Collector's Guide to Antique Surveying Equipment

September 1, 2000
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Web-exclusive: These tips will help you get started.

Antique chain.
Collecting antique surveying instruments, books and memorabilia can be a lot of fun if you follow a few simple guidelines. Start out slow with smaller, less expensive items that don't cost an arm and a leg. Your "significant other" will appreciate these collectables more if they don't cost too much or take up a lot of room in the house.

Remember that condition is everything when it comes to putting value on any antiques, so the amounts quoted here assume that the items are complete and have nothing seriously wrong with them or have anything missing from them. Also, some American instruments sell for more in the United States than European makes, for instance, and some European instrument makes sell for more in Europe than in the United States.

Older surveying books make good collectables to start a collection. There are a lot of surveying textbooks written before WWII for less than $10 each, and many others printed before 1900 are available for under $50 a piece. This a good place to start a small collection and have some fun reading the old texts and looking at the pictures of that time period. You might be surprised at how some things have not changed that much in every day land surveying work for many years.

Old instrument catalogs are good as well, but harder to find because they have a lot of valuable information for antique collectors and dealers. Thus, these books are more expensive (expect to pay at least twice as much for some catalogs) than the more common surveying textbooks. The older the book or catalog is, the more you can expect to pay. Very few surveying instrument catalogs dating back over 100 years have survived, so those can cost more than $100 each if you can find them.

Now if you still can't get enough by reading a few old surveying texts, then it is time to move on to more serious items. Again, start slow and consider picking up a smaller, less expensive surveying accessory such as an old turnip-shaped plumb bob or hand level. But be warned: some old plumb bobs sell for over $100 if they are really rare. Also, some plumb bobs were used in occupations other than land surveying, such as industrial or carpentry applications, so know what you are buying.

Antique Y-level.
Old maps and prints make wonderful collectables, as many are colorful and decorative. Prices of these items can vary from $5 or $10 to a few hundred or a few thousand dollars for extremely rare maps. Old hand-colored maps can be true works of art, and the prices sometimes reflect that. Old photographs of surveyors and their instruments are fun to look at, but the cost can be outrageous for early tintypes and certain other antique photographs.

Gunter chains are a common surveying collectable still available from time to time. The prices range from around $100 to $300 for the more common varieties and can go up much more for rare ones. It helps to know a little about surveying chains before buying the first one you find. A common surveying or Gunter chain (named for its inventor, Edmond Gunter) is 66 feet (4 poles) long with 100 links, while some are 33 feet (2 poles) long. There should be tally tags every ten links; each link should be 7.92 inches long. The common engineer's chain is commonly 100 or 50 feet long with 100 or 50 links, respectively of one-foot lengths each. Tally tags are usually present every 10 feet.

Antique transit.
Antique surveying instruments are the most fun items to collect but also the most expensive. It is probably a good idea to ask around about makes, models and prices before buying anything. There are a couple of books on the subject, but they are either somewhat outdated (price-wise) or incomplete. Some of the online auction sites are good sources for this type of information, but it takes a lot of researching to get a good feel for it.

Again, start out slow and easy with a readily available small dumpy or wye level. These can range from around $100 to $400 for most common makes. Older or more rare makers may sell for more money depending upon condition and other factors. An instrument with the original box and tripod should be valued at a range of $100-$200 more than one without these items. A nice old label with the maker's name inside the box cover is always an added bonus with any instrument.

Old surveying transits are fun to look at and can be educational to learn how to use (or use again). Look for the old solid brass models, but never the freshly-polished models; these may not be real or damaged. More on that later. Transits were made for many years and there are a lot of models available to collect. Pick a model and maker you know or have heard of rather than one you know nothing about.

Antique theodolite.
Some special transit models have auxiliary telescopes for solar or mining applications. These models will usually sell for at least twice as much as a similar model without these special telescopes. Solar attachments are rare and sought after by collectors and dealers everywhere. Be prepared to shell out a lot more money for these items. Common transits can start at about $200 and go to $1,000 or even more for older makes, less common makers or rare models. Original boxes with tripods will always add to the value as will any accessories, such as tools or plumb bobs.

The antique surveyor's compasses are the most rare and collectable items for the surveying collector. These are usually all brass instruments, although some models made in early America (over 200 years ago) were made of wood or brass and wood. Some of the later brass compasses were fitted with telescopes for longer sighting distances or solar devices for finding direction using the sun rather than magnetic north. Again, be prepared to pay more for these special models than for common varieties.

A common and/or basic brass compass can range from $500 to $1500. Original box, tripod or staff will increase these numbers in most cases. Remember the main factors are age, condition, maker and accessories or attachments that can change these numbers. A really rare solar compass can easily be worth well over $10,000 to some collectors or dealers.

As I said, a bright and shiny brass instrument may have been damaged from the polishing or may even be a fake or replica and not really an antique at all. If you are not sure, or if the price seems too good to be true, it might be better to have someone check it out for you before you buy. Try to buy from someone you know or trust whenever possible. Find out if the seller will give you a money-back guarantee if you are not satisfied for any reason within the first 5 to 10 days. If you buy an instrument that is dull and dirty, don't try to polish it or it may lose its value. Just clean the surface dirt with mild soap and water, and dry with a soft, lint-free cloth.

Most important of all, just enjoy your newfound "toys" or collection of surveying instruments, books or memorabilia. Buy items you like, and don't go broke doing it. Good luck and happy collecting.

