Chris Schwarz's Blog

How to Read a Tool Review (And How I Write Them), Part 1

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If I never write another tool review, I’ll be happy. But due to changes at Popular Woodworking Magazine, I’ve agreed to write a few for upcoming issues. Because I like nothing better than to pull down my pants and walk around in public, here is a guide to reading (and writing) tool reviews.

Before I start, let’s dispel some myths about tool reviews.

  1. Only Consumer Reports does it the right way. I used to think this, too. But after decades of reading the honorable non-profit magazine’s reviews of tools that relate to woodworking (drills, saws etc.), I have little faith in their conclusions. They have the integrity to do it right. They have the resources. But they have so little knowledge about what’s important in a tool that their conclusions on tools are suspect. Note: I’m not saying CR is populated by idiots. They might know their stuff on cars, baby seats and toasters. But with tools? Nope.
  2. Advertisers determine reviews. If you think Powermatic calls up an editor and says, “Review our drill press or we are pulling our advertising,” then you are living in a buddy movie with Bruce Willis. Most tool makers (Harbor Freight, excepted) love tool reviews because they do increase sales, even for those that were not awarded “editor’s choice.” (The psychology is subtle.) Instead, advertisers encourage reviews by manufacturing new tools. Editors desperately need something to review that’s not the same thing as last year. New tool, meet desperate editor.
  3. The best tool review would take all the products in a category and evaluate them in real-world shops by seasoned woodworkers. The magazine also would use double-blind benchmark tests from a laboratory to suss out the empirical differences in tools and machinery. Aieee. This tool review would occur three years after the magazine went broke paying for it, and two years after all the tools being tested had been replaced by new models.
  4. You can get all the tool reviews you need on the discussion forums. Yes and no. Everyone loves their new table saw, band saw or handplane – especially if it is the first (or second) one they have bought. Positive reviews on forums are mostly useless. They go like this: Question: Has anyone reviewed the DeWalt 733? Answer: No, but I have the Delta DL-2013 and love it! However, forums are great for finding a stinker. If three or four people have had a tool break in the same way, that’s gold. So look for the dirt (not the praise) on the forums.

Next time: After writing hundred (thousands?) of tool reviews, here’s how I read a tool review.

— Christopher Schwarz

6 thoughts on “How to Read a Tool Review (And How I Write Them), Part 1

  1. WilliamDavis

    I feel the same way about cameras and CR reports. As a pro, I used to grate my teeth when they’d run down Nikon/Canon/Hasselblad etc. because they were “too expensive” and not a good buy. So they would recommend a Yashica or whatever. I know that is appropriate for many consumers, but we don’t all fit their mold.
    As for interpreting reviews on some products, Amazon can provide useful information, but you have to look inside the mind of the reviewers. As Chris says, people are sure that what they just bought was the right choice. As soon as I read, “I just got this and…” I tune out. Good point Chris: Look for the dirt from multiple reviewers to weed out the dogs.
    You also have to discount the vehemently negative reviewer unless there are a lot of them. Some people just get off on running things down.

  2. tailwagger

    When I worked at a magazine, the term “advertorial” would be bantered around the placce on occasion, followed by a pronouncement that that was not “us.” Whew!

  3. pampine

    If you know anything at all about the item/topic, Consumer Reports and National Geographic won’t have much to offer. Granted CR can provide some statistics that are helpful, but basically I only consult them when I need to buy something I know nothing about, such as home appliances.

    Pam

  4. Rudolph

    RE: List item #4
    One of my favorite search phrases when researching a new purchase, from hand tools to web hosting, is “$company $product sucks” ($product is sometimes optional). You can usually tell from the very first page of google results if it’s a definite skipper.

    My all time favorite reviews are the ones that award five stars and then go on to state how wonderful the item, even life itself, will be when it finally arrives next week.

    1. tailwagger

      Ha ha ha! So true about your “all time favorite reviews”, Rudolph. There ought to be a unique name given to the syndrome because of it’s prevalency. I especially love the one’s written with authority and experience of the item.

  5. duckfarmer27

    Chris –

    Have to laugh at your comment. I’m a retired engineer, long time subscriber to Consumer Reports (and Popular Woodworking). I’ve always said I don’t use their review to necessarily buy one specific item blindly, but use the data to cull out the ones I DON’T want to buy. Pretty much the same with tool reviews.

    Dale

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