This article was first published in 2011.
If you work on cars or make things with your hands, you’ll need tools. And the more intensely you pursue these hobbies, the more tools that you’ll both want and need. But buying new tools is invariably expensive – so what about buying second-hand? If you know what to look for, and if in some cases you’re prepared to do some restoration work, you can build your collection of tools without having to spend a lot.
What NOT to buy second-hand
But first there are some tools and machines that are simply not worth buying in used form.
For example, electrical multimeters are available so cheaply new that the saving in dollars from buying second-hand is simply not worth it. Other tools where this can apply include portable power tools and common bench-mounted power tools. As real-world examples, I’ve seen multimeters and bench grinders being sold in second-hand shops at higher prices than they cost new!
When examining second-hand hand tools, buy on brand and condition. Screwdrivers, sockets, spanners, pliers and diagonal cutters can all be very worthwhile purchases.
First identify the brand as one that is known for quality, then look carefully and closely at the tools. Are screwdriver tips in good condition? Do ring spanners have burred internal flats, are sockets obviously worn, and with diagonal cutters, can you see any light between the closed blades? Do ratchet handles still ratchet – both ways?
Especially if the tools were originally sold in sets (eg screwdrivers and sockets) and the set has missing parts, bargains can be had.
Even broken tools can sometimes be worth buying. I recently picked up a pair of multigrip pliers where the centre pin was missing. The brand was very good, the condition (apart from the missing pin) was fine, and the price was right (free!). Back in the shed it took just a few minutes with a file and a good quality bolt and nut to make a new pin.
Other hand tools to look out for include hammers, wood saws (check those teeth – and with saws, the brand is very important), cold chisels and punches.
I also choose to buy used metalworking files, especially those that are round or half-round. But don’t a lot of these have worn teeth? They do – and that can often be good when filing plastics or other soft materials. You don’t want all the files in your workshop to be worn, but having some that are relatively smooth has proved time and time again to be a real-world advantage.
Drill-bits – especially in the larger sizes – are usually worth grabbing. Large size bits are very expensive new, and even if the second-hand ones are blunt, large bits are much more easily sharpened than small drill-bits.
Sometimes really great bargains can be picked up in heavy duty bench equipment - I am thinking here especially of vices. Large vices are expensive to buy new – but are amongst the most useful of items to have in your home workshop. But before buying a second-hand vice, there are some important checks to make.
Firstly, is the vice made by a reputable company? (However, vice brands aren’t like hand-tool brands – there are some obscure brands of vices that are still very good.) Is the thread square-cut? - it needs to be for durability and strength. When they become worn, can the jaws be unscrewed and replaced? When the vice is closed-up, does it tighten evenly across the full width of the jaws? (Test this by closing the jaws on a sheet of paper and then seeing if the paper can be pulled out at one end.) When the jaws are tightened, does the moving jaw move upwards or cock itself with respect to the fixed jaw? Don’t forget that a thorough wire-brushing and some paint can make even an old vice look like new.
Specialist vices, like those designed to hold pipes, also occasionally pop up. I recently found a great pipe vice, on sale at a stall at a country market. It uses a chain and a threaded adjustment handle to clamp the pipe down in serrated V-jaws. It can be used even on thin wall thickness tube and holds the tube in place very rigidly.
Another heavy duty piece of bench equipment that can sometimes be bought second-hand is an anvil. Medium-size anvils, especially if they are obviously old, are the ones to go for. (Some modern and cheap anvils are pretty horrible to use.)
If you cannot find an anvil, or your budget is too low, see if you can buy a short length of railway line. The hardened top surface combined with the vertical web and wide base work very well as a surface on which to hammer.
Especially if they are getting rusty, clamps (including G and F designs) can be excellent used buys. This is one type of product where you may pay second-hand nearly as much as new – but you’ll invariably find that the older designs are more rigid and have higher quality threads. Look for heavy duty castings with strengthening ribs, square cut threads and ensure that the clamp closes-up correctly. Make sure that the threaded section of clamp through which the screw turns is not worn (check this by seeing if there is undue ‘play’ in the thread).
If the clamps are rusty, clean them up with an angle grinder spinning a twisted wire brush (wear good eye protection as this combination will always throw wires) and then paint the cast parts and grease the screw threads. Invariably such clamps will come up as new and be then good for a lifetime of hobby use.
Oxy acetylene welding gear
For a home workshop I am a real fan of oxy acetylene gear. Yes, you need to pay bottle rental but the versatility of such a set (it’s able to do fusion welding, brazing, hardening, tempering, bending and cutting) makes it a tool that can be extraordinarily useful.
Here in Australia you won’t find the gas bottles for sale but the regulators, hoses, torch and tips are very commonly sold second-hand. Look especially at the condition of the hoses (although if they are old and cracked, buying replacements is straightforward – just knock the price down), ensure that the gauges read zero when not connected and that the gauge glasses aren’t cracked or broken.
The best tools to buy second-hand are the ones that you’d not source new – primarily because they’d be too expensive for the amount of use you put them to.
A few years ago I came across some big steel tyre levers at a garage sale. I looked at them and found they were marked as ‘forged’ and were made in what was then West Germany. Realising that they would be excellent in any situation where I needed a very strong and long pry bar, I bought them for a pittance. In the time since they’ve been extremely useful perhaps a dozen times.
Browsing eBay and filtering the results for ‘nearest first’, I found someone a kilometre away selling a ‘brickies hammer’ – a heavy, short-handled square head hammer. I won the auction for a few dollars and picked up the hammer (ie no postage charge!). When I collected the hammer I found that a previous owner had arc welded an ‘S’ on the side of the head. I mention this because whenever I use the hammer, the ‘S’ reminds me of the bargain I got – and I’ve found that I use that hammer a lot!
Big heavy stuff
If you have the facilities to move them, large and heavy items like big lathes, mills and metal folders can often be bought very cheaply. But you need to know what to look for in terms of wear and features, though. With these items, if you’re prepared to do some (or sometimes a lot!) of restoration, they can be bought for near scrap value. But if you don’t have the knowledge and skills, steer clear of them and spend the money on smaller, brand new machine tools that will work properly straight out of the box.
Whenever you see tools being sold second-hand it’s worth stopping and having a long careful look. Many times the stuff will be just rubbish but sometimes there can be major surprises. I recently called in at a second-hand store and walked out with a good-sized woodworking vice (something I have been after for a very long time, but could never justify buying new), a heavy duty drill-press vice, a high quality English wood saw still in its cardboard packaging, two pairs of pliers, three right-angle magnetic welding clamps, a stubby screwdriver, a hard-hat (a gift for my 6 year old) and assorted other bits – and paid less than the drill press vice alone would have cost me new.
Hmm, maybe I should go back to that place and have another look…