Used Tool Buying Guide (eBay)

Buying Used Japanese Tools on eBay:  Rev. 1

Warning: The following long-winded document includes opinions and liberal generalizations. Lots of them. I have formed them based on my personal experience watching and buying Japanese tools on eBay and elsewhere - and then actually trying to use them. 


Some eBay purchases. Results may vary.
Executive Summary:
When buying anything on eBay you are undertaking a certain amount of risk. In general, the less you know about what you are buying and who you are buying it from, the greater the risk. If the bulk of information about the item you are interested in exists exclusively in another language that you know little about, you are pretty much rolling the dice. I hope the following information can help dispel some of the mystery and reduce the odds of getting stuck with something that can never work. The major topics are initial quality and present condition and how those impact usability (and price). If you cannot wait for the right tool to come along or cannot risk buying unusable junk, stop here and go buy new from a reputable dealer. I list some on the Links page. If you do choose to bid, do your homework. 

Determinants of Price:  Makers and Condition

The Maker:
Japanese tool selection is not simply a choice between some major brands like Stanley, Record, Craftsman, and a few others. There are literally thousands of makers and brands. Since the maker's reputation has everything to do with quality (and price), I tend to focus my efforts on verifying who made the tool being offered. If the maker can be identified, you stand a fair chance of finding examples of the same tool on the (Japanese) Web, often with pricing. But there are a lot of hurdles to get over - like, 99% of it is in Japanese

Here I offer a very crude overview of some of the issues related to identifying makers and marks (once you get past the kanji issue):

An individual toolmaker : 
1. has a given name, ie, Kikuo Kanda. Some use this name. 
2. may have a trade name, ie, Mosaku. Some use this name.
3. may have a brand name that tools are known by. Some use this name.
4. may or may not sign blades with trade name, brand name, or given name.
5. frequently has specific named models (ie, on plane blades) which are typically the most prominent markings on the blade, or that could be the brand name. 
6. may make dozens of types of tools ranging from knives to plane blades or may specialize in just a few types of tools (ie, chisels or saws).
7. may have apprentices or offspring that may earn the right to use the brand name or trade name. So multiple makers of the same brand could be producing simultaneously, or at least using part of a brand name or designation - so it can be confusing. 

Historically, blacksmith (kaji) know-how stayed in families with each generation earning a reputation all it's own. No sons? Adoption was common (less so these days). Generation matters - sometimes a lot. 

There are regional guilds and marks, regional names for tools, regional features, etc. Sometimes the markings are illegible, faint, obliterated, rusted, or when on eBay - poorly photographed or just plain omitted.

And then there are other markings for trademark, high quality, hand made, special, etc. that end up on blades and distract us non-Japanese while offering few clues (see list at end of post). 

Which marks matter?
Lastly, dare I say it, there are fakes. Gansaku (贋作) is one term used to label such copies of legendary maker's handiwork. Nisei-mono (偽物) is another. Plane blades seem to be faked the most, but saws take a close second, and chisels not so much. Just be aware they are out there.

On eBay we see older tools offered but most of what we are looking at were made in the last 30 or 40 years - especially the usable stuff. Think of blacksmiths as painters for a minute. There are Rembrandt's, Picasso's, and a million other guys you never heard of, but some paintings by relative unknowns are very good by most measures. You can buy good paintings for a lot less than famous paintings. Japanese tools go the same way. 

The range of makers and marks is staggering, but it is also your best guarantee of getting quality tools. No verification of the maker? You enter the realm of chance where there is no minimum standard of quality - and your bid should reflect this. 

The confusion is not ours alone. The Japanese government has helped us all out by creating the formal designation of "Traditional Craft Product" that seeks to both inform the consumer and preserve the traditional means of producing traditional crafts - and the traditional tools and materials required for their manufacture. Qualifying products bear this mark (and usually a serial number):



Sometimes you see tools so marked on eBay and they are a safe bet though probably not cheap. Tools bearing this mark will be handmade and high quality. Read more here (it is now machine translated - and not very well.)  http://kougeihin.jp/home.shtml

Part of the requirements for the Traditional Craft designation is that there must be sufficient regional presence of such makers. There are not a lot of qualified 
Traditional Craft Making Centers apparently, but Miki is the most visible one and does a good job promoting the local makers on the Web. See these links for more info. If you use Google Chrome browser you can hit Translate to put it into English. 

http://www.miki-kanamono.or.jp/kougeishi/ 

http://www.miki-kanamono.or.jp/
  
The other thing you can do is look closely at a lot of known high quality tools and get a feel for the features they have, the finishes you see on the blades, the welds, fitting of the parts, etc. Learn to distinguish factory junk from better tools. Then, even without knowing exactly who made it, you at least increase your chances of buying a usable tool of decent quality. Tool quality is not binary. There are a lot of mid-range tools that are well made, ideal for learning, and able to produce good results - at reasonable prices. Best to work out our beginner mistakes on cheaper tools anyway. Speaking of which...

Factory made vs. hand made tools:
Not so easy to distinguish initially, but with factory made tools there is a heavy reliance on machine grinders, forming equipment, marking equipment, and uniformity. There is also less care put into the final product. Compare these two chisel shanks:


Hand finished with a file. 

