Cheap Tool?

By Robert Robillard on Tools PLUS!

Let’s Ditch the term “Cheap Tool” – Tool Reviews

by Ralph Mroz

How many times have you heard  someone bash a tool as “a cheap piece of junk” when it didn’t meet their expectations?  How many times have you done so?  The fact is that the key phrase in the preceding is “didn’t meet expectations”.  I submit that in almost all cases the tool wasn’t a “piece of junk” — rather it simply didn’t meet the expectations of the user.

Its All Perspective

What passenger car do you drive?  For most of you (certainly for me) it’s not a Mercedes or Lamborghini. But to someone that does drive those cars, whatever car we drive might be a “cheap piece of junk” to them. Of course we know that’s not really true.  The cars we drive meet our expectations perfectly well and do a good job for us, and if there’s something we wish they did as well as a Mercedes or Lamborghini, we happily live with the compromise because we aren’t willing to pay what those top-line cars cost.  And we manage to get around just fine.

So same for tools, yeah?

Tool Quality is Three Things

We throw around the word “quality” as if it means just one thing with respect to tools.  In fact, quality really has three bottom-line characteristics — all other quality-related aspects of the tool support one of more of these three:

  1. What does the tool do? Using a miter saw as an example, this would include things like how many bevels it cuts, how wide of an angle it will bevel, depth of cut, width of cut, if it includes a crown stop, and so on.
  2. How well does it do what it does? Sticking with a miter saw example, this woiuld include things like how precise the bevel angles are, ease of adjustment, slop in the bevel stops, motor power, ergonomic factors, and so on.
  3. How long will it do what it does? Here we’re talking about useful service life — that is, how long before something significant on the tool stops working.

Tool – Build Quality?

Everything else about the tool: materials, bearings, sub-assemblies, circuitry, switches, motors, manufacturing technique, and everything else, supports one of the above bottom-line tool quality characteristics. All these other things are interesting, and there are a number of tool tear-down YouTube channels that explore them in depth, but in and of themselves they mean nothing.  At the end of the day we only care about three things: what a tool does, how well it does it, and how long it lasts.

What A Tool Does, And How Well It Does It

the first two items  – what a tool does and how well it does it – are knowable when you initially evaluate a tool.  Since you presumably don’t buy a tool that doesn’t meet your needs in either of these regards, they aren’t really what most people are referring to when they call a tool “cheap”.  Usually they’re referring to item 3: how long the tool keeps working.  It’s usually when it stops working before they expect it to that they then call the tool “a cheap piece of junk”.  But is that fair?

Life Cycle

Different Tools are Designed to Last Different Amounts of Time

Right off the bat, lets understand that when we talk about the “length of time” that a tool lasts, we need to talk about hours of use, not years of service life.  That’s obviously because different people will use a tool more or fewer hours in a day or month or year — that’s what’s  called the “duty cycle” of the tool’s use.  (Duty cycle is defined as the percentage of use compared to potential use.  A tool used four out of eight hours a day would have a 50% duty cycle, while a tool used four hours out of a month – 172 potential working hours – would have a 2.3% duty cycle.)

A Type 4 (production pro) tradie might use one of their usual tools for four hours every day, while a Type 3(general pro) might use that same tool for only four hours a month, and a Type 2(skilled DIYer) might use it even less often.  The high-end tool that the Type 4 uses might last them a few years of four-hour daily use, while that same high-end tool might last a Type 3 most of a lifetime, and the Type 2 may be able to pass it onto their children to use — but it comes out to more or less the same number of hours of use in the end.

More Expensive Tools Tend To Last Longer

Naturally you get what you pay for, and more expensive tools will generally last longer than less expensive ones, all else being equal. We all intuitively know this and tend to buy a tool in the price range that corresponds to our desired service life of the tool, which is dependent on its duty cycle.  The Type 4 is well advised to buy the very best (and presumably most expensive) tool of the kinds they use a lot, while Types 1, 2 and 3 users can often spend a fraction of that and get a tool that lasts them for years while doing the same, or at least a very satisfactory, job.

But Aren’t Inexpensive Tools Just “Cheap Junk”?

Let’s say right off that yes, there are tools that can reasonably be called “cheap junk” — you find them at the dollar store.  But to characterize a less expensive tool that’s designed for years of 2% duty cycle use “cheap junk” because it won’t stand up to the 50% duty-cycle rigors that a Type 4 production pro would put it through is to misunderstand its purpose.  I wouldn’t use a Ford 150 to haul over a ton of material day in and day out.  But that hardly makes it cheap junk – that truck does fine for what it was designed for.

A big box house brand tool may not last as many hours of use as a high-end tool that that same store sells, but neither is it designed to.  Because there are different people with different needs, there are varying strata of tools, with different price points and differing hours of life expectancy, that will all do more-or-less the same job out of the box.  Even being a “pro” doesn’t mean that you need the highest level tool; for example some carpenters may use an angle grinder several times a week, while others may go for a few years before needing (or wanting) one.  Providing a less expensive tool that still meets some people’s needs is a feature, not a flaw, of the free-market economy that we have.

