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.
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
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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
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.
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?)