Crudely finished with abrasives.
Handmade:
  • Hand forged, shaped, finished, and marked.
  • Each tool is unique, with slight variations. 
  • Saw teeth are hand cut and sharpened by file.
  • Saws are tuned and tensioned by hand. Marks on the blade are typical. 
  • Markings can be stamped, chiseled, inscribed or a combination.

A hand forged, formed, and finished saw blade.

Handmade chisel with hagane wrapping at edges.
Factory made: 

  • Often from precision ground sheet or plate, so the finish looks factory made.
  • Machine sharpened.
  • Impulse hardened (saws).
  • No evidence of folding/manipulation during forging. Uniform iron in laminated blade.  
  • Markings are often ink or stamped in during forming.


Factory made ryoba.
The Materials:
Regardless of origin, well made tools will use better materials. The majority of Japanese edge tools we will see on eBay consist of the softer, low-carbon steel (jigane) laminated to the high-carbon (hagane). Often there are claims of superior, rare, or special steels but most of the time that information is unavailable (lost). But you want some assurance that the steel in the blade is good quality to begin with.  

Hagane - Sometimes you will see "white steel" or "white paper steel" or "blue paper", etc. These are registered trademarks of Hitachi Metals who makes these steels. Here is their catalog with the these steels in it, FYI. 
http://www.hitachi-metals.co.jp/pdf/
Dig down to page 4 for formulations. Blue Paper is 青紙. White Paper is 白紙 You are on your own with the rest of it, but according to the Hitachi marketing department, Blue is alloyed with tungsten and chromium in addition to the elements in White and makes a longer lasting edge. I have no opinion on either but there are plenty out there. Either of these steels make excellent blades. They are certainly the most common. 

There are also novelty steels (my term) used that you may see boasted about. Sword steel (anyone?), Swedish steel, High Speed steel (called haisu in Japanese - these are not usually laminated blades), and the rare and expensive tama-hagane a globular, traditionally hand made, small batch steel usually reserved for swords. Search it on Youtube.  

Jigane - (地金) Not surprisingly, makers and some users have preferences for the softer metals, too. You will hear of use of old anchors, chain, bridges, trestles, etc. due to the makeup and process used to make the iron. Most of the oldest iron is used up and I have not seen this mentioned by any sellers on eBay, but you might run across it. It can be a factor in price, if of unusual origin.

Wood parts- Besides exotics like ebony and rosewood which seem to up the price of any tool despite their frailties, most tool parts are Japanese oak. The majority of plane dai's, chisel handles, marking gauges, mallets, handles and tools requiring tough wood parts are Japanese white oak. Also common but pricier is Japanese red oak. Oak is preferred over the exotics because of impact resistance, cost, and stability. 
Here are the two types of oak for reference:


Japanese white and red oak.

The best oak is well aged. Good plane dai's are rough cut and stored for years before being used. The grain is straight and the grain orientation is a critical factor in assessing quality. Knots, irregularities, and runout weaken the dai or other tool parts. See the examples further on.

Blade vocabulary note:
ura - the hollow ground back of a plane or chisel blade. This is ground in the hagane to make sharpening the hard steel easier.

And some initial quality examples for reference:

Example 1: Quality issues from day one: Low quality materials
This small plane blade looked OK in the eBay pictures, but careful inspection of the ura with the naked eye with the blade in hand revealed a slight mark behind the cutting edge and elsewhere on a small plane iron I wasted money on. I put it under a microscope and saw this:


100X shows these inclusions in the steel.

At 600X just to rub it in.
No self-respecting toolmaker would produce something like this. Inclusions are an indication of poor quality materials or improper handling of them. Fact is, it is worthless for producing a decent planed finish - probably at any point during it's lifetime. These tools are out there and hard to spot. A legitimate shop would allow you to return it (and would not carry it in the first place), but eBay sellers differ in their return policies. But they all like good feedback...

Example #2:  High quality from day one: Tasai (Michio)
Here is a good blade of similar size. Hagane should be flawless.


A high-quality blade edge at 600X.

Example #3: Wood parts are another indicator:
This is an older Ouchi chisel handle. It is hard to see, but note the grain - pith is right in the middle as if it was cut from a branch. Mr. Toshiaki Ouchi told me that this makes a durable handle with very straight grain the entire length of the handle. Hoop is steel (not mystery metal).

Center of the handle is center of the branch. 
Grain is perfectly straight.
However, this red oak handle is on the other end of the spectrum. It has two problems: A crack and grain run. Look for straight grain. It arrived cracked from the seller but appeared to be unused. 
Red line is just below a crack the length of the handle.
And this is chipping where the grain runs out. 
Better handles will be carefully selected wood and often marked by the maker. 
Good quality handle. Not same handle as the cracked one above. 
Note maker's mark.
Fit and Finish:
Look at how the various parts fit together. Ferrules transfer a lot of energy so they should be tough steel of a heavy gauge. Ferrule fit to the shank is important, so gaps and poor fit may tell you something. Finishes vary widely as seen below. Left-most is handmade, others look factory made. 



Long ago I bought a plane with a dai so poorly made that it will never hold the blade well enough or squarely enough to produce a decent shaving and the dai is not correctable. Fancy box, not cheap, was a nice piece of oak, not any more. Try to examine the details - sometimes it is not easy. See my comments on getting the most out of eBay photos below.

Are there any guarantees of quality? Yes, buy tools verified (somehow) to be by well known, high quality toolmakers - and there are many. But even the best tools can be degraded by use, misuse, neglect, and time. 


