I suppose that I have been blogging long before blogs were invented. Various old hard drives hold stories from my past, just waiting to be published. I thought of this story the other day when I was looking for something in my woodworking shop. I wondered if I could find the text. Well I did find it, straight out of 1993 (about 21 years ago already, just about this time of the year). It gives me insight into myself and helps me remember why I like to build things with my hands in the wood shop. When you work primarily in the abstract recesses of the brain as a numerical modeler or predictive analytics specialist, there is a need to build something tangible every once in a while because in the modeling world, our work is always wrong! We just try to minimize how wrong we are in our predictions! When you build something right out of wood however, you can see it and feel it and you just know it is right! So here is the story, essentially unedited from my earlier days.
The Tool Collection of a Lifetime
The following account is a true story and it is being written in the spirit of Patrick Leach’s recent pattern maker’s tool collection story. (edit 2014: You’ll have to wait for my next blog post to read that story, which I was able to find on one of those old hard drives. I wish we had digital cameras back then to give this story -my story- the full meaning it deserves.)
This story details what most probably represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. It is the proverbial “big fish that got away” story – however, in this case the “big fish” was an incredible tool collection.
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I live in Knoxville, TN, and I have been building a nicely equipped woodworking shop for the past eight years or so. I have a full complement of power tools and hand tools. Although I am not a professional woodworker by trade, I have spent many hours studying woodworking tools of all types. I primarily study hand tools – planes, chisels, rules, etc.- and my constant companions are price guides for older tools. With that background in place, I will begin with the story.
It was the Spring of 1993 when I met Ardel
In the spring of 1993, I traveled to visit my Mom in a Chicago suburb. On a Friday morning at about 9:30 I picked up the local newspaper and was scanning the classified ads section when I came across a small ad that said, “Table saw and band saw for sale.” Out of curiosity, I called the number and asked about the saws and the lady said, “They have come in droves.” I asked her if she had other things for sale and she said yes but she wasn’t sure what was left. Since she was only a mile away, I drove over to her house. When I arrived I was the only person at her house.
The lady was about 75 years old (I’ll call her Ardel) and was in the process of selling her deceased husband’s power tools so that she could raise money to help her daughter pay-off school loans. Her husband was a machinist who worked for about 40 years in the Chicago area. He died in 1973, and since that time Ardel kept his woodworking shop intact. The shop was in a small room about 15 feet by 8 feet but was masterfully designed and organized. It was clear that this woodworker was very meticulous about his tools and bought only the best money could buy.
When I arrived Ardel told me that many men had come to her house early in the day. She had planned to sell only the power tools which included (but not limited to) a table saw, band saw, drill press, shaper, joiner, jig saw, lathe, and the accessories for these tools. The men, however, were after the other tools she had that were stored in the drawers and cabinets. She had a difficult time handling the situation because these men were too aggressive. She told me that the above mentioned tools sold very fast and she was proud to announce that she raised nearly $300! Although I didn’t see the power tools, based on what I saw remaining I figure that the tools were either older Delta or Craftsman brands. I explained to her that the tools were worth much more money than that and that she should think about what she wanted to do with the rest of the collection before selling anything else. After we became acquainted, she allowed me to begin looking through the remaining tools.
I started my investigation about 10:00 am on Friday. I worked until 6:00 pm on Friday, from 9:00 to 5:00 on Saturday, and five hours on Sunday before driving back home to Tennessee. I never saw the whole collection.
The tools were tightly packed into large metal cabinets and large wall-hung wooden cabinets. The tools were machinists tools, woodworking tools, and mechanics tools. Most of the tools were in excellent condition. Along one wall was a cabinet full of hardware stored in about 100 drawers, full of every fastener I had ever seen including sold brass hinges and brass screws of most any size. The hardware selection alone made me think that this guy must have bought out a hardware store before he died. It was amazing and completely organized. I spent only a few minutes looking at the hardware because the tools were beckoning!
