by George Edwards
Lately, I can’t pass through my shed without taking a spot of paint off a chisel and thinking I’ve just increased my worldly assets by a fiver.
Suddenly, everyone is selling old tools.
Mass-produced tools are getting flimsier. Survivalist tv has raised awareness of the value of a tool. Young craftsmen are specialising in old hand-powered construction techniques and looking for the old hand-made solutions to all needs. And the tools are beautiful pieces of work.
Julie McKenna’s stall in Tavistock Market was early on the trend and is still ahead of most of the competition.
It has been my favourite place to browse since I bought a general-purpose handsaw, still straight and sharp, from venerable manufacturer Disston’s of Massachusetts, for the same price as one designed to be thrown away when it gets blunt – in other words, the one I have been using for 20 years.
I dream of resharpening this one before passing it on to a reverent grandchild. For £8, Julie has a device which might help – a 19th-century raking gauge, from Atkins of Indianapolis. The Brits probably made the best tools for a long time but British settlers in America, carving a new country out of raw materials, started a new wave of invention and quality.
A raking gauge helps get an even depth when filing down the raking teeth, which remove the splinters taken out by the cutting teeth. A proper saw is a finely calculated combination of points and angles and you would struggle to find anyone to set and sharpen one for you now.
But somewhere, somebody is relearning the art.
Young carpenters are the main market for the old wooden planes which used to be a glut on the market.
Even now, three quarters of them are good for nothing but firewood according to Julie’s husband, Derek, who keeps a supply of stock coming from the garage of their bungalow on the Whitchurch edge of Tavistock.
But there are hundreds of variations designed for the kind of job which would nowadays be done with an electric router – cutting grooves, say, or a fancy edge.
The youngsters also go for old chisels, made from lumps of steel which will take a hundred years of sharpening. Everybody likes old wooden folding rulers.
Derek, 74 and still running a 1978 Triumph Bonneville, is a Torquay boy who was trained as an aircraft fitter by the RAF; drove deliveries for Michelin tyres out of Plymouth; then moved to Ullapool, in the wild west of Scotland. He stayed there 20 years, working in forestry and then for the Royal Mail. For the past 54 years, he has done it all with Julie. She grew up mainly in Birmingham, but they met and married in Devon and were agreed on Tavistock when the time came to move back south, 15 years ago.
For a while Julie shared a shop in Okehampton, selling china and kitchenalia. It was there she was persuaded to take a gamble on a trailer-load of old joiner’s tools, which marked the beginning of a new line of business.
She and Derek are fans of the tv show American Pickers, featuring two dealers who once got $3,000 dollars for an oilcan. But for Tavistock, they generally have to put in a lot of time on cleaning and sharpening to be able to charge rates competitive with B & Q or Tool Station. A nice bradawl is a couple of quid. A pair of steel calipers, a fiver.
They stock up at boot sales, locally and in the USA.
It was at an Arizona boot sale that Julie and Derek picked up the Atkins gauge. Probably it was designed for use with a two-handed tree saw of some sort. There are revivalists using those and relearning the meaning of the different tooth formations, designed for different kinds of wood, and how to maintain them.
Scything competitions were beginning to be a bit of a revivalist thing on the rural scene even before Poldark and Julie hasn’t seen a scythe since. But I bought a lovely sickle from her for £25. She has plenty at £15 but this one had the mark of Morris of Dunsford, a Devonshire forge with a 200-year history.
Old paraffin-powered blowtorches sell mainly for ornament, but Derek likes to make sure they are in working order and has a stock of leather washers for the compression pump mechanisms.
Julie still trades as Commoner’s Crown Antiques & Kitchenalia and kitchenware remains a good line, although it is now secondary to the shed tools. She is at Tavistock Market on Tuesdays, plus the first Saturday of every month, and the fifth Saturday when there is one.
Julie McKenna, open for business
WHERE THE PROFESSIONALS BUY
The McKennas always have an eye open for village boot sales. They like the regular one at Pendeen, near Bude, on a Sunday. They are also regulars at the six-weekly sales at the Matford Centre, Exeter.
Honiton has made itself the Devonshire capital of antiques and is as far as most of the London dealers get, and prices reflect that. Ashburton is the nearest thing to a Dartmoor Honiton. Lostwithiel is a Cornish equivalent.
Probably the world’s biggest antiques fair is the annual event which fills a square mile at Brimfield, Massachusetts, but the USA is full of flea markets, which make an interesting break from the highway.
Derek McKenna in his workshop
A GOOD OLD DEVON BRAND
Story refers to Morris of Dunford, a tool collectors’ favourite name, from a forge located at EX6 7EE, between Moretonhampstead and Exeter on the B3212. It was a part of Bulldog Tools for a while but is now back in family hands.
There is no website for the forge itself and visitors are not actively encouraged. owever, Howe However, they can take a look by arrangement “if they don’t mind getting dirty wet and smoky”, says head smith Richard Morris, who runs it with his nephew, Andrew.
Call 01647 252352. A number of dealers in Morris tools can be found on the internet and there is a nice selection of pictures at
pictures by Andrew Pain
George Edwards is a Horrabridge-based journalist, who wrote this feature for Devon Life last year.