The Condition:  
Let's leave the discussion of materials and workmanship for now and head over to tool condition and how it impacts eBay bidding and usability.

Rust (sabi) 錆
Rust is probably the number one cause for blades to become unusable. These blades are high carbon steel (the hagane anyway) and will rust with little provocation. Moisture + Oxygen = rust. These tools get sharpened in water, stored in wooden plane bodies, rolled up in tool rolls, taken to job sites, stored in barns, garages, and other unheated spaces. Chances of them rusting are very high. Japanese and North American summers are humid and hot. If tools are not protected and stored in dry places there will be consequences. Here is today's example of a plane iron that was left on a shelf in a drafty barn for 20 years in eastern Japan. No direct water contact, just ambient moisture. It is worthless as a user primarily due to rust. 



You can't see it, but the hagane on this blade has 
spots of deep rust penetration, but if you had to guess...
Sometimes rust goes deep into the hagane and ruins that area of the blade. Sometimes it is only surface rust that you can grind off (by hand of course). Sometimes a plane blade only rusts where it contacts the wood of the dai, not behind the cutting edge on the ura. But can you make that critical distinction by looking at standard pictures on eBay? If the hagane on a laminated cutting tool is not shiny and rust free, the only way to know if you can salvage it is to buy it and clean it up. Take that risk into consideration when placing your max bid.

Deep rust penetration will weaken the metal and cause gaps or flaws in the cutting edge. For a plane, that gap will show up as a ridge or streak on the work surface. Some rust goes right through the hagane and therefore will not grind out, ever. Sometimes you can shorten or grind down a blade and reach undamaged hagane, but you will not know until you handle the tool, and sometimes not until your sharpen it. Careful when buying rusted cutting tools. 

I have one personal exception to the rust warning - hammers. Generally there is a lot of metal in them and rust penetration is limited. Also limited is the impact of that rust. I might worry about it if I was driving spikes or using it aggressively on metal, but for bench chisels and small nails the corrosion does not seem to present a hazard. Here are a bunch I salvaged from that drafty barn in Japan:


The faces clean up fairly well (as well as
 you want to invest time polishing them)
Cracks:
Cracks can render an edge tool useless. Poor quality materials and careless heat treatment can increase the likelihood of later cracking. Misuse or accidental impacts crack a blade, but the above (rusted) blade cracked when I was putting a new bevel on it with a 300 grit stone and medium pressure. If it was not a lost cause already, the crack sealed it.


A crack formed parallel to the cutting edge.
 Crack is much longer than shown.

Another used plane iron I was given kept leaving a slight line on the planed surface. Microscope told me: crack in the middle of the blade perpendicular to the cutting edge. If it was on eBay, you would not know until you clean it up, maybe sharpen it, and inspect it. The seller may not even know there is an issue, but sending it back after you have worked on it could be an issue. 

Sometimes you can grind cracks out and it is worthwhile to do so - assuming you know why it cracked. But maybe it is a message about the quality of the blade. You can put a lot of time into resurrecting a worn blade. Make sure it is worth the effort.

Abuse/Misuse:
Tool abuse is a relative term. Routine long term use of plane blades (adjusted often with small hammers) commonly deforms the back end and upper sides of the blade and puts dings in the chip breaker and face of the blade above the chipbreaker. Plane dai (the wooden body) are likewise hit with the hammer at various specific points to adjust or eject the blade - so they wear. Chisel handles will shrink and mushroom. Chisels will shorten. 

But here are some possible warning signs of abnormal and damaging use that you might want to think about:

Edge tools in general - watch out for:
  • RUST
  • Signs of power grinding by user.
  • Heat discoloration that is not part of the original design.
  • Scratches, dings, large chips, and scars from misuse or neglect.
  • Very little hagane left. Nearing end of life.
  • Evidence of sanding, buffing, sandblasting, wirewheel use, repainting - all misleading cosmetic repairs.  A lot of sellers think they are expert tool restorers. You be the judge. Cleaning off deep rust will not undo the damage. 
Chisels - watch out for:
  • RUST
  • Ferule is crushing where the shank touches it. Can happen, shouldn't.
  • Bent shank.
  • Hammer bruises on the blade or shank. (got me, seen it).
  • Hoop is mushroomed from improper fitting and adjustment. Hoops are cheap. 

Saws - watch out for:
  • RUST
  • Multiple missing teeth. One is no problem, but two in a row requires a full recut.
  • Asymmetrical depth of sides (distance from centerline to teeth) of a ryoba (combined rip and crosscut saw). Shows that a full recut may have already happened - at least on one side. Old and well used saws get narrower as they are recut over time. 
  • Hand formed or modified shape (might be done after a corner is broken off).
  • Kinks, dents, or deformations.

Straw colored tempering is intentional here.

Often there is heat discoloration where
 the blade is welded to the tang.
Handmade saws are welded but some makers
 scrape the weld area and remove the oxidation.

