Tools now and then #1: Are consumer tools getting better or worse

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Blog entry by MrRon posted 10-10-2021 06:29 PM 1764 reads 0 times favorited 35 comments Add to Favorites Watch
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As the title suggests, we know of tools, both hand and power that have been used from as far back as the early 1900’s and in cases, still being used. The reason why they are still being used is because they were constructed of the best materials (best at the time) and made with meticulous care. The result was a tool that was made to last a long time, long before the term “planned obsolescence” entered the vocabulary of manufacturers. Are today’s tools better than those of yesterday? I will concede that materials are better today for some things, but some materials never change, cast iron used for vises and anvils and all types of large machine tools. The HF wrench that breaks when loosening a bolt is an example of poor quality material, but wrenches made by Snap-On are a different story. German tool makers were at the top of their craft and maybe still are. I would guess that industrial grade tools made in the U.S. are as good or better than any in the rest of the world. Consumer grade tools are a different story. They range from terrible to good, but below industrial grade. It seems tools back in the early 1900’s were all industrial quality. Some of those tools made their way down to the consumer and the quality started to go down as a new consumer market emerged. It made sense that a homeowner didn’t need an industrial grade wrench to fix his sink. Consumers have advanced from the casual DIY’er to serious tool user. The consumer today is now exposed to a vast array of tools, some excellent to others that are plain junk. Trying to separate the chaff from the kernels is a hard task and is usually a matter of trial and error. What are your views on this topic?

I have a Delta drill press made in 1939, definitely an industrial model that is still used every day and still in perfect condition. Because I am not an industrial user, the drill press has not seen action in an industrial application. If you compare that DP with a new DP made by Delta or Powermatic or any of the dozen or so manufacturers, they have all the bells and whistles that today’s consumer demands, but over time will they still be working as well as my 1939 DP? I don’t thing so. Funny thing! Plastics are Indestructible as a material, but destructible when used as a working part of a machine. The plastic in a machine will be around for a hundred years long after the machine has turned to dust.

Most modern day tools I own have either failed or completely quit after a few years, requiring replacement or repair. In some cases, repair was not possible due to lack of spare parts.

35 comments so far

View Phil32's profile


1586 posts in 1147 days

#1 posted 10-10-2021 07:08 PM

Master carvers Tilman Riemenschneider (Germany) & Grinling Gibbons (England) were producing wooden wonders long before 1900 – the 15th and 18th century respectively. They used gouges forged by blacksmiths. Remember there was a long history of building wooden ships. Besides fitting keels to ribs, those ships had woodcarved decorations.
Native woodcarvers started with chipped stones, but quickly adapted to metals that they salvaged from early shipwrecks.
What has happened more recently is competition. Toolmakers are undercutting other toolmakers for a bigger piece of the market. Buyers are drawn to cheaper tools that look like the finely made ones.

-- You know, this site doesn't require woodworking skills, but you should know how to write.

View Woodnmetal's profile


183 posts in 88 days

#2 posted 10-10-2021 07:30 PM

Most modern day tools I own have either failed or completely quit after a few years, requiring replacement or repair. In some cases, repair was not possible due to lack of spare parts.


China has certainly spoiled many hobbyists with cheap tools and prices.

At least, It allows some that cannot afford the heavier/higher end equipment an opportunity to get into it. Plus, you can fit the new junk in a much smaller footprint without shelling out too much $$$.
Its a win for many young people starting out I think…
For my little hobby woodworking stuff, I just use it, enjoy it until its time for replacement.
Its keeps the world goin” round.

-- I haven't changed... but I know I'm not the same.

View bigblockyeti's profile


7619 posts in 2964 days

#3 posted 10-10-2021 10:05 PM

I bought a Delta/Rockwell 18” planer needing a little rehab when I could have far more easily bought a Grizzly 20” 5hp planer for ~$3500. The 5hp motor on my planer weighs a little under double what the Grizzly motor weighs, the entire machine weighs more than the Grizzly by a few hundred pounds. Big bearings and big castings make for heavy, long lasting machines, sheet metal does not.

-- "Lack of effort will result in failure with amazing predictability" - Me

View splintergroup's profile (online now)


5863 posts in 2465 days

#4 posted 10-10-2021 11:01 PM

The original power tools developed in this country were marketed to industrial users and factories. Making them smaller and more productive (i.e. faster) was the design goal. Of course they had to be durable or the consumers would quickly switch to the competition. When the market became saturated, the tool makers searched out new markets, inevitably the homeowner and other DIY types (think B&D). This market was huge. To make higher profits, they found ways to make them cheaper, short cutting ultimate longevity as it wasn’t a leading requirement.

Once this split occurred, the consumer grade kept going with “features” and pursuit of cheaper manufacturing. The industrial side kept going as always, make something better that the competition to claim more of this limited market, but a market that spent based on productivity gains.

The offshoring of consumer grade tools was another step in the cheaper production path. These tools are always at the edge of their durability limits. The industrial grade stuff is still available, but expensive and you have to know where to look. Only advertised to the big manufactures.

