Chris Schwarz's Blog

Yuppie Tools: A True Accounting

In a bar outside
Philadelphia, Thomas Lie-Nielsen, John Economaki and I are having a
drink and talking about the people who are getting rich selling tools.

I’m on my second beer and running on four hours of sleep. I fumble and drop the veil of fairness and impartiality.

“You
know who is getting rich? The (bleep) who is selling the cheesy drill
bit sets at Home Depot,” I said. “I think there is an inverse
relationship between wealth and tools. Those who make the most expensive
tools are the poorest. Those who make the cheapest tools make the most
money.”

Lie-Nielsen only raised an eyebrow and smiled a little bit. Economaki said something hilarious, which is what he always does.

Despite the fact that my comment was fueled by fatigue and a malted beverage, it’s true.

People
ask me if I’ve ever been to Lie-Nielsen’s mansion in Maine. “He must be
crazy rich, what with what he charges for tools,” is a typical comment.
The assumption is that Karl Holtey, Wayne Anderson and Konrad Sauer
live like kings. After all, they charge thousands for tools that have
raw material costs of less than $300.

Here’s the truth: No one
gets rich making high-quality tools. After being in the shops and homes
and on the road with toolmakers, I can tell you that they are in the
same economic bracket as journalists, woodworkers and public defenders.

So
what’s my point? I think it’s laughable when anonymous readers try to
give me a digital wedgie for my coverage of so-called “yuppie” tools
from Lie-Nielsen, Bridge City and the like. These tools are not
expensive by any measure. Come on – $55 for a chisel that is built to
last several lifetimes? That’s expensive?

I’ll tell you what I
think is expensive: $1,000 laptops that I have to replace every two
years to run the software necessary for publishing. (Those are the same
disposable laptops that are used for criticizing $50 chisels.)

So
yesterday I decided to do an honest accounting of what it takes to
refurbish a typical vintage tool. I chose a high-quality Douglass chisel
that I purchased on eBay on April 20 for $23.98, delivered to my door.
To get a Lie-Nielsen chisel delivered to my door it would be $61.

It
takes about 15 minutes for me to set up a Lie-Nielsen chisel and make
it ready for work. That includes work on three waterstones. I really
like the Lie-Nielsen socket chisels – I think they are well-balanced,
have good steel and look good, too.

This Douglass chisel is
exquisite. Its turned handle is beautiful. The tool has perfect balance.
The steel is hard and polishes up quickly. But like most vintage
chisels, it has problems. The unbeveled face of the tool needs work. I
started out working it on some #80-grit cubic zirconia sandpaper, but
after an hour, I decided to resort to more extreme measures.

I
put a new sheet of #80-grit paper on the Veritas Mark II sandpaper
sharpening system and dressed the face on that. Usually I don’t
recommend grinding the face on a powered system, but this is a wide
chisel, and I’ve become fairly good at managing the tool on the spinning
disc.

Even so, it took me two more hours of grinding and
quenching before I got the face semi-usable. There is still one
1/8″-wide corner of the edge that is warped. I finally gave up on that
corner and called it done when the #80-grit paper stopped cutting
effectively on the Veritas Mark II. I might get another couple tools out
of this disc, but I need to order a new disc now. That thing is toast.
That’s another $7.80 (plus shipping).

After grinding it on the
Mark II, I had to grind the face flat on a piece of granite with belt
sander paper. I used up one belt dressing this chisel. A two-pack of
these belts costs $10.50 at Home Depot, so that’s another $5.25 and
about 30 minutes of work. Then it was on to the stones, where it took
about 15 minutes to polish the face and the bevel.

So all told,
the Douglass chisel cost me $37.03 for the tool and materials necessary
to make it act like a tool. Plus at least 3-1/2 hours of my time. A
Lie-Nielsen chisel costs $61 and 15 minutes of time.

The final
accounting is, as always, what your time is worth. Would I give Thomas
Lie-Nielsen an extra $23.97 to get those 3-1/2 hours of my life back?
You bet. Your answer might be different, and that’s fine by me. Spend
your money as you wish.

But please think twice the next time you
are at a big box store and pleased at how cheaply you can buy a set of
sub-par Forstners. You are not the winner in that transaction.

— Christopher Schwarz

Want to Fix up Old Tools? You Need an Education First
• Go to RexMill.com to learn how to refurbish planes.

• Bob Smalser disagrees with my point of view. Find out how he refurbishes $4 chisels at WKFineTools.com.

• Get an education on Stanley planes at Patrick Leach’s Blood & Gore site.

• Or spend your money on my book “Handplane Essentials,” and read reviews of new tools, get some advice on sharpening them and lots of advice on using them (which is the point, no?)

