Advice on buying hand tools is always an interesting and provocative subject that has the ability to either enlighten or confuse those new to woodworking. On the surface there are many contradictory approaches to planning your first tool kit, dig a little deeper and this becomes tenfold. Ultimately there is no right or wrong and so the only satisfying end is consumers who are educated in their choices.
I read an interesting post linked to on the Lost Art Press blog this week which touched on one facet of this subject; copy cat manufactures. That is larger companies or manufactures who copy the work of the individual bespoke maker and sell it for cheaper. It would appear that this has become a growing problem which can all but cripple a small business, and yet for all intents and purposes no laws are being broken. For what it’s worth I thought I’d add my two pence.
Scolding companies can’t make a difference, so long as they’re making money they’ll be happy. The only thing we can hope to do is take away the demand through education. They won’t make what doesn’t sell. Now I am all for variety and options within the market so I don’t want you to think I’m suggesting that cheap tools should be banished, on the contrary I belive they are vital. And at the risk of seriously over simplifying things for making a point, I would like to suggest that we all have two routes to consider when buying tools. Either we want something that functions well for our needs, or we want something that functions well and also goes a step beyond so that it is a joy to own, a pleasure to hold, admire and use.
A mass produced copy can only provide the former at best, and yet it’s price mark will still hold some bearing to it’s copycat looks.
If you’re seeking cheap functional tools then go with a time tested bog standard one or take a look at something second hand. If you want individual design, quality and service then go to a small maker or reputable quality brand.
Strong principles are often a part of buying hand tools, it’s a passionate hobby and quite often we are drawn to tools not only because we need them but because we want them. If we can find a way to create transparency and education for the buyer then we will be taking a step in the right direction.
Nicely written post and this is a tough topic. Perhaps each of us must make our own decision on this issue as we try to navigate the various thorny paths of life. The better you know the folks involved, the more likely you’ll vote with your wallet in a way that reflects your values (both with toolmakers and sellers).
(The following is tongue-in-cheek, but hopefully shows the challenges of the topic)
What about used tools from copycat companies? I have a number of vintage Stanley knock-offs, does this fall into the wrong camp? What about the modern Stanley’s riding the resurgence of interest? What about Vintage Stanley’s? Are the sins of Stanley megacorp of the 1900’s crushing competition absolved? What about vintage tools made with Prison labor that may have put others out of business?
Hi Richard, Like your stance regarding little known wood tool makers! As someone new to all things woodworking, (at the age of 66!) got to say I don’t know of many! Any chance you could name a few that you believe are worthy of praise as well as value?I am sure many of your followers would appreciate such information, myself included. Many thank’s for your informative video’s, and easy to follow instructIve tips and hints. Very helpful to a oldie, newby,cheers Larry.
Ps, Your benches aren’t bad either!
Robert F says
Interesting … I do sympathise with the manufacturer on the end of the blog – I also understand though that buying a Lie Nielsen can lead to a cold shoulder from the wife so a Quang Sheng copy potentially fills a gap. That having been said there is nothing better than leaving the Quang Sheng in China, buying a Record No 5 on eBay and investing a few hours in bringing it back to life.
johnnie skears says
Hear,hear, having fallen into this trap I can say that once the novelty price has worn off, the feeling is not the same, and often the goods are substandard. Old time tested, is my way forward since, until the lottery win that is, then its all top draw including a new bench !
Bill White says
My first comment is that there is a growing tendency to use the word “cheap” in place of inexpensive. There is a BIG difference in my small mind. I can make/build inexpensive tooling/jigs, etc. without falling into the realm of “cheap”.
We must differentiate.
Crap materials, workmanship equates to CHEAP. Quality materials and workmanship is a totally different issue.
Did the old craftsmen build “CHEAP” or “inexpensive”?
I must lean to the latter connotation.
I have never been disappointed in a quality tool. I recently purchased a tenon maker made by the A.A. Wood and Sons company. This is a quality tool that will go on and serve for another 100 years. Although it was somewhat expensive, I find it a joy to use. Much nicer to handle than a carbide tenon maker that only makes one size of tenon and will wear out and be thrown out. I also buy ultra cheap junk from harbor freight that I will use for a one off specialty job. It will do the job once and that is all I expect. Pay the price or roll the dice.
John Verreault says
Richard, you are bang on and I could not agree more. My grandfather, a shipwright and wooden boat builder all his life, put it simply to me: “Buy the best and you won’t need to buy another”. He was referring to non-consumables (e.g. the drill not the drill bits) but even there you can reap rewards by having them last that much longer and staying sharp or shaped or however it is they are supposed to stay. Quality is just that and cheap crap is also just that.
Laurence Pylinski says
I am a firm believer of tools made in America.
