Open Menu
Open Menu

Ask a Hemmings Editor: How can I identify old tools?

Published in

The generations that have gone before give us the tools we need to survive in the world. Sometimes those tools are very literal tools, and handed to us in an oil-stained box. Like these my dad just gave me. They had been my grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s, and I have yet to undertake identifying them. 

Reader Bob Hershgeer was recently in the position that many of us find ourselves in as we get older… His grandfather had passed away, and Bob was cleaning out his shed and came across a bunch of tools that he was unfamiliar with. A friend said he thought they might have come with some prewar cars, but Bob wrote to us and asked us how he could find out for sure.

Well Bob, you’ve hit on a passion for many of us here at Hemmings.

Collecting and, whenever possible, actually using old tools and workshop machinery, is something that many of us do. We think there is nothing quite like the feeling of an old tool, with its work-abraded surface, oil-and-steel smell, and physical connection with the hands of all those who’ve muscled it to work before.

This is the valve-spring compressor I used when swapping the cam on my 1932 Ford Model B four-cylinder. I figure that, in most instances at least, the tools that were created around the same time as the car being worked on will work the best. 

So that’s the good news, as it means we know a thing or two about tracking down the identities of tools. The bad news is that you are probably in for a bit of a needle-in-a-haystack search. But, if you’re at all like us, even this process is part of the fun of owning old tools.

Perhaps the most logical place to begin in this particular case, because you said that these tools might have been associated with particular kinds of cars, is for you to go online to the search engine of your choice and type in the kind of car you think your grandpa might have owned, along with key words like “tool kit” or “wrench,” and then take a stab at an approximate model year.

Here’s an example of the first several results of a Google search for “Ford” “1930” and “tool kit.” You might need to go farther than the first page of results before you find what you are looking for.

Among the results might be pictures of the tools that came with the car, as well as websites containing discussions about those tools. As you can see in the image above, even videos popped up, as did, of course, places that have the tools for sale. Click around the results and see if anything looks like what you have inherited.

Here are a couple other websites that will prove useful…

Alloy Artifacts—Is an online “Museum of Tool History” featuring an extensive illustrated library of tool manufacturers, both large and small, as well as articles on subjects ranging from trademarks and logos to tools materials. There is even an interesting timeline of key events in the development of the tool industry.

Union Hill Antique Tools—While this site is angled more toward woodworking tools, it does have many helpful general-interest articles on collecting and buying and selling tools. The site creator also lists many tools for sale that could help provide an idea of values, and he offers a paid appraisal service (we have no experience using it).

I also use online auction sites as a way to get a quick look around to see what’s out there and what it’s selling for. Though, if you have any penchant at all for collecting, this can be a bit of a candy store… and be advised, it’s one where the candy is typically sold at a premium.

As with using a search engine on the open web, try entering a few key words in the online auction’s search window that describe the tool (e.g. “Craftsman,” “box wrench”), and see what comes back. You might need to try a couple of different terms, or use fewer if you don’t get the results you want.

Many people selling things on online auction sites don’t really know what they have, but some are collectors, and the descriptions of the items they are selling sometimes provide useful information about the tools and even their manufacturers. Bear in mind that the prices sellers post aren’t necessarily what the items are actually worth. You should click “watch” on a few auctions of tools like yours to be notified what they sell for.

This adjustable wrench manufactured by the J.P. Danielson Company likely hails from the mid 1930s, before the company had launched its Bet’R-Grip line and while it was still using its “Typewriter” typeface, according to the extensive materials on the Alloy Artifacts website, which include period advertisements as well as photographs of examples that you can enlarge by clicking on them.

However, if you aren’t finding tools like those you have, but are fairly certain of the cars that your grandpa was interested in and still think these might go with them, do a search for the make of the car and the word “club.” Many automotive marques have enthusiast groups associated with them, and many of these share resources about their cars on their websites, including information about the tools that came with them.

If you don’t find what you are looking for in their online resources, take some pictures of a few of the tools you have and look for the club’s discussion board. You can post a picture and a query there, and ask if anyone can help.

