The history of tools and hardware tells the story of two conflicting impulses. The first was the urge—or, more likely, the necessity—to handcraft one’s home and furnishings. The second was the desire to take advantage of the opportunities available to entrepreneurs in the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution enabled the mass-production of the tools that would give the rest of us the means to do-it-ourselves.
Hand tools, be they vintage or new, can be organized into a number of categories. First there are the striking tools, such as hammers and axes and hatchets. Cutting tools include chisels and knives by companies such as Keen Kutter—saws are really in a class by themselves. And then there are the planes, which continue to be produced in dizzying numbers and sizes to achieve specialized results. Other categories include boring tools, which include hand-operated drills such as braces.
The manufacture of hand tools and hardware in the United States essentially began in 1843, when Frederick T. Stanley founded the door-hardware company in New Britain, Connecticut, that bore his name. In 1857, Henry Stanley, Frederick's cousin, launched the Stanley Rule and Level Company, which acquired Leonard Bailey & Co. in 1878. Bailey held numerous patents on such mainstay woodworking tools as planes, which Stanley Rule and Level augmented with mitre boxes, hand drills, hammers, and, of course, its own lines of wood and iron levels. By 1920, the two Stanley firms had merged.
Today, despite the plethora of new-tool choices available to serious woodworkers and do-it-yourselfers alike, many people return to vintage and antique tools. In addition to being perfectly functional—a well maintained hand tool can last for decades—some of these tools are like small sculptures. When artfully arranged in a garage or workshop, or lovingly stored in a companion vintage tool box, these pieces can continue their work for decades to come.
Increasingly, home-improvement buffs, architects, and interior designers are turning to vintage hardware to give new spaces an aura of authenticity. As with antique tools, vintage hardware is often as good, if not better, than new pieces, which are typically made of thinner metals and weaker alloys. A cast-iron door knocker or brass door knob creates visual interest at a home’s entrance, while vintage drawer pulls and hinges keep new cabinetry from looking too new.
Of course, if some of these cherished workhorses from the past have outlived their usefulness, that doesn’t mean they have nothing else to contribute to a home’s feeling of distinctiveness. For example, an ornamental weathervane that once toughed it out during storms on a chimney top probably deserves a second life as a decorative object in a den or on the patio, while wood-and-iron pulleys, wooden rulers, and tough-looking locks make terrific conversation pieces.