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Maine tool shop builds on pieces from the past

Liberty Tool Co. stocks antique gadgets galore; it also takes shoppers back in time to New England's shipbuilding and industrial boom.

September 09, 2007|Glenn Adams | Associated Press

LIBERTY, MAINE — Pliers to planes, chisels to chain cutters, hand saws to hammers, they're all here, bins and shelves and racks brimming with them. And a pitchfork, peavey and pipe threader or two.

Antique shoppers, wood crafters with keen eyes for special makes or styles, and homemakers looking for good deals all flock to Liberty Tool Co., in a four-story, white clapboard building in the center of a quiet town that long ago buzzed and clanked with mills and machine shops.

"A lot of people are boat builders and cabinetmakers and they want the old tools," said Karen Southworth, who calls herself a "tool goddess."

Recently, a cabinetmaker from Alaska came in and spotted a plow plane. "He left, then he came back and said, 'I've just got to have it,' " Southworth recalled with a smile.

Liberty Tool is one of three sites owned by H.G. "Skip" Brack, a former English teacher who also has stores in the coastal towns of Searsport and Hulls Cove in Bar Harbor. The store, which sits across the street from Brack's Davistown Museum, is closed for restocking from mid-January to early March. It's so popular that on opening day after its winter closing, people stand in line to get in.

Brack estimates he's got hundreds of thousands of tools in stock at the three stores.

But that's not all. In the nearly four decades he's been searching attics, cellars and old factories for old tools, he's amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of early toolmaking, and a fair selection of other antiques.

"I'm a professional finder," said Brack, 63, who has parlayed his expertise into publications that add depth to what he says is a shallow public repository of information about early American tools and toolmaking. For every tool Brack buys, he leaves nine behind, he said.

Brack works hard at keeping his inventory rich with variety. By the front door through the cluttered porch, a sign seeks to reassure customers: "New load of tools every Sat."

Liberty Tool is more than a stop in tool heaven; it's a trip back in time that speaks of New England's shipbuilding and industrial heritage. The main building sets a scene for the pre-Civil War era when Liberty was a boom town, known particularly for goods used in shipbuilding and shipping.

Inside, the store has a slightly musty smell, like the inside of an old trunk. Here and there, an antique picture, book or stuffed owl pops into sight, but it's mostly tools -- oodles of them.

Partitioned wooden boxes hold metal punches, tiny files, drill bits and different kinds of saw blades. Bins bulge with tin snips, channel locks, chisels and pipe cutters. A soda box is full of screwdrivers of various styles and sizes.

Metal bins hold all sizes of crescent wrenches and grinding wheels, and wooden bins are laden with tiny files and blades for all sorts of hand and power saws.

Tables and shelves have ample displays of power drills, routers, jig saws and sanders. Shelves brim with braces and power drivers. The stock has been cleaned and oiled and is for the most part in order.

Special drawers in one section, for example, are labeled: Taper Reamers, Counter Sinks, Die Bars, Carbide Inserts, Masonry Bits, Taps, Taper Shank Bits, Drill Bits, Large Drill Bits and More Large Drill Bits.

One rack holds scads of hammers, and a larger rack holds time-tested sledges, mauls and crowbars. There are drawers of wooden handles, scissors and sockets and large bins stuffed with hand saws, most with wooden handles. Coffee and peanut-butter jars hold assortments of screws, washers, Allen wrenches, spacers, bolts, anchors, clasps and hook-and-eyes.

Crawford Stanley, a craftsman from Holden, Maine, who has an eye for antique tool reproductions, said Liberty Tool drew everyday tool users who could spot a bargain. They can save 60% to 80% of the cost of a new tool by buying an older one of the same quality, he said.

Wood crafters, Brack said, insist on using the traditional hand tools to give their products a genuine quality.

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