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 firstname.lastname@example.org Facebook and Twitter: @WOODeditor