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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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would occur three years after the magazine went broke paying for it, and two years after all the tools being tested had been replaced by new models.
- 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