Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Visit With Patrick Leach

I didn't get any actual woodworking done this weekend, but I had a good reason. In this post, Chris Schwarz was saying how jealous he is of the East Coast's stock of vintage hand tools. So here's my minor gloat.

I've been consuming gobbets of Patrick's Blood & Gore for the past year. The site is encyclopedic in its breadth. It's linked to by every hand-tool site on the Internet. The history of every plane Stanley ever made, with photos and descriptions of what to look for in good or bad examples. His collection is clearly extensive.

Two weeks ago I was reading his page about the incredible patternmaker's chest he'd scored back in '98 and noticed a familiar town name. Hmm, that's interesting. Then I noticed he sells this stuff online (here the oldtools aficionados will peg me as a clueless newbie, because it turns out he's been sending out monthly For Sale lists for 15 years, maybe more). And he lives... four towns away! Holy smokes, I wonder if he minds visitors?

So I clicked on the link to be added to his mailing list. Soon the February list showed up, with links to photos. Some of this stuff was incredible. I saw a sweet wooden swing arm plough with a full set of irons. I had picked up a similar plough at an antiques store on Cape Cod, but like all the others I've seen, it only has one iron. I crossed my fingers and dashed off a quick message to say I'll take it, I need those irons, and, um, can I come by to pick it up and drool on his collection?

My timing was terrible. Four days before the March list was to be sent to nearly 10,000 people. He replied that the plough was gone and the 20-plus inches of recent snow had made his road pretty treacherous, but not to fret, he had more irons. Sheepishly, I realized he had to be pretty busy getting the new list ready. Ok, I could wait.

I spent the time lurking on the oldtools list. The clued-in know the story. Patrick's terms of sale were adopted as the "official" terms for all sales on the list, a model of fair-play; don't play straight and you're done buying anything. He's credited with the moniker "galoot" proudly worn by the Neanderthals who've given up their tailed apprentices. Any questions anyone has about planes and plenty of other tools, he can answer them.

Known as the Merchant of Ashby, he's used everything he talks about. He's viewed as one of the premier suppliers of usable antique tools on the Internet. He co-founded Independence Tools with Pete Taran to hand-build fine joinery saws. Patrick left to sell tools full-time, and Pete eventually sold the company to Lie-Nielsen; he now runs Vintage Saws, where I learned how to turn rusted junk into high performance weapons of wood destruction. I have two of the small joinery saws that LN produced and two more of their larger ones.

Patrick's the man. Not the Man, Patrick told him to KMA. You can see it yourself in the oldtools archive. The go-to man. Doesn't suffer fools but has time for everyone else. I was dazzled. My anticipation grew.

March 1st. List arrives in my inbox. My gawd, how does he get this stuff? Read-read-read-click-read-click-tap-tap-tap. My list of desired items goes out 20 minutes later. His reply: I got everything I wanted, I got in early this time. More like a sniper waiting to take the shot. Sight-acquire-fire. The other good news: if the thaw holds out as forecast, I can come by on the weekend for pickup.

Sunday morning, I have the Google Maps printout, 38-minute travel time on Rt. 119 as my wife drives the minivan. We turn off in Ashby. Wow, there sure is a lot of snow still around. Our house 20 miles away is down to bare ground.

Then we get to his road.

You can tell the Big Dig dollars didn't get out to this part of the state. Perhaps I should call it his mudpit. As my wife turns onto it, I'm gauging how difficult it will be for AAA to get a tow truck in here to pull us free. But people do live on this road, so it has to be passable. Right? In a pinch, I still have snowshoes in the back from when my daughter and I tried to go snowshoeing in Royalston three weeks earlier, and there wasn't enough snow to use them.

But we make it to his paved drive without incident. Wow, there sure still is a lot of snow around! He meets me at the door and we shake hands. My box is ready to go. He offers to show me his garage. I prepare to enter the outer sanctum (I don't have the Benjamins to even think about the Inner Sanctum). Take a breath.

He apologized for the disorganization, which was like apologizing that the candy's not alphabetized. I oohed and aahed and wowed like the kids looking in the department store window in Christmas Story. He stood back with a wry half-smile and a twinkle in his eye. He knows. I suspect he gets a big kick out of seeing guys make fools of themselves over his collection. How many get to lay eyes on this in person? Boy, I did!

Planes and planes and planes and planes, wooden and metal in all shapes and styles, brought forth by our fathers these last twelve score and seven years. Whole sets of hollows and rounds. Cast-iron Victorian boring contraptions. Bits and blades and irons. Chisels and gouges and shaves, oh my!

And there, pulsing quietly under its patina, a Norris A1. I dared not touch it, lest I be infected with desire, be forced to sell my wife's car the next time one came up for sale, she wouldn't be able to get to work, and we'd end up homeless. Bad scenario.

Back to the real world, I pulled out a couple of chisels I had brought for identification and asked if they were Stanley 750's or Everlasts. He said no, the 5/8" was a Defiance, the logo was too worn down on the 1/4" to tell anything. He showed me a 750 for comparison. The deeply-pressed "750" was visible to a blind man standing on the moon, although I've read that some are not so obviously marked.

He asked me what I did for a living. Turns out we both worked for Digital Equipment Corporation back in the day (as did seemingly everyone in New England high tech over the age of 30). He told me was DECsecuted when they shut down Layered Products in Nashua. I left when I made my Big Career Move to 3com. You remember 3com, right? RIP. He said he decided to get out of the high tech biz, he doesn't really take to authority well (no more wondering where the name Independence Tools came from).

Soon we were on our way, my box of treasures behind the seat where I wouldn't impale myself. Rutted roads and pointy metal objects in the lap are a bad mix.

I expected to spend the rest of the day reading through my new copies of Hayward while my wife went off to the flea market with a friend. Then she called me and said there was a guy there with a better-than-your-average-vendor selection of tools, did I want any more? Woohoo!

So now I have to rebuild my chisel rack. That one lasted a week.

I sent this to Patrick before posting. He replied that it "sorta reads like a Billy Mays infomercial". I believe that means he found it entertaining!


  1. Please, show us some pics of all that great stuff!!

  2. Ah, well, sadly I didn't get any while I was there. You'll just have to let your imagination run wild!


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