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A number of readers have written in lately asking for advice on buying used tools, and though we have some — OK, a lot of — experience in swap meets and flea markets, we thought we’d toss the question out here for everyone to have a go at it.

I suppose this really breaks down into a few categories: hand tools, power tools, and specialty tools.  Hand tools are pretty easy, as you can pick ’em up, check ’em out, and get a pretty good idea right on the spot as to their condition.  Power tools are a little harder as it’s sometimes hard to detect almost-worn-out brushes and such.  But I’ve still had lots of good luck with used power tools.  Incredibly, though, I’d say I’ve found more used specialty tools than either of the others.  Why?  People don’t know what they are!

I know you have an opinion on this — every tool person does.  So why not share it with us in comments?

(Thanks to oskay for this great CC-licensed photo.)

 

7 Responses to Reader Question: Advice For Buying Used Tools

  1. Ben says:

    I worked at a pawn shop for 10 years and we got a ton of tools through there. Power and air tools were always the biggest pain to throughly check-usually we’d plug it in, make sure it ran, and put it out for sale (we had a two week return policy in case it was a dud).

    Painting tools, like paint sprayers were almost always broken and impossible to quickly test and our store just made a point to avoid them entirely. Gas powered tools were also difficult to test.

    I’d agree with the article about specialty tools-we always seemed to have an abundance of them. They were hard to sell because only a very small percentage of customers would A) know what they were and B) need whatever it was. This meant that these tools had to be sold cheap or they’d sit on the shelves for years. I’ve seen quite a few specialty tools that retailed new for hundreds of dollars sold for pennies on the dollar. If somebody was interested in a tool, we usually would cut a great deal to get it out of there.

    Almost all of my personal tool collection came from that store. Over the years, I acquired some incredible tools at a fraction of what they would have cost me in a normal store.

    That little orange sticker you see in college bookstores applies the same to the tool world: “Used saves”.

  2. Leslie says:

    In the house renovation communities I frequent, folks are constantly having good luck finding bargains on used tools. As you mentioned already, they seem to frequently be specialty tools; for example, many old house renovators find silent paint strippers or paint shaver tools at good deals used, because folks will buy them new, use them for the first big round of renovation, then sell them because they’re not really needed past that. Others (though not me, dangit) have had great luck finding The Big Tools – expensive workshop equipment – being sold barely used at estate sales or from living folks who have finally admitted that they wanted to own it far more than they wanted to use it.

    I would be a lot more reluctant to buy a regular hand-held power tool used unless it was something I could test and it cost less than what I’d spend for lunch. I have a weakness for old handtools and toolboxes, though, even the ones I never actually use – there’s just something special about having a set of clearly quite old and well used wood handled screwdrivers; they just seem to give out good energy from whoever used it in the past.

  3. John says:

    I will no longer buy new tools at swap meets (and I won’t let my friends, either). Used hand tools have always ended up being a better swap-meet deal for me than the new “MIT” and “Grip” trash at the next table. Their body hammers and dollies rust before you get home. The cold chisels deform on the first hit. Even the full set of screwdrivers is overpriced at $2. The snap ring pliers do snap, though, I’ll give them that.

    The one exception is that cool sheet metal nibbler that you chuck in a drill. I’d buy that one again.

  4. Larry says:

    I’ve purchased a few of each genre of tools used before. I was an auto mechanic for 10 years before I became a house restoration freak. (lol). Power tools I’ll buy if I can plug it in. If it works at all, it can be “tuned up” if need be. Air tools….I’m pretty careful with air tools. It isn’t often that you can test them before you buy them. Also, worn air tools are pretty much junk usually.

    Either way, power tools and air tools…I’ll only pay up to 25% of new price, no matter how shiny and nice it looks.

  5. Jim says:

    I’m with Larry on this one. 25%, no more. That said I’ve had pretty good success with buying used tools in the past. Yard sales, estate sales, and places that don’t normally sell tools (certain thrift shops, etc.) have always been my best sources for the “good stuff” with flea markets and swap meets coming in second. Hand tools have been by far my best finds since it’d appear no one wants to expend the extra effort (results be d*mned) anymore. Battery operated power tools I stay away from, usually people want too much money for them too. I’ve gotten a few great corded tools at good prices though. Best recent acquisition, a porter cable router for $45 in great shape. Woohoo!

  6. Brau says:

    Unless I know what use they’ve had or if I luck into something that’s a definite steal (like a drill-press and 14″ lathe I got for $50), I never buy used tools. Particularly powertools which can hide their problems until after they warm up. Handtools – only if they are a known lifetime warranteed brand like Sears Craftsman, Husky, Mac, or Snap-On that I know I can get a replacement (no questions asked) if it fails.

  7. TL says:

    I’m a fan of used tools. For powered stuff, always check them out first and avoid spending more than 30% of new. The trick is finding the good stuff. My best finds are from estate sales, thrift stores (occasionally), and pawn shops near military bases (18 year olds do strange things with their first pay checks).

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