Interview: antique tools collector David Russell reveals 'It's quite a responsibility...'

Tools are man's earliest surviving artefacts and David Russell's collection, lovingly put together over a period of 35 years, is possibly the biggest private collection of western woodworking tools in the world.

Now David has put his expertise and experiences as a collector into a new book: Antique Woodworking Tools: Their Craftsmanship from the Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century - billed as the most serious - and possibly the first - analysis of its kind, to date.

David Russell, holding a long rip
saw from the Auvergne, France,
18th century

As David Linley, Chairman of Christie's and a well-known cabinet maker, writes in the foreword to David's new book, "Russell is to be congratulated on amassing with unerring eye such a fascinating array of tools, many of which are of the highest quality or deepest historical significance."

In our latest exclusive interview, David Russell - who is also an expert joiner - kindly agreed to chat to Paul Fraser Collectibles about his collection, his passion of antique tools, and how he came across some rare and early sketches by author Beatrix Potter...

How did your background lead you to building your collection?

My father made kegs in a powder works near Kendal in Cumbria, England. When I was 15 he told me that I should start earning a living, so I soon found myself at the joiner's and cabinet-maker's workshop where my older brother Rodney was serving an apprenticeship.

So you see woodworking was very much part of my background. Under the watchful eye of Bill Whitehead, the foreman, I came to understand something about the wonders of working wood with fine tools. I soon spotted Bill's Norris planes that he kept on a shelf under his bench and somehow they caught my imagination.

He would never let me use them, though... Somehow that set me thinking I must go and find a Norris plane for myself. For that I had to wait a long time for National Service in the Army intervened.

What are your recent successes as a collector?

My collection began with a humble Norris smoother bought in a Sunday market for a fiver and among my most recent purchases has been another Norris plane bought at auction. It is a magnificent rebate/mitre plane almost 14 inches long made to order, probably sometime before the Second World War.

A long plane (end detail)
adorned with a naked
woman from France, late
18th century

It has the pin-and-hole adjustment mechanism that Norris featured in their 1930 catalogue. What I love about it is the beautiful engineering. The sole is dovetailed perfectly to the stock and the cant of the comfortable handle can be adjusted by means of a threaded screw. It is a sheer delight to hold and behold!

With upcoming developments like the Victoria & Albert Museum's 2012 furniture gallery, what are your predictions for the future of collectible tools?

I think the opening of the new furniture gallery at the V&A where the emphasis is on materials and techniques marks an important change of attitude. I have always felt that you need to understand a bit about how something was made to appreciate it fully.

A greater awareness of how things are made will lead inevitably to greater interest in tools of all trades.

As you say, your first item was an early 20th century Norris smoother. What was it about this piece that drove you to build one of the world's largest antique tools collections?

My first item was a Norris smoother made probably in the late 1930s. It was a very humble item in steel, gun-metal and beech, but it was made by Norris and of a simple elegance and functionality. That alone gave me a thrill and filled me with pride.

What is the most unique or fascinating item in your collection? Has there been an item that took you by surprise?

The thing is, I have had the opportunity to acquire many unique and fascinating items and have kept a sharp eye out for oddities and tools made to order by great tool-makers.

One item of which I am very proud is a Neolithic polishing stone used by early man to smooth the surfaces of knapped axe-heads and chisels. You can see the grooves in the sandstone that must speak of countless painstaking hours of smoothing and polishing.

Your collection includes unpublished drawings of garden tools by the 10-year-old Beatrix Potter. How did you come to find/own them?

I spotted them in an inconspicuous advertisement in the Antique Trades Gazette. Being a Lakeland man myself and full of admiration for Beatrix Potter's work as a draughtswoman, and all she had done to help conserve the hill farms of Cumbria, I could not resist them.

Yes, there are garden tools in the drawing, but there is also a brace and bit, an adze and a bow saw!

Has the importance of antique tools been overlooked?

It saddens me to think that it has. They are so much part of civilisation — and, going back to the Stone Age for a moment, they are the earliest surviving artefacts of man. But they also tell us so much about the huge pride craftsmen had in their work.

Being an apprentice was part of that culture and it is a shame that rigorous training of that kind is out of fashion.

How important is quality of condition with collectible antique tools?

Quality of condition is important. A tool in good working order is appealing, but wear and tear is also fascinating, when you see that the same tool has been handed down from father to son for generations; sometimes with the stamp of each generation on the tool.

It is also interesting to see when tools have been altered or mended to give them a new lease of life. What is hard is their upkeep. All that iron and steel that is liable to rust at the drop of a hat.

What you should avoid is over-cleaning. There is much history in the patina on a plane. Of course it is nice to have tools that are as good as new and I am lucky to own some Norris planes still coated with the protective varnish when they left the factory.

How can you be sure that the item is authentic?

Sometimes it is hard to tell. Often the feel and balance of the tool tells you that it is likely to be right. There are tools that come on the market that have been tampered with to enhance their value or have been made from spare parts or have been given stamps with the intention to deceive.

This must be true of many kinds of collectibles. So buyer beware!

What advice would you give to anyone looking to invest their time and money in collectibles?

Certainly hunting for and then owning some beautiful objects is far more satisfying than putting spare cash in the bank to earn a pittance in interest. Collecting woodworking tools has been a lifelong hobby and passion of mine. I never embarked on it as an investment.

Your collection is being exhibited in London— do you think you will ever sell it in the future?

We shall have to wait and see, but being the guardian of an important collection is quite a responsibility.


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