For experienced woodworkers, it’s easy to ignore tool reviews and say: “I just buy the brands that have served me well.”
But what if you know little about the different brands? When I was growing up, Skil made fantastic circular saws. Black & Decker made good drills. Craftsman put its name on some good machinery. Delta was unassailable on the quality of its table saws and band saws.
Are those statements true today?
For even the veteran woodworker, shopping by brand is a moving target. In the last 25 years, many brands have risen or fallen because of changes in the global marketplace. A Powermatic 12” planer from 1994 is not the same machine as one made in 2014.
I’ll give you that some brands have stuck to their guns. Makita still rules the cordless drill market. Hitachi still (for the most part) makes good miter saws. Bosch’s jigsaws are outstanding. And Black & Decker’s battery-operated tape measure is just as good as it was five years ago.
I propose that today your best bet is get your hands dirty and stop – stop – shopping online. If you go to a store and pick up every handplane or every router on display, you will have a pretty good idea of what feels cheap and what feels good. Yes, it takes more work. You might have to travel.
But that will get you about halfway there.
What gets you the rest of the way? Knowing what is important about that particular kind of tool and what is not important. Some of this is open to interpretation, but mostly it’s not.
For example, what is important about a simple bevel-edge chisel? Most magazine reviews focus on edge retention. (Full disclosure: I am guilty of writing some of those edge-retention reviews in my early days.) Edge retention is low on my list. I should be able to chop out the dovetails for a couple drawers before resharpening. But I don’t need the edge to outlast my grandkids.
Instead, I want a chisel that is both comfortable to hold and lightweight. Those are the two most important qualities. I want a chisel that is not top-heavy – most plastic-handled chisels are handle-heavy and tip while you chop with them. And I want thin side-bevels. Thick side bevels bruise the work while chopping out tails. If a chisel meets those basic criteria (few do) then I’m OK with it.
One could make a list of these critical qualities for every tool and machine on the planet (it would make an excellent book). What’s important on a power jointer? That it holds its settings, both for the fence and the table parallelism. Other stuff is secondary, tertiary or stupid-ary.
How about a table saw? Having adjustments that are easy to manipulate to permit clean cuts. Plus a fence that locks hard and is adjustable in three axes. A guard system that is unobtrusive. A dust collection system that will prevent the machine from self-destructing.
What I look for in a tool review is an author who can identify what is important, focus on those qualities and compare the tool in question to its competitors.
That’s actually not asking for much. It’s a much easier approach than evaluating 10 table saws for how flat their tops are (a fairly idiotic metric for the most part) or determining which saw has .003” arbor runout vs. 004” (runout is kinda silly, except in the extreme). But it does take someone who is willing to turn his or her back on decades of tool reviews and their traditional format.
This is where I’m supposed to say: That’s me! I’m the guy!
I’m not the guy. I did my time reviewing tools. I made dumb mistakes while doing it. I wrote some stuff I’m not proud of. And I edited some stuff that should never be read again. Today I’d rather build birdhouses than set up 10 table saws or sharpen 100 chisels.
That sounds rather hopeless. What is a woodworker to do?
— Christopher Schwarz