Joe Greiwe collects gas engines, brass anvil paperweights, molding planes, carpenter's tools, spark plugs and vintage advertising materials. But it's the lowly wrench that's put the grip on the Batesville, Ind., man.
"I was a tool collector," he said, "but the wrench collection has overtaken that. They're just so unique in their operating mechanism."
Joe's collection – somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 wrenches – reflects the hobby's unlimited scope.
"The reason wrench collecting is so interesting is that between 1830 and 1905, there were 3,300 patents issued on adjustable wrenches alone," he said. "The field is so big; it's just a never-ending search."
Adding interest to the search is the fact that many of the patented wrenches were manufactured in exceedingly small numbers.
Joe, who worked nearly 40 years as a carpenter and superintendent, knows a little bit about hand tools. "I have a few that nobody's ever seen before," he said.
There's no rhyme nor reason to the designs that endured.
"It's kind of amazing: Some of the patented wrenches were so unique, but they fell by the wayside," he said.
"Then there were others that aren't so good, but they survived. And you'll see new wrenches today that are made with the same principle as a wrench made in the 1800s."
Collectible wrenches fall into three primary categories: Implement wrenches, issued with a piece of farm equipment or machinery; adjustable wrenches; and cutout wrenches (those with the name of the manufacturer "cut out" of the handle). Joe concentrates on the adjustable wrenches.
"At the end of the last century, everybody was looking to produce the perfect wrench," he said. "They wanted it to be a quick adjust, without too much trouble; wanted it to stay in position, and be light and not cumbersome. That was the goal."
Good old American ingenuity resulted in countless designs: screw-adjusted wrenches, screw-adjusted with a ball bearing at the end of the screw; spring loaded; sliding wedge adjust, wheel adjust, lever adjust, and worm with screw adjustment. On some, the wrench was adjusted by twisting its head; on others, a pin would be changed. Other designs were less clearly conceived. One wrench was adjusted by using another wrench to tighten the first one's jaw; another was adjusted using a separate screwdriver.
A wrench with a particularly rare design has found a home in Joe's collection: The leaf-adjust wrench has a U-shaped opening, with sliding "leaves" on one side of the "U." When all are in the "back" position, the wrench fits a 1" nut. Slide one forward, it fits 15/16; slide two forward, 7/8, and so on. "It's made by the Indianapolis Wrench and Stamping Company, and patented in 1896," he said. "There's only one other one by that company that I know of."
The basic principles of wrench manufacture have not changed dramatically. But manufacturers in the 1800s had to contend with a raw material that was still evolving.
"Steel was still in the experimental stages," Joe said. "It had to be hard enough to withstand the strain, but if it was too hard, it was brittle and it would break."
Later came the addition of wooden handles on some wrenches, making them lighter and more comfortable to use. Steel handles were used for maximum strength. Brass (or "non-sparking") wrenches were used in high-risk applications such as refineries and powder factories.
The sheer volume of wrenches available makes the hobby accessible to novice collectors. But rare pieces bring major money, Joe said. In recent years, prices for adjustable wrenches have risen more than prices for most other collectibles.
"And they're still going up," he said. "Wrenches are a good investment."
Prices may have risen too high.
"I have backed off a lot of wrenches because of the price," he said. "A wrench that used to go for $15 might go for $100 now. I'm afraid they're getting close to the limit (on price)."
Still, for the new collector, tons of common wrenches are both easily available and affordable. And while the novice builds a collection, rather than worry about high-end wrenches, Joe advised, he should concentrate on learning about the lowly tool.
"Don't just get the wrenches," he said. "Get the information about them, too. That's what makes this real interesting. The idea of just having a wrench doesn't give you that much satisfaction, but knowing the story behind them does."
That said, Joe always keeps an eye open for additions to his collection.
"I'm always looking, no matter where I go," he said. "Flea markets, wrench auctions, gas engine shows ..."
He also makes trades with members of the Mid-West Tool Collectors and the Missouri Valley Wrench Club.
Collectors in those groups, he says, agree that condition of an antique wrench is not as important as it is with other collectibles.
"Everybody wants a perfect wrench," Joe is quick to say. "But when you find a real unique wrench, you'll want it, as long as the parts are all there. If it's a reasonable price, you'll get it, and trade it off when you find a better one."
Joe cleans new additions to his collection, but he never use paint or varnish.
"If it is badly rusted, I'll use a vinegar solution and a wire brush on it," he said. "But I try to leave the patina on it as much as possible."
He does use a silicone spray on the wrenches (and finds reapplication necessary after he brings the wrenches home from a show). Joe gives his wrenches extra good care, a first for many of them.
"Guys will use a wrench for a pry bar, for a hammer ... if they don't have the right tool for the job, they'll just improvise," he said. "The wrench is the most misused tool there is." FC
For more information: Joe Greiwe, 206 Albers Street, Batesville, IN 47006; (812) 934-2747.