Chris Schwarz's Blog

How I Read Tool Reviews (And Write Them), Part 2

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Most tool reviews aren’t really reviews. They’re press releases dressed up with a lab coat and a clipboard to look respectable.

For experienced woodworkers, these faux-reviews are easy to spot and ignore. What are the signs? They’re missing key information about the tool’s place in the market compared to its competitors. Even more telling, the writer wields statistics to discuss the tool (14.4-volt batteries with an intelligent trickle-charger) but omits the numbers that show the writer did anything but read the box (What amp-hour are those batteries rated for? What are the cells made from?).

But mostly you know these are tarted-up press releases because they offer no conclusions. They are a waste of the world’s ink and your time.

There are two other kinds of tool reviews that are worthless. One kind is the “smart guy” review where the writer dislikes almost everything about the product. These are uncommon in the woodworking press but occur frequently in other channels. Basically, if the reviewer dislikes everything, then he or she looks tougher and smarter than the people who make the tool. Reading these reviews is like listening to a self-affirmation. The only thing you learn is that the writer is full of himself.

On the other end of the spectrum is the reviewer who chugs…. Oh rats, I can’t say that word. But it begins with a “c.” This type of review is so common in the woodworking press that I’d call it the dominant form. I always wonder: How can the reviewer type so well with both of his hands wrapped around the toolmaker’s?…. Oh wait, I can’t say that word, either.

This kind of review is as lazy as the press-release style, but with none of the integrity or self-respect.

These reviews are easy to spot because they are like watching an infomercial channel and make you want to take multiple showers.

Which brings me to the difficult question: How do I read a tool review? After discarding the three types of reviews above, I’m left with almost nothing to read. So I judge tools differently. I look to see what tools and brands show up in photos in magazines and books and on the job site in my neighborhood.

More on that strategy next time.

— Christopher Schwarz

P.S. There is a fourth type of review out there that appears only on the Internet. It’s usually a 5,000- to 20,000-word essay on the tool that takes it apart and analyzes every one of its components. These are difficult to digest because there is too much information and little perspective on what all the bits of data mean in the real world. So I don’t seek these reviews out myself.

8 thoughts on “How I Read Tool Reviews (And Write Them), Part 2

  1. tailwagger

    I used to use a lot of computer programs made for visual creatives. One leading company in particular, with a large product line, had strong marketing and used the words “powerful tool” anywhere and everywhere for each product. Whenever I read an “independent” review about one of thier products that used the word “powerful tool”, it made me chuckle.

  2. pearlsb4swine

    Chris, I enjoy reading your blog and I generally like your writing style but… the use of the “chugs c-word” innuendo, really?! Seems out of character and unnecessarily mean-spirited.

  3. Straightlines

    Like @BLZeebub, I’m not prone to being a test-dummy. I personally focus 1st on track-record and then on feature sets and ergonomics. From there, I try to arrive at a place of value. This becomes mostly a real-world functional consideration — what the tool actually does in MY hands and will it last.

    Festool is an interesting example to consider here, because its projected image is that of the cutting edge of mass-market power tool production, and being the lead innovator is a perilous perch to maintain. There are many Festoolie-Fan-Boys out there who would be thrilled to be the very 1st owner of Festool’s version of the “Wowser Grand Confabulator with LASER Bifurcated Ion Evaporative Dust Amendment with 2 Free Flip-Stop Extenders,” and that Fan Boy will scoff at the intro price of $1999.95, and no doubt wouldn’t be satisfied unless s/he spent at least 70% over that. Let me be clear, I’m NOT knocking Festool or its products, but I will point out that they too are bound by the laws of nature and it is only a matter of time before Festool’s shine is marred by the inevitable fail, and what comes after that will be a very different space than they presently enjoy.

    Incidentally, it has been the rise of Festool’s products, read that as “the friggin’ crazy prices,” that steered me away from diving deeper into power tools and refocusing on hand tools. Thank you Chris for writing about the effective use of hand tools!

    — Bradley

    1. Moondust

      Thanks Straightlines for writing that. I thought I was the only one out here disgusted with the Festool Feeding Frenzy. I wonder if those who purchase these overpriced tools realize what that high price is really going for. Let’s see, dominance in all the woodworking catalogues (profit anyone?), or massive amounts of green on most YouTube woodworking videos (um freebies for advertising?).
      I’ve really enjoyed going back to hand tools in my woodworking and in doing so am now ignoring the weekly catalogues of new machinery touting to make my woodworking life easier, better, and faster.
      And many thanks goes to Chris Schwarz for helping us along this path. I’ll buy every book, hat, CD, and sweatshirt Lost Art produces just to support this refreshing change.

  4. tachyon80

    Thank you for giving us your insights on tool reviews in magazines and online. It would be nice to see a link for each type of review to a page that is an example but I’m guessing that might get you in trouble. I look forward to reading about the good kinds of tool reviews.

  5. Sawtooth

    Chris, in part 1 of this blog you mentioned that vendors “with the exception of Harbor Freight” like tool reviews. I’m wondering why the exception? I can make a couple of guesses, but I’m wondering what you meant.

  6. BLZeebub

    Ditto. I make major purchases of tools like I have done all of my driving life with vehicles. Check the features, price and reputation of the builder then, let someone else take the hit on being “the first” to own the new ACME Wowser Grand Confabulator with LASER Bifurcated Ion Evaporative Dust Amendment with 2 Free Flip-Stop Extenders at the low introductory price of $1999.95 + TT&T…

    I just yawn, and wait.

  7. chiefcal

    Thank you this is very helpful and I agree with you. Are you or will you blog about hand tools (exp. planes, chisels, hand saws) at any time?
    Calvin

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