Specialty planes - watch out for:
  • RUST.
  • Modified, missing, and severely worn parts.  
  • Incomplete or mismatched blade sets. 
A cleaned up blade set
ready for use. 3mm

An eBay find in good shape.
This set is 6mm. Make sure
the set is complete and usable.
This damaged set will take hours to restore.
Plane Dai - watch out for
  • Dents from hammer blows anywhere but on the "front" end of the dai.
  • Deep dents from hard blows tell you more about the user than the tool. Look for other signs of hard use.
  • Note: dents from hammer blows on the top of the dai of dai-adjusting planes (dai-naoshi-ganna) or scraper planes with 90 degree blade angle may be OK if not severe. 
  • Chips in the dai anywhere. Little ones on top edge behind blade ok.
  • Poorly executed repairs around the blade opening.
  • Extensive repairs, usually around the blade opening.
  • Bolts, nail holes, or other mods or repairs.
  • Cracks anywhere, poor wood quality, shimmed blades, thinned out dai from long use, etc.

The reconditioned eBay
planes detailed above.

Specifics on smoothing planes (hira-ganna):
The parts involved are the main blade, chip-breaker or secondary blade, wood body (dai), and usually a metal pin to hold the chipbreaker blade in place relative to the main blade cutting edge. Simple. But this is eBay and you have 4 low-resolution pictures and a semi-coherent description to go by, maybe misattribution, maybe neon claims of rarity, value, and excellence. 

What you are paying for is the main blade. This is where the master tool maker spent the majority of his time - if it was made by one. But, the the blades (main and chipbreaker) are a matched set in better planes. Dai's get discarded often but good blades are used until the hard steel (hagane) is used up. And even then they get posted to eBay...

It is difficult to spell out all of the minute details that are found in quality, handmade, laminated plane blades. So here is a colossal generalization: they look like they were carefully, artfully, and expertly made. Expertly forged, carefully finished, carefully marked - but ultimately very functional. Daikudojo.org has a nice gallery of quality planes that is worth a study:

http://www.daikudojo.org/Archive/gallery_hand_planes/

And here is an example of things to avoid:
Cheap planes are plastered with warning labels, have thin blades that will not hold much of an edge, have stamped chipper blades, thin blocks with knobs, dimples, wavy grain, (or are plastic), etc. I do not have one as described, but go to http://amazon.co.jp and search on this 鉋  and you will see some things to avoid. I will say that I bought a $20 plane about 15 years ago and the blade is not bad. Use it all the time for heavy cutting. Not sure you want to count on the odds these days though. Some of these low-end tools enter the eBay domain. Here is an example of a more recent cheap plane purchase gone bad:


Well, it looked ok...

But this is the sharpest it will
 ever get (100X). Looks cast.

Reasons to pass:
Is the blade deeply rust pitted on the back (hollow ground or ura) face of the blade behind the cutting edge? If so, you will never get a continuous cutting edge. If there is still some unpitted metal behind the cutting edge, maybe you can use it for a while, but revise your bid accordingly. If you cannot see usable blade area in the pictures...

Basically you want a blade with no rust on the ura. If it has any, it should be only light rust at the edges but ideally the hagane should be rust free. I am sure some will disagree, but we are talking about buying tools based on photographs, not in person. Also look for evidence of where rust was removed.

Is the ura showing wide ground areas that resulted from careless or extensive sharpening? If severe, this can weaken the cutting edge, loosen the fit with the dai, shorten the life of the blade, and give you less of the precious hagane that you are paying for. 

Personal choices:

  • The chipbreaker blade is missing. Maybe you have a spare or do not need it.
  • The chipbreaker blade is stamped sheet or plate metal. May indicate lower quality tool. Depends on what you are looking for and your budget.


Cheap stamped plate steel chipbreakers, usually thin.
Heavier laminated chipbreakers 
are used on better planes.
Packaging - be wary of:
  • Cheap original packaging (blister pack, vacuum formed styrene chisel box insert, etc) is not typical with better tools. 
  • Mismatched packaging - if it is for protection, fine. If the tool is stated as being made by the maker on the box but is not...
Good signs - look for these things:
Packaging:
  •    original solid wood boxes with calligraphy by maker.
  •    in a branded pouch or sock with quality cardboard box.
If not a signed wooden box, a sock
and cardboard may be a close second.
Wood parts are high quality (ie, red or white oak, straight grain, clear)


Good quality white oak dai.
Dai is stamped by the maker on the "back" end. (Note: Japanese planes' front and back are the opposite of western planes).



Chipbreaker blade is signed by maker and laminated.


Upside down, but laminated, textured, and signed.
Blade opening on sole of plane is very narrow. Little of the bevel is exposed. As the dai wears, that opening will enlarge. 

Better dai's usually have a narrow blade opening when new.
The upper dai used to look like the lower dai.
The blade retainer rod or bar is heavy steel or brass. >.150" diameter on 65-70mm planes. These are not nails with the head cut off. 
The ends of the retainer rod are plugged or not through drilled on one side.
The blade, chipbreaker, and dai were made as a set (not mix and match).
The markings are hand struck, chased, chiseled, or engraved. 


Where do tools on eBay come from?
First we will look at Japan, then the US. 

We will start on the low end in Japan - in the classroom - where else? Many Japanese kids get to do small hand tool projects in grade school - with sharp tools like those little wood sheathed kiridashi, nokogiri, chokokutou carving sets, hammers, etc - shocking. Sometimes the tools come in a little kit. Somehow these tools show up in eBay and people buy them. Maybe they know them for what they are, maybe not. Not all are junk, but they are intended for brief use, often by smaller hands. 

