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Hand tools that shaped our past now collected for their history

Collector Paul League finds, again and again that America – a country built on wood – values its tools, essential for clearing, shaping and repairing.

As he has collected antique hand tools, League has become a tool historian.

He is particularly interested in antique hand tools with South Carolina ties, especially those that came through the Charleston port or down the Old Wagon Road from Pennsylvania prior to the Civil War, and feels fortunate to have numerous items traceable to the Midlands.

“Tools I’ve collected with local ties are marked with a hardware store’s brand, and I found their references primarily through proprietors’ advertising, but that doesn’t often mean the tools were made locally,” League explained.

The retired attorney will be sharing his gleanings with Columbia Woodworking Club (CWC) at its April 10 meeting, 6:30 p.m., at Mann Tool, 802 Chris Drive, West Columbia.

According to CWC President Alice Perritt of House of Paintings and Frames, “Paul’s presentation will include a discussion and display of early woodworking hand tools with South Carolina connections.”

Guests are welcome. More details are available here.

Paul League holding a plane.

League once was the beginner now he keeps in mind when asked to talk about his antique tools. “I did not set out to be a collector, much less a historian,” he said. “In the 70s, I wanted to undertake some renovations to my first house, in Melrose Heights, so I went to Midlands Tech and took a basic course in cabinet making.”

The course required the use of a variety of hand tools which led to League’s study of their history and vocabulary, and set him on a course of discovery.

His on-going home renovation projects ultimately led to furniture making, then woodturning.

Now League is content to work on his turn-of-the-century Shandon home well maintained while learning more about old tools, a passion he shares, especially with new woodworkers coming into the hobby.

“I first began picking up old tools at yard sales, flea markets, antique and junk stores around the ‘70s.”

His oldest piece dates to the period 1706 -1739, and was made in England.

League said sometimes those selling the antique tools did not realize the historic value of what they had.

If an item was valuable to him, frequently because of its local connection, he didn’t blink an eye; he brought it home.

His undergraduate degree in history, earned at the University of South Carolina, continues to provide background for the research aspect of his collecting.

“At times it would be easy to make inferences as to a maker’s correct name or date when I don’t have absolute proof, so I keep searching.”

League joined Early American Industries Association, Mid-West Tool Collectors Association, and in addition to being a member of CWC is current president of the Palmetto Woodturners, a group that brings in demonstrators from all over the country, and sometimes other countries – Canada and Australia, for example.

Paul League shows mallets, important traditional hand tools for woodworking.

“Those organizations’ meetings and the publications they produce have been great resources for me to add to my collection and to learn more about them”.

League’s collection includes a variety of antique planes, chisels, saws, lathes and mallets, plus displays he’s created from old newspaper advertisements tracked down at South Caroliniana Library.

“Local hardware stores, such as Fisher and Agnew, chose prime business locations and, in addition to woodworking tools, sold a wide assortment of goods, from Irish glue and agricultural implements, to andirons, bagging and rope – and a new invention, important in the South: metal screening to keep out mosquitos.”

League said Fisher and Agnew did business at the corner of Plain and Richardson streets, now known as Main and Gervais, under The Golden Anvil sign.

“Not everyone could read in those days, so whoever was sent to buy would look for that recognizable symbol over the door,” he reminded.

The April 10 meeting also will feature a demonstration of intricate veneer inlays by David Adler of Asheville, NC.

Featured photo: Paul League with one of the oldest planes in his collection.

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