Eye Diy

A mystery revealed

George Gouldburn: The man behind the Mystery Tool

By Allan Britnell June 14th, 2012

Photo by Dave Starrett

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George Gouldburn, author of the Mystery Tool column, passed away on June 13, 2012. In this profile from 2007, he shares his love antique tools.—Eds.

“This part would make the tongue and this would make the groove,” explains George Gouldburn as he shows me a set of wooden tongue-and-groove hand planes he’s pulled from his collection. And what a collection it is.

The basement of Gouldburn’s home in Oshawa, Ont., is literally covered wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with antique tools. And the vast majority of them are his personal favourite: hand planes. He has almost 3,000 planes, and at one time his collection held about 1,000 more.

But Gouldburn’s collection isn’t limited to planes: hanging along the tops of the walls are dozens of hand drills; mounted vertically in one corner, there are about 20 wooden levels; a cluster of handsaws fills another corner.
From yet another shelf, he picks up a dry-barrel croze that has a curved metal cutter mounted on a gorgeous chestnut burl. It was used to cut a lip on the inside of a barrel for the top and bottom lids to fit into, Gouldburn explains.

If pressed, he could no doubt relay a story or two about the use and era of each item in his collection. Clearly, Gouldburn is the right man to be writing Canadian Home Workshop’s Mystery Tool column, a task he has handled since 1992.

Gouldburn’s passion for hand tools developed early through his father, who owned some handmade wooden planes from England, and his uncle, a carpenter and cabinetmaker.

Gouldburn started collecting antique tools while working as the superintendent of public works in Oshawa. After retirement, his hobby turned into a second career as proprietor of G&G Antiques, which involved hauling his collection across Canada and the U.S. to antique tool shows “pretty well every weekend.”

He has also bought and sold items through online auctions and advertised in catalogues such as Martin J. Donnelley Antique Tools and the Fine Tool Journal.

A contact with an interior decorator who was designing a chain of themed restaurants became a handy way to offload some of his less than stellar specimens. “They weren’t looking for pristine items, like a collector would. For them, it was the cheaper, the better.”

Gouldburn also rented tools to TV sets—most notably, for Jasper’s workshop on the series Road To Avonlea.

In recent years, Gouldburn started selling off parts of his collection, mostly to other private collectors. But at least one item, a file-maker’s hammer, is on public display in, appropriately enough, the Hammer Museum in Haines, Alaska. While housed thousands of kilometres away, the tool, used with a chisel to cut the grooves in a steel file, is obviously still close to Gouldburn’s heart.

“It has a heavy, bulbous head and a curved handle close to a 45º angle,” he says. With a striking motion, he swings an invisible file hammer, describing how craftsmen “would use the chisel on an angle and hit a piece of untempered iron. After they’d worked their way up the file, they’d harden the steel.”

Gouldburn still attends a couple of tool shows a year, selling more than buying these days. “Now collecting is a hobby,” says the spry 79-year-old.

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