Probably next rung up is the DIY chain stores. Yes, the Japanese have fully embraced the term and concept of DIY. These stores are Japanese versions of Ace Hardware, Home Depot, Lowe's, etc. - sort of. Anyway, they do not specialize in high end, hand made, conventional tools. What they do have is a wide array of replaceable blade saws and planes, maybe some laminated blade planes, but cheap usually, chisels, marking tools - a lot of stuff. You will see this grade of tool on eBay constantly - just look for a lot of stickers. The saws are OK, but cheap edge tools are not recommended.



Above is a Joyful Honda DIY store I visited in 2014. Picture a Target, Home Depot, and Safeway rolled into one. No handmade tools, no natural sharpening stones, no urushi lacquer. A lot of hardware, lumber, groceries, building materials, and stuff you do not see stateside. 



Next, I have to insert into our list a source of eBay tools that is not so nice to contemplate: Abused, rusted, and worn out crap that nobody in Japan wants. There, I said it. Here's some proof: Look around in the Yahoo Japan handtool pages and note the prices - just knock off two 0's to approximate US dollars.
This may be the beginning of a new obsession, sorry:

http://list5.auctions.yahoo.co.jp/jp/24654-category.html

It helps to know some kanji, but this is the term for carpenter's tools: 大工道具 (daiku dougu) see the link for it about half way down the page:

Then look around for this link: used:  中古 (middle old - do not apply to humans)
I hesitate to post the exact link because it is likely to change, but do poke around in this handtools section for a reality check. Yahoo is probably the biggest auction platform in Japan but Rakuten is large, too. eBay Japan? Don't bother.  


scroll down to here
then click on "used"

Point is, look at the used hand tools on Yahoo Japan and you will see the bare state of the market for used tools there. Connect the dots and you see that it might be an OK business to buy unwanted stuff in Japan - and ship it to the US...Enough on this. Just realize that one source of used tools we see on eBay may result from the lack of a low end used market in Japan. What do they do with a lot of used cars in Japan? Export them...Used and old stuff there is not that desirable for a variety of reasons, some quite unusual.

Moving on, we get to the classic local hardware store - now rapidly vanishing due to prevalence of power tools, factory-made tools, and DIY stores. Sound familiar?



Some of these stores have good quality tools and offer services while others sell the same stuff as the DIY's, hence the vanishing. These are not pro tool shops, these are good old fashioned mom-pop hardware stores with a lot of variety and good quality in most departments. I only know those I have visited, but, sometimes they have nice old stock. Chisels loose in bins, been there for 20 years. One plane in a kiri box in a glass case behind the counter, etc...and this new old stock (NOS) can end up in the US and on eBay. Not a bad option when you see it on eBay. 

Another source of tools in Japan are blade shops (ha-mono-ya or kana-mono-ya) which often have/had tools made for the shop. But usually only the shop name gets on the tools, not the maker's. Many of these tools are good quality and many of these shops still exist and may be able to provide more information on things sold in the past - if you want a research project. They also carry scissors (hasami), knives of all kinds, shears, sharpening stones, and probably not that many woodworking tools - but inventories vary a bit. Worth a visit nonetheless.

Pro tool shops in Japan cater to the trades and most laypeople do not venture into them. These shops are chock full of tools needed by carpenters and craftspeople and while they may carry quality factory-made tools, they also stock pro grade handmade tools. 



What a shop does not have, it can get in a couple days assuming it is not a custom order from a toolmaker. They also can get things sharpened quickly or shipped any place you like. Some shops have exclusive or unique relationships with toolmakers so selection will vary. Bring an interpreter if you go but always try to figure out what you want ahead of time so you can sort out the vocabulary required and not waste too much time. Your average interpreter will have no idea of tool terminology, so it may well be up to you. Study Toshio Odate's JAPANESE WOODWORKING TOOLS: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use and make a list - or get info onto your smartphone or tablet and take that. Many of these shops have little or no web presence but I have links to some that do on my Links page. Travelers often bring back treasures from these shops and sometimes they end up on eBay later on.

There are surely other sources I am leaving out, but above are some of the more common channels that bring tools into the marketplace. How they get from Japan to the US is a little less clear. 

Japanese tools originally sold in the US:

Pro tools that end up in the US and Canada come from people who brought them back in a suitcase or US or Canadian importers like Mahogany Masterpieces (Masterpiece Tools), Woodline/TheJapanWoodworker, Hidatool, Misugi Designs, Harrelson Stanley, Garrett Wade, and doubtless others I do not know of. And my guess is that the tools these people import(ed) are the group of tools that most of you are interested in connecting with on eBay. These sellers made (are making) a genuine effort to promote the toolmakers, educate users, and bring (mostly) high quality product to the US. Masterpiece Tools (long defunct), for example, is held in high regard and some real masterpieces were imported by them in the 80's. The Japanese yen was weak, the dollar strong - you can see their catalog here. Anything from Masterpiece Tools brings a premium on eBay:

http://www.daikudojo.org/Archive/20070110_mahogany_masterpiece_catalog/

Back to reality. Tools that were/are specifically made for export usually have the required Made in Japan, or simply "JAPAN", stamped or marked on them. If they were brought in under the radar in small quantities, maybe no such marking. I am not sure if there exists a quality difference between tools made for export and those made for the domestic Japanese market but it has been known to happen. One experience I had in a Tokyo tool shop makes me wonder. The proprietor mentioned to my favorite interpreter that the tools he was selecting for me were, "good enough for gaijin (foreigners)." They have been good for 20 years now. And I do have good eBay tools that have Made in Japan stamped on them - at least good enough for me. And then there are the tools with no makers marks, no Made in Japan - nothing. These might be worth skipping altogether in my experience. 

