Cheap Tools: Getting What You Pay For

Years ago when I was young, poor and not-so-savvy (now I’m no longer young…), tools had a peculiar mystique.  I realized to do a job right, whether working with wood, repairing a car engine or fixing a leaking toilet required the “right tool for the right job.”  Problem was, I couldn’t afford to outfit with the thousands of tools necessary for the hundreds of handyman tasks out there.  So I acquired a few basic tools adding to my tool box from time to time, and improvising what I needed but didn’t have.  I got by, but life got a lot easier as I built up my collection with better and more specialized equipment.

My Dad was no handyman.  I inherited (or learned) my skill set from my grandfathers who were both Jacks-of-most-trades, tinkerers and – poor.  My Grandpas each made the most of what they had through their ingenuity and resourcefulness.  Harry back in the fifties bought up old wooden wall telephones, gutted what few innards they had, and installed new-fangled AM radios hidden inside.  Suburbanites snatched them up to decorate their new homes with a retro look and cutting edge sound  technology (!)  Lesley repaired everything and anything around his house – and beyond.  He was a dam engineer, for goodness sake!  And a good dam engineer!  There wasn’t a dam thing he couldn’t fix to keep the dam thing working right.  Grandma had a cartoon cut from a magazine framed on her kitchen wall:  Against a backdrop of various antiquated stuff in the yard (a Model – T, a ringer washer, a velocipede…) an Old Woman holding a broken toaster says to her Old Man, ” I KNOW you can fix it; I WANT A NEW ONE!”

Dad did know quality, though.  Back when Sears’ tools were pretty much the gold standard, he gave me a Craftsman socket set for my birthday.  Although I’ve added metric sockets and other accessories over the years, I still rely on those sockets and that innovative push-button wrench whenever I’m forced to do car repair.  The chrome is still intact, the reversible wrench still works and the sockets still grip the bolt head.  And that’s been forty years.

Unfortunately, not all tools (including Sears’ brand) are built to last these days.  Fortunately, there are some tell-tale warning signs of cheap, cheap tools (think:  baby chickens…)

Ten tell-tale warning signs the tool you are considering buying (or just bought) is a Baby Chicken Brand:

  1. The name of the store selling it rhymes with Arbor Eight.
  2. When you pull the motor trigger you suddenly understand the meaning of  “cacophony.”
  3. Other brands of the same tool sell for three times the price.
  4. Measuring twice doesn’t help.
  5. Little flecks of toxic chromium get jabbed under your fingernails.
  6. The battery runs down twice  a day.
  7. You decide to build a trapezoidal box because you can’t cut a right angle.
  8. A hare-lipped beaver could gnaw through wood faster.
  9. Three words:  Made in China.
  10. You see sparks and smell burning during normal operation.

I could go on, but you get the idea:  Most tools are made “overseas” these days which equates with backward quality control and lower quality.  My guess is  Chinese manufacturers in their rush to fulfill the West’s growing compulsion to transfer our treasure have focused on production quotas over quality control.  You don’t have to look far to see the standards in imported tools resemble those of the United States in the 1930s when our industries were just getting the hang of making stuff well.  Of course, not all imported tools are crappy, but enough fit the description to be wary when spending your hard-earned yuan on new tools.

Do your homework first.  Rather than race to the box store, or, worse, Arbor Eight, google information about the particular tool you need and can’t live without.  Believe it or not, some brands of drill motors have plastic gears, believe it or not.  Plastic gears can’t be as durable as most metals used for drive and reduction gears.  How repairable is the brand of tool?  Senco pneumatic tools can be rebuilt forever:  kits are readily available. Try to find a replacement O-ring kit for a Central Pneumatic air nailer.  I did.  It’s “no longer available” for this  currently-advertised tool.

Generally, some brands are reliably reliable and durable.  The following list is based on subjective use experience, trial and error and a cursory search of intermet chat posts:

The Good

Senco, DeWalt, Hitachi, Bosch, Porter Cable, Makita, Fein, Delta, Milwaukee, Grizzly, Shop Smith

The Bad

Craftsman, Bostitch, Ryobi, Ridgid, Skil, Black and Decker

The Ugly

Central Pneumatic, Chicago Electric

While I do suffer from xenophobia, I don’t want to get pegged as an anti-Sino-ite:  obviously, some of the “Good” are made in China, because, thanks to “free trade” and stupid government policies over 30 years, most brands have moved “offshore,” to put a politically correct point on it.  (Kind of like a pinhead has a point…)

Do your due diligence when shopping for tools.  Not only do you want to get a good deal on price, but you want a tool that will last a lifetime  (or two.)  Ask friends and family; talk to professionals about good (and bad) products they’ve used.  When you have learned what you need to know to decide on a particular tool, shop for the best price; sometimes, especially in a down economy, quality tools in good condition can be had at a discount from pawn shops and other second-hand sources.  Of course, you probably won’t get a warranty, but some manufacturers go the extra mile to keep you coming back.  I once bought a DeWalt chop saw (used) and used it until it broke.  I contacted DeWalt about repairing it, admitting not only did I not have an original receipt, but I wasn’t the original owner.  A local tool store shipped it to a distant city for repair; DeWalt repaired it with OEM parts, then, at my request, shipped it to a third party (my son), all at no cost to me!   As the Frankenstein monster would say, “DeWalt good!”  Bosch also replaced an out-of-warranty pad sander at no cost.

Finally, I agree wholeheartedly with the following anonymous quote gleaned from one of those intermet chat rooms:

“I don’t buy any tool based on brand name.  The vast majority of names have some good tools and some not-so-good tools…Grizzly, Craftsman, Delta, Jet, GI, Shop Fox, Steel City, PC, Ridgid, Makita, DW, etc.  I prefer to evaluate the important tools on their own merit and go from there.”

May all your tools be self-lubricating and trouble free forever and ever and ever…  Amen.

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2 thoughts on “Cheap Tools: Getting What You Pay For

  1. apparel says:

    Excellent article! We will be linking to this great article on our website.

    Keep up the great writing.

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