent blades damaged by misguided attempts to straighten them, as Red Green says, duct tape, the handyman’s secret weapon.

5. Dull blades and amateur sharpening jobs. Nobody wants a tool to use that has a dull blade. Mess up the edge on a plane iron or misfile or misset a handsaw and, even if you can sucker someone into buying it, they’re going to be seriously unhappy campers.

A beautifully restored vintage tool, cleaned, sharpened, and refinished appropriately, is a joy to look at and use, but they don’t come into the shop that way and there’s no magic to get them from nightmare to sweet dream.


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