And who is selling tools on eBay.com?

Here are some sources I have seen repeatedly:
  • Estate liquidations by family/friends.
  • Hard times. Some very expensive tools show up when times are tough.
  • Woodworkers who lost interest, have another focus, never use it, bought better, received a gift, too much stuff, need the money, etc.
  • Consignment shops.
  • Small re-sellers who buy lots, do some importing, buy NOS, auctions, estate sale items, etc.
  • Turbo sellers who know how to move a lot of items.
  • eBay stores (often tool specialists or better quality consignment).
  • Fixers...

Surely there are other situations, but the above list is common. Why does it matter? Seller experience and reputation matters. Some sellers above may have neither. Experienced sellers have figured out how to photograph, package, ship, and communicate - and they can handle disputes quickly. However, always read their terms prior to bidding. The completed sale count and the feedback details are critical to review. These sellers value the feedback you leave and want to be as close to 100% positive as they can get - they want you to be happy. But good sellers come in all shapes and sizes, so rely on the ratings and feedback and ask questions. Just understand that you may have some irregularities with smaller sellers.  

Payment options are another consideration. Paypal is the defacto standard and there are few sellers who do not accept it. Paypal protects you and the seller and has proven itself to be a very secure and reliable service. I have used Paypal with many eBay sellers and even a shop in Japan (Mandaraya honors Paypal). Many auctions are Paypal-only. Occasional sellers may not have Paypal setup, whereas more organized sellers will. 

Pet peeve: One class of sellers, the Fixers, seem to think the best way to increase the value of the used (and likely rusted) tools they are selling is to first sand them entirely with 120 grit, or even refinish them. When this is done you are losing information that is important. A thumbnail picture looks decent, but the larger pics reveal the farce. Do think twice about these tools, surely you can find better. Better that you do the restoration. 

International sellers (other than Japan and North America):
I do see a fair number of decent tools coming out of Australia and the UK but sometimes freight is prohibitive for North American bidders. Works both ways, I am sure. If the freight does not put you off and the seller rating and feedback are very good and you've studied the condition - go ahead and bid. 

Comments on Auction Types :
Sellers have every right to setup their auctions and sales as they please and most are OK, but here are some cases that I find less than ideal for the bidders (or the sellers):
  • High reserve, no maker named, photos do not show marks. No way to determine anything about the tool(s) but the reserve is hundreds?
  • High shipping cost for trivial items. Expect to pay for saws or heavy items, but not small stuff. 
  • To Be Determined (TBD) shipping cost. Try to pin this down before bidding and if it the result of poor seller preparation, ding them. 
  • Photos include items not in auction. A misleading practice that could result in major headaches for seller and buyer. We have digital cameras these days, no excuses.
  • Auction classifies item as New when it is not. Mistake or lie? That might be a nice question to ask...
And I bet you have a long list of your own. If the seller cannot or does not provide sufficient information you are taking a gamble, so bid conservatively.

Finding auctions:

Most buyers have their own regimen for finding auctions of interest, but when terms are translated and with a fair amount of ignorance (on the part of many sellers) about these tools in general, the searching is a little less revealing than usual. Here are some observations on finding Japanese tools:

The search process:
eBay search is easy - put the keyword(s) in the window provided and hit Search. But for frequently used searches, more granular searches, and searches of closed auctions, eBay provides some advanced search tools. If you plan to (or do) search eBay often you should be using Advanced Search, Saved Search, and Boolean Search tools. If not, read up on them on eBay; the help text is helpful. Here are a couple other options:


AuctionSieve:
This is a third-party eBay search tool (FREE - Windows only) that allows you to setup saved searches with some cool search criteria like: Sellers to Exclude, New today, Auctions ending in X days, which global ebay site to search (ie, UK only), word lists to include or exclude, these categories only, these sellers only, and a lot more. It only loads thumbnails and basic auction info so it is fast. You then click on the thumbnail or link and it opens a browser window to the auction on ebay.com. One (clever) man has created this tool and maintains it (with the help of some volunteers). I can tell you he has a lot of friends - and not the Facebook variety.

Frequently seen search issues:
  • miscategorized items. Look for "Japanese sharpening stone". They end up in one of 3 categories - so be careful about limiting categories in your search. Most Japanese tools end up in Tools, Hardware, and Locks but sometimes in Gardening or elsewhere.
  • Spelling. Accidental or otherwise, words like "Japanese", "mortise", and "chisel" are misspelled frequently. Add those variants to your searches.
  • Translated terms - a lot of variation here, like "kikai-jyakuri-ganna" can have several other common spellings. Use Odate's book as the basis, but add variants...
  • Seller knowledge limits: "Planer", "scraper", and other vague terms make it tougher to find these auctions. Likewise, overuse of misunderstood terms makes it harder to find specific items.
  • keyword abuse: every famous maker and tool type is thrown into the listing so people can find it. No problem there, everyone finds it - even on unrelated searches...
  • Mis-attribution: Chinese tools are often listed as Japanese tools and vice versa. Just makes it difficult for buyers of one type or the other. Or, the wrong maker is sometimes named in the listing. 