Some “Cheap” Tools are Surprising

Most of us know that many tool brands are owned by larger companies.  Stanley Black & Decker (SBD) makes Stanley, Porter Cable, B&D, DeWalt, Irwin and other brands.  TTI makes Milwaulkee, Ridgid, Ryobi, and other brands.  Each of these companies does what car manufacturers (and most other businesses) have done for over 100 years: they offer different lines of products at varying price points to meet the needs of different people.  GM makes Cadillac and Chevy; TTI makes Milwaukee and Ryobi; Toyota makes Corolla and Lexus; SBD makes Black & Decker and DeWalt. One of the benefits of multiple brands being under the same corporate roof is the cross-pollination that occurs. You’d expect that Chevy shares technology with Cadillac — and it does, likewise Stanley with DeWalt.

Tool Divisions Sharing Technology

I’ve seen it claimed that each brand within these large tool companies actually has its own engineering development team but I find that hard to believe.  Sure, some brands may be developed more in one location than another, but cross-pollination has to occur – and with the Internet that’s easy; it’d be mismanagement for it not to.  In fact, teams that are kept fully separate are called, in the business world, “siloed” (that is: they are kept in silos), and it’s a derogatory term. Modern managements strive for as much communication between teams as possible for the obvious reasons of efficiency. Besides, how much sense does it make for a company to have multiple circular saw design teams?

Far better to have one team design all the corporate brands’ circular saws.  Therefore, it’s not surprising to find that a company’s inexpensive brand’s tools often share technology, materials, parts, sub-assemblies and other design elements with their higher-end brands, as tear-downs confirm.  Of course a tool that sells for less will have to be made for less, so inexpensive and expensive tools aren’t identical…but they may be more alike inside than you might guess.

concord carpetner

They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To

Besides, it’s been the story since the start of the industrial revolution that the quality of a type of product tens to increase over time.  Sure there are exceptions — things that “they don’t make like they used to”, but they are exceptions.  The inexpensive tool you buy today is probably better than the similar higher priced tool you bought 20 years ago.  In any case, the price you pay in real terms (such as the percentage of your income) for a given set of tool functionality generally decreases over time. Would you go back to that jobsite saw you used 30 years ago if you could and you had to pay the same percentage of your income for it now as you did then?

The Problem With Teardowns and User Reports

Still, you would like some indication of the expected life of a tool,  To that end tear downs can be useful, and the other useful source is reported user experiences.  Both are useful, and both have problems.

Teardowns capture the state of the tool at a single point in time.  But any manufactured product will have countless Engineering Change Orders (ECOs) over time, as the design gets tweaked to increase performance or reduce cost or fix a bug or share parts with a sister tool or to incorporate a new supplier…or for a dozen other reasons.  The same model number tool purchased and torn down two years later is likely to have several differences from the one torn apart today.

User Feedback  – Tool Reviews

Reported user experiences, which usually come in the form of a) a tools acquired reputation, b) reports from our friends, and c) what we read in the forums, have their own obvious problems.  1), each user may be talking about a different version of the tool (see the discussion just above about ECOs).  2) Users are talking about tools from different manufacturing runs, and any product in the world will have bad runs…and it’s the defective products that are made in them that get the most press because people love to complain more than they like to complement. 3) Reported user experiences are really just anecdotes, and have no statistical validity.

What All This Means for Tool Reviews

Anyone that reviews tool  – or any product – has to review a product that’s still fresh to the market – that’s obviously when users will want to know about it.  This means that they can accurately tell you the first two bottom-line characteristics of the tool: what it does and how well it does it.  But they can’t tell you how long it will last (unless it dies during the evaluation period which is unlikely).  They’d have to use the tool for hours a day for a few years on end to do that, and by then the tool would be old news.  To assess that they are left with the imperfect measures of longevity discussed above, with the brand’s general reputation acquired over time as probably the best indicator.

Keeping It In Context

So let’s not talk about “cheap pieces of junk” tools.  Let’s look at a tool in context.  What is its relative price?  Who is it designed for?  What does it do?  How well does it do it?  And what is the reputation of this manufacturer and brand?  This is the best way to evaluate a tool.


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About the author

Robert Robillard

Carpenter / Remodeler / Editor

Rob Robillard is “The Concord Carpenter” Rob is a builder, general contractor, carpenter, woodworker, and editor of Concord Carpenter and ToolBoxBuzz As a General Contractor and carpenter, Rob owns and operates Concord Carpenter LLC. A full-service remodeling and construction company. Rob is a recognized leader in home building best practices and a source for how-to information for building professionals. On this website, Rob covers all aspects of home construction, building science, home improvement, woodworking, remodeling, and some of the best product and tool reviews. Rob is in charge of our Tool and Product Review series - Concord Carpenter Videos where we post all of our tool reviews and video tutorials. Rob approaches remodeling and building construction with a pragmatic and problem-solving approach. He enjoys using his knowledge and experience to help and educate building professionals as well as DIYers on best practices in the construction and remodeling industry. He's a strong advocate for "raising the bar" in the construction trades and promoting the trades to youth. #BeAMentor #Green2Great Craftsmanship, quality, and pride guide his journey on this channel The Concord Carpenter's motto: "Well done is better than well said!" : Read more about Rob

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