There's something about the look, feel, and inventive construction of old tools that attracts people. They like to learn about them, collect them, use them in their home workshops - even exhibit them as works of art. Take Ronald Barlow, for example. A California antiques dealer, author, and old-tool buff, Mr. Barlow waxes nostalgic, not only over very old $20 axes, but also over all tools that have the ``patina of old iron and brass coupled with sweat-stained hardwood.'' He maintains that fine tools have much in common with traditional antiques - beauty, form, function, identifying marks, and historical significance.
In his book, ``The Antique Tool Collector's Guide to Value'' (El Cajon, Calif.: Windmill Publishing Company, $12.95), Barlow illustrates, describes, appraises hundreds of tools that are being avidly sought today by collectors.
The tools that delight collectors represent many crafts and include everything from adzes, augers, and axes to braces and bitstocks, calipers and chisels, hammers and hatchets, planes and pincers, saws and screwdrivers.
Many tools change hands at flea markets and swap meets, at yard and barn sales, and at auctions and antique shows. Most folk art dealers carry a few. But during the last 15 years, Jim and Nancy Clokey of Deephaven, Minn., have carved out a neat niche for themselves by specializing in antique tools and workbenches, as well as workshed and country furniture. They explain that they collect antiques and the tools that made the antiques.
The Clokeys find old tools everywhere, but have discovered many of their best finds from Pennsylvania to Maine. As an amateur woodworker, Jim Clokey says that he likes ``working with my hands, and the feel of wood and the texture of iron. It was then that I began to use, and buy and sell, old tools. They fascinated me, and I assembled a 30-volume library on tools that would help me understand them better.''
Gradually he began to view tools as pieces of art, as well as useful artifacts, and began to sell them as decorative objects to be mounted and enjoyed as sculpture or hung as part of a wall arrangement.
What gives tools art value?
High quality, a pleasing flow of line, and a strong sense of life and vitality, says this dealer. Any unusual decoration of the iron yields additional art value. Most of the tools offered by the Clokeys are 19th- and early-20th-century in date, although some date back to the 16th century.
The interest grows each year, they say, particularly among women.
``At first, women never looked at tools,'' Nancy Clokey remarks. ``Then they began to buy them for their husbands. Now they buy them for themselves, as well, to use as accessories in their offices and homes.''
The Clokeys also deal in well-worn workbenches that are pre-1925 and usually solid maple, and that have all the nicks and scratches that come from years of hard use. They usually find them in old barns or chicken coops.
After having them commercially stripped, they refinish them with polyurethane varnish and sell them for $1,000 and up, to be used as room dividers, buffets, and computer desks. Antique tool boxes, once the pride of old-time cabinetmakers, can bring over $900 today.
Mrs. Clokey contends that old tools are still very affordable compared with many antiques, and pointed to brass-bound levels that sell for as little as $35.
``People can relate to old tools,'' says Larry Williams, an antiques dealer from Annapolis, Md., showing off some antique levels, marking gauges, and planes, ``because their dad, or their granddad, worked with tools and they remember.'' Mr. Williams and his wife, Cecilia, were in New York City recently to exhibit at the recent Fall Antiques Show.
``Not everyone can relate to fine crystal, silver, and paintings,'' he adds. ``Tools seem to be a common denominator.''
There are 27 local tool-collector groups around the country, but the oldest and largest fraternity of tool buffs is the Early American Industries Association. Founded in 1933, it has 2,700 members in the United States and several foreign countries, publishes a newsletter and a quarterly magazine, and sponsors semi-annual meetings at museums or restorations where there are antique tool displays or craft demonstrations.
Harvey Jaycock of Ridgefield, Conn., president, explains that the organization is dedicated to the principle that tool collectors must preserve not only the artifacts but also the knowledge of how to use them.
He says that his own interest was sharpened when he inherited his grandfather's and great-grandfather's cabinetmaking tools and with which he later restored a vintage one-room schoolhouse. His interest broadened to include the tools of over 60 crafts.
One wall of his personal business office is covered with basketmaker's tools, another with ferrier's tools, another with tools devoted to the coopering trade. Shoemaker and tannery tools have a place as well. He buys only tools that work, and he selects many for their particular beauty.
David Parke of Madison, Conn., editor of Shavings, the association's chronicle, collects 40- and 50-year-old Stanley tools and uses them for his own woodworking.
``Some of the older tools are far better than you can find today in terms of the kind of steel used in them and the craftsmanship with which they were made,'' Mr. Parke says.
He adds that he has noted a big growth in tool collecting during the last 10 years, and predicts further expansion in the years ahead. Retirees will discover the positive hobby value of tool collecting, he contends, and younger men and women will continue to seek old tools with which to pursue traditional skills and crafts.
Anyone can join the Early American Industries Association for $18 a year by applying to P.O. Box 2128, Empire State Plaza Station, Albany, N.Y. 12220.
A free book list of 110 titles of tool-related books sold by the association may be ordered from the same address.