Making the most of the information in the listing:
Once you find an auction of interest, the next step is to get every bit of information possible out of it. Recall that we are primarily after maker and condition info. You have the text of the listing, you have picture(s), you can ask questions. 

Here is our known maker/unused condition example, a recent beauty on eBay:




First off, this is a good picture with readable kanji and an even better tipoff - the white stickers on the dai and the box. Those are Masterpiece Tools stickers and the number "290" visible on the label is the item number from their catalog. Which year I know not, but if you dig up a Masterpiece tools pricelist online, you find that item number 290 is a Miyamoto (Masao):
Horyu, Jewelled Dragon, Akagashi, 52 degree , 70mm, Finishing Plane, Kiri  box: MTX-290 425.00 (1986)

"Miyamoto" is the top two kanji in the lower left where the maker's name is usually placed and the main kanji on the box match what is on the main blade. This was fairly easy to figure out and a lot of people knew what this was so the bidding was spirited. Somebody got a great tool from a respected maker in presumably unused condition (at minimum, label on dai would soil rapidly if someone used it much). 

But the above is a rare example of a well-documented tool - in English. 

More likely you get pictures like this, with no maker information from the seller:




With most pictures, I right-click, do a "Save image as" to save it to a local folder, then open it with Windows Photo Viewer or similar and magnify it to inspect key things. Better yet, open it with an editor (ie, Photoshop Elements, Microsoft Picture Editor, iPhoto, etc) that allows you to alter contrast, color saturation, auto-correct, etc. Sometimes a marginal picture will improve with a bit of manipulation. If you mangle the picture and save it, download another copy and start over.

The main kanji on this blade are readable, but the smaller kanji to the left are borderline and partly covered by the chipbreaker. Sometimes that is all we get. Anyway, this is a near-impossible example for a non-native, but the kanji (I'm told) spell Azumagenji 東源次 which is a brand. The reason this is near-impossible for non-natives to decipher is that the style of kanji used is an ancient one (called Soshou) that even native readers have trouble with. This is not a font, it is a style. Each style can have many fonts that differ slightly. Painful. School kids learn the standard kanji above by 6th grade, but the ancient version takes later study. Boy do I feel better. But even if you can get somebody to read the kanji for you, the work is still not over.


To do a search in Japanese you need to get the kanji converted to a standard kanji font on your computer. You can do this a couple ways: by typing them in using hiragana - a simplified phonetic alphabet (syllabary) that you actually can learn. Or, go fishing for kanji by using a tool like Denshi Jisho at http://jisho.org/kanji/radicals/  or wwwjdic   You add the parts (radicals) of the kanji you can make out and see if you cannot build the kanji or pick it out of a list that contains the radical(s) you selected. Either way, you do not need to know what the kanji says, but for the first method you do need to know how it is pronounced. Paste your computer kanji into the yahoo.co.jp search field and then paste in the tool type you are after (kanna= 鉋  nomi= 鑿  nokogiri= 鋸   ryoba=  両刃 kataba= 片刃 etc. ). In this case that search string would be:  東源次 

Sorry, I guess this is near impossible without the native help. You knew this. Sometimes the seller will give us the name in English and that makes the above job a lot easier obviously. But there is no way around the need to get the maker's name into computer kanji to perform the search. 


Well, I will carry on with this example just the same. Go to http://www.yahoo.co.jp  and paste in 東源次 .

Or better yet, go to the Yahoo Handtool auction link and paste it in. 
http://list5.auctions.yahoo.co.jp/jp/24654-category.html

That yields a lot of auctions right now. And we see very similar plane blades ranging in price from 1000 to 7000 YEN(!) or 10 - $70 for rusted beaters - and no bids. There is also listed a 35 year old NOS naga-dai 70mm for $250. But lets expand our search to the whole web to see what else is out there by just pasting into yahoo.co.jp. This time we see that ProShop Hokuto (a reputable tool shop) has a NOS for $210. So you get the idea. This is originally a decent tool, a good user. But is not rare, not exceptional, not a valuable antique.

Condition assessment? At first glance the tool looks solid. Blade looks fairly hefty, some care in the texturing/decoration. Chipbreaker looks forged. Pin is heavy gauge but under some pressure (see the bend). The main blade looks tight side to side with little clearance. This increases the risk of a crack in the dai, but there were none visible. Some slight staining of the dai behind the blade. There is evidence of rust along the edges of the blade and no pic of the ura so that is a concern. The chipbreaker has evidence of irregular sharpening of the bevel, but it is minor. No massive deformation of the blade from hammering (so it was not overused). I do not recall if there were pictures of the blade out of the dai, but if it were only rusted on the edges and neither blade nor dai had serious issues, this would still be a good user. I leave your max bid up to you. 

As stated, tool searches often end in total failure for various reasons. Unreadable  kanji and no English hints can do it obviously, but so can poor pictures. If the pictures are no good, ask the seller for better. Who doesn't have access to a decent camera or smartphone these days? It benefits them, too (unless it is a beater).  

Here is a recap of what I see happening on eBay.

1. junk tools that are rusted, mistreated, worn out, cheap to begin with, made by an unknown maker (and in bad shape), or "touched up" - are selling above what they sell for in Japan where some of them cannot be sold at any price. 

2. Apparently some US buyers are willing to buy tools that are no longer usable. I worry that these buyers may not realize the extent of the problems they just bought. However, the school of hard knocks does educate effectively, so hopefully next time they will be more selective. 

