Letter Carving (with Janet Collins)

The Real Cost Of A Tool

When looking at the historic prices of tools, even after converting the dollar amounts into today’s prices it often does not give a truly accurate representation of what a tool really cost the person who bought it. I remember my first job in high school working in a retail clothing store for ~$5 an hour in 1997 which was the minimum wage in NY at the time. If I went to the store to buy something, part of that decision was always based on a calculation of ‘how many hours did I have to work to buy this item?’

Hammacher Schlemmer Sloyd Knife Ad -- The School Journal July 2, 1898
Hammacher Schlemmer Sloyd Knife Ad — The School Journal July 2, 1898

I wanted to apply this same logic to some of the tools in the 1900 Sloyd tool chest list we talked about here. I did some research and found that the average carpenter in 1899 made $2.30/day**. So that would mean the Sloyd cabinet full of tools which cost $11.91 would be about a week’s worth of wages to purchase  — 5.17 days to be exact.

Hammacher Schlemmer Sloyd Training Bench from 1898 ad in the School Journal
Hammacher Schlemmer Sloyd Training Bench from 1898 ad in the School Journal

This summer I had a chance to chat a bit with my cousin, master NYC woodworker James Cooper. (Or as he is known to the family — Jim)

Jim has been working in the craft for a long time and it was great to pick his brain a bit on this topic. I’ll recount some of my interview with him here:

“In 1971 we worked for $4/hr (although we were often wrong in estimating the time required) and the only catalog I could find from that era, 1973, is of a small German American maker of chisels and carving tools where Pattern Maker’s Chisels, 6mm – 30mm,  sold for $7.50 – $12.50 ea…….about  2 – 3hrs of labor! Today a competent mechanic in NY can earn $25/ hr and a decent 3/4″ (19mm) chisel can be had for $25 – $40 or rather less work then I exchanged 40 yrs ago. The most important point to emphasize is that whatever the cost, good to great hand tools will last a lifetime+ and, well used and cared for, will feed you for all that time, while never loosing value.

The early 20th Century Bailey 07 plane that I picked up, used but cleaned, at a flee market in 1981 for $100 (which at that time was about the cost of a new British Stanley) is worth $200+ today after my having used it for countless hours to realize 100s of projects over all that time…and it outperformed the British Stanley to boot! The $100 Bailey bought in 1981 was less then a days labor (about $125 / day at that time)!” — Jim Cooper

Taking the 3/4″ firmer gouge as an example I tried to plot it over time, and here are my findings so far:

Year Price Avg Pay Rate Time to earn it Notes
1900 $0.34 $0.23/hr 1.48 hours work $2.30/day, so assuming an 10 hour day for hourly rate at the time
1973 $10.00 $4.00/hr 2.5 Hours Assumption that during this time was potentially a low water mark for availability of quality tools in the US — all the old makers were on their way out, and new high end tools were only getting started
1981 $20.50 $12.50/hr 1.64 Hours Based on estimate of about $125/day and assuming a 10 hour day. Price of tool inflation adjusted from 1973 data point. Note also this was the time of a large global recession.
2013 $49.99 $25.00/hr 2 Hours Based on current price of a Henry Taylor 3/4″ in-cannel gouge from Traditional Woodworker which is very similar to that original gouge in the Sloyd tool chest

If any of my readers have some additional data points, I’d be happy to flesh this out more — especially before and after the world wars. So if you have an old tool catalog with prices from an earlier time (especially for a 3/4″ firmer gouge) or recall and are willing to share your pay rate at an earlier time (either hourly or daily) I would be happy to flesh this out more and see what else the data can teach us.

My conclusions based on all of this?
The availability of good quality tools, societies’ willingness to pay a craftsman a fair wage, tax codes, the macro-economic climate and the ability to find work in that field have all fluctuated over time which makes it hard to draw a lot of concrete conclusions without befriending an economist or gathering a lot more data. But having said that, I think all craftsmen and women have at one time or another done the mental calculation of current wage versus the price of that new tool and thought to themselves ‘I really need to charge a higher rate’ 😉

What to you think?  There are only so many working hours in a lifetime. Are you spending more on tools today relative to your hourly wage compared to earlier decades? Or are you coping in other ways? (Refurbishing old tools etc which still takes up a lot of time). I’m interested to hear your thoughts in the comments below.


** I used the following source for that pay rate data —  http://www.nber.org/chapters/c2486.pdf

2 thoughts on “The Real Cost Of A Tool”

  1. This is a really interesting topic you brought up. I often sit back and think about what we as carpenters/ framewrights spend on tools in comparison to wages. Most people swinging a mallet or hammer whether to put a smile on their face or food on the table or both know to buy quality tools which cost a quality price. Once you step back and do some math (as you have done) you see the results of what our trade costs coming out of our pockets at the end of the day. I know I’ve ran some numbers some days and the results are usually not in the tradesmans favor. I then forget all of what I just figured and chisel the timber that’s sitting in front of me with a big smile… Enjoying every minute, doing a craft I love.

    1. Hi Cj,
      Thank you for the note. I’m glad to hear I am not alone in feeling that same way. I love what I do and believe we as a trade/craft need to make sure we value our work appropriately.

      Take care,

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