David R. Russell

For other people named David Russell, see David Russell (disambiguation).
David R. Russell

David Russell with a long blade
from a water-driven sawmill
Detail from a photograph by James Austin
Born 1935
Kendal, Cumbria
Occupation Retired builder
Website www.antiquewoodworkingtools.co.uk

David R. Russell is a retired builder who was for many years a collector of antique woodworking tools.

Career and collecting

David Richard Russell was born in the district of Kendal in Westmorland (now part of Cumbria), England, the younger son of Albert, a worker in a Cumbrian gunpowder-keg factory,[1] and Alice Russell (née Mason). He left school early to work alongside his brother as an apprentice to a cabinet-maker and joiner in Kendal. One of his first jobs as a young apprentice was working on site with his brother at Sizergh Castle, near Kendal.[2]

"His first love was the foreman’s Norris jointing-plane, which he was not allowed to touch however much his fingers tingled," wrote Huon Mallalieu in The Times. "Seven years later his passion was assuaged, but not extinguished, when he bought his first Norris for £5 in a Sunday antiques market."[3] This was the beginning of what was to become one of the foremost collections of woodworking tools in the Western world.[4]

Antique Woodworking Tools by David R. Russell.
Book jacket showing an array of Norris planes[5]
Photograph by James Austin

Although David Russell's career was to follow a different path, one of his lifelong passions has been wood-carving. After completing his national service he went into the building trade, working first of all in Bournemouth and then for Wimpey in London. Back in Cumbria he formed a partnership with his brother and by the end of his career their building firm, by then known as Russell Armer Ltd, employed some 250 men.[3]

Throughout his working life and well into his retirement Russell could be seen raising his paddle at tool auctions[6] on both sides of the Atlantic as he bid for some of the finest tools on offer.[7]

When tool historians and tool book writers began to pay him visits to see his collection and publish items from it, he came to realise that what he had amassed was worthy of a book in its own right. He struggled to pull together a team to bring the book to fruition, but after much toil spanning several years the book was published to critical acclaim in October 2010. The dust-jacket text summarizes the book's aim as one of "providing a broad survey of hand tool-making from prehistory to today." As David Linley wrote in the foreword: "[David Russell] is to be congratulated on amassing with unerring eye such a fascinating array of tools."[8]

Eve M. Kahn, writing in the New York Times [9] averred that "The Russell collection volume [. . .] was intended to glamorize unsung innovations". Mark Bridge in his review in Antiques Trade Gazette was more specific about the numerous photographs by the Courtauld Institute-trained photographer James Austin : "This is a truly huge work . . . and is quite unrivalled in the size and quality of its illustrations. [James Austin] has managed to capture the elusive qualities of balance, texture and patina which make the finest tools a pleasure to handle, frequently lifting them into the realm of folk art".[10]


Other books featuring tools from the David Russell collection


  1. Huon Mallalieu, "The heft of a hammer, the balance of an axe or the certainty of a saw are the links between man and material", The Times, November 27, 2010.
  2. Russell, David R. Antique Woodworking Tools: Their Craftsmanship from the Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century, Preface, p. 11.
  3. 1 2 Huon Mallalieu, The Times, November 27, 2010.
  4. "One of the world’s greatest collections of antique woodworking tools", wrote John G. Wells in his review: "A Bounty of Tools in an Outstanding Collector's Book", The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, 64 - no. 3, September 2011, p. 124.
  5. Clockwise from bottom left: adjustable shoulder plane serial no. 276 (Henley Optical Company); low-angle rebate/mitre plane with pin-and-hole adjustment; smoothing block plane in beech; moulding planes in beech; smoothing plane; A31 adjustable thumb plane in gun-metal.
  6. Most notably David Stanley Auctions in Leicestershire and Brown Auction Service in Pennsylvania.
  7. John Adamson, "American tools sold abroad", Maine Antique Digest, December 2012, p. 35-B.
  8. Russell, David R. Antique Woodworking Tools: Their Craftsmanship from the Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century, Foreword, p. 9.
  9. Eve M. Kahn, "A Craftsman's Wares", New York Times, September 13, 2013, p. C26.
  10. Mark Bridge, "The young apprentice cabinetmaker who became a connoisseur", Antiques Trade Gazette, October 22, 2011, p. 19.
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