Similarly, groups have formed around tool collecting itself, and many will have online resources and discussion forums that you can peruse and engage with, and some individuals, like this fellow, have become experts in a particular brand of tool, and are very willing to help.

When you start to get really serious…

Many tools that came in vehicle kits weren’t stamped with the name of a manufacturer of either the tool or the automobile, so you might need to do some educated guessing. If you have any idea what kinds of cars your grandpa was into, you could try searching, say, “Packard,” “tool,” and “kit.”

If the tool is stamped with a patent number, go to Google Patents and enter it. Something should pop up. Occasionally there will be multiple results, but it should be easy to pick out the right one, even if the actual tool looks slightly different. Remember, the drawings filed with the U.S. Patent Office were merely to show design concepts, and often changes were made prior to production or in subsequent years.

Patent documents are interesting for many reasons… A.) They provide wonderful drawings of the tools, some depicting how they were intended to be used. B.) They offer explanations of the need that the tool has been engineered to address. C.) They can be used to determine the earliest date that a particular tool may have been manufactured. D.) Taken with other patent numbers listed on a tool, the history of the tool’s development can be seen.

If you have access to some old-fashioned paper-and-print references, like tool catalogs and automobile repair manuals, spend some time looking through them. Both of those resources typically include illustrations, and studying them, while noting the year of publication, can help familiarize you with historical trends in tool design.

Images like this one, found in Dyke’s Automobile and Gasoline Encyclopedia, are not only interesting because they indicate what tools editors thought should be carried in a car’s repair kit, but also because some of those tools may be unfamiliar to modern drivers. 

For example, in the above figure, there are no Phillips head screwdrivers, suggesting a pre-1936 date for these tools, and the handles of the flathead examples are fairly large and made of wood, typical of prewar tools. Also included in the roll is an assortment of punches and chisels, a bearing scraper, and a 1/2-pound non-electrical soldering iron (third tool from the left)… all instruments of earlier automobile repair. Indeed, this is the 1919 edition of the venerable automotive maintenance reference.

Another illustration from the Dyke’s manual shows various sets of tools manufactured by Walden to be sold to owners of specific brands of car.

The Dyke’s manual also includes an illustration (above) of some tools made by the aftermarket for owners of particular brands of cars. While at first glance, there appears to be little difference between the sets, there are a few clues that set them apart, and it’s noticing such subtle differences that can sometimes help you nail down (sorry, couldn’t resist) what tools you’ve got.

Note, too, that it’s likely that, though depicted in this 1919 edition of the reference, these tools date from 1903 to 1915, as all of the automakers represented were in business by 1903, and according to the Alloy Artifacts site, 1915 is when Walden, the manufacturer of the tool sets, changed its name to Walden-Worcester.  

I have a small collection of tool and parts catalogs from the era of the cars I’m interested in. I use them to help me identify what is period correct for them, but they are also just really neat to look through. I wrote about this here.

While automotive repair books tend to dedicate relatively limited space to particular tools, automotive equipment and parts catalogs are chockfull. If you are not a tool collector, though, searching these out and buying them might prove more effort and expensive than you are willing to invest, especially if you have a fairly large date window you are working with. But if you are into tools, and a particular era interests you, these are the mother lode of non-marque-specific tools.

Finally, if you are still at a loss for what you have, you could pack a representative group of them up (or take some pictures) and then head to an automotive swap meet or two. Look for similar tools. Ask the vendors questions when you find them. If you hit upon a knowledgeable and friendly soul, show them what you have. Many of these folks are very knowledgeable, and many are in similar situations as you are, so it will be hit or miss.

After you have some idea about what you have, or at least about the range of prices being paid for similar tools, you can list them on an online auction site, in the local classifieds, or in Hemmings Motor News(!). Alternately, if you have a lot of automotive-related things from your grandpa, you can rent a vendor spot at one of those swap meets.

This said, I highly recommend that you hold onto at least a few of them, maybe mount them in some kind of shadowbox display if you’re not going to actually use them. Tools have become collectible these days, not just for their function, but for the attractiveness of their form as well.

Regardless of what you decide to do with them, you’ll meet some interesting characters along the way and learn more about the industrial history of America. And you will soon realize that what your grandpa left you were the tools to go on an adventure.