A Tool By Any Other Name…

Tool InspectorOur recent Woodworker’s Journal eZine Industry Interview with Rockwell Tools engendered quite a few comments, some of them unprintable, with the general take that if the tools are Asian-made, the name means little. While I will not agree with the contextual argument that an Asian-made tool is, without exception, of lower quality than a U.S.-made tool, I do agree that brand names move around a good bit.

Right now, the Powermatic brand is in the capable hands of Walter Meier, the parent company of JET Tools. Delta and Porter-Cable were purchased by Black & Decker not that long ago, who then in turn were only recently acquired by The Stanley Works. (Are you paying attention? Do you need a scorecard?)

Several years ago, I decided to examine the question of Asian tool manufacturing for myself. I took a two-week tour of Chinese tool manufacturing companies to see what the situation was like on the ground. While I traveled, I kept a blog of the trip, which you can find here.  And I also wrote a feature article for the print magazine that we have placed on the web for you to read.

Drill PressThe bottom line I came to was this: that the quality of Asian tools varied from factory to factory, just as in any region of the world. That the axiom “you get what you pay for” is true worldwide. That the shift of tool manufacture to Asia was not going to change, and that few tools are made here in the U.S. any longer. And that the driving factor in moving tools to Asia was that U.S. tool buyers are thrifty, and will go for a bargain price almost every time.

Those were my findings. As always, we invite your comments here on the blog, but please, keep them civil. We’d like to print them all.

Rob Johnstone
Editor in Chief
Woodworker’s Journal

Tool Manufacturing

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  • Anke

    Components made in Asia can be as good as domestic or European.
    The key is a the tool they parts are run from as well as ensuring comparable materials, which can be tricky at times.

    However with well made tools, trained staff and a quality procedure in place, chances are the quality is the same.
    you can run into quality issues if the manufacturer brings over a poorly designed tool from a low cost country.

  • Russell Boring

    I am a carpenter by trade. I perform my craft full time and I use my tools all day long. It has been my experience that the tools made on the Pacific Rim are not as high quality as those made domestically or in Europe. Some of the tools are better than others for sure. The best example I can use is the Porter Cable 126 door planer which was also made by Rockwell decades ago. I still have my Rockwell version and it still operates just fine and shows no sign of wearing out. How about all of the old Delta Unisaws that are still going. It’s not that it is impossible to build high quality tools in Hong Kong but the coporate culture there is to build it as cheaply as possible. There is nothing wrong with efficiency but if you continually push the cost down something has to give and it is usually the quality. You are correct in that we the consumers have created this. If we demanded higher quality and were willing to pay the additional price then the manufacturers would respond to that demand. It is my opinion based upon my experience that quality is cheaper in the long run. If you have a tool that last decades instead of years you will come out ahead.

  • dejure

    Issues of flags aside, there is a lot of voting going on regarding tools. It happens at the cash register:

    1) Many of us grit our teeth and pay top dollar in attempt to acquire quality tools we can depend on (experience has taught us we can’t afford cheap).

    2) Some, tired of inflation, fighting overhead costs, or otherwise reacting to prices, refuse to pay for other than an inexepensive tool.

    3) Other purchasers can be said to fill the gray areas. That is, they are, more or less, neutral on the matter. For example, they may not know why some of us pay one hundred seventy dollars for a jig saw, when we could have picked on up for thirty-five bucks.

    To muddy the water a bit, employers often buy inexpensive tools because they know they will be abused, lost or stolen on the job. I’ve even bought an inexpensive tool to loan a friend, not wanting to loan him my valued tool and knowing his pattern of tool care.

    Meanwhile, manufacturers have become adept at building shinny things that capture the eye. Even that is relative. For me, shiny is a tool that looks well built, rather than flashy. Manufacturers could fill the handle with led to up their chance of convincing me I had heavy duty tool. My neighbor, on the other hand, likes the sporty design and bright colors of a Hitachi saber.

  • Vickster Carsten

    “Whazzit for?” If I was given a job needing the advantages of a Sawzall, but had no known further use for one, I’d hit Harbor Freight in a second! If, however, people saw the results of THAT job and started hiring me to do many more, that H>F> tool would be passed on down to one of my kids who might use it some day— or might not use it at all . . . at least he would have SOMETHING that would accomplish that particular chore.
    In earlier “mechanical” days, I ended up with two sets of tools. One at home in my garage, and one in the trunk of whatever junker I was driving at the time. I referred to them as my sets as “Users” and “Losers”. If one of the “losers” got forgotten by the wayside, it would be easily and cheaply replaced.
    But the USERS? That’s a horse of a different color – – and the color is money.

  • Jim Alguire

    I’ve bought a lot of tools over the last 60 or so years, and still have a hard time remembering not to buy cheap tools because they cost too much. I invairably wind up buying them twice. The cheap one wears out, or breaks, or never actually performs as advertised. The second time I buy the good one that I should have bought in the first place

  • Jim McClelland

    A few years ago I bought a well known brand scroll saw. It was in the repair shop more than I had it in mine. I found out from one of the factory reps that the saw was made overseas. I was also told that if a supervisor is not watching over each tool being made that the quality was not in it.
    After about a year they refunded my money and I was able to purchase another brand that is still going strong. This was also made overseas.

  • T McHugh

    Why the negativity in the comments? If you can build a good tool and not demand such a high profit that I can’t afford it, than for crying out loud please do it.

    All the complaining reminds me somewhat like the new guy in the shop (with plenty of experience elsewhere…and gaining more) who is working for less, and doing a noticeable better job than the “old timers” who have gotten lazy about their profession…and thus has their scorn. Who will move on somewhere else like others before them and be the competition.

    Time to step up to the challenge instead of demanding the same old same old, and even that is deteriorating. There are people of all ages, all around me who haven’t got one real skill to their names besides trickery. Time for some training programs being developed. Time for some work ethic.

  • Richard Burbick

    I think most Chinese made tools are the same, it is in a contract as to how good they will be made. harbor Freight or Powermatic. I also do not see buying a Festool at their inflated prices. I am sure they are well made, they sure have the funding room to make it well, but I can but two or three of the decent brand tools for one of theirs, and do as good a job, and always have a new tool.