Tak­ing Mea­sure


Buy the (not) best.

Dur­ing our daugh­ter Katie’s ju­nior year of high school, she was con­sid­er­ing be­com­ing a choir teacher. But when we took her to a ca­reer coun­selor known for her un­canny abil­ity to help young adults dis­cern the right ca­reer paths, Katie was told that her per­son­al­ity type is more that of a “first lieu­tenant”—not in­ter­ested in be­ing the top dog but per­fectly happy as a highly ap­pre­ci­ated se­cond-in-com­mand.

I rec­og­nized a lot of my­self in that coun­selor’s de­scrip­tion of Katie, and the more I thought about it, the more I dis­cov­ered that it ap­plies in my shop, too: I havea slew of first-lieu­tenant tools.

It’s not be­cause I don’t know which ones are the best; we’re in the tool-test­ing busi­ness, for cry­ing out loud, so I have pretty good in­tel on the top per­form­ers and, of­ten, the op­por­tu­nity to try them out. Still, I fre­quently find my­self more at­tracted to—and of­ten buy in­stead—the sil­ver- or bronzemedal tool.

For one thing, I’ve learned that (check­book-mind­ing spouses, take heart!) bet­ter tools don’t nec­es­sar­ily make you a bet­ter wood­worker. In 20+ years of visit­ing read­ers’ shops, I’ve seen the most mag­nif­i­cent work made on equip­ment that wouldn’t crack the top half of one of our cat­e­gory re­views, such as the slid­ing miter­saw roundup on page 44.

It’s also be­cause, un­til I re­tire, I don’t get nearly as much shop time as I’d like. By the time that day ar­rives, who knows what tool tech­nol­ogy will be like, so why spend a bunch of money now on equip­ment that may be much im­proved by then? The run­nerup, or one far­ther down the list, will get me by un­til that day—and maybe for­ever.

To be fair, there are some tools where it pays to get it right the first time. For ex­am­ple, you may buy only one join­ter or drill press in your life­time. But (sac­ri­lege alert) you don’t al­ways need tools that will last for­ever. Some, such as cord­less drills, just keep get­ting bet­ter as tech­nol­ogy ad­vances. So, if you bought a gold-medal 18-volt drill five years ago, you’d be miss­ing out on such up­grades as brush­less mo­tors and im­proved lithium-ion bat­ter­ies—fea­tures now avail­able even in to­day’s not-quite-top per­form­ers.

The con­verse also is true. Some tools are handy to have, but you need them for only one job, or maybe once or twice a year. Do you need to spend hun­dreds on top-of-the­line when el-cheapo will get the job done?

Bot­tom line: Ev­ery tool in your shop needn’t be the best of the best. In­vest in those once-in-a-life­time buys; oth­er­wise, get only as much as you need and can af­ford. Crafts­man­ship comes from you, not the tools.

See you in the shop.

Dave Camp­bell dave.camp­bell@mered­ith.com Face­book and Twit­ter: @WOODed­i­tor

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