To learn more about collecting and surveying history contact: Surveyors Historical Society, 300 West High Street, Lawrenceburg, IN 47025-1912; 812/537-2000

Visit these sites for more information on fakes, frauds, replicas and reproductions: The Gemmary F-Files: and

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Carl Hensoldt Wetzler Transit

Della Creelman
July 7, 2009
I recently bought a a Carl Hensoldt Wetzler Transit. It has a vertical scope going into a horizontal scope. I have been trying to find out what it was used for. Is it a mining scope? I could send a photo if that would help identify it. It is all brass has a compass and leveling bubbles and can sit on a tripod. I would appreciate any information. Thanks D. Creelman

Carl Hensoldt Wetzler Transit

Haroldf Davis
January 21, 2010
This is probably a surveyors transit. If it has 2 telescopes, one outside of the frames, then it would be a tuneling or mining transit. a picture is absolutely necessary for ID

aparelho topografico antigo

wilson da costa nogueira
February 17, 2010
tenho um aparelho topografico muito antigo todo em bronze em perfeito estado de conservacao caso alguem se interesse em ve-lo ou comprar é só add meu e-mail

antique surveyors compass

Jean Johnson
March 3, 2010
I have an antique surveyors compass by Charles F Helffricht of Philadelphia. Who could I get to auction it for me?

Surveyors transit

Jim Aitken
May 26, 2010
I have an old brass surveyor transit, made in Glasgow. Only marking on it is J. White, 73 Union St., Glasgow. I assume this is James White. The only "problem" is when you site through it the image is upside down. Image is also crystal clear. Perhaps this is the way they work?? Thanks for any feedback, I would love to use it as a telescope, but perhaps that cannot be done.

David White Transit

Chris H
November 2, 2010
Anyone know the approximate worth of a 1948 Surveyors transit? Good condition with ALL parts,Tripod and Marked stick. David White is make and serial number indicates 1948 model. pics will be made available to any respondents.


Judy Lane
November 30, 2010
Does anyone know where I might be able to purchase a 2011 Calendar with px of antique land surveying equipment? I thought I saw one once advertised in one of my husband's land surveying magazines but, of course, can't find it now. Thanks.

Looking for vintage range pole

January 20, 2011
I'm reconstruction a collection of survey equipement I used both in college and land survey work. The last peice I need is a two or three section vintage range pole. Know where I can find one?

antique survaying instruments

Donna Guiou
July 21, 2011
I have 2 One is from he Berger Enginering. Model No 190 part No 18036 the No. on the instrument itself is 2W-4326. Does anyone know if this is worth anything. the other one is from the Starrett Co. I have no No. for that one. It is a leveling instrument. The top one is a SPEED-a- Liner Dumpy Level


December 14, 2011
Happy Holidays to ya. I'm coming to you with an unusual request. I'm looking for a surveyor who is interested in early surveys of N.America. I have a Surveyors Jig that computes a survey that has been used over n over through the centuries. This shows the evolution of the Northwest Ordinance from the 1670's to the 1830's. The Jig's message is of a survey off a Benchmark,(very old Benchmark) and to establish 14 6mi. sq. quads using 1mi. sq. sections. This is Hydrographic or placing the river drainage to Cadastrial Grids.The Jig computes the evolution of the survey that covers over 300 6mi. sq. quads using a scaled rope n peg as the controlling scaled guide. The Jig is the "microchip" to the explanation of the large Master at this very old survey station and it's many operational witness points. I'm looking for a interested person/company with knowledge of survey blueprints to bring this to appraisal. This is a very rare look at the forming of the Northwest Ordinance and before. This is all Gov. issued instructions and follows survey law. Two examples of it being used; The Northwest Ordinance, The line that ran through the southern end of L.Michigan and the Treaty of Peace with England for the establishment of the Canadian Border off this line. Stephen Long was the last to use it and he documents the Jigs use.It keeps going back in time, but I will stick with this as an example till it's further understood. This is all done by Papal Buls, Treaties and Survey Laws. Thank You for any help. I believe this to be very valuable... Leslie Smith,,

T Street Theodolite

Laurie Bester
February 3, 2012
Hi I have a theodolite with T Street Commercial St Lambert London on the dial. It comes in a mahogany? box, with lens etc. No idea of rarity or era? Can you help


March 10, 2012
hi everyone just looking to see if anyone knows what vintage and rare transit is worth my email is blair.chisholm @ its pattened date is november 13 1900 century made by buff & buff boston massatuess number on leather handle is buff number 7751 thanks

david white antique transit

melissa russo
May 28, 2012
Hi, I am trying to find a value for a david white transit. it has the number 7860 on it, does anyone have suggestions where i can find more info on this instrument? Thanks

Kern 1909 Theodolite #19229

Niles Chumney
May 31, 2012
I acquired this beautiful instrument and know very little about it. Can you tell me anything?

Keuffel & Esser Co Surveyor's Transit

John Chappell
June 7, 2012
Looking for information and value of an K & E Surveyor's Transit # 73299. I am not a collector. Received this as a gift from an estate. Any help given will be appreciated. Thank you.

David White

Phil Smith
July 18, 2012
I have an old transit that looks like model number 1698, that is stamped on the side. I got it yesterday and have looked but can't find anything about it. Maybe you could help. Thanks

David White transit #1698

Phil Smith
July 25, 2012
I am going to sell this if anyone is interested

Antique Brass Carl Hensoldt Wetzlar Mining Transit

September 3, 2012
I am looking to sell an antique brass Carl Hensoldt Wetzlar Mining Transit. Just curious if anyone knew approximate values and dates of production. Beautiful condition. Thanks.

Seiler Transit #9284

September 28, 2012
I was asked by a friend to find out how much this instrument is worth. It is her late husband and I know squat about it but told her I would try and find out. I know she wants to sell it but don't know what to ask.


February 2, 2013

antique level

alan willcox
February 26, 2013
wwhat is the value of a hildebrand level s/n 223208


Tom Baldwin
January 29, 2014
I have a surveyors compass by Charles F Helffricht of Philadelphia and am curious as to its general value.



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