When I began looking at the collection, a man came back to Ardel’s house (I’ll call him “Shark”). He explained to me that he purchased “several” of the tools earlier in the day and was interested in what was remaining (I’ll just say that the term “interested” is a misnomer – Shark was sensing blood in the water and he was hungry!). He watched me as I began cataloging the collection – in fact, he tried to stay at the house all day with me! Since he had to leave to pick up his young child at school, I was with Ardel longer than he was able to stay. When he left, I explained to Ardel that this guy was a “Shark” and he wanted to buy her tools for very little money, and that she had to beware of him. At the end of the first day, based on the tools I saw I was thinking the collection would easily top $5,000. Was I ever wrong!
On Saturday, I began cataloging again and the Shark showed up to “make sure Ardel was O.K.”. The shark stayed with me most of the day and again tried to stay there longer than me. Again he failed. Before I left, I told Ardel that this guy meant business and she should not give into any pressure he applies to her to sell him the tools. During the day, the value of the collection kept climbing as I discovered wonderful tools, some of which I had never seen before. By the end of the day, the collection was topping $10,000 without much trouble. I started to discuss with Ardel the techniques she could use to sell the collection and maximize her income. I talked about selling the whole collection, selling at an auction, or selling at a well-planned yard sale. The yard sale idea was imposing, however, since it would have taken a couple of weeks to complete the cataloging and pricing of the tools due to the volume of the collection. Since I had to drive back to Tennessee on Sunday, I did not have the time to catalog everything and set appropriate prices, not to mention the time needed for the research needed to price some of the tools. Before I left her house, I explained very clearly to Ardel the value of the collection and that I would contact her on Monday from Tennessee to talk more about what she wanted to do. She said she would like to sell me the entire collection, but I told her I was not sure I could raise enough money. I told her that I would only purchase the collection at fair market value – I was not about to take advantage of the situation.
The Fantasy lasted at Least 8 Hours While Driving Home to Knoxville
When I left her house I began thinking of this collection. How would I raise $5,000 or so to purchase these tools? How would I be able to transport everything to Tennessee? I began thinking of investors, trucks that can carry some serious weight, etc. By the time I reached Tennessee, I was ready to rob a bank! The passion was intense.
And now the rest of the story
On Monday evening I called Ardel. And this is what she said (as close to it as I could remember since my blood pressure spiked to the point of nearly passing out): “Oh hi Ken. Do you remember “…” (the Shark)? Well, he came over to my house yesterday after you left. He helped me out.” “What did he do for you, Ardel?”, I asked. She said, “He plugged a telephone into the wall for me. He is such a nice man.”
At this point I new it was coming…
She said, “Yesterday I went to Sears and looked at the tools. I saw the prices and have decided to sell the whole collection.” I said, “Ardel, I think you are making a mistake. Who are you going to sell them to?”. She said, “I am going to sell them to “…” (the Shark). I said, “How much are you going to sell them for?” She said, “…”
Before I say how much she sold them for, I have a few comments I would like to make. If I were the Shark and bought this collection, there is no way I could use these tools. How could anyone work with tools from a collection like this after having acquired them in such a devious manner? This man blatantly ripped her off, and I was unable to stop the bloody feast. I believe that when you work with tools there is a connection between you and the tool, a spirit that develops over time. This spirit cannot develop with tools that literally have been stolen – at least not for me. In Patrick’s case, he has a magnificent collection that he will use in the proper spirit. The tools will live on along with the spirit of their previous owners. In the case of this collection, it will die piece by piece as the Shark sells a tool here or there for his personal monetary gain.
So she said, “I am going to sell the entire collection for $300.” Yes, that is correct – THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS. I said, “You are selling everything for $300?”. She said, “Yes, everything.” I said, “I wish I could convince you otherwise, but apparently you have made up your mind. I wish you luck.”
So ends the tale. So ends the dreams. Even if I knew she would have taken $300 for the collection, I wouldn’t have bought it. I simply couldn’t do it, could you?