Martin J Donnelly
The editors of Knight ‘s Mechanical Dictionary, writing in 1877, defined the wrench as ‘A bar having jaws adapted to catch upon the head of a bolt or upon a nut to turn it’. Since the time of that writing there have been tens of thousands of different wrenches produced in every corner of the earth. From the time the very first wrench was wrought and filed from iron at some forgotten time and place to the completion of the most recent complex mechanical innovation in this category (which was most likely finished some time this morning), wrenches have been made as simple, as complex, as ugly, as beautiful, as sleek and as ungainly as the unique individuals who invented them and those who collect them today.
What is it about these ‘bars having jaws’ that has made wrenches one of the fastest growing areas of tool collecting? For some, it is their simplicity. Artfully executed handforged wrenches express the relationship between a tool and the person who created it in a way that can be understood, but never really put adequately into words. For others, it is the complexity of wrenches that yields endless fascination.
Beginning soon after the first wrench was produced, inventors have found ways to apply ingenious and foolish mechanical principles (preferably in combination) to the creation of these tools in countless variety. Collectors who approach wrench collecting from the perspective of the mechanically perverse see a great collectable wrench as one that incorporates a design idea that is wholly impractical from a utilitarian perspective and is executed with a combination of craftsmanship and engineering in a way that is both aesthetically and mechanically pleasing. Still others find in wrenches an outlet for the ‘one of each’ obsession that is virtually inexhaustible.
Whatever the individual perspective of the collector, there is one inescapable truth of wrenches that has no real parallel in any other collectable tool Wrenches, a product of the Industrial Age, are almost always a creation of one man working in concert with machine. One man could, working alone in his shop, give flight to his dreams, and, even if limited in technical precision, produce a working example of his ‘better mousetrap’, either for himself or for sale to others. Most of these dreams never saw the light of day; others, which did were perhaps best left back on the bench; many were justifiably unique and awarded patents, thus documenting the history of the ideas behind them for future generations of collectors. Only a choice few found favour in the marketplace, and, for the sake of their success, they are held in derision today as ‘common’.
Appeared 1996 – Toolshop Auctions Catalogue