Getting a Grip on Antique Wrenches

Passion for vintage collectibles crosses over to antique wrenches

Wrenches

Wrenches and other tools are a gaining popularity in the collectibles community.

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As interest grows in old tractors and implements, collectors' passions are spilling over to related collectibles - like wrenches. In Cunningham, Ky., Linmo and Verene Biggs have filled a 12-by-20 foot building with wrenches.

"Linmo built the building especially to house and display his collections," says Mrs. Biggs. "The neighbors call it Linmo's museum." Biggs, 72, started farming in the horse-drawn era. But his collection of tools and wrenches is only about 15 years old. Biggs says wrench collectors in his area collect some railroad wrenches, but most tool collections are farm related. Many implements - mowers, cultivators and plows, for instance-came with their own wrenches. Often the wrenches were housed in mounted tool boxes, also big on the collectible circuit now. Tractor and threshers usually came with several wrenches, some of which were adjustable.

International Harvester, for instance, gave away wrenches with every implement, tractor and thresher, more than 800 in all. In addition to wrenches, Bigg's collection includes auto wrenches, more than 50 embossed axes, and more than 150 Winchester wrenches dating to the 1920s. His largest collection is of wrenches from the Keen Kutter brand (also known for pocket knives), and he also has a full set of Jennings bits made in 1898, in the original wooden case.

"To my knowledge, I have more different Chattanooga wrenches than anyone else in the U.S.," he says.

It's a collector's collection, but he's not afraid to play favorites.

"I still like wrenches best of all," he says, "because they do so many things, and represent so much history."

Antique tools are a good fit for the city-dwelling collector, says Glenn Lofdahl, Emporia, Kan. Since he lives in town, he doesn't have room for tractors and machinery. So he collects wrenches and related memorabilia instead.

"That includes mower, toolbox and planter lids, and other items," Lofdahl says. "I started out with International Harvester only, but have expanded on the wrenches to most lines of farm machinery."

There's plenty of challenge, Lofdahl says, in finding and identifying wrenches. "Looking at old equipment, manuals, parts lists and the like all help give a picture or number to look for," he says, "especially for the wrenches not well marked."

Collections are increasingly specialized, he says, as collectors zero in on categories such as auto, railroad, adjustable, woodworking and implement wrenches.

Sought-after pieces include wood-handled adjustable 'monkey wrenches,' 'alligator wrenches' (with V-shaped gripper jaws for nuts and pipes), those stamped by railroad owners, and special pieces issued by tractor and plow companies.

Many older wrenches are multi-ended, usually with two or three gripping ends on at least one end (but usually both ends) of the shank. Typically, the name of the maker and a wrench or part number is raised on the handle, which makes the wrench easier to identify and more valuable.

Because farm wrench collecting is a relatively new field, says Lucille Schulz, Malcolm, Neb., the research is particularly challenging.

"A lot of the manuals that showed parts and wrenches that came with the equipment have been discarded, as have old ads, articles and the like," she says. "Even dealer's manuals are scarce, and when one shows up, it's valuable for identification purposes."

Do Your Homework: Club Membership, Careful Research Pay Off 

Just getting started with antique wrenches? Here's advice from the old timers:

  • Join a club. You'll learn from the other collectors, have access to club publications, and gain experience from programs and shows. Then, and only then, start going to flea markets, antique stores and auctions.
  • Look for a diamond in the rough. Old wrenches are usually dirty and sometimes partially corroded, especially when found at flea markets and farm auctions. But that may make them cheaper to buy.
  • Take a shine to it. Wire-brush wrenches on a grinder to remove oily deposits and rust. But don't overbuff, especially if some of the original shiny or painted finish is still present. In that case, apply a coat of machine or linseed oil, paint or clear spray laquer. The advantage of oils? Easily cleaned off if necessary, and linseed oil sets hard and shiny if thinned before application. The most impressive paint jobs are usually two-tone ,with flat parts in the tractor or implement line's original color, and the raised lettering and numbers in a contrasting color. Idaho collector P.T. Rathbone recommends Deft brand clear spray, which is meant for wood, but looks good on metal.
  • Going public. Displays are a matter of personal preference. Larger collections are often wall-mounted or attached to large sheets of plywood. Taking your show on the road? Smaller cases with pegs or other holders are a good solution, or wrenches can be "wired" on smaller boards and carried separately to install on peg boards on arrival.
  • One man's treasure ... Collecting pieces that you like is more important than collecting what the experts like. Remember to have fun!

Values on the Upswing, But Bargins Still Available

Antique wrench prices are on the rise, collectors say: as much as 12 to 14 percent higher in recent years.

"It's hard to place a value on any one kind of wrench, as it will depend on factors like the age, condition and scarcity," says collector Lucille Schulz, Malcolm, Neb. "For instance, a John Deere cut-out wrench shown in our wrench book is worth several thousand dollars, as there are only three known to exist. Most of the cut-out letters or other slots are broken."

However, many nice collectible wrenches can be found at much lower prices - for example, 50 cents to a dollar in a flea market tool-trader's pile, or even less — on the average — in a box at a farm sale or auction. Some private traders will occasionally sell duplicates or old acquisitions at a low price.

Asking prices from the June 1998 sales list of Ed and Judy Friedman, collectors/traders, Wappingers Falls, NY:

  • Case Plow works, JI, 10 in. 4105 implement with two open ends, $16;
  • Emerson 6.5 in. implement/mower #M518, openend/round box/pitman, $18;
  • Moline Drill 8.7 in. implement #A1037, five open ends, keyhole, screwdriver, some original paint, $14;
  • Moline Plow Co. 14 in. #169, two open ends, $30;
  • Number B573 8.5 in. implement, five open ends-box (American Seeding/Superior Beet Drill), $12;
  • Tague & Kirlin 9 in. #2 implement (cultivator or plow), five open ends/slow, Midland Mfg., Tarkio, Mo., $24

For more information: 
— Pembroke "P.T." Rathbone: The History of Old Time Farm Implement Companies (Volume I), 520 pages, $55. The History of Old Time Farm Implement Companies (Volume II), 320 pages, hardcover, $50. For both books, email him at lsr@rluckystarranch.com for price quote.
P.T. Rathbone also remodeled a machinery building on his farm to house his collection of more than 3,500 wrenches and the world's largest sugar sack collection. On the web at www.rluckystarranch.com; contact him via email at lsr@rluckystarranch.com or phone (208) 896-4478.

Missouri Valley Wrench Club, care of Clyde Ketelsen, Grant, MN. Dues: $20/year for membership, newsletter and member directory.

—Alfred & Lucille Schulz: Antique and Unusual Wrenches.

—Donald Snyder: My First 1,000 Wrenches and My Second 1,000 Wrenches, Polk City, FL. FC