The decline of tool quality

I’m angry at Stanley. I’ve just been for a wander around the local giant hardware store and there’s more and more of their lines being replaced with cheap looking plastic filled nonsense.

They used to be like IBM, nobody every got fired for buying Stanley, but now I don’t think there’s very many of their products I’d use even if given to me. It’s all made in china, rough edges and weak parts instead of the quality, solid tools they used to make.

I used to think the local hardware store lines went in this order – Craftright/Sontax -> Trojan -> Stanley ->Irwin with Eclipse sitting up towards the top for when they did make something.  Now I think I’d buy Trojan before Stanley, at least they make no secret of being a lower end line and some of their stuff is of surprising quality.

While I’m on this rant, I’m not happy with the quality of even the ‘good’ tools. You buy the best you can afford for a tool, and find there’s rough milling that should have been cleaned up, like the surface on the Eclipse combo squares. It’s rough as anything so basically needs to be lapped before you can get good results. The brass locking pins fall out at the drop of a hat and it’s an absolute pain to get them back together. And don’t get me started on saws…

I’m also angry at the buying public, myself included. It’s us that want rock bottom prices instead of quality and are happy to replace an item in 6 months instead of expecting to hand it to our children. It’s us that buy the low end tools, forcing the makers to produce cheap imitations of their original products to try and stay competitive. What we should be doing is avoiding the ‘instant gratification’ that we get from having massive tool collections and saving for a few good quality tools.

My favorite explanations of why spending a bit more on quality is worth it in the long run is from Terry Pratchett’s “Men at Arms” novel, where the policeman character earned $28 a month and couldn’t afford quality, but knew it’s worth

“A really good pair of leather boots, the sort that would last years and years, cost fifty dollars. This was beyond his pocket and the most he could hope for was an affordable pair of boots costing ten dollars, which might with luck last a year or so before he would need to resort to makeshift cardboard insoles so as to prolong the moment of shelling out another ten dollars.

Therefore over a period of ten years, he might have paid out a hundred dollars on boots, twice as much as the man who could afford fifty dollars up front ten years before. And he would still have wet feet.”

The majority of my tools are old and carefully restored. I get good service out of them and trust them to do the job time after time. I get the exact opposite feeling with most new tools (a few good power tool makers excluded)  and can see it’s just a matter of time before they fall apart.

I’m saving my pennies for quality rather than quantity. I hope you’ll do the same and together we might just be able to force the major toolmakers to rethink the cheapening of their lines.


4 thoughts on “The decline of tool quality

  1. Good evening, I like this essay a lot. And I am in complete agreement with you. I am just picking up the hobby. First plane is a Stanley 5 from Amazon. I still think it is a good buy. I then got a Stanley 78, a block plane and a bullnose also from Amazon — I do not like these at all. They look a bit funny.

    But Stanley chisels I think are still okay?

    A Lie-Nielsen smoothing plane 4 with three different frogs are coming for me 🙂

    I do think there is a lot of merit in saving up paying for good quality tools. I do not know much about restoration, so I am sticking to new tools. Next few months, I am going to get a Veritas honing jig and accessories. Then a large shoulder plane. Then after that the Lie-Nielsen large closed throat router plane and accessories.

    Best regards.

    Be Hai Nguyen.

  2. Recently i needed to replace several spanners, as a mechanical fitter its important to have good quality tools
    After almost passing out when i saw the prices in my local tool store i promptly went across the road to the pawn brokers and after 20 or so min of rifling through their bins sifting through cheap spanners i found most of what i was looking for, top brand tools at a fraction of the price
    Its a bit rare to find good bargains like this but they are out there, just have to open your eyes

  3. I completely understand where you’re coming from. But someone like myself, who I suspect represents a lot of others, is only an amateur hobbyist when it comes to building and making things. I can’t justify or afford to be spending large amounts of money on a tool I will seldom get around to using. I guess the declining tool quality is symptomatic also of this day and age where you can find tutorials on how to do just about anything online, along with DIY “reality tv” shows becoming so popular spurning interest in average Joe’s like myself. Along with other more obscure factors like theft rates increasing and people not wanting to invest for fear of being a target of crime, losing their tools and also the long replacement warranty times on the cheap gear. I think it’s all interconnected and unfortunately I don’t see the trend changing anytime soon.

    1. Hi. Thanks for the comment. I agree that it’s a hard issue – I’ve had to buy the throw away versions at times too because I can’t justify the es pensive version. I wish there was something in between though

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