Applying vintage tools in the 21st century
Mankind has used tools for many thousands of years. Our early ancestors would have used simple stone, bone or horn implements to break, crush or cut. These developed into surprisingly complex flint tools that were refined for precise cutting and could also be used for hunting as spear or arrowheads. After the stone age the use of metals developed with bronze, iron and eventually steel the preferred materials of the tool and weapon maker. In modern times ever more complex alloys are being created to fulfil increasingly demanding tasks but, to this day, steel remains king in the world of agricultural hand tools.
Unfortunately not all steel is created equal
Our modern, Western, consumer driven marketplace demands items made to a strict budget and in some circumstances this can lead to tools of frustratingly poor quality finding their way onto our shelves. For this reason, as well as the recent trends for reuse, recycling and upcycling, many smallholders are turning to vintage tools as their everyday workhorses.
In this country, certainly on the allotment or in the garden, it is probably the fork, spade and hoe that are the most widely used implements for the small-scale agriculturalist. On a slightly larger scale tools such as the mattock – a digging/cutting/chopping tool – billhook and hand plough still prove essential for areas where mechanisation, for various reasons, still isn’t widely available.
One of the many styles of billhook – this is a Staffordshire pattern by Whitehouse
These tools, along with the scythe and sickle for grass cutting and harvesting, axe for chopping and felling and saw and knife for cutting and pruning, can still provide efficient, cost effective and fulfilling ways to work the land on today’s smallholdings.
A Brades sickle – perfect for clearing small overgrown areas and harvesting crops or fodder
Before mass production really took off here in the 50’s and 60’s tools were generally made of very high quality, home produced, steels that were manufactured specifically for their suitability in toolmaking.
What’s in a name?
Vintage tools can be found quite easily by scouring boot and garage sales, internet marketplaces and specialist websites. Some of the classic brands to look for are Elwell, Harrison, Whitehouse, Brades, Skelton, Gilpin and Tyzack. These makers among others were forging hand tools when they were the everyday implements of farmers and woodsmen so the steel, on the whole, tends to be of a higher quality than is generally employed in today’s more ‘throwaway’ society and consequently holds a keener edge for longer.
Makers marks – clockwise from top left: – The Whitehouse hedgehog logo, Harrison, Elwell, Brades, Tyzak and Gilpin
Perhaps as importantly, though, these vintage brands are often wonderfully balanced making them easier to use for longer periods of time. They become an extension of the hand and, with practice, can be used for a wide range of tasks from heavy agricultural to the more detailed. While the condition of secondhand items can vary considerably, in many cases, if they have been kept inside, surface rust or scratches are the worst you will have to deal with.
Quite often the only thing you need to do is sharpen a dull blade to revive an unloved yesteryear tool. This can easily be achieved, as it was many years ago in the field, with a whetstone and oil. For more substantial blades, such as the convex grinds used on axes, use a file or bench grinder.
A vintage whetsone in holder – used to quickly sharpen a dull blade in the field
Protect and survive
“I’ve had this broom for over 20 years – it’s had 17 new heads and 14 handles in that time”
Ronnie Barker’s Arkwright character came out with this gem in the classic ’70s and ’80s comedy open all hours.
Maintenance of your vintage metal tools should involve much less in the way of replacements than Arkwright’s broom. Traditionally it would have been limited to plunging them into a bucket of oiled sand which cleaned and lubricated them in one motion. Today, cleaning with water and the application of a good wax polish to both blade and handle does much the same job – it also arguably removes potential for damage to both the blades and the moving surfaces by the sand. TIP: Engine oil attracts dirt which, again, can damage close fitting, moving surfaces.
Handles may crack or indeed already be missing when you find your perfect instrument. Now, as they were then, they are almost exclusively made from ash or beech as these woods are both naturally strong and water resistant. You can find generic handles for many items but, if you like to add some personalisation, this presents a good opportunity to customise grips to your own requirements.
Interestingly, many of the companies mentioned above have now been absorbed into the ubiquitous Spear and Jackson brand with the Tyzack name still being used for a builders’ tool range. However, there is one independent manufacturer left from this golden era, Morris and Sons of Dunsford, where Richard Morris still handcrafts wonderful quality billhooks that are available at very reasonable prices.
In summary, vintage tools, properly restored and maintained, not only look fantastic but can also outperform many of their modern counterparts and last a lifetime. Many will continue to perform long after the modern equivalents have given up the ghost and been laid to rest at the back of the shed – often for a quite modest initial outlay.
Many thanks to Old Garden Tools and Timeless Tools for their insight into the world of vintage tool and the pictures included in this article. Both have more information and a good selection of quality vintage tools available for sale on their websites.
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