Chris Schwarz's Blog

A Photocopy, a Dot on a Box

LAS VEGAS , Wandering around our last day at AWFS , a tool-lover’s heaven , you might think I’m a little misty-eyed. But instead, I’m actually a little mad.

After nine years of these shows you start to see patterns emerge , things that lie beneath the surface that are both frustrating and impossible to fix. The first is what I call “photocopying,” and it’s something that has happened for centuries. This is when manufacturers make a tool that merely looks like the tool they copied. But, like a photocopy, it looks like the original but with the details smudged or missing.

Let me use chisels as an example, though the phenomenon applies to power tools just as well. Garden-variety bevel-edge chisels should be an easy thing to get right. After all, they are simply steel in a stick, right? Apparently not. If you pick up a bevel-edge chisel today, chances are that the bevels on the long sides of the blade will end in a chunky flat area. This chunky flat renders the tool worthless for its intended purpose, which is to sneak the tool into narrow corners (think: dovetails). Pick up a quality antique bevel-edge chisel from the late 19th or early 20th century and you’ll typically find the side bevels ground almost all the way down to the backside (sometimes called the face) of the tool.

So I see a lot of photocopying, especially when a new manufacturer comes into the market. It seems they don’t fully understand what’s important about a tool and just make one that kinda looks like the ones others make. And beginning woodworkers buy them because they don’t know what’s important, either. And then they get frustrated because the tool doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.

The other phenomenon is what I call the “box dot.” And this is the consumers’ fault. We tend to favor tools that have more features , more bulleted items on the box that extol everything the product does: It slices, dices and alerts you when rabid monkeys are in your neighborhood.

This human tendency will box manufacturers (even the very best ones) into adding features to their products to compete. Do you need all these features? Will you use them regularly? Do you even know if they’re important? Again, beginning woodworkers don’t know what’s important and so I see them pick the tool with more features (even if it costs more) because they “might need that feature someday.”

Again, an example: Fancy miter gauges. There are some excellent aftermarket miter gauges out there that will make a perfect dodecahedron every time. How many dodecahedrons have you made this year (or this lifetime)? What most of us need is a miter gauge that makes perfect 90Ã?° cuts and will handle a 30″ table leg or perhaps 48″ in a pinch. But we really like the ones that you can set at any angle perfectly (mine does , so I’m guilty). And if one brand of gauge is missing this feature, it might suffer in the marketplace.

So tonight we go out for our final dinner in Vegas. And as I’m toasting the end of an interesting week, I’ll also be thinking hard about what can be done to improve the way we choose tools.

– Christopher Schwarz