Garrett Wade: Reviving the Best of the Past, One Tool at a Time

Nestled in the SoHo district of New York City is what has to be one of the most interesting and unusual tool stores that has ever pandered to the field of human endeavor. Gary Chinn, whose full name is Garretson Wade Chinn, started the eponymous Garrett Wade in 1975. “He had always been an avid woodworker,” explained Craig Winer, vice president of the company, “but at the time was working as an investment banker in New York City. He was having a hard time finding good quality tools, and hit on the idea to sell the sort of tools he remembered as a boy, the sort still available in Europe but not here. In short, he made the decision to try to fill a niche market.

“He traveled through Europe looking for just the right tools, concentrating on high quality woodworking hand tools. Soon, some unusual power tools followed.” In the early 80s, Garrett Wade became the sole distributor for Inca tools, an expensive and compact high quality tool line aimed at the well-to-do and fussy small shop or hobby woodworker. That lasted until Inca went out of business around the turn of the century.

“As it turns out, a lot of European bench makers and toolmakers have gone out of business in the past decade,” Craig pointed out, “as woodworking projects shifted more toward home improvement than fine furniture, and tools shifted from chisels and planes to routers and chop saws. When we were kids, there were shop programs in every high school, but these days, they are few and far between. The appreciation for quality hand tools is no longer instilled in young potential woodworkers.

“For a long time, we sold only woodworking hand tools, but around 1999, we started to expand into other items. We added things like Swedish axes, British padlocks, Japanese Bento boxes and even antique English hand blown glass wasp traps.” These days, their web site is divided into woodworking products, shop tools and accessories, outdoor products and an area called “home, office and personal,” making it something far different than the garden variety hardware, home or woodworking store.

“While we were trying to find unique and interesting woodworking tools,” Craig told me, “we started stumbling upon other fascinating tools, like unusual pocketknives from Germany, France and Japan. For example, the supplier from whom we get our Japanese saws also sells us a brass eyelet document fastener; our agent in France who supplied hand saws connected us to a maker of handmade scissors and old-fashioned fly swatters. Before long, our catalog became an eclectic mix of just about anything that falls into the general heading of hand tools and accessories. In short, it is a compendium of all sorts of well-made items that let you do all sorts of work.”

Now they have gone one step further with the manufacture of the #1 Odd Job, a handy and well-loved multipurpose layout tool that has disappeared from the woodworking pantheon not once, but twice. “The Odd Job was originally produced by Stanley from 1888 to the 1930s,” recalled Craig, “and was it wildly popular at the time among woodworkers and builders. Simpson Tool reproduced it in the U.S. during the 1990s, then went out of business. That left it in the public domain. We sold it during the time Simpson made it, and it sold well because it is a unique tool that offers not only functionality but nostalgia. Once it was gone, we decided to fill the void by having it made ourselves by an overseas company known for high quality woodworking tools. At 60 dollars, it is not cheap, but it is a well-made solid brass casting with a solid wood rule, and it is incredibly handy. It soon became our best-selling private label item.

“This was not the first tool Garrett Wade made on its own after another manufacturer stopped producing it. Probably the most well-known is a clever combination pocketknife and precision folding rule that we had made for us in Japan. We first found it being made in England in the 1970s and sold it until the company went out of business around 1980. It was a product we really loved and missed once it was gone and is one of those things every craftsperson should carry in his or her pocket. A few years later, we were on a trip to Japan, and found a manufacturer who we felt could produce the quality and precision of the U.K. maker. We worked with them to get it reproduced, and started offering it exclusively in the early 1980s. It disappeared for a few years, but in the early 90s we convinced them to start again, and we’ve been offering them ever since. They sell particularly well around the holidays.”

Another unique item is their Precision Universal Rule Stop, a clever gizmo that firmly clamps onto just about any size rule up to an inch and five- sixteenths wide. The clamp is machined square, allowing it to be used as a marking tool as well as a locating tool and depth stop.

The company also sells a variety of unusual tools that you are not likely to find anywhere else. There’s the fourfold “blind man’s rule,'” so called due to the large numbers on it; a huge variety of specialty scissors, including some beautiful U.S.-made electrician’s scissors with short, thick blades that easily cut the rubber or vinyl on wires; soft-jaw pliers; and, for those of you who remember them, Yankee screwdrivers. One of our favorites is the 170-piece multiple copy drill bit set that has multiples of each bit. There are five of the larger sizes and up to 10 each of the smaller, more likely to break sizes. Outside of the woodworking area, you will find pruning tools, odd shovels, folding camper’s candle lamps, army cots made in Maine and French Foreign Legion pocketknives with elegantly engraved blades.

These days, though, Garrett Wade is a catalog and online company only. Sadly, the showroom was closed earlier this year. It was once a mecca for local woodworkers to come and drool, and one of my favorite spots when I lived in New York City. Now, I suppose we have to do our drooling online. Craig was sympathetic to my loss, but pointed out that their goal is a bit larger than that.

“What is important to us is passing on the good quality hand tool tradition. A good quality hand tool is much more of a pleasure to use and inspires you to do better work. In the long run, it also lasts longer and is worth the price. It’s much nicer to have a good tool from the start.”

It is to that end that Garrett Wade remains dedicated.

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