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Woodworker's Gazette
Gazette Archive 9/26/00

Tool Economics 101
By Walt Akers

Of all of the words that are commonly used in the English language, there are few that are as open to interpretation as the word 'economy'. Countless institutes of higher learning offer undergraduate programs focused entirely on Economics. They mold young minds to consider every issue in terms of cost/benefit relationships and collective value. After four years, if the student's mind has become sufficiently moldy, they are invited to pursue a graduate degree in the field. These scholars, called Economists, are people of great stature in our society and are often called upon by television networks, politicians and talk radio programs to provide their 'expert opinion' on issues concerning 'buying things'.

Now, you might ask what Economics has to do with woodworking. But, I would propose that outside of the world of International Banking and High Finance, there is no other group that is more financially polarized than the woodworking community. Each of us buys things, makes things and (sometimes) sells things. We have our own little, micro-economic universe where we vacillate somewhere between two extremes. A less sensitive pundit might call these boundaries 'The Cheap' and 'The Exorbitant', however, in the interest of unity, we'll call them the 'Tool for a Day' and the 'Tool for a Lifetime' philosophies.

Advocates of the 'Tool for a Day' approach will argue that the quality of the tool is secondary to the skill of the craftsman. After all, an artisan of sufficient talent should have no problem building a Chippendale Highboy using nothing more than popsicle sticks and a steak knife. He would further argue that his use of 'reasonably priced', disposable tools is a benefit to toolmakers worldwide. In fact, the survival of cottage industries and prison workforces throughout the third world are dependent on his regular acquisition of foam paint brushes and plastic putty knives.

The 'Tool for a Lifetime' crowd takes a different view of hardware purchases, living and dying by the mantra, "You get what you pay for!" Any tool that has the honor of entering their shop must not only be of the very highest quality, but also have an unquestionable pedigree, the proper paint scheme and a degree from Stanford. They hold their equipment to a very high standard --- on the days they don't feel like going out to the shop, their tools should be able to carry on without them.

As I said before, most of us drift between these two extremes - our buying habits depending on the reason for the purchase. When buying a tool for a job we love, we'll slide toward the exorbitant end of the scale... perhaps buying the 'ultimate jigsaw', knowing that it will spend many years as our faithful servant. On the other hand, when it comes to scraping the peeling paint from the front door, we're more likely to use the license plate off the family station wagon before coughing up the 75 cents necessary to buy a scraper... it is the nature of man.

Now, as Helga will tell you (and anyone else within a five mile radius), I am a GIANT in the field of spending money at the hardware store. In fact, I have yet to encounter a problem that I cannot solve by throwing enough expensive tools at it. By combining this vast personal experience with extensive research (which included looking up the word 'economy' in the dictionary), I believe that I have finally unraveled the mysteries surrounding the economics of tool buying. I have chosen to give it the modest title: The Grand Unification Theory of Hardware Acquisition.

It is my supposition that, in the end, all tools cost the same price... and that price is --- $1500.00. Now, like gravity and the notion that the world is round, I realize that this idea is ahead of its time and it will be met with some resistance. Allow me to assure you that I arrived at this conclusion in a sober state and I can offer convincing evidence of its veracity.

First, let us consider the tablesaw - the undisputed king of shop tools. For around $1500 (cash) a woodworker can buy a Delta Unisaw - the seldom disputed champion. Our intrepid buyer can rest assured that this tool will last him the rest of his natural life - regardless of what advances are made in medical technology. If, on the other hand, he purchases a $500 contractor's saw, he should expect to have to replace it three times during the course of his woodworking career. Correspondingly, those buyers whose wives will only allow them to invest in a $150 tablesaw are destined to buy ten of them before they punch their timecards for the last time.

I know what you're thinking, "Sure, your theory works fine for the big, stationary equipment - but, there's no way anyone is going to spend $1500 on a hammer." Au contraire, that's the beauty of the system. The smaller the tool is, the more likely you are to misplace it - forcing you to buy another one. The Department of Defense has recognized this principal for years. Consequently, they have taken a proactive stance by paying the entire cost of hammers up-front. Just a coincidence? I don't think so. They ensure the tool's longevity by executing any service member who is reckless enough to lose one.

Still not convinced? That's okay. The most important thing is that after careful honing and endless hours of practicing in the mirror, I've been able to employ this argument effectively to upgrade most of the tools in MY shop. This theory (in conjunction with begging, groveling and, finally, weeping) has proven indispensable in fulfilling my insatiable hunger for power equipment... It has only failed me once - that being the time that I asked my wife for a stationary sanding machine. She recommended that I buy a finishing sander and plan to die young.

Of course, as with all advances in human enlightment, there is a dark side...

I arrived home the other night to find Helga sitting comfortably in front of a shiny, new sewing machine. Being an expert in assessing the value of ANYTHING based only on the number of buttons, switches and other gizmos it has - I realized that this 'tool' was roughly the same price as a comparably equipped sport/utility vehicle. But, being a glutton for punishment, I had to ask her how much it cost...

She just smiled and said, "Well, I think its safe to assume that your granddaughter will be using this to make HER granddaughter's wedding dress..." It was obvious that her logic would be indisputable... so I poured a drink and retired for the evening --- comfortable in the knowledge that my philosophy was right...

I was broke, but I was right.

Walt - Tool Poor

Editor's Note: Walt Akers offers plans and pictures of items he's made with his $1500 tools. You can find them at his website.

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