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The Allure of Antique Tools

This Sandusky 1876 Centennial center wheel plow plane, which sold for $114,400, a world-record price for an antique tool.
Watervliet firm sells the special, the rare and the still usable

Jim Gehring talks tools. Old tools.

Some are rare and valuable. Others, not so much.

Gehring is the owner of two related businesses in Watervliet: Brown Tool Auctions and The Fine Tool Journal. He and his staff of Managing Editor Audrey Schilling, Acquisitions/inventory Manager Katyn Adams and secretary Teresa Rendell take antique hand tools on consignment and sell them in eight auctions a year. Approximately 4,000 items pass through their hands annually.

Most are common tools: saws, hammers, chisels, braces, axes, adjustable wrenches and vintage product signs. Others are unique: a hand-held drill operated by laterally pulling a chain, a double-throated chairmaker’s jointer, a hand-cranked phonograph, surgical drills, a foot-treadle lathe, a log caliper with walking wheel and an octant (an instrument that was used in astronomy and navigation) made of ebony.

Some are extremely old: a brace and a woodworking plane from the 1600s. Others are exceedingly rare: a three-arm plow plane made of ivory and ebony that sold at auction for a world-record price of $114,400, another plow plane made of solid ivory that sold for $41,000 and a pencil sharpener made of rosewood that sold for $17,000.

Most of the tools come from collectors who wish to downsize their inventory or from families of deceased collectors who simply don’t know what to do with “all this stuff.” The Brown Tool Auctions people consult via telephone and, if appropriate, come to take a look at the items at no expense or obligation to the potential consigner.

Sometimes the handoff is simply a matter of carefully transporting or shipping the items back to the operation’s warehouse in Watervliet, but sometimes detailed conversation slows the transfer. “One collection we consigned was owned by a gentleman who was on in years,” says Gehring. “His whole family was there, and we all went through the collection together with him, telling stories about various tools.”

For many people, releasing heirlooms is an emotional challenge. “One deceased man’s daughter told us, ‘These remind me too much of Dad,’ so we left and came home,” Gehring says. “Another deceased man’s daughter wanted to keep certain things but didn’t know what to keep. I said to her, ‘Here are two things — this one’s worth $1,000 and this one’s worth $100.’ She decided she could be reminded of her father as much by the $100 item as the $1,000 item.”

With a “good heart,” Gerhring says, “I tell people who are hesitant, ‘Don’t give me anything that you’re going to regret letting go of.’”

On the level

Gehring himself is a collector, primarily of levels, of which he owns more than 1,000, some dating to the 1600s. “Every available square inch of wall space in my home that doesn’t have pictures has levels mounted on racks with little wooden pegs,” he says. He also owns hammers, drills, braces, plow planes and orreries (mechanical models of the solar system). He is drawn to scientific and surveying instruments, especially if they have what he calls “a high ‘gizmocity’ factor.”

He admits to having “gone nuts on eBay” for a time. When the opportunity to buy the tool auction business rose in 2012, he did so, remaining true to the founding owners’ intent “to provide services to antique tool collectors, old tool users, dealers, museums and other institutions interested in antique hand tools and related artifacts.”

Managing Editor Schilling, who has a degree in resort management from Ferris State University, initially worked for Ronora Lodge & Retreat Center, on whose property Gehring’s business is located (he is also a Ronora partner). But being around all those antique tools piqued her interest, so she made the employment switch.

Adams says her job managing acquisitions and inventory is a good match to her degree in anthropology and archeology from Western Michigan University. “I enjoy handling tools that helped erect historical buildings,” she says.

Processing the consigned tools is a full-time job for Schilling and Adams. Gehring provides supervisory expertise while also working as an employment compensation and pension attorney in Chicago.

The first part of the consignment process is to determine which tools are rare and valuable and which are more common and worth only a few dollars. Here, the benefit of two related businesses comes into play. The Brown Tool Auctions items are higher-end, clean, mint or near-mint collectibles, while The Fine Tool Journal items are likely to be sold to and used by craftsmen who eschew power tools and identify themselves as “unplugged woodworkers.”

“When we consign an entire collection, we get some items that are rusty or broken as well as prized pieces,” Adams says. With two auction options, “we have a place to put all of them and market them effectively to the best audience.”

