Keeping Tools in Sets

This article originally appeared in the Let’s Talk About feature on the M-WTCA Internet site, February 1997


Keeping Tools in Sets

William Rigler

This was a fairly active discussion. In general, it was suggested that it is highly desirable to keep tools together because of the research value provided by a set of tools and/or the value to the owner. It was also concluded that it hasn’t been until the last 15 years that tool collectors have begun to consider the significance of keeping that grouping of one person’s tools together!

The other major concern was the number of ToolBoxes that have been donated to Museums, presumably for display, and, at the least, to be available for research only to have access completely denied. If a family is going to donate grandfather’s cabinetma ker’s toolbox that was used in the late 18th or early 19th century, it should make sure that the tools are going to be on display and/or available for study. If these wishes cannot be fulfilled, then it should be stipulated that the tools are to be return ed to the family for further disposition.

The M-WTCA sponsored database inventory system (initially released in mid 1997) will allow you to keep track of any one tool as a member of a set of tools. This is a real plus for those of us trying to reconstruct the contents of specific toolboxes. Mo re information on the database program can be found on the M-WTCA Internet site.

For those who participated in this discussion, it was deeply appreciated.


Bill Rigler
Thu. Feb 20 18:44:07 1997

In my near 30 years of collecting, the finding a group of tools owned, used and sometimes made by the owner was always a big thrill for me. I have two sets of Coachmaker’s tools 15 in one set and 8 in another and one set of pattern makers tool s that should be 15 planes but unfortunately one size of the hollow and rounds were kept or sold separately. Many of you know that I am trying to put back together the tools of B. Peck who had Solomon Cook of Memphis custom make a group of planes for his use. I now own 13 of his tools, made of beech and rosewood and three that are all rosewood. It is my guess that there are at least another 30 tools that are out there somewhere that belonged in Peck’s toolbox. To me, the breaking up of this toolbox would be the same as breaking up the toolbox of Seaton and selling, piece-meal, the tools and box. Most collectors buy a man’s toolbox, the tools that made him a living, and, without trying to find out the history, keep one or two items and sell the balance pie ce-meal so that he can say that he got these items for nothing.


Bill Rigler
Sun. Feb 23 12:22:27 1997

In reading the catalog of American planes volume 22 on page 13 item 25 “S PRESBREY This plane is significant for the rarity of its mark, but much more so for its provenance and functions. It is a mother plane that was in a huge group of S . PRESBREY and D. PRESBREY planes that filled multiple toolboxes. Very likely they were the PRESBREY family boxes. If they hadn’t been all split up the group might have been invaluable for the study of planemaking.” Another significant reason for not brea king up sets.


Todd D. Kissam
Mon. Feb 24 11:16:04 1997

Some of my thoughts on this subject:

  • Maintain Functional Groupings:
    I think that most would agree not to split up functional groups of tools. Tongue and groove pairs. Sash with coping. Hollow and round pairs, etc. The pairs are more valuable for both use and to a collector kept together. I would like to also see sets kept together – sets of chisels, sets of 18 hollows and rounds, a set of 9 or 10 beads, 3 complex moulders with same profile, a set of 13 auger bits, a plow plane with its 8 irons, etc. Again it makes sense from a user and a financial perspective.
  • Respect Uniqueness and Rarity:
    There are tools that are very rare. This may be the maker or the type of tool. Boxwood plated Ultimatum brace or a wooden plane made by a maker for which only 10 examples survive. If the brace came in with a roll of bits or the wooden plane came with a ma rking gauge with the same owners marks, I would like to see what was together remain so. There are future generations that will be able to learn more by keeping what is rare as close to the state it was in as used. Why would someone buy the boxwood versio n vs. the rosewood or ebony? (I really do not know much about braces – but I am sure most of you are bored hearing about 18th century American stuff from me). Do the bits tell us anything about what the brace was used for? Which bits have the most wear? E tc. Was the owner involved in little understood or “rare” trade? A church organ maker or circular stair maker comes to mind. I have 6 planes made by C. Warren (mid 19th century). All are marked by the same owner. One of planes is really weird. Several hav e been sold and identified as planes used to cut wax to make fillets in pattern making. The 5 other planes in my set are for making sash. There is another set by another maker of 20 planes with one of the weird, again for making sash. No one still knows w hat the plane does, but without the two sets being kept together everyone would be looking the wrong way.
  • Conserve Historical Value:
    We have so many tools, but so little knowledge about the craftsman that used them. Many techniques have been lost. How these folks lived and worked is just conjecture. Most of the makers and owners who marked their tools are unknown. Stuff has been passed around by so many collectors, that we have to guess to the general areas of the country they may have worked. Grouping of planes is a great example. The planes have survived, but where were they found? They were not just sitting around in a cardboard box . Were they in a journeyman’s chest? You can’t make much with just a dozen planes, what about saws, marking tools, etc.? What happened to the rest? Who owned the tools? In most cases they are not liable to have belonged to a famous or groundbreaking perso n, but sometimes they do.
  • Sentimental value:
    I do not have much from my grand-grandfathers tool chest and it’s not worth much, but to me its represents the one set of tools that will never be sold. With each year, there is less that has been kept together. 20 years ago there were complete tool chest at almost every farm auction. At the very least, I would like dealers and auctioneers to offer the tools as “these came together, I would like X dollars for a set. If there is no interest at that amount, then we will break them up.” When you see a tool t hat might have others associated with it, how about taking some time and asking the dealer where were these found and what do you know about them? Many dealers will be relieved to keep tools together by offering a package deal of substantial discount. If you are not interested, but think what they offering should be kept together, tell them that “I am not interested, but you should really try to keep these together.”


