6 Antique Tools: Keep or Toss?

Find good-quality garden tools from garages sales and flea markets with this buyer’s guide that helps you know when to snag a deal or keep on shopping.

by Samantha Johnson
PHOTO: Antique farm implements by Thomas Quine/CC BY 2.0

6 Antique Tools: Keep or Toss? - Photo courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock (HobbyFarms.com)
Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock

If browsing garage sales or barn sales is your idea of supreme Saturday morning fun, you’re not alone. Millions of Americans enjoy the pleasant pastime of searching for inexpensive treasures each week at yard sales, antique shops, thrift stores and auctions. However, when selecting used garden tools, it can be difficult to tell whether a particular item at a sale is a diamond in the rough or just another piece of random junk. This can be especially important to know whether a particular tool has useful potential or is beyond saving. Use the tips below to determine whether to keep that tool or toss it back on the sale table.

1. Hatchets

It’s easy to think of a million-and-one uses for a short-handled ax around the farm and garden, and some people believe antique hatchets are of higher quality than those produced today.

Expect to Pay: Prices vary depending on the age of the hatchet and any distinguishing characteristics, but generally prices fall between $5 and $50. Rare specimens from manufacturers like Kelly Axe Co., Plumb and Mann can command higher prices, while a blade with nicks and rust can drive the price down.

When to Toss: A cracked handle or a head that rocks on the handle indicates weakness in the hatchet. While the tool is still suitable as a collector’s piece, you’ll want a stronger tool for daily farm use.

When to Keep: If the handle is secure and the blade edge looks good, snap it up—antique hatchets are popular items and if you don’t buy it, somebody else will.

2. Shears

Whether you’re shopping for antique gardening shears for pruning, pinking shears for cutting fabric, or sheep shears for the barnyard, you’re likely to find ample choices when shopping at yard sales and antique shops.

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Expect to Pay: Antique shears can be picked up quite inexpensively, often under $10. Their widespread availability contributes to lower overall prices.

When to Toss: The problem with antique shears is that they tend to be rusty. While in many cases it’s possible to remove the rust, you’re probably better off investing in a new pair of shears, unless your sole purpose is to obtain them for a collection.

When to Keep: If you find a pair of shears in excellent condition with minimal rust for a reasonable price, they might be worth keeping. You can effectively remove small amounts of rust using steel wool, and you never know when an extra pair of shears might come in handy.

3. Ladders

Ladders of varying heights can be beneficial around the farm, but they’re also a staple of modern country décor. Antique ladders add ambiance and style to the farm or home.

Expect to Pay: Price will depend on ladder size. Expect to pay higher prices at an antique show or store, as the current collectability of antique ladders generally warrants a higher markup by sellers. There’s always the chance that you’ll snag one at a bargain price (less than $10) at a garage sale, but online shoppers should be prepared to pay more: I found an online source that offered antique ladders for more than $150 each, and the ladders were not considered to be safe for climbing; only decoration.

When to Toss: According to the American Ladder Institute’s website, avoid any ladder that sways, leans, is rickety, or has loose or missing parts. In other words, if the rungs are broken, the strength seems compromised, or the overall structure is weak, you’ll want to pass.

When to Keep: Antique ladders are quite a popular fixture in home décor and can be cleverly repurposed into a variety of objects from decorative shelves to quilt racks. Even if the ladder appears too far gone for practical use, you can put it back to work in another way. If you come across a ladder in exceptional condition that is strong and secure, you could consider using it for climbing, but only if you’re positive that it is safe.

4. Pruners

You can never have too many pairs of pruners, thanks to their usefulness in the garden and orchard.

Expect to Pay: As with shears, pruners can be obtained at a relatively low cost, often under $10.

When to Toss: Antique pruners are often afflicted with the same problem as antique shears: rust. Because brand-new pruners can be purchased for a price that’s comparable to the antique pairs, you’re probably better off opting for new pruners than rusted antiques.

When to Keep: If you find a pair of pruners that’s in comparable condition to a new pair and isn’t too rusty, snap ’em up for a spare pair.

5. Scythes

A handy tool for harvesting small-scale crops or mowing grass, antique scythes often have lots of use left in them.

Expect to Pay: Antique scythes are pretty easy to find, and thanks to their widespread availability, you can often get your hands on quality-condition tools for less than $10. Scythes in exceptional condition and/or large models can command higher prices.

When to Toss: If the scythe seems weak—for example, if the handle cracked or the blade seems loose— you’ll probably want to keep looking.

When to Keep: Sometimes a good sharpening is all that’s necessary to breathe new life into an old scythe, so don’t overlook blunt treasures when shopping at garage sales or antique shops. Look for scythes with handles that are strong and tight, ideally without cracks.

6. Tool boxes

Of course, it’s always nice to have a place to store your assorted tools, so tool boxes in varying sizes can be the perfect solution.

Expect to Pay: Because tool boxes are found in a wide range of sizes and types—from small, caddy-type tool boxes all the way up to large chests—their price range also varies greatly. Expect to pay into the hundreds for large chests, while smaller tool boxes can sometimes be found for less than $20.

When to Toss: If you’re planning to use the tool box, you’ll want it to be strong enough to safely carry your tools. If the box is weak or beginning to fall apart, make sure that it’s easily repairable. Check to make sure the bottom is secure, the handles are strong and the joints are solid.

When to Keep: Antique tool boxes combine intrinsic charm with useful durability, and they’re often built to last, meaning it likely still holds life. Look for a tool box that has solid construction and strong joins and is sturdy, and then snap it up for daily use or your collection.

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