If you haven’t figured it out, I’m wary of tool reviews in magazines or online. With rare exception they are uninformed or (worse) misguided. And believe me: I am the first to admit that I was uninformed and misguided when I started writing and editing these reviews in the 1990s.
In my experience, Milquetoast reviews are not the result of malice. They are the result of several things.
- Readers want content. They don’t want to pay for it, but they want it served up quickly. On the other side of the equation, manufacturers need exposure, and they are willing to give away a few tools to get it. Do the math.
- Most tool reviewers have a limited frame of reference – they haven’t seen every portable planer or scratch awl made in the last 10 years. So their opinion is based on shaky ground.
- Most readers are impressed by the number of features that a tool has. That right there is a 100-percent true statement. Customers make lists of features in their head or on paper. Many times the tool with the most features wins. See also: bubble level, wrist strap, laser. In the customer’s head, having more features equals “versatility.”
What can you do? Stop and think for a minute about what are the three most important features of the kind of tool you need to buy. If you can’t answer this question, ask someone who has been woodworking longer than you.
Once you focus on those three things, evaluating tools becomes easier. To make things even easier than that, here is my personal list of features or selling points that are almost never critical when I buy a tool.
- Amperage/developed horsepower
- Motor RPM
- Number of clutch setting on a drill
- The particular steel/carbide formulation used in the cutter
- A rabbeting ledge on a jointer
- Depth stops on an electric planer
- Depth stops on a chop saw
- A laser on almost anything
- A box for chisels
- A plastic case or tool bag for anything
- Rosewood handles
- A bubble level on anything except a dedicated level
- A tool that does five things (drill, sander, rotary tool, banjo) – a multi-anything, really
- Big sets of cordless tools or chisels
- An included plane sock
- A bonus (and usually useless) tool stand
- A bonus cordless screwdriver/flashlight
Once you hold a chisel that feels good in your hand, once you use a handplane that is easily adjusted, once you use an electric planer that is dead-on accurate across its bed, then you can pick a tool or machine that suits you and fulfills the basic required functions.
Because there isn’t just one table saw, dovetail saw or drill press that is the creme de la creme – there are lots (once you recycle the silly tool case, put some decent bits in the tool and pitch the wrist strap).
— Christopher Schwarz