Don Bosse
Wed. Mar 12 10:15:28 1997

I think that it may be safe to assume that when most tools are split from a set, that the person doing so at the time did not see the inherent value in keeping them as a whole. Tools and collecting tools have not gained appreciation until the last 15 years when popularity has grown significantly. Many of us may have grown up at a time when tools like these were still used at work and home. The prevailing attitudes over the years was that the new technologies were better and those old tools had no real value after a while. I don’t find fault in what has happened in the past, (If only we had been there!) that was the prevailing attitude of the time. Would you think twice about selling that old router for a new one? Finding tools intact as a grou p or set is something special in today’s world and I believe we should be good stewards of these tools and leave them that way because so few complete examples survive our own good


Mel Ring
Mon. Mar 31 13:53:50 1997

I have seen a toolbox sell, the buyer remove a single tool, and immediately sell the remainder. Absolutely no regard for the history of the tools. I have a toolbox that has only two hammers, a bow saw, and a dovetail saw inscribed “I Harris, f rom G.I. Cox”. Sometime I may find more about one of those two men. The only thing I know about the chest is that it went from England to America by way of Australia.


Bill Rigler
Tue. Apr 1 15:45:48 1997

I am very pleased to announce that I will keep the set of French chairmaker’s braces and bib together as a set. These are item 1503 in David Stanley’s auction of March 29th, 1997. Have asked David if he can find out a bit of the history behind this set.


Gary Roberts
Mon. Apr 28 20:03:58 1997

So much has been said about maintaining the integrity of tool sets that I won’t rehash any of it. Except to say that I agree with one and all. The question that comes to mind is… can the M-WTCA do anything about keeping sets together? Would this be a worthwhile endeavor for the organization to undertake either as a sub-function of an existing committee or as a new one? Perhaps a separate fundraising category within or without the yearly dues could be designated as a fund with which to purcha se the occasional (verifiable) tool set for research and discussion. Such sets could be housed at a local historical society with the proviso that M-WTCA members could have access for research, documentation, writing the occasional article, etc. Along tha t line, a major article each year about a given set would be worthwhile. So now I am either suggesting something that produces more headaches for an already overburdened managing group. (Speaking as someone who never has time to at!)


John Adams
Mon. Apr 28 21:37:38 1997

Every effort should be made to keep “significant, documented” sets together, but not in museums. Collectors share, museums hoard. If we only knew how many bequeathed tool chests are locked away from public view!!! (I know of twelve full chests in seven museums in TX, OK, and AR that will never, ever be displayed, nor can you get permission to view them, period. (I’ve been trying for twenty-five years!) Let’s photograph them, write about them, publish the information … share. Lug them to tool meets, spread one out for a display, but don’t allow a museum to swallow it up. (They have enough). By the way, if you run across any H. Hills, E.Ring, E.C.Ring, E&T Ring & Co, or other wooden planes with W.P.RING owners mark, give me a call, as I’m trying to round up the last few pieces of the set.


David Hunkins
Mon. May 12 10:03:13 1997

I strongly agree that it is important to keep “sets” of tools together. It is sad to say that this will not happen until buyers are willing to pay the necessary premiums. There are cases where sets are broken up and scattered due to ignorance of the fact that they belong together, but most times it is because the owner/seller can make more money by selling pieces separately. Money and pricing dictate the situation. Buyers must recognize that sets are worth a premium over and above the sum of a ll individual pieces and they must be willing to pay extra. Sets of working tools will continue to be separated and divided until tool buyers stop asking for “quantity discounts” and start paying the premium prices that these tools should command. 

John Adams
Sat. June 14 09:49:45 1997

When re-reading some of the comments here, I was reminded of what I read when the Studley Chest was first “published.” The then current owner was about to auction it by the piece when an appraiser brought it to the Fine Woodworking office to be photogr aphed!! What a loss that would have been!! At least the Smithsonian has displayed it. I just hope they were able to acquire it.