Don Paschal stood in a Loudoun County farmyard, gloating over hundreds of scorps, witchets, jiggers, grailles, cressets, inshaves, flinchers, bruzzes, slicks, twivels, trammel points, quannets, dengelshtocks and sugar devils, not to mention bick, flagging, chincing, meaking and trunnel irons.
The antique tools were the fruits of years of collecting by Paschal and fellow members of PATINA, the happily acronymed Potomac Antique Tools & Industries Association. Gathered at the American Work Horse Museum at Paeonian Springs near Leesburg, they seemed less interested in buying or selling than in just talking about the tools and the men who made and used them.
"In the old days a man wouldn't be seen with the kinds of tools they sell today," Paschal said. "Pride in your work started with pride in your tools, and somebody who was thinking of hiring a man could find out all he needed to know about him by lookng at his tool chest."
"You still can," said a bystander who is a building contractor. "When I hire a carpenter or a bricklayer I don't ask for references, I look at his hands and his tools."
Paschal picked up a folding scale (ruler) from one of the tables. Carved of ivory and bound in brass, it might have been crafted by Faberge for the Czar of all the Russias. "This is not a piece of jewelry, it is a tool ," he said. "The carpenter or cabinetmaker who owned it used it every working day. Maybe his son used it after him, and his grandson. If you were discussing a job with a man and he pulled this out of his pocket to take a measurement, you could be confident you were dealing with a craftsman ."
Handling had gently rounded the brass edging and rubbed soft brown tones into the ivory, but the rulings were still sharp. The scale opened out with no slack or binding in the joints and closed with the subtle click of a kiss shot in billiards.
"You better look out," said Art Kushlan, who was offering the scale for sale for $27, "that's how I got started collecting old tools. I saw an ivory scale far nicer than this at a farm sale about 10 years ago, but the man wanted $20 for it. I thought that was too much and passed it up, and then all the way home and for weeks afterward I thought about that thing. The next time I saw one I bought it. And the next one, and the next one. . ." He waved a hand over the truckload of tools he had hauled from his home in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania. "Stay away from this stuff. There's too much future in it."
There is no end of past in it, as well. Tom Tully of Arlington has been chasing carpenter James Locke for years. He has pursued him through the streets of New York and the byways of Providence, Rhode Island, and believes the trail ultimately will lead to England. The man has been dead for a century or more but Tully, a Smithsonian historian, has charge of Locke's splendid tool chest, made of mahogany, brass-bound and inlaid with ivory, with tidy compartments in which are nestled 150 of the squares, bevels, gauges, miter templates and planes he used throughout his working life. Half of them were made in England, half in New England and New York. Tully intends to make Locke live again as an example of a 19th-century craftsman.
The association's members, mostly from Maryland and Virginia, meet bimonthly at places where old crafts are being preserved or revived. Dr. Henry L. Buckardt's American Work Horse Museum was a perfect setting, being authentic right down to the horses, horseflies and horse puckeys. Last spring members used the appropriate tools to help Williamsburg workmen turn a couple of trees into a Colonial hen house.
Collecting is only part of the game. The functions of many tools have disappeared into the mists of time, and some PATINA members would rather argue about them than eat. A serious collector will soon be deep in research, and some come to find themselves being consulted by the authorities they used to consult.
The path of the investigator winds through intriguing detours. Member Jim Welsh, seeking information on materials used in barrel-making, stumbled over the fact that Amercia's first energy crisis came in the early 1900s, when the eastern U.S. was so thoroughly deforested that even firewood was hard to find. It sped development of the coal and oil industries but wiped out the coopers, who until then had been the nation's premier packagers. From a leading craft coopering declined to a specialty largely confined to the wine and whisky trades, plus a few "slack coopers" making nail kegs.
If somebody needs to know, say, the output of a workhorse, the PATINA library, maintained by secretary Bob Nelson at his home in Cheverly, reveals that a draft animal paced at 2.5 mph can labor 15.33 times as long as one driven at 10 mph.
Some collectors develop monomania, like Harold D. Berry of Bealeton. As his T-shirt proclaimed, Berry is a Keen Kutter man, and now has well over a hundred of the rare 19th-century patent tools. He often has to buy a whole box of tools to get one Keen Kutter, and travels all over the mid-Atlantic region reselling the culls to pay for his passion. Mrs. Berry, who usually goes with him, seems gently amused by his fixation but says she enjoys the traveling.
Asked what it is that fascinates him about Keen Kutters, Berry looked puzzled. "Why, man, they're great tools ."
Dr. Richard F.S. Starr of Purcellville, a tall and courtly gentleman farmer who dresses like a drifter, collects only the finest items, especially the superb planes made by an Ohioan of the same surname but no known relation. He has gone so far as to search out Starr's home and the place where his children are buried, "although I haven't found the grave of the old fellow himself."
PATINA members speak of Starr's collection in tones of awe, and are always on the lookout for things that might interest him. "He is sharp ," one dealer said. "He hardly ever buys, and never sells." The meeting ended with a pilgrimage to the Starr estate.
"You eventually have to concentrate on some period or type of tool because there just are so many of them," said Bill Neyer of Landisville, Pennsylvania. "I've had to go into fairly heavy dealing to keep from going broke buying. Learning to let go of items that are duplicates or that really don't add to the core of your collection is the hardest part. I've go so much stuff I can't haul the half of it around any more."
He broke off to relieve a customer of a substantial sum. "On the other hand, if you are careful to stick to items of quality in good condition, it's hard to get burned. Average prices have gone up tenfold or more in the past few years."
Skyrocketing prices both please and distress the members, and not just according to whether they are buying or selling. "It is good to see their value recognized," PATINA president Paschal said, "but it makes it hard for a person who is looking for fine old tools to use."
The finest and rarest tools have grown far too valuable for anyone but an eccentric millionaire to use, since a single nick or dent may lower the grade and halve the value.
A novice can distinguish some of the grades simply by the way the dealers present their tools: 1st Grade (unused) in the original packaging or felt-lined cases; 3rd Grade (may have been restored) in handsome trays; 6th Grade (rough but usable) laid out on blankets; 9th grade (interesting junk) jumbled in battered milk crates.
The nine-step grading system, developed by Tully for the Smithsonian, has not yet been formally accepted by PATINA or such other tool-collector's groups as the Early American Industries Association, but there is general agreement on the proper category for a given tool.
There are three broad classes of items, said dealer Neyer. "There is a fairly sharp division between English tools brought over by colonists and the early American tools, which are very similar but seldom so fine. Then there is a major change after the Civil War, which greatly accelerated the Industrial Revolution in this country. Mass production began to take over, and by about 1880 virtually all the common tools were more or less machine-made."
Machine-made, perhaps, but sometimes far from common: one of the tools for sale was a Stanley No. 55 combination plane from around 1895 that looked like something out of the heart of a nuclear reactor. With 93 blades it could -- and can -- perform the functions of 200 different planes, and is an absolute necessity to restorers of old houses because it can be used to match trim and moldings that haven't been available since Hector was a pup. It took a while for the pride to go out of even factory labor; many tools made on assembly lines were painstakingly hand-finished.
"Craftsmen still were demanding fine tools," Paschal said. "A man was willing to pay a lot for one that was well made because it takes good tools to do good work, and he expected them to last a lifetime."
The newcomer who had been warned away from Kushlan's display wandered back an hour or so later. "I knew you'd be back," he said, taking the money.