3. I also see overheated auctions for some tools. When this happens I selfishly worry that they other guys know something I do not (and surely many do), but quality tools are well documented in Japanese on the internet. I have the benefit of a native reader and speaker in the house and when I search many of the tool names in Japanese there are zero search results.  Nothing. Granted, not everything ever made gets posted to the Web but there are many fellow enthusiasts, pro's, organizations, and bloggers in Japan and a lot is posted. If you can't find a trace of information on a tool, maybe your max bid should reflect that.


Tools as an investment:
I occasionally see eBay listings with claims like "sure to skyrocket in value..." and I see the auctions where people put their "sure-fire investment" on sale and never get a bid.  Top tier tools in unused and flawless condition will appreciate over the years, but we are talking decades. Yes, there are $10,000 saws out there. But it is almost certain that most tools will never go there. It is your money, but look at the Miyamoto plane example above: somebody paid $425 for it in 1986. Look at the graph below to see where the Yen was then. I looked at http://www.measuringworth.com and plugged in $425, 1986, and 2013 and for a commodity the "real price" of the original investment today is estimated to be $920 - just because of the devaluation of the dollar. Add in the exchange rate loss and things get worse. But the Miyamoto plane only sold for $620 recently. Was that a great investment for the original buyer? No, but it was a good price for the new owner. Currency leverage has gotten steadily worse for US buyers so it is often these tools imported 30 or 40 years ago that are today's best buys. 



Lastly, I know that we are not in Japan and things in the two markets are not equal. Comparing prices for tools between the two locations is instructive, but the supply in the US is a fraction of the supply in Japan. Prices often reflect that. But, eBay hammer prices are often better than those in Japan for the same item. I have found that if you are patient you can buy good quality tools for fair prices. Not cheap, fair. But as stated in the beginning, if you do not want to gamble, experiment, or wait, go straight to a reputable dealer now. 

About those random marks on tools:

Chisels, saws, and plane blades tend to have the marks below. The marks tell us very little and there is no relationship to quality. Yugo was a registered trademark... Regardless, I have seen some of these marks on tools of all grades. Green marks are the "registered trademark" marks. Red in the middle is the brand or model usually. Lower left red is often the maker - but since the top kanji is unreadable...And the yellow is not kanji, but similar marks are often seen on saws and planes. I do not know if it has meaning. Anyone?






Registered Trademark: toroku shouhyou  登録 商標
Trademark: shouhyou 商標
Registered: toroku 登録   
Hand forged: te uchi 手打
Rare, exellent item: ippin 逸品
high product quality: kohinshitsu 高品質 
Special: tokubetsu 特別
Specially made: tokusei 特製
hand cut/sharpened: honmetate:  本目立


Comments

Very well written and informative mate. Nice one.
Mike said…
Very interesting to get a new perspective on the art of the hunt.

Through perseverance, careful examination of listing photos and conservative bidding, I'm pleased to have built a tool set through ebay for a fraction of new prices.

I'm subscribing to your blog, I look forward to reading more posts.
Cheers,
Mike
Peter Mac said…
Thanks, Mike. I am glad you have made that effort. You learned a lot from those purchases and from reconditioning the tools, I am certain.
Anonymous said…
Can you tell me the maker indicated by the stamp on the back end of the Dai in your photo?

I found this page while looking for information about some used planes I picked up, and they bear this same mark.
Peter Mac said…
Anon: Not much. I am still trying to find out more myself. The mark on the dai is not a maker's name. The kanji around the diamond/star logo say "Tokyo tokusei" - Tokyo specially made (I think). All of the planes I have seen with this brand of dai are professional quality tools.
mark said…
I have some chisels, a set of three cast steel gouges with nice octagonal boxwood handles and the name of the same user neatly stamped into the handles ..they where made between 1839 and 1852, I know this..I did some research, the makers Fenton and Marsden, which is on the shanks only existed in that name during that period, after that they became known as "Marsden Brothers" this period is before the The Bessemer process came about so they are not mass produced, trouble is they are pitted in the hollow, which makes the edges very rough ...now then ..I could sell them on ebay "As Is" or correct them and take 0.75 mm off the inside of the gouge and end up then with a good edge when sharpened and honed. what's you view: should I do the correcting ..will the price I get be better or worse? I could go all the way and polish the shanks.

all the best.markj
Peter Mac said…
Hi MarkJ:
This is outside my realm, but I always try to find a price for a similar item in similar condition. In your case, I ran an eBay advanced search for "Completed Listings" thus:
http://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_nkw=fenton+marsden&_in_kw=1&_ex_kw=&_sacat=0&LH_Complete=1&_udlo=&_udhi=&_samilow=&_samihi=&_sadis=15&_stpos=95060&_sargn=-1%26saslc%3D1&_salic=1&_sop=10&_dmd=1&_ipg=100

You can see that things we treasure do not always have high value in the market. A general rule with antiques is: leave it in as-found condition - unless you intend to use it. So if you are going to use them, then maybe invest the time to at least learn if they can be salvaged. Extensive grinding and polishing may make a usable tool, but it kills antique value generally. My experience with deeply rusted edge tools is that they are done as users. Your call.
mark said…
Thank you Peter, Think I will refurbish the first 3/4 of an inch and blend, it will never look altered