53 thoughts on “Yuppie Tools: A True Accounting

  1. Paul

    Your opening line to this story sounds like a joke: Three woodworkers were sitting in a bar….. What was the name of the bar, the dovetail joint, the bridle joint, and on and on ad nauseum. Paul

  2. Paul

    It might have been said already in the comments, but the people who complain about the high price of quality tools are the same people who drop nearly $1000 a year for the latest and greatest cell phone, with two year contract, and all of the goofy applications to go with it that probably are never used anyway. Just don’t use it to make phone calls, that option doesn’t work. Go figure. Paul

  3. Jeff

    I have never disputed that the price charged by LN, or Bridge City, or LV are too high for the products that they manufacture. These are indeed high quality products. To question the cost of these products is also not to suggest that poor quality versions from distant lands are the recommended alternative. Thankfully, these are not the only two choices.

    My concern is for the person who is just becoming interested in woodworking and intuitively believes that a hand tool approach will be quieter, cleaner, safer…and less costly than buying machinery. He will be sorely disappointed if he spends much time on the various hand tool fora. I am regularly impressed and inspired when I see the remarkable craftsmanship (actual furniture projects) that I see being accomplished in poorer nations with what we would consider to be extremely limited and simple tools.

  4. Ed Minch

    Chris:

    Lie Nelson only makes chisels up to 1", but it appears that the Douglass you worked on is about 1-1/2". If the Douglass had been perhaps 3/4", the cost to purchase would have been much lower – and even would have been common in the $2 garage sale realm – would have taken less time to prepare, and could not possibly have used up entire sheets of sandpaper. A 3/4" chisel rarely takes me 30 minutes to prepare and doesn’t completely use up any materials. Maybe I live on "old tool heaven" on the East Coast, but these tools are common enough that I have a couple of each size prepared for different tasks.

    My point is that most of us are on a budget, preparing tools is part of the fun, and, has been said earlier a couple of times, there is a connection to the past.

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    Ed Minch

  5. Steven

    Kirk, thanks for the comments but the problems were not solved by LN. Two years have gone by since then, but I did give them another chance and bought a number 4 plane, guess what? it had a fault too, the adjuster would unscrew the bolt when used a few times so I had to rough up the thread a little to make it sticky enough to hold. It went the way of the shoulder plane and was sold. So as I said paying big prices does not mean great tools, quality control at LN does seem to be lacking in my experience and I don’t buy any of their products now.

  6. wilburpan.myopenid.com

    Point of interest: that extra $23.97 for 3-1/2 hours of rehabbing the chisel works out to $6.85 per hour. The current federal minimum wage rate is $7.25 per hour.

  7. Kirk

    The first L-N tool that I purchased has only led to more L-N tools due to the quality (and service) that I have received. I hope that Steven is able to get the issues resolved with his L-N tools.

  8. Chris C

    On some of the economic theory that has come up in this thread:

    1. The reason we buy so much Chinese made junk must be because
    we love it so much. So, when it comes to who we should blame if
    we aren’t happy about that fact, I’ll tell you where you can
    find him: when you are shaving in the morning, look up. There
    he is.

    1a. Not all Chinese goods are junk. I’m convinced that they churn out a lot of junk because that’s what we ask for. Just a theory.

    2. If #1 is so, why is it so? Imagine the horror of industrialists to find out that so many people want high quality tools and other wares. Things that last a long time perhaps don’t guarantee perpetual money making streams that make industrialists happy. Though permanent, high quality wares frequently do make people happy.

    Perhaps there is a conflict of the needs of systemic things with the needs of the human spirit.

    So how do you get a populace that loves enduring and high quality things to suppress that natural tendency and constantly buy junk and/or the next wiz bang novelty that won’t satiate them for more than an hour? I don’t think most people would
    accept the answer to this question.

  9. Steven

    As I said above I did contact them and the response was "fettling" is required to all blades they make, but fettling this was not. Many more minutes than 15 to flatten / polish the back of my one :-( The other problem with the shoulder plane could not be resolved as I bought in the USA and live in the UK.

  10. Christopher Schwarz

    Steven,

    I haven’t had the same experience as you. You can always return tools to Lie-Nielsen. And they will always make things right. Send them an e-mail. They’ll help you.

    Every manufacturer is going to have some products that aren’t right. The real test is how they handle that problem.

  11. Steven

    Perhaps I’ve been unlucky but the LN tools I’ve bought have not been such good quality as is being made out on this thread. I sold the large shoulder plane I got as the mouth did not have an even gap and I found it was too big to be comfortable. The Low angle jack I also got needed lots of work to the back of the blade to get it flat. I bought these items in the US ( I’m from the UK ) so was not able to return them. LN said, when contacted, the blades do need "fettling" but if we are to believe you Chris this does not happen ! I have had much better results from the Veritas brand and believe that the products they produce are superior in quality to that of LN and they tend to get my money now for any planes I purchase ! I also bought a complete set of 12 Buck Bros Chisels very cheaply from the dealer who sold me the LN items, I have no idea if they are the low brand type you mean but they have been excellent, easy to sharpen, hold an edge well and were very cheap. So perhaps a little too much generalisation from you on this occasion based on my experiences?

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