Businessman and industrial archaeologist

Born: September 23, 1935;

Died: March 21, 2018

DAVID Richard Russell, who has died 82, was a businessman, housebuilder and expert on Britain's industrial past. He was an enthusiastic collector of tools made by Scottish craftsmen, his collection featuring a fine selection of planes made by Spiers of Ayr and planes and braces by Alexander Mathieson & Son(s) in Glasgow. He was also the proud owner of a beautiful 19th-century ratchet brace in ebony, walnut and gun-metal with the mark of Charles McKelvie of Sliddery on the Isle of Arran.

Through a lifelong passion for early woodworking tools, Mr Russell built up what was hailed as one of the foremost collections in the Western world. Determined to share the vast knowledge he acquired along the way, he published Antique Woodworking Tools, a book that has become a standard work of reference for tool collectors and dealers and indeed for anyone interested in industrial archaeology.

Over many years Mr Russell was to be seen at auctions in the UK, France and the United States, bidding for some of the best tools that came on the market. And when, after publication of his book, he made up his mind to dismantle the collection, he still attended auctions, taking delight in seeing items from his collection end up in the hands of other collectors and woodworkers.

The younger son of Albert, a worker at Cropper’s Paper Mill, and Alice Russell (née Mason), he was born at Burneside near Kendal in Cumbria. He left Kendal Boys’ Grammar School at 15 to serve as an apprentice to the Kendal cabinet-maker and joiner Albert Benson.

National service in Malaya interrupted his progress and on his return to civilian life he decided to follow a rather different career path by working in the building trade, first in Bournemouth and then in London for George Wimpey. But his love for fine tools had not waned.

In 1961 he with his brother Rodney set up a housebuilding firm called Russell Brothers (Kendal) and by 1966, they were employing a staff of 148.

In the early 1970s the firm responded to an economic downturn by diversifying into building boats and running caravan sites.

By the early 1980s, now trading as Russells, Armer Ltd, the housebuilding business, which had become David Russell’s primary responsibility, had built more than 2,500 homes.

Following a heart attack, David Russell sold Russell Armer in 1989 to the Dyke Brothers although he retained an ongoing role as an adviser to his old management team.

Obliged to take early retirement for health reasons, he bought and oversaw the restoration of a farmhouse in the Dordogne. In retirement he moved to his new French home, where he pursued his interest in woodworking tools and continued gathering together one of the finest collections in private hands.

He dedicated many years to researching and compiling a definitive history of woodworking tools, drawing greatly on his own collection. He did so with the help of his assistant Robert Lesage and a professional team he formed around him and with the unflagging support and encouragement of his companion Susan Hargreaves.

Though not a trained scholar, he had an unerring eye and a remarkable instinct for pieces of great beauty. His book Antique Woodworking Tools: Their Craftsmanship from the Earliest Times to the 20th Century, with photographs by James Austin, was published in 2010.

Retirement also enabled him to indulge his passion for wood-carving and birds. At his French home Mr Russell carved finials to the posts of his staircase in the shape of a squirrel, a toad, an ancient Egyptian-style cat, a cat strumming a banjo, a mouse and an owl.

His love of birds was wide-ranging: whether he was watching nuthatches feed at the bird tray or was standing in awe in his French garden gazing up at the migrating flocks of cranes as they flew high overhead, his enthusiasm was boundless. He built a collection of antiquarian bird books and 20th-century bird paintings.

Mr Russell's wife, Eileen, predeceased him in 2017, and he is survived by his children Craig, Claire and Anne and ten grandchildren.