Tip #1: Optimize your time by scouting out good possibilities
I primarily go to estate sales listed on http://www.estatesales.net. I also scour Craig’s List for tool-laden estate and garage sales. If you were to plot my estate sale finds on a map you would notice some commonalities. The good tools came from older, blue-collar neighborhoods. Picture in your mind the areas in your city where older woodworkers might have situated themselves.
Yes, there have been an estate sale or two located in well-to-do neighborhoods. But I’ve found the prices tend to match the surroundings and have only picked up a good late-model tool or two (clamps, tweezers, sharpening stones) at places like that.
Tip #2: Look for key words in the ad that say “woodworking tools” to you
After going to a few estate sales and coming up snake eyes, I started to pay closer attention to ads. When searching online I use keywords such as “woodworking…” or “vintage tools” or “Disston.” I also read the ads to get a feel for the type of work the person did. A machinist’s vintage tools will be very different from a woodworker’s workshop.
Sometimes an ad will give me a sniff that smells like “hand tools.” Now a sniff alone isn’t enough to dedicate two hours of to and fro driving, so I’ll follow up with the estate sale proprietors via email.
Here’s an exchange I had regarding one sale. “Your ad mentioned hand tools, what kinds of tools do you have?” Answer: “Some power hand tools, axes and a Stanley #60 miter box”
Now wait a minute. That miter box wasn’t in any of the pictures…nor any descriptions…but it is now in my garage.
Turned out that it was in phenomenal shape. Price? $15.00 for the saw and box. No shipping. Just me lugging the heavy, dusty thing a half-block to my car wearing a big smile.
Tip #3: Study pre-sale pictures to evaluate the opportunity
I rely heavily on pictures and have gotten adept at deciphering them. The panoply of tools can say “I was a woodworker,” or “I was a serious/tinkerer or occasional woodworker.”
Online pictures are typically bad, so consider copying and pasting them into PowerPoint so that you can enlarge and study them. What brand names do you see? Are the tools late-model examples? Recent Chinese junk? And of course, do you see any specific items that you want to pick up?
Recently I saw a picture of a tool cabinet in a man’s small shop. I saw planes (I’m pretty stocked up on those,) handsaws (I’m good there too,) chisels and, whoa! Chisels?! They looked vintage to be sure and there were five of them. They even could have been Stanley 750s. The reason I say “looked” and “could have been” is because by the time I got to the garage, moments after the estate sale opened, they had mysteriously disappeared. My gut tells me that a family member may have picked them up before the sale, or even someone working the sale. But my point is, that by zeroing in on what you want, you’ll increase the odds that you’ll be the one to buy it.
Tip #4: Go early or don’t go at all
This is absolutely critical. In this age where armies of retirees are combing estate sales to find stuff to put up for sale on EBay or in their antique mall booth, you simply must show up on the first day of an estate sale, preferably within the first half hour of it opening.
I showed up at one estate sale 25 minutes late. When I walked in, I saw people standing in line to buy a 5lb sledgehammer (on my want list) and a nice ax. After going directly to the garage, I saw another galoot with the only decent chisel in the lot firmly grasped in his hand.
When I left at 10:40, I was holding a Millers Falls 321 12″ brace, plus some other goodies. So if you showed up at 11:00 (one hour after opening) your selection would have been severely limited.
Remember the eBay/antique booth scavengers I mentioned above? I was at another estate sale, 15th in line to enter the home, and by the time I got to the garage, one guy had all 10—that’s T E N—of the sale’s handsaws already in his “to keep” box. So much for the pictures showing plenty of “inventory.”
Tip #5: Your estate sale “tool kit”
You need to tool up to go vintage tool hunting. Bring a sturdy bag (more on that later), a ruler, a magnifying glass or loop, a flashlight, handy wipes and of course cash. It doesn’t hurt to bring a friendly attitude either. Making nice with the estate sale staff will serve you well in your negotiations.
Tip # 6: Go to the garage first
When you get in, go immediately to where the tools are. Usually, that’s the garage. Now listen carefully. The moment you see specific tools that you want pick them all up and place them in your bag. Then keep looking around. Carefully look over the room, tables and shelves for any other items that interest you. As you find them, place them in your bag. And don’t forget to look above you. Sometimes woodworkers keep their wood supply up there. After you’ve scavenged the garage, go to secondary areas: sheds, basements (sometimes there’s workshops down there) and such.
Once you’re satisfied that you’ve got all the “possibles” secured, find a quiet place and sit down.
Next time we’ll cover Tips 7-Inspecting for success, 8-Stretching your tool-buying budget by picking up and selling quality duplicates, and 9-Making friends with estate sale purveyors.
© 2015, Brad Chittim, all rights reserved.
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