I guess I am Old School. That being said I make my living with hand tools and have done so for the past 30+ years. My moto is always to look at the best tool
made you can afford then buy the next one up, or if you are going to use it a lot then buy the best made. You will never regret quality but will regret buying substandard. I am not one to buy for one job because I never know if I may need it again, if I do then I have it, if not then it will sell with my estate. I do not disagree with anyone that does though.
johnnny rowell says
I fall into the camp that I have modern Lee Valley and vintage Stanley, Record and Marples tools and love them all. Lee Valley produces innovative tools that work beautifully. I have Lee the Valley plow plane and also Record 043 and 44 and love using each one . I love the Lee Valley for its quality build and the Records for the fact that they work well and have been given a second or third career. I have Lee Valley planes and vintage Stanley and several of my all time favorite Miller Falls smoothers. I have had in my hands some of the “knock off’s” and was not very impressed but everyone has to get what they can afford although the vintage stuff is usually less costly and superior to the knock offs
China is most famous for copying and profiteering on other peoples hard work, they’ve done it to Rolls Royce and many other brands and today we see hand planes that are identical in looks to LN but no where near identical in quality but I too have a bone to pick with the tool makers and that’s their ridiculous high prices. Let’s just compare between two here Veritas and Lie Nielson have a look at the Veritas Shooting plane and the famous NO.51 LN here in Australia. The Veritas sells for $439 while the LN no.51 sells for $650 whilst both planes are the same in terms of quality and with the small added features Veritas has added still Veritas makes their planes affordable over LN. Both companies produce premium tools, both companies are reputable and of high class yet one lives in the clouds and the other is more down to earth. You will even hear from other small time tool makers belittleing other tool makers just to entice the buyer to buy their tools. Germany produced moulding planes that were interchageable excellent idea that worked flawlessly but was out of reach to many beacause of their high prices some where between $2000-$4000 each, then they made a tablesaw with a handsaw underneath again excellent idea worked brilliantly the best finish cut I have ever seen and over $2000. Those moulding planes are no longer in production gee I wonder why. Even antique dealers has hyped up their prices since only two years ago a set of 18 hollow and rounds were selling at $350 now they are $750, why? Supply and demand.
So if you really want to stop China from selling you junk don’t buy their crap and lower your own prices so as not to entice those who really want to start working wood but literally cannot afford to do so. Btw even the flea market bargains are gone, I chuckle when I hear prominent woodworkers on video saying I bought this old bailey on ebay for $20. Yeah right good luck finding one now.
Lol watch the links popping up.
There are still some good buys out there, but you have to take some risks. I bought a Stanley Bedrock #7 for $120. The hitch – it had a crack that appeared to have been expertly brazed. Turns out the sole was perfectly flat, so I got a wonderful user for a great price. I had a newer (postwar) Stanley after they started making them cheaply. Finally threw the durn thing in the trash; never could get it set up decent. Personally, I won’t buy knockoffs or cheap tools. They’re just not worth the frustration. A good tool, even if it’s only a user (like my #7), is a joy to use and produces good results. Sometimes the price of a tool pinches the pocketbook nerve, but quality is always worth the momentary pain of parting with my money. Case in point, my new Aurilou (sp?) rasp. Boy, does that thing work.
John Taylor says
Bit of a captive audience here for qualidee heirloom tools, of course everyone on this blog is going to sing the praises of buying quality tools that you will not regret for the rest of your life and still hand them over to your sons/daughters so that they can enjoy it and hand it over to their children. What romantic tosh.
The LN and Veritas are luxury items, justified only if you’re a professional working with those tools daily. Or you’re an occasional woodworker with deep pockets. By all means buy them (because you can,and hell why not, buy the best), but if I adopted that same philosophy to all things in life, I’d have nothing at all, because I wouldn’t have car unless it was a Rolls Royce, wouldn’t have a house until it was big enough for all the children I intend to have.
It seems to be very popular to put together phrases like “cheap Chinese” when applying to tools. Before it was cheap Korean muck, cheap Taiwanese junk, and before that cheap Japanese rubbish. If we’re honest, it has all sorts of condescending undertones to our Asian friends which I won’t dwell on, but the truth is this: at least somebody needs to make affordable tools, because a lot of people need tools on an occasional basis who cannot justify spending a fortune on tools that, although will look brilliant and are a joy to use, will mostly sit unused until your kids inherit them, and flog them on ebay.
alan beech says
One of the earlier posters said that the use of the word “cheap” is merely an emotive and useless description.
I have found Quangsheng to be as good as my LNs. Engineering is marginally rougher but performance and end result are excellent. That illustrates the problem with the unthinking use of Cheap as an adjective especially when linked to China. Quangsheng is thus not cheap but “inexpensive” relatively.
I also have a Kunz which after about 6 hrs of fettling is still poor. So Cheap and Chinese/Taiwanese/Hong Kong…who knows. I leave it in my plane cupboard as a warning to be remembered.