View therealSteveN's profile


8858 posts in 1817 days

#5 posted 10-11-2021 04:42 AM

I’ll echo what Bruce already said. Pre WWII tooling was largely either hand tools, or industrial. It was for the returning GI’s that they started making Home owner tools. Plenty of jobs, plenty of money saved by guys away fighting, so they couldn’t spend much until they were home, and for most that $$$$ was burning a hole in their pockets.

Came home and wanted to start a life that coincided with the very first of the DIY lifestyles. but they needed/wanted tools. Manufacturers were all too happy to switch from industrial to home owner tools, steady sales in an almost untouched market.

They have been going downhill ever since. Even the companies that stayed largely industrial, are making junk industrial compared to pre WWII tooling. It’s why so many want “old iron”

Today industrial is either European, or high end Asian. America has given away manufacturing, in favor of a white collar workforce.

The things that are better today are plastics, more than metals, much stronger, impact resistant, and able to do harder work. Sometimes they are perceived as inferior to metal, ehhh. yes and no. Things we use with our tools are far superior, glues, finishes, and the like. It’s really a mixed bag, and there are many levels within most categories, from ultra cheap, to ultra high end. Not to mention merchandising has changed vastly, so the price of any one item is all over the board.

-- Think safe, be safe

View Rich's profile


7456 posts in 1832 days

#6 posted 10-11-2021 05:17 AM

My issue with this topic is—which tools are we talking about, and what era does “then” refer to?

Steel was mentioned earlier. I’d put modern powdered metal and cryogenic treated steel up against anything from before their era. But… there’s some real garbage being produced out there as well.

In my view, large power tools are hit-or-miss. I’d rather have a 30 year old Unisaw than a new Grizzly. Still, the advances in some areas are significant, with modern materials and designs. I’ll leave it that vague. Someone could write a book on all of the details.

And what about the tools that didn’t exist back whenever? Take track saws for instance. There’s no reference from the past.

-- Half of what we read or hear about finishing is right. We just don’t know which half! — Bob Flexner

View EarlS's profile


4754 posts in 3591 days

#7 posted 10-11-2021 11:28 AM

It seems to me that the explosion in hobbyist woodworking, which is what most of us are, really started when the equipment manufacturers started making less expensive, smaller versions of their industrial (professional) equipment.

The silver lining to the consumer tool metamorphosis is the number of folks that have gotten into woodworking due to the affordability and availability of the equipment. Along with increase in woodworkers, the variety and ingenuity also exponentially expanded. If you don’t believe me, take a look through all of the projects, forums, and reviews posted on LJ.

I’m reminded of a typical response when a new thread is started asking what the “best” tool, piece of equipment, or whatever is. It depends on what you want to use it for and how much you want to spend.

I realize my response sidesteps the question, but in many respects, it does illustrate the ongoing evolution of “consumer tools”. Unlike the early days of hobbyist woodworking, you can find a wide range of quality and cost for virtually any tool or piece of equipment. With inflation, as we have seen in the past year or so, the cost of “quality” has increased but the so has everything.

I think the old adage that you get what you pay for still applies.

-- Earl "I'm a pessamist - generally that increases the chance that things will turn out better than expected"

View Lazyman's profile


7961 posts in 2630 days

#8 posted 10-11-2021 12:30 PM

One thing that most of us do not consider in this is the real cost. When you see an ad from 1939 that says that a Stanley No. 5 plane was $9, that sounds really cheap until you consider that $1 in 1939 is worth about $19.68 today (according to a google search). That would put the No. 5 at about $178. Another way to look at it is that the average hourly wage was under 50 cents (another quick google search) so it would take nearly half a week’s wages to buy one and when you are trying to put a roof over your family’s head and food on the table, that could take months for someone to save up for. I imagine that there were cheaper planes available but if they were more cheaply made, fewer of them survived to today, skewing our opinion of the good ole days.

-- Nathan, TX -- Hire the lazy man. He may not do as much work but that's because he will find a better way.

View trsnider's profile


283 posts in 3253 days

#9 posted 10-11-2021 01:02 PM

I know this ramble is slightly off topic.
I had a Porter Cable 3×24” belt sander that I used rarely but liked. I bought it in the late 80s and had collected a large variety of sanding belts. Several years ago the spring in the switch broke. For awhile I operated the switch manually, pulling it down to shut off the sander, finally that broke also so I couldn’t turn it off once it was on. I thought I’ll just get a new switch and put it in, no problem. I disassembled it and found that the hole for the return “spring” had worn and wouldn’t hold a little piece of brass probably 1/16”x 3/16”. I looked online at the porter cable and every other part site I could find. The switch was discontinued and none was available anymore. I’ve had this happen before. I decided to look for another sander of the same type, shipping fees for used ones were out of this world. Finally I admitted defeat and bought another new one of some brand I had never heard of. It’s a different size so I had to get new belts. The new sander feels cheap and light weight. It sands well enough but I burned off the rubber on the drive wheel during heavy use on a deck. Ordered a new drive wheel and installed it.

