Rockwell / Porter Cable #503 belt sander, $10.

Porter Cable makes some of the best - and costliest - power tools around. If there's one model of belt sander you should keep firmly in mind, it's the #503. Combine its unusual 'locomotive' looks with its very high value and you have another of the jewels we've trained ourselves to be on the lookout for!

Few people are aware that the very concept of portable power tools was brought about way back in 1921 by a Porter Cable engineer named Art Emmons, who turned out his first masterpiece in 1926, the 'Take-About Sander,' which was the forerunner to the modern belt sander. A few years later, Emmons introduced the industry's first circular saw.

In 1960, Porter Cable was bought out by a huge company called Rockwell International. Rockwell has been around since 1919, when its founder, Willard Rockwell, made his first fortune when he invented a new type of truck axle bearing. Since its inception, Rockwell has had its hand in all kinds of technological achievements, from the famous WWII P-51 fighter aircraft, to the affordable chipset that made all those now-defunct 14.4 computer modems available to the millions of computer users back in the early 1990s, and countless other important developments in between.

The problem Rockwell faced back in 1960 was that as big and prolific a company as it was, there was little chance that the guy looking for a power tool at his local hardware store would've even heard of them. But he had heard of Porter Cable. So to assure consumers that they were still getting the same quality that they'd gotten with Porter Cable, Rockwell dual-branded their tools for several years with both the Rockwell and the Porter Cable names.

As capable a company as Rockwell was, they just weren't cut out for the power tool business. After more than 20 years of lousy business decisions and worsening sales, Rockwell sold Porter Cable to Pentair, Inc. in 1981, who reinstated the Porter Cable name and put the company on the road to success that it enjoys today. In 2004, Black & Decker, who also owns DeWalt, bought Porter Cable from Pentair, causing many to wonder if the 503 sander would be scrapped in favor of cheaper models.

Belt sanders are designated by the width and length of the belts they use, and the #503 in our example here is known as a '3x24' sander because it uses belts that measure 3" wide by 24" long. This sander is still in production today as the Porter Cable 503, and many people consider it to be the very best belt sander ever made. This may seem a somewhat boring proclamation to make about a lowly belt sander, but always remember that what seems silly to almost everyone can be dead serious business to a few. And you sure don't pay the $500 that Porter Cable currently charges for this sander unless you're really serious about your sanding!

Something you may have already noticed about this sander is that it looks a lot like a locomotive engine, doesn't it? That's actually the easiest way to remember the profile of these #503 sanders (as well as its sibling, the #504, which looks almost the same except that it has no sawdust collection bag.) The #503 and #504 are actually known as 'locomotive sanders' by their loyal fans!

The question now is, if this sander is so darned desirable, why was it still languishing at the yard sale at noon on a Saturday? I believe that the only reason this opportunity was still waiting for me is because of the outdated thought process most people still possess when it comes to the 'eBay mindset.' To start off explaining what I mean, consider the power tool section of a modern hardware store. Notice that so many of those multi-hundred-dollar power tools by DeWalt, Bosch, Milwaukee, Porter Cable and the like, are all made from plastic. We're paying hundreds of dollars apiece for plastic tools, and we feel fine about it because we know that the high-tech plastics of today are so strong, light and resilient that they're actually the best materials to make these tools from.

Up until around the 1960s, before we had all the high-tech plastics we have today, the power tool material of choice was aluminum. It was plenty strong, somewhat lighter than iron, and it didn't rust. And thanks to all the melted-down World War Two airplanes, there was plenty of it to go around. An interesting effect aluminum construction had on these tools was to date them. Think about it - what's the first thing that pops into your mind when you see an aluminum drill, scroll saw or sander?

Right - old.

There's something to note here about not only these old aluminum power tools, but about so many other mechanical and electrical devices that were manufactured forty or more years ago. These tools come from an era when folks didn't buy an appliance or tool with the expectation that a newer, and more desirable, model would appear on store shelves a week later. Tools were relatively expensive, were built quite well, and were actually meant to be repaired when they broke. It's thanks to their old-school quality that we still encounter these elderly relics at yard sales, estate sales and thrift shops today. And in most cases, the machines we find are still fully functional, even though they've been eclipsed in every way by their cheaper, lighter, quieter, more ergonomic, more powerful, and more modern counterparts. The problem is, while all those old yard sale typewriters, radios, vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, power tools, kitchen appliances and countless other gadgets, may continue to function just as they were originally designed, it doesn't mean anyone wants them today.

So, when it comes to the run-of-the-mill mechanical gadgets of yesteryear, we already know that most of it is of little interest to our eBay bidders, so we walk right past it all, secure in the knowledge that it's not worth bothering with, no matter how seductive it looks. But wait.... Is it possible that we're blindly accepting an outdated piece of old-world wisdom we stored away long ago, and which we still accept as the irrefutable truth, to the point that we don't even question the possibility that there may be exceptions?

Only when we realize that so much of the facts, opinions, associations, memories and other information we've been packing into our heads all our lives are now outdated, obsolete, tainted and downright wrong, can we start to see the world of stuff around us as it really is.

Our #503 sander is a perfect example of the point I'm trying to make here. Its geezer-like appearance lies to us. The untrained eye, still clouded by pre-eBay thinking, cannot discriminate between these valuable jewels and the worthless relics that aren't worth a second glance. But the distinction is there all right, and the more of these things you can get into your mental database of profiles, the more easy money you'll find yourself making on eBay!

This Porter Cable model 503 belt sander sold on eBay for $280.

Photo of Rockwell Porter Cable #503 'locomotive' belt sander