I have a no name Chinese wooden plane ( walnut like wood) which cost about £12 pounds which is as good if not better than my LNs. Cheap yes but also excellent once I got used to pulling instead of pushing.
To those who merely say Cheap and Chinese I can only say open your eyes and have a try and damn good look at the results.
To those who only have LN or Veritas I say please enjoy the expensive bling and know that I have examples of both but have tried many other manufacturers.
Results are everything. Bling or depth of pocket count for little.
Paul Knapp says
Alan you may be happy with your Chinese knockoff, but did you ever pause to consider who paid for all the R&D that went into creating the original that the Chinese then ripped off. This happens all the time and it is killing innovation because there is no payback once the Chinese get a hold of something and produce iten masse in factories that pay no regard to working conditions or the environment. That so called “less expensive” tool bears a very high cost that you don’t pay up front, but believe me in the end you or your children will pay with a lowered standard of living and a diminished environment.
Karl F Newman says
the new woodworker always wants to know “what is the best tool to buy if you had to choose…” when I started out I HATED the answer! And now that I’ve got 35 years of making and teaching behind me I still hate the answer. because the answer was and still is “it depends”.. it depends on how much money you want/have to spend. it depends on what you want to do now and what you think you want to do later. it depends upon what is available, it depends.
I recommend a basic tool kit with multiple possibilities, I teach about what the differences are between good tools great tools and poor tools, and how to identify when a good tool has been ruined or worn out. I also teach/advise them to make any and everything they can themselves.
thank you for your blog and allowing my comment
Glen C says
The adage is and has always been, “Buy the best you can afford.”
Is the Quansheng the best you can afford? Buy it. Is the Lie-Nielsen the best you can afford? Buy it instead.
But there is a level below which you’re just wasting your money and you’re better off not buying it at all.
Case in point: I bought an iGaging marking knife. I dropped it once, and it BENT. It weighs almost nothing and fell only two feet, and it still bent. Why? Because they didn’t bother to heat treat the steel. It’s butter soft. I’m not even gonna bother to replace it. That was the last Chinese tool I will ever put money into.
David Nighswander aka Old Sneelock says
Good tools begin with good materials and a material name doesn’t hold true throughout the various countries and companies involved.
Cast iron can be fine grained and strong or coarse grained and crack under the lightest blow.
A real world example of “quality materials”.
When I worked for a company called Metal Powder Components they had purchased a coining press at great expense from Japan and installed it in the stamping room. The press functioned well but if the operator wasn’t careful during setup they could get the loading device, called a Geneva wheel, out of time with the ram and end up driving the punch through the edge of the loading pocket in the 1″ thick aluminum plate. At first the setup people would say to just leave that opening empty and run the press.
After a year or two of running with first one, then two, and eventually five out of 15 pockets nonfunctional I came to work for the company. As the maintenance engineer I didn’t think that having a 33% reduction in production was an acceptable level. Upon calling the company I was told that the part was a custom made casting from special alloys and would require six months and many thousands of dollars to replace.
One of the toolmakers said if I could get the material for him he could make the part in a weekend. The plant engineer threw a fit and said that the material alone would cost more than buying the part. I took a sample of the part to a friend who ran the lab at a local aluminum recycler. When he ran it through the mass spectrometer he informed me it was the lowest grade pot metal combination of aluminum, zinc, and tin. In other words melted scrap.
I ordered the proper size plate. That weekend we made a new Geneva wheel and installed it.
I had him make a spare wheel for a combined 10% of the cost of a new “special alloy” part.
Presses and hand tools can be advertised as anything. It is the trust you place in the manufacturer and distributor that makes a difference in how good the tool is.
In the case of a plane the idea is that the body of the plane takes the place of the skilled hands of a craftsman holding a chisel. The craftsman has learned the proper angles and controls the blade position with his muscles and bones so that the blade travels true.
When I use a good plane that holds the blade securely at a fixed angle I can mimic the ability of a craftsman. If I use an old Stanley knockoff with a stamped steel frog that flexes and lets the blade chatter the age of the tool does little to improve the poor design.
Yet on forums and in books the persistent thought that “It’s just as good and does the job for a lot less.” is repeated.
My father, and now I, owned a Sheldon plane. I never recall Dad using it. He might have gotten it as a gift or in a swap but it was hung on the wall of the workshop with a nail through the hole he drilled in the sole. The few times I tried to use it were abysmal failures. I never bought a plane or attempted to use one until seven years ago when after reading a description of the proper method of restoring planes by Scott Grandstaff I bought a rusted up Stanley #5. I cleaned and sharpened the body and blade. Then adjusted the plane to his directions. I was amazed at how well it worked. For thirty five years I had thought that planes were just too difficult to setup and use.
Crap tools turn people away from using any tool. The idea of “it’s good enough”, leaves the question, For what?