What get me is that some parts for power tools aren’t made or available after a few years or manufactures change design very sightly so parts for new versions of tools don’t fit old ones. I’d like to have some “Karnac the Magnificant” knowledge so that I’d buy 2 tools of the ones that I like and will use so that I’ll have a replacement years in the future when the 1st goes out. Hand tools are the same way. I need to remember “you get what you pay for” and spend some $$$ to get a (hopefully) decent tool.

View Woodnmetal's profile


183 posts in 88 days

#10 posted 10-11-2021 03:22 PM

To the point here.
Are consumer tools getting better or worse?

If we look at how the world has changed just in the past 15 years. I won’t get into cinereous or details.
If the vast population could afford high end industrial equipment in their huge homes, What could possibly happen??
Many people could, and probably would begin making things that can be dangerous to society. ” They/Them ” do not want the average ” Joe Cool ” on legalized meryjuwana to have the ability to produce. They/Them” are trying to eliminate this.

So, IMHO, the equipment of yesterday is slowly being recycled, leaving the equipment of today in the hands of many. I really think the equipment/tools of today/ tomorrow are much safer, although more expensive with more power limits and precise capabilities .
This is not only happening with steel equipment, woodworking equipment, hand tools, 3D printers and you name it. Its happening with everything across the board.

Which is a good thing in a way.

I don’t believe its ” you get what you pay for and what you can afford anymore”. Its about limiting the strength and precision of the tools today, for the consumers of tomorrow.

Seriously, We could have built a tank in our 3 car garage very easily with the equipment from the past along with 220V, not so much today. Certainly not at all in the years ahead.

Heck, try it with a 110 flux core welder, plasma, CNC, with the CFM compressors put out today etc. You could pull it off, however, the equipment will break before you ever get it finished. If some did happen to get it finished, it would self destruct after the 1st attempt of using it. If you managed to keep it together, then the resources needed to do damage with such a beast is limited and getting harder to purchase.

So, I believe the consumer equipment will continue to get worse as it has for years now. However, the changes are for a reason…

I’m just hoping for the best with the years, weeks and days I have left on the plant!!

-- I haven't changed... but I know I'm not the same.

View MrRon's profile


6184 posts in 4487 days

#11 posted 10-11-2021 10:16 PM

I think it is safe to say Consumer grade tools are getting worse. What can be done about it. If you are a serious craftsman, you would have to search and seek out industrial grade tools, but for the average HF “Aficionado”, you keep on buying junk because tools in general mean little. If you have an old quality tool, hang on to it because there will not be anything better to replace it with.

View Novamr99's profile (online now)


84 posts in 377 days

#12 posted 10-12-2021 02:13 PM

Amen to hanging on to the old, quality tools. They can be heirlooms to be handed down for generations. I still have my Great-great grandfathers axe that was hand forged by a blacksmith in San Antonio in 1885. It’s no wall hanger either, it’s seen use. ‘Course we’ve had to replace the handle a few times and the head twice, but it’s still goin strong and I’ll be proud to pass it along when my time comes.

-- That's not an optical illusion, it just looks like one.

View Woodnmetal's profile


183 posts in 88 days

#13 posted 10-12-2021 03:00 PM

I think it is safe to say Consumer grade tools are getting worse. What can be done about it.

I may not be around to see this, simply because, we will stay in our current home until our time is up. However, I do believe electrical changes are on the table and will be closely monitored when put in use.

This is what I see coming…

We will soon see transition to home power and lighting at 20V (100W), using USB outlets. This is the ultimate in safe, ubiquitous, user-friendly power connections.

It will also eventually mean, the end of different voltages and power sockets around the world, with only a “SMALL” number of large, hard-wired appliances/equipment needing 220V supply in very few homes.

We use our air fryer 95% of the time, the only time my wife uses the over/stove these days are when we have large family gatherings..

I could be out in right or left field but…. That’s my take on the “NEW WORLD” pre-post 911/ COVID..

-- I haven't changed... but I know I'm not the same.

View Lazyman's profile


7961 posts in 2630 days

#14 posted 10-12-2021 03:40 PM

Gonna be hard to run an air fryer with a 5 amp maximum (amps = watts/volts). Most heat generating appliances need at least 1200w at 120v or 10 amps.

-- Nathan, TX -- Hire the lazy man. He may not do as much work but that's because he will find a better way.

View bigblockyeti's profile


7619 posts in 2964 days

#15 posted 10-12-2021 07:01 PM

Teslas might take a while to charge on 20V. I’m seeing the opposite now with many electrical contractors offering specials on installing 50A circuits in garages. Houses are getting bigger and heat pumps using electricity becoming more popular than propane for those who don’t have natural gas available. Heat pump water heaters were very common in residential applications 20 years ago either.

-- "Lack of effort will result in failure with amazing predictability" - Me

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