One man’s treasure

Published 7:21 am Friday, February 12, 2010

They’re shaped like teapots, a Luger pistol, a cigar case and a large fire extinguisher, but they’re all collectibles in David Kolb’s Austin house.

While other people collect coins or baseball cards, Kolb collects blow torches.

Kolb has collected blow torches since the 1980s, and he estimates he owns close to 1,000.

Kolb, 73, worked a number of different jobs, but is now retired. He was a carpenter, repaired dental equipment and even helped originally build Interstate 90. Kolb described himself as a tinkerer and said he likes to take things apart and put them back together to see how they work.

A couple hundred blow torches line shelves in Kolb’s basement. Many have a white piece of paper rolled into the nozzle so Kolb can remember the price and where he bought the blow torch from. Kolb also stores blow torches in an upstairs bedroom, and others are in his garage.

Most of the blow torches were stained and dirty when Kolb purchased them, and he then cleans and restores them. He’s even had reproduction decals made to put on some blow torches. Kolb said he can clean and polish about four blow torches in an eight-hour day.

Kolb owns some blow torches that are still in the original box and have never been used, which he said makes them more valuable and unique.

While Kolb has gotten some of his blow torches for free, others have cost $50 to $75. He estimates a few of his blow torches are worth about $1,000.

Auctions

Kolb attended an auction in the ’80s looking for oak furniture, but it was too expensive. Instead he saw a blow torch, and he said it reminded him of when was young. As a child, Kolb owned a Lionel Train set and used to overload the train with weight and it’d break down. A person he knew repaired Kolb’s engine using a blow torch. Kolb bought his first blow torch at an auction for $2.

“That kind of amazed me, and it went dormant for many, many years,” Kolb said. “I was at my first auction: ‘Hey there’s a blow torch; that brings back memories.’ And the race was on.”

After buying his first blow torch, Kolb said he attended a number of auctions and kept buying because he found different types and designs of blow torches.

“I went nuts,” Kolb joked.

However, Kolb rarely buys blow torches at auctions anymore, largely because he spent too much time waiting. For instance, Kolb attended an auction in Hollandale where he waited from around 9 a.m. until close to 4 p.m. for the blow torches to sell. Now, Kolb buys most his blow torches online.

‘I kind of went overboard’

Kolb said he thought he’d found something no one else collected, but he learned in the early ’90s that someone was forming the Blow Torch Collectors Association. The club has a yearly meeting, and publishes a newsletter called “The Torch.” He’s been a member of the club for many years. The club has about 200 members.

Kolb met a man who lived in North Dakota who collected more than 3,000 blow torches, and even had waist-high piles of blow torches.

Outside of the collection in North Dakota, Kolb said he has the largest collection of blow torches he’s aware of in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin.

“I kind of went overboard,” Kolb said. “Now I’ve got 1,000 myself.”

“You know how collections go, they get away from you,” he added.

Kolb said his wife, Sally, doesn’t mind his collecting.

“I’ve taken the whole basement over, but it isn’t good for anything else,” Kolb said.

Shapes and sizes

Kolbs owns a variety of blow torches, most dating back to between the 1920s and 1950s. Many of the blow torches are a standard brass model about the size and shape of a teapot or coffee percolator with a thin pipe on top for the flame.

However, Kolb owns blow torches of all shapes and sizes. Other models of blow torches are a flat shape, and Kolb said such models could fit in tight places and were used by automobile workers.

One blow torch Kolb owns was a laboratory blowtorch that was used much like a Bunsen burner. Another blow torch about the size of a light bulb was used for science experiments. It was built in Albert Lea.

Kolb also owns pipe-fitter blow torches — also called plumber’s pots. A few were made in Minneapolis.

Other blow torches were made for portability. Kolb owns a few models he said look like space guns, which resemble a Luger pistol. Another small blow torch comes in a long silver tube that resembles a cigar case.

Kolb even owns a blow torch shaped like a large red fire extinguisher that attached to a hose for a long flame: “These really put out a blast,” Kolb said. He said the blow torch was used for work on railroads.

Along with the blow torches, Kolb also owns parts for blow torches, like an eight-pound soldering iron, a heated paint scraper, and a tool for burning letters or numbers into wood.

U.S. of A

Many of Kolb’s blow torches operated on gasoline or “white gas,” which is similar to stove gas, Kolb said. He does also own early kerosene blow torches, and some propane blow torches.

While he has a few German blow torches used during World War II and a few French blow torches, Kolb collects mostly American-made blow torches.

“I like the old, well-built, made in the U.S. of A type stuff,” Kolb said. “You don’t even see that anymore stamped on new things. At one time, it was proud to be made in the United States of America, now nothing.”

Blow torches aren’t the only things Kolb collects, as he also collects things like old cash registers, fans, popcorn machines, malt mixers, and railroad paraphernalia. Kolb said he collects older items that are made to last, unlike modern products that don’t last nearly as long.

“Today’s a throw away society,” Kolb said. “They just don’t make things like they used to.”

Many of the things he collects remind him of his youth, Kolb said. Like his blow torches, Kolb cleans and restores almost all of the items he collects.

“I don’t want anything around that doesn’t work,” Kolb said. “I don’t want anything that just looks good.”

He uses the fans, and commonly makes popcorn in his popcorn makers. However, he’s never used many of the blow torches he owns, partially because some were never operated.

While Kolb collects many old products, he said he owns a computer and a digital camera.

Kolb said his mother didn’t understand why Kolb was a collector, and she wondered why he didn’t throw things out. However, Kolb said there wouldn’t be museums without people.

“If it wasn’t for guys like me, you wouldn’t even have museums,” Kolb said.

Kolb has two children and five grandchildren. None of them are as serious as collectors as Kolb, though.

“I suppose my kids just cringe when they figure if something happens to me they got to come over and they’ve got to go through all those blow torches,” Kolb said.