Tool Rant: Is that really a clamp?
"In the past year, I have become increasingly frustrated using the clamps that I have in my school. They are mostly F clamps made by a well known manufacturer that we have used hard for 15 years. But now I find tightening and loosening them to be a chore."
I am having an increasingly difficult time answering student’s questions about where to buy tools. Recently, I was showing a Starrett square to a class and someone asked if you could get one at one of the big-box hardware stores. Later we were talking about high-quality table saw blades, and the same question came up: Can you get it at a big-box store? What is it with those places? These stores will come into your town, drive every competing store out of business, and then stock only merchandise that’s made overseas and is usually of such low quality that it can’t actually do the job that it was advertised to do. Every time you buy one of those $6 squares or $20 drills, you further cement the hold they have over us and remove any motivation they may have to offer tools that really work well and can go the distance. The need to have the cheapest product has set the bar so low and has gone on for so long that people don’t even realize just how bad the tools are they are trying to use.
In the past year, I have become increasingly frustrated using the clamps that I have in my school. They are mostly F-clamps made by a well known manufacturer that we have used hard for 15 years. But now I find tightening and loosening them to be a chore. They just don’t turn sweetly. As soon as pressure is applied, the threads start to grind. I realized that the couple of 60- or 70-year-old Hartford clamps and Hargrave clamps that I own were completely different. You tighten them, and they do just that—they get tighter, without having to fight them—and loosening them does not require jerking the clamp back and forth. You just turn the handle—ever so sweetly!
A blacksmith friend of mine gave me an interesting answer one time when I asked him why the old Witherby and Swann chisels were so much better than the usual chisel out there today. His answer was “That Witherby chisel was never a Toyota or a refrigerator!”
I think the biggest problem is that the people making the tools do not have any idea what they are actually supposed to be capable of. What’s the big deal? I turn the clamp handle, and it tightens; so it must be good, right? Try turning those handles (under load) for 20 years and then tell me how it works! If the people making the tools don’t know how they work or what they are supposed to be able to do, then how can they understand the impact on the tool when they cheapen one of its components?
A friend of mine purchased a well-known (and expensive) cast-iron router table top like the one I’ve been using in my school for the past 15 years. The problem is that rather than the perfectly fitting and dead flat steel insert ring that came with mine, it has been replaced with a thin, ill-fitting, and warped piece of plastic. Obviously, whoever decided that was a good thing has never used the tool. My friend turned on the router in his new table and the plastic insert shot out of the table like a Frisbee!
Why do tool company executives allow the accounting and advertising departments to drive design decisions? Because they know nothing about what the tool is supposed to do or just how bad the tool actually is. Their arrogance won’t allow them to try to get information from real woodworkers in order to make them better. I’m not talking about asking someone who might use the tool a few times a year; I’m talking about getting serious input from a number of longtime professionals, people who can tell you the difference between that 70-year-old clamp and the new clamp they are trying to make. In other words, people who have to use these tools every day to make a living.
I think what really says it all is something I heard from one of my students a few months back. The student’s brother was a tool executive for a well-known department store. He told my student that the deciding factor in producing a certain tool was not whether it worked. It was based on how it would look in some guy’s basement when he was trying to impress his brother-in-law!
Thank God for flea markets and eBay!
-Bob Van Dyke runs the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking and is a frequent author for Fine Woodworking
More from Bob:
- Modifying an inexpensive honing guide
- Tablesaw blades for joinery
- Build your first workbench
- Bob’s author page