Note: The following article appeared in On The Trail Magazine in
On The Trail is the magazine dedicated to historical trekking.
On The Trail
Building a Kit on the Cheap by Tony Seo
The purpose of this article is to help those that are interested in this hobby but might be put off by the cost of getting started. There are a number of good sources for raw materials that many people over look or don't know how to take advantage of.
For those of you that don't know me I am a collector, user and dealer in antique tools. But even prior to getting involved with that, I have been going to flea markets, auctions, and yard sales for years (natural tendency to collect junk!). What I am going to share are a few tips that hopefully will make your trips to these more productive and also give a few ideas of stuff to look for.
My main source of items these days are flea markets.
By far, I find this to be more productive for the kinds of things that
I am looking for than auctions or yard sales. Now I realize that
not everyone has access to the kind of big flea markets that we have here
in the great Northeast, however, these can be applied to other venues as
The most important rule is to get there early. If they open at 6:00AM, be there at 5:30AM. Realize that you won't be the only person there looking for stuff like this (not for the same reasons) and that getting to a market 2 or 3 hours after the goods hit the tables, probably won't be as productive. Second tip is to be able to move at a reasonable pace. If you are going with the wife (or husband) and kids, make sure they know that this isn't going to be slowpoke trip. If it is dark, carry a small flashlight. Have some means of carrying the goods as well, especially smaller items. This is a great way of putting some wear on your haversack. Mine looks like it's been through both the F&I and the Rev War as well! For larger items, like blankets and such, a lot of times I will pay the vendor and ask them to hold them for me till I make a trip back to the vehicle. Just make sure you get back to them in a reasonable amount of time. One of the real tricks is to learn how to scan the tables and such fast. This only comes with practice and I still miss items sometimes. Don't get caught up in rooting through boxes of stuff (unless the first glance says that it might be a good one.) Unless it is a very big flea, you can always come back to them the 2nd time around. If someone is just starting to set up, don't feel bashful about asking if they might have any items that you are looking for. Depending on how the market is set up, I try to do both sides of the aisles at the same time.
Last is price. Lot of folks don't price their stuff. Lot of them do. And most of them are willing to negotiate a better price. The trick here is to not be obnoxious about it. Something that works for me, especially for a number of items from the same vendor, is to don't ask price till I get a pile going. Or on a single item, ask them what's the best they can do on it. Don't be afraid to walk away if you don't like the price either. A lot of times I have had people come back with a better price as I was walking away (or on the second pass). Of course it does help to know what's a fair price and what isn't. And again this comes with experience. If the market is close to where you live, you might want to make a couple of trips and get a feel for prices (unless some jumps out and grabs ya).
Now to the good stuff, that is, what we are looking for.
First are the obvious items. Blankets. There you want to look
for 100% wool, low nape (like a heavy felt), in PC colors. Navy blue,
solid browns, grays, reds, and solid white are all appropriate. Look
for labels, Whitney and Hudson Bay are the best know brands, and can be
found sometimes pretty reasonable (if not cheap!). To my mind $20
for a Whitney or a Hudson Bay in good condition is a fair price.
Others I don't go more than $10 each for. Look for worn spots, moth
holes, etc. If you are going to cut it up for leggings or a gun case,
then these can be dealt with (but should be factored in the price as well).
Plain (as in unembroidered or not patterned) linen tablecloths are a great source of shirt material. Both my shirt and my hunting shirt were $5.00 tablecloths at one point. Again look for white, off-white or other appropriate colors. Holes are a problem, some staining is okay (adds to the "look" if you know what I mean). Smaller pieces if priced right are good for lining hunting bags, patching material, and making char.
Old pillow ticking mattress covers, if priced right are a good
find as well. I use these for my gun patches, lining hunting bags
and are great trade blanket items. I won't pay more than $5 for complete
mattress cover. Most of these are pretty nasty looking, so a trip
to the washing machine will probably be in order.
Linen thread once in while will show up. Hint there is to look for older wooden spools. 100% cotton thread, especially white is a good find too. It will take dye pretty much the same as linen will and can usually be found a lot cheaper.
Other items. Always watch for good leather. I have found full commercially tanned deer (the faux brain tan) for $10. Watch for heavier oil tanned straps. Same for laces. I have gotten whole bundles of 5ft leather lacing for $5. Never can have too much of that lying around. Old leather horse harness is a good find at the right price. Especially halters and lead lines. Good source of buckles and rings. I won't pay more that $3 - $4 for an old halter (usually the leather is shot anyways). Lead lines are a good source for straps. Again, to me it's a $5 item.
Old butcher knives are a good find. I have found I. Wilson knives for $3 to $4 in good shape. These are a little late for most of our periods but they will sell for $20 off of your blanket at just about any event. Old axe heads can be a good find too. There you have to know what you are looking at, but some tips are to look for the lines where it was hand forged and see if it has a piece of steel for a cutting edge, (most times the iron will rust faster than the steel). These are usually found in the real "junk piles" but you would be amazed at what can be found.
Always watch for horns. Most people tend to overprice powder horns but you never know. What to look for there would take a whole article by itself and I'm not qualified to get into much detail there. However good raw horns are getting hard to find through the normal sources, but at the markets they sometimes go cheap. $5 to $10 is a fair price for a good raw horn. Especially if it has had some work done to it already. Watch for holes and cracks on older horns. Small ones can be patched but if the horn is getting too brittle, you will have problems with it in the long run.
Misc stuff, lots of options there, the prices listed are the maximum that I would pay for one. Leather awls, look for good diamond shaped points, $5. Early wooden handled turnscrews (screwdrivers) are good for in the shooting pouch, $5. Plain bone buttons (2 hole) are useful if there are enough whatever you are going to use them for. Copper pots, these can be tricky. There is a lot of stuff being imported that is supposedly tin lined that is actually more of lead solder lining. Small tin pots with lids are a good alternative. As long as they aren't rusted out inside, $10 is a fair price. You can buy new tin cups for $5 at any event so I wouldn't spend more than a $1 or $2 on one at a flea. The old wooden handled 2 tine forks are appropriate (3 and 4 time are later). $5 is a fair price for one.
Other sources for stuff can include thrift stores (Salvation Army and Goodwill are 2 of the better known ones). Yard sales are tough, they usually tend to be more of a kids clothes and toys recycling event but community wide ones, especially in the older towns can be good. Church rummage sales have been a good source for blankets and such. Also, if you hear of someone cleaning out a house from an older relative, lot times things like blankets just get thrown out or given away.
To finish up, this can be a great way to get started with a kit with a reasonable outlay. As I said earlier, to get good at this, will take some time and you will make a few mistakes. Just learn to make "cheap" mistakes. And you never know when you will find something good, like an original spike polled tomahawk for$25 or a handforged Brown Bess sized bag mould. Cheap.
Copyright (C) 2005 Anthony V. Seo All Rights Reserved