During the past three years, collecting antique wrenches has really taken off, says Don Lux of Janesville, Wis. “Wrenches have come a long ways,” the 69-year-old former International Harvester plant worker says, “and that includes the price. Everybody is after them now. Like the Oliver wrenches. I’ve only seen seven or eight of them in my lifetime, and two of those were the other day at a flea market, where they wanted $100 and $120 for them.”
Don got started collecting antique wrenches on a lark, while serving as vice president and president of his local thresheree.
“I was involved running the show for so long that I wasn’t able to do much with any of the IH tractors I’ve bought, fixing them up or showing them,” he says. “But one day I thought I should have some fun sometimes, too, and since we had eight or ten wrenches around here from years and years ago, I got the urge to clean them up and show them.”
Next thing he knew, he was going to community auctions, rummage sales, and wherever he could to pick up wrenches.
“I used to work for IH, so I was trying to see how many IH wrenches I could get,” he says. He discovered he couldn’t always buy only the IH wrench he wanted at an estate sale, for example, but would have to buy all the wrenches as a lot. That way, he always got half a dozen other kinds of wrenches.
Within three years he had 400 antique wrenches; today more than a thousand.
Don is in a good position for collecting wrenches because his favorites – International Harvester – aren’t the most collectible because so many of them were made.
“IH had three different foundries making wrenches,” he says, “so it’s no surprise there are so many of them around.”
International Harvester also made wrenches for Case, Allis-Chalmers, and other farm machinery companies. One of their big productions was the four-in-one and five-in-one wrench, which could be used for different sizes of nuts.
“Those wrenches were made under contract for these companies until they could build or find foundries to make their own,” he says. “They were identical to the Harvester or McCormick wrenches, but they didn’t have anything stamped on them, not even any numbers.” Curiously enough, these particular plain wrenches are often more valuable than the ones that have the company names stamped on them. Don says more of the four-in-one wrenches were used in the south, for cotton pickers, while the five-in-ones were used more in the north, on combines.
One of his favorite wrenches is a monkey wrench.
“A guy working for IH patented four monkey wrenches all on the same day, Sept. 7, 1897. One was a McCormick wrench, another Deering, one Osborne, and the other, an IH. They’re all identical except for the writing on them. I’ve only got one of them, but one of these days I’m going to find the other three.”
Monkey wrenches were standard on about half of IH equipment, he says, either a ten-inch or twelve-inch monkey wrench in the box. “You could adjust any bolt or nut you had if it had a square nut. It also worked as a hammer, because the back side had a little round head.”
He also has an IH wrench used to adjust a 1914 single cylinder IH engine.
“Basically it’s to adjust the rod bearings. When they got worn a little, you had to take it apart, and adjust the rod bearings by putting a shim in or taking it out. Some of them you had to put a babbitt in, too. But basically you had to take that rod apart, and you had to have a pretty-good sized wrench to take it apart, and that’s what that one was for.”
He likes his Champion wrenches, too. “Champion was bought by IH. The two I have have ‘s’ curves in them. The reason they made those with the ‘s’ curve is, if you put that on the nut right and the nut broke off quick, your fingers wouldn’t get smashed. The knuckles wouldn’t get bruised. They were hidden by that ‘s’ curve, and it protected your hand.” Wrenches with the “s”-curve in them were made until about 20 years ago, he says. About a quarter of all his wrenches have the “s”-curve.
He also has cultivator wrenches with hook holes.
“A good cultivator wrench or mower wrench had a hole in it, cast in it if it was cast iron, or drilled in it if it was pressed steel,” he says. “Curiously, they didn’t have a tool box on those implements. Instead, you had a little hook under the seat, and you would hook your wrench on there, and it would go cling-clanging there underneath as you went across the bumps, and was always there for you to use. I’ve probably got 30 of those. They’d be from the late teens to 1940, maybe 1942. They go back quite a ways.”
Recently, Don came across an Armstrong wrench. “I had heard that they made wrenches, but didn’t know what they looked like. I bought a group of 45 wrenches, and was cleaning this one up, and the ‘Armstrong’ came up real nice, but what else do you think is on there? There’s a picture that looks like you’re flexing your arm, stamped right into the wrench, a big muscled arm and hand, so that had two means of ID on that wrench. You don’t see many Armstrong wrenches, so you’d automatically think it was worth about a hundred dollars.”
Oddly enough, a couple of weeks later, a friend of his bought Don four wrenches at a sale for a dollar each. “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll give you a buck apiece.’ One of them turned out to be another Armstrong, and even better, this was a combination wrench. One end is a wrench and the other is a punch. This was used by steel workers, who would use the punch to line up the hole, and then stick a bolt in it, and tighten it with the wrench end. Now I’ve got two Armstrong wrenches, the first ones I’ve seen in four years, and they were only four miles apart!”
Don also likes other old tools. “In the old days, each of the largest IH factories had its own foundry where they made hay rakes. At the end of the day, all the rod pieces cut off from the hayrake teeth that were six inches long and had been tossed on the floor were picked up, and, during the last half hour of work, were turned into chisels, screwdrivers, or punches.”
He has four chisels and seven screwdrivers, but he hasn’t found a punch yet. “But I’m on the lookout. Every place I go, I always look at punches.”
The most collectible wrenches today are the Oliver (“They’re so hard to find, it’s pathetic,”), John Deere wrenches (“Very few of them are around,”), Massey-Harris (“Only a few of them,”), Ferguson (“Hardly any of them around,”), and the Cockshutt line (“Very extinct; you can hardly find them”).
Don has become known as “the wrench guy.” “Last March I got a call from just outside Seattle. They have a little wrench club up there, and they had a wrench nobody could identify. They asked if I would look through my 650-page book to see if I could find it. I said the phone bill would be mighty expensive, because they were going to stay on the line. They said they didn’t care, because they wanted to know what the wrench was.”
Finally, on the third-to-last page, Don found it: a 1916 International Harvester truck wrench. “They waited 15 minutes for me to find it,” he says with a laugh.
But he’s not always successful determining what a wrench might be.
One that he doesn’t know anything about is a McCormick wrench that’s closed on one end and open on the other. “I haven’t found out any history about that one yet. If I can’t find the people who owned a wrench, I go to the books and follow them until I find what I want, the measurements are right, the pictures are right, and in case they give a number, the ID number is right.”
Sometimes, wrenches were made for alternate purposes.
“Ferguson made a couple of wrenches that are combination wrenches. They have numbers on the side of the wrench so you can stick the wrench down into the gas tank and measure how much fuel you have left. They would also adjust the colters or the steel wheel draft on the two-bottom mounted plow. They came out new right with the tractor. I’ve been lucky; I’ve got three kinds of them.” His smallest wrench is a 2-1/2 inch model for a lawn & garden tractor, while his biggest is a 24-inch International Harvester.
Some people keep their collections under wrap. Although Don does clean his wrenches, spray them with a dear coat, and then wrap them up in soft cloth to put them in plastic toolboxes for storage, he also touches them a lot.
“I do a lot of handling of them, because I feel I’ve got a lot of time and money into them,” he says. If he has duplicate wrenches, then he paints them the implement color to add a little pizzazz. “That gives me a nice color display,” he says. It takes him and a family member three-quarters of an hour to set up the display, and an hour to put it away again afterwards.
Though Don is a dedicated “red” man – read that International Harvester – the color of a wrench doesn’t make any difference to him. “I like John Deere, Oliver, any of them I can find. Collecting wrenches is just a lot of fun for me.” FC