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Tony tells a tool story
3:41pm Monday 14th May 2007 in News
Gill Oliver meets a man with a passion for collecting antique tools Almost 50 years ago, Tony Robinson was serving his apprenticeship as a maintenance builder on the Tusmore Park estate near Brackley. Little did he know that the tools he was learning to use would become such an important part of his life outside, as well as during, working hours.
Since then Tony, 64, has built up a fascinating collection of around 5,000 antique tools used by builders, plumbers, electricians and gardeners. These include many different types of implements such as planes, hammers, chisels, screwdrivers, saws and spoke shaves.
"My father was head gardener at Tusmore and I was brought up there from the age of six," he said.
"I spent a lot of my childhood with the maintenance men and in the carpenters' shop, so my interest started then."
After finishing his apprenticeship, he worked on the estate for a while before leaving to work for various builders' firms. These days he is a self-employed maintenance builder working in the villages between Banbury and Bicester.
Originally, it was his brother Peter, also a gardener on the Tusmore estate, who started the collection back in the mid-1970s. The pair enjoyed tracking down new pieces together until Peter's death in 1997. At that point, the collection stood at 4,000.
Among his collection, Tony has what he describes as a few oddities' he is particularly proud of. His favourite is a stamp that was used for creating the indentation, or frog' as it is known, in bricks in the days when they were made by hand.
"It is a piece of shaped lead with the name, Flettons, stamped on the side of it. I picked it up for 50p at a car boot sale. The lady who sold it to me thought it was a lobster pot weight.
"I spotted the writing on it and immediately thought I knew what it was but didn't say anything, as you can never be sure until you get it home.
"There aren't many of them about because when they were finished with they were often melted down for scrap," he adds.
The oldest item in Tony's collection dates back to 1786 but accurately assessing a tool's age is one of the hardest things to do.
"A lot of these were made over such a long period of time that you can't date them easily," he explains. "Sometimes, it helps to trace the manufacturers and find out about their history.
"For instance, I have tools made by Nurse and Co, who were originally from Kent but relocated to London. I know the year when they moved so I can work out the dates of some pieces by that method."
Most of the time, Tony's collection stays packed carefully away in boxes at his farm in a village near Bicester, where he lives with his wife Margaret.
"She doesn't mind me having this hobby," he said. "She collects buttons, so when she is looking around at car boot sales, she might pick up some tools for me. She tends to buy them for me as Christmas presents, too," he added.
Other places where Tony finds new additions are at auctions, in antiques shops and on the Internet, including eBay.
One of the things Tony enjoys most is being able to show his collection at events such as country shows, game fairs and steam rallies.
He takes up to 300 tools, spreading them over three tables. It usually takes him about an hour to set them all out and another hour to pack away afterwards.
"You meet interesting people at the shows and get into conversation. They ask you about it and you tell them what you know but at the same time, you can learn things from them too.
"Lots of people collect something so they don't look at you as though you are a bit funny," he explains. "Mind you, it does tend to be men who are interested more than ladies."
Going to events also has unexpected bonuses sometimes, as he explains.
"I got chatting with a chap at a steam rally last September and he told me he was clearing his shed out and closing his business down because he was retiring.
"He was in his 70s and he had been in the building trade since he was 17, so some of the tools he had were pretty old.
"I told him I'd have them, and he brought them round to my house on the Sunday. He said that if he hadn't met me on the Saturday, they would have been chucked in a skip that Monday."
As well as displaying his collection to the public, Tony gives talks to local clubs and societies.
He is a great believer in researching to find out about his subject: "You've got to have some knowledge of what you are talking about," he said.
To help him, he uses books, the Internet and tool company brochures, which he picks up at auctions and car boot sales.
"I've got a couple of old pamphlets - one is from 1902 and another from 1969," he said proudly.
So, does he think modern tools are easier to use than antique ones? He hesitated for a moment.
"They're usually battery, or electric operated these days, so they are quicker and I do use them in my work," he conceded.
But then he could not resist adding: "If you ask me, the old ones give you a much better finish."