Pocket-Sized Crescent Wrenches

Joe Greiwe's collection centers around the 4-inch adjustable wrench.

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Ellis 6-inch adjustable wrench.

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Think your tool drawer is overloaded? Chances are good Joe Greiwe has you beat. Joe, who lives in Batesville, Ind., has been collecting antique tools and wrenches for more than 40 years.

Recently, he's concentrated on the 4-inch adjustable wrench, often known as the crescent-style wrench. So far, he's built a collection of 245 different brand names, and a total of 432 variations. "I decided about seven years ago that I would see how many different brands of the 4-inch size I could get," he explains. He's still looking for about 20 brands.

"I know there are probably a lot more that I've never heard of," he says, "but I believe my complete collection to be the largest in the country."

Never produced in big numbers, the 4-inch wrench is rare today. "The 4-inch wrench would only fit up to a half-inch nut," Joe says. "Farmers years ago didn't always have enough money to buy two wrenches, so they got a 6-, 8- or 10-inch wrench that they could use more. A lot of companies that made wrenches didn't even make a 4-inch wrench."

Early tractors and threshing equipment typically required larger wrenches. Smaller pieces of farm equipment, cream separators for instance, often came with their own wrenches. The 4-inch wrench was most commonly used for bicycle repair. "They called them 'pocket wrenches' because they were so handy to have in your pocket," Joe says.

Small numbers often add up to big prices in the collectibles world, and the 4-inch wrench is a classic example of that. A 4-inch monkey wrench might sell for as much as $200, Joe notes, while an 8-inch or 10-inch monkey wrench (unless rare) sells for about $5.

Joe recently built a beautiful display carousel that he uses to display his tiny treasures. For him, the small wrench has a big attraction. "I like the little 4-inch wrenches because they're easier to move around," he says. His collection of wrenches and tools - as many as 2,000 pieces - includes several heavy items that are a chore to transport to shows and exhibits.

According to extensive research Joe's conducted, J.P. Johansson, Enkoping, Sweden, patented the first adjustable wrench on May 11, 1892. Johansson formed a sales agreement with B.A. Hjorth to manufacture and sell his wrenches under the name of Bahco. The Bahco adjustable wrench became very successful and was sold all over the world.

The adjustable wrench proved a useful tool in countless applications, and production has continued for over a century. On June 2, 1998, the Bahco Group celebrated manufacture of its 100 millionth wrench by producing a commemorative 8-inch "Jubilee" wrench.

Johansson died in 1943 at age 89. He had 118 inventions and patents to his credit, and received his final patent at age 87. A special piece in Joe's collection hearkens back to Johansson. "I found a Bahco adjustable wrench, which was like the one that J.P. Johansson got his patent on, and decided to do some research on it," he says. "I couldn't believe that it was patented 15 years before the crescent wrench was first put on the market. That's what got me interested in collecting all the different types of crescent wrenches."

In the U.S., what ultimately became Crescent wrenches came on the market in 1907, the product of the Crescent Tool Co., Jamestown, N.Y. Crescent remained a family-owned company until 1960, when the organization was sold to Crescent Niagara Corp. In 1968, Cooper Industries purchased the company.

Wrenches have been modified for countless specific applications. A "doubleender," for instance, has a 4-inch head on one end, and a 6-inch head on the other. Locks also evolved, as inventors sought the perfect device to keep the wrench from changing size during use. "I also have one that has a sliding jaw, which makes it work like a ratchet wrench," Joe says.

The lowly wrench has proven invaluable. In 1929, when he established "Little America," Antarctic explorer Richard Byrd took along a Crescent wrench. British explorer Sir Hubert Wilkins had a Crescent wrench in his gear when he made a submarine expedition to the Arctic Circle in 1931. Charles Lindbergh was said to have been outfitted with a Crescent wrench when he crossed the Atlantic in his historic 1927 flight. Captain A.W. Stevens, a balloonist, carried a Crescent wrench 72,395 feet aloft, as he set a world record altitude in 1935. More recently, it was reported that a Crescent wrench was among the tools carried aboard the first manned Gemini flight in 1965.

Active members of the Midwest Tool Collectors Association and The Missouri Valley Wrench Club, Joe and his wife, Marlene, travel to conventions and club functions throughout the Midwest. They also set up their display at antique farm equipment shows. Through those experiences, they gather information and history about wrenches and wrench manufacturers. Joe also enjoys giving talks to clubs, social groups and schools. FC 

For more information: - Joe Greiwe, (812) 934- 2747; email: jfgwrenches@msn.com 

Bob and Linda Crowell travel to antique farm machinery shows throughout the Midwest promoting steam, gas engine and antique tractor magazines. They may be reached at P.O. Box 103, Batesville, IN 47006; email: vintageequipmags@yahoo.com