Interestingly, the staff does very little cleaning of the tools or rust removal. “Collectors are very fussy about how their tools are cleaned; they like to do that themselves,” notes Gehring.

Creating catalogs

Schilling uses her photography skills to take professional-grade, full-color photos of each tool. Adams and Gehring write descriptive copy, the details for which can be challenging for hard-to-identify items. They then create two high-quality catalogs, one for each business. The catalogs are printed and mailed to 2,000 subscribers, some of whom live overseas.

The Brown Tool Auctions catalog is a semi-annual publication, while The Fine Tool Journal comes out quarterly. Each contains photos and descriptions of 700 to 800 lots; some lots contain a single item, while some are a group of related items.

The Fine Tool Journal also publishes articles about antique tools and the craftsmen who invented them. The Summer 2016 issue, for example, includes a fascinating article about innovations to create carnage during the Civil War, such as the Gatling gun and land mines, as well as improvements in hand-held surgical instruments that, though crude by today’s standards, enabled field physicians to tend to the wounded with greater care and compassion.

The Fine Tool Journal is also the presentation venue for the company’s annual photo contest, for which people offer pictures and stories about their best or most interesting tool.

The auctions held by Brown Tool Auctions are live events that Gehring describes as “exciting” and “a social thing because everybody knows everybody.” Brown Tool Auctions holds three a year: in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, at the end of March and October and in York, Pennsylvania, at the end of January, in conjunction with an annual tool meet hosted by the Mid-West Tool Collectors Association. Gehring and his staff provide an absentee bidding service for those unable to attend in person.

Since 2014, the businesses have brought items to a mid-July farm auction at Tillers International, in Scotts, at which tools and implements related to blacksmithing, farriering and animal-drawn agricultural methods are sold.

The Fine Tool Journal auctions are exclusively absentee, with all bids accepted by mail, telephone or email or through the company’s website. This format generates a flurry of activity for Gehring and his staff. Bidders often call to learn where their bid lies in comparison to other bids. On the final days of the auction, numerous bidders might call in, posing their queries and quite probably upping the ante, over and over.

Gehring points out that each live auction involves a trade show in which antique dealers display their wares for direct sale. The auctions also have a “Whatzit Room” to which people bring obscure items for which no viable purpose is apparent.

Humorously, he points out that inventors of the 1700s and 1800s didn’t have 21st-century collectors in mind when they made, patented and marketed their tools. Product descriptions weren’t necessary back then, he says, because “people who were buying the item already knew what it was and how to use it or they wouldn’t be buying it.”

Today, when writing tool descriptions, Gehring and Adams look for a manufacturer’s name, patent number and year stamped on the tool. Then they utilize online databases posted by the U.S. Patent Office and Google Patents and a catalog of toolmakers published by the Early American Industries Association.

The more information they put in their catalogs, the higher the bids are likely to be. Some collectors want to own complete sets of related items, and adequate information helps those who need a particular piece, Gehring says. Similarly, woodworkers want items they know will suit their needs.

The allure of antique tools

Speaking with reverence, Gehring discloses why he’s so interested in antique tools. “It’s hard to create a new physical object in the world today,” he says. “Everything is invented by employees, and patents are owned by corporations. But starting with the 1850s, tremendous innovations were made by individuals. Before one specific design could capture the market, people were coming up with every crazy idea they could think of to improve on somebody else’s idea.”

Tool collectors today are intrigued by the mystery of tools they discover, sometimes unexpectedly at the bottom of a box of unrelated items. “It’s really exciting to find a tool that there’s a patent for but nobody has ever seen,” Gehring says. “Why didn’t it take off? The rarer it is, the more questions arise and the more value it has.”

The thrill of collecting, then, is often not in amassing a huge assortment but in holding a one-of-a-kind tool in your hands and realizing it hasn’t been seen for generations.

Encore Magazine

Encore Magazine is Southwest Michigan’s Magazine, bringing readers intriguing images and stories of the good things, good works and great people of our corner of the mitten. Published 12 times a year, Encore in its fifth decade of serving Southwest Michigan, carrying on a historic tradition of being the premier lifestyle publication of the greater Kalamazoo area.

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