Refine Your Collection

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Article taken from "Backsights" Magazine published by Surveyors Historical Society


by Alvin Sellens

Consider spending a pleasant weekend improving your collection without it costing you one cent.  The suggestions of refining that collection may possibly stimulate you interest whereas the thought of reducing it will almost certainly be objectionable.  However, refining can and should be simply a systematic reducing process.  Most collections could be vastly improved through a process of refining which consist of culling to some pre-determined level.  This pre-set level will probably be dictated by available space but could be an arbitrary number such as a percentage of the present collection.  Although this article has been prepared to apply to private tool displays, the general approach is applicable to those collections not on display, as well as being applicable to many low-budget museum displays.

The reduction concept of improvement is easily applied to some other collection but could be painful when first considered for one's own display.  Thoughtful answers to the following questions may help convince you that such improvements can easily be made.

1.  Are there duplicates in the collection?

2.  Does the collection include damaged or poor quality items that detract from the overall appearance?

3.  Does the display of several similar items shown anything that can't be shown equally well with one or two items?

4.  Could the remaining items be displayed more attractively or in a more interesting manner if the collection was reduced by one quarter?

The first step in the process of refining your collection is to sit back and deliberately consider the task.  What would you prefer your collection to look like next month, next year and in the forseeable future.  It is probable that the collection has grown up over a period of time inhibited only by time, money and the availability of collectable artifacts.  However, even if it has been accumulated with definite goals in mind, re-planning can only result in improvements.  Your particular areas of interest are of primary importance in determining the future course of your collection.  Perhaps you have lost interest in a certain craft, and tools of that trade could be reduced or eliminated completely to allow for expanding an area of greater interest.  Is this the time to narrow the scope of your collection and concentrate on upgrading a specific type of tool?

Space is quite often the limiting factor in the growth of a collection.  It is obvious that a collection to be housed in a bottom desk drawer should not contain very many blacksmith anvils.  However, many collectors refuse to face up to a permanent space limitation and therefore seriously overload the available space.  Methods of display are outside of the scope of this paper but it is a well established fact that one good item will displayed is superior to a hoard of miscellaneous items piled on a shelf.  The more unique the item, the more space it deserves in a display.  It is recommended that you take a critical look at your collection in relationship to the available space and tailor the size of the collection accordingly.

Space may also dictate another facet of collecting; that is, displaying tolls in shop settings.  Few private collectors have the space required for complete shop layouts; however, do not overlook the possibility of preparing a complete display  in your special field of interest.  Creating a craft shop of some give period would require many common tools and artifacts whereas a different type of display might prompt you to collect only the unique tools of the trade.  It would be folly to cull out the common tools of a craft only to need them next year for use in a special-purpose display.

With clear-cut desires and general approach in mind, the actual process of weeding out your collection can proceed rapidly and will be a satisfying endeavor.  Tackle the obvious first and set aside all duplicates.  Only you can decide what a duplicate is and your definition will vary depending upon your interests.  It is easy to fall into the trap of saying that this or that item is not a duplicate because it is one-eighth of an inch smaller or because it is painted blue or because of some other insignificant detail.  You may have to be somewhat brutal in your definitions if a large reduction in the collection is desired.

Junk should be eliminated as the next step in the refining process.  Eliminate all damaged, incomplete and poor quality items.  Such items should be left on display only if they are rare or have some unique characteristic.  One or two unidentified pieces are acceptable as conversation pieces but a shelf full of whats-its does little except detract from the collection.

So-called sets of individual type tools often contain pieces that should be deleted.  For example, a set of chisels is not actually a set unless they are all from the same maker.  If your set of chisels is comprised of pieces made by several different makers, why not delete most of them and use the space more productively.  Other sets of tools which should be closely examined include moulding planes, carving tools and boring bits.  Sets of tools in a broader sense, such as the tools used by an 1870 cabinet maker, may contain more items that were added at a much later period.  Such items should be removed but only after careful consideration.  An obviously newer item in an antique tool box will command attention and thus degrade the entire set.

Your collection will undoubtedly look better after implementing the deletion processes mentioned above.  If more refining is required to reach the desired goal, it is time to again consider the scope of the collection.  Tools of a specific craft or trade might be deleted without noticeable effect.  For instance, the removal of a few common tinner's tools from a blacksmith tool collection would not detract from the display and could even make it appear more authentic.

The items so carefully deleted from the collection must be permanently banished lest they gradually reappear on the shelf.  They should be tagged as surplus and packed away out of sight pending disposal.  The extra pieces can ultimately be sold, stored or used for trading stock.  Even the pieces of lesser quality are always in demand by beginning collectors and decorators and can easily be sold.  It is a good idea to keep a few common repair parts in storage for future use on some unique piece that needs repair.  By far the most common practice is to use the excess items as trading stock.  Many collectors will testify that trading tools is one of the most gratifying aspects of collecting.  Obtaining a key item for your collection by trading off some surplus can indeed be a satisfying experience.

A method of keeping the collection within allowable limits is necessary if further purging is to be avoided.  An excellent method is to place a self imposed limit on the number of tools in your collection.  In other words, for every item you obtain, an existing item must be deleted.  This type of discipline will assure that the collection will steadily improve but will not become overcrowded.  Another method of discipline is to delete tools of equal value to those procured.  With this method, the collection will tend to become smaller because of the tendency of an advanced collector to buy the better quality and higher priced items.  Whatever your approach to controlling the size of your collection, you will find that it sharpens your awareness of the quality of the different items and thereby enhances your enjoyment of the hobby.

Every collector is blessed with several items given by well wishing friends and relatives.  These items are not subject to the refining process and therefore must be exempt from the entire procedure.  A monkey wrench with a broken handle may be priceless from a sentimental standpoint but would not contribute to a display of unique coachmaker's tools.  One approach is to carefully number and catalog each such item but display only a small number of these items at any one time.  The balance should be stored where they can be quickly retrieved in case of need, such as auntie's impending visit.

A few tips from a veteran are provided to help avoid some false starts on the refining task:

1.  Outline your long term goals and plans before starting on the refining task.

2.  Sort out and separate all gift items that are exempt from the weeding out process.  Many of these items that don't fit in the  display will later be stored and therefore need not be considered for space purposes.

3.  Make your self-imposed rules fairly liberal and then follow them.  Do not make exceptions.

4.  Remember that the intent is to improve the collection and not to inhibit growth.

In summary, it is almost a certainty that your collection can be improved by a refining technique consisting primarily of deletions.  Accomplishing this task in a systematic manner according to your own rules is a satisfying and pleasurable experience.  It is also important to consider that this is one improvement that can be implemented at zero cost and may even provide enough surplus items to finance a further improvement.


Reprinted from The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Assoc., Inc. Vol. 33, No. 2, June 1980


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