Were tools really better in the past?

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Forum topic by Purrmaster posted 10-07-2013 04:22 PM 3415 views 0 times favorited 87 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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915 posts in 2636 days

10-07-2013 04:22 PM

I see a lot of people saying that power tools are not as good as they used to be. That tools made 20-40 years ago are superior to their modern day counterparts. That may very well be; I don’t know. But it got me to thinking:

I wonder if “tools were better in the old days” is more a function of only the really good machines having survived old age. I know a lot of people think that movies were better back in the 1950s. But I bet just as many crap movies were made back then. It’s just that the crap movies have been filtered out and so we only come across the good movies when we’re flipping channels or looking at DVDs.

Perhaps we think tools were better made in the past because the only specimens we see are the really good specimens.


87 replies so far

View PineChopper's profile


191 posts in 2739 days

#1 posted 10-07-2013 04:33 PM

Considering the low quality junk that comes from China now, I would say tools were better in the past.
Most tools were higher quality and made is the USA. I’m still using the same made in USA Black & Decker router that I got as a Christmas gift in 1973.
Just my 2 cents.

View PurpLev's profile


8552 posts in 4191 days

#2 posted 10-07-2013 04:36 PM

“better” is a very subjective word.

were older tools build with thicker parts that could take more beating? – YES

were old tools incorporating more safety devices, and included more efficient designs? NO

the above is vastly generalizing which I usually don’t like doing. so with that in mind- inspect each machine/tool for what it is, what it has, and what it may be missing (all are also subjective per operator)

-- ㊍ When in doubt - There is no doubt - Go the safer route.

View willie's profile


534 posts in 2997 days

#3 posted 10-07-2013 04:45 PM

I think the biggest difference between old tools and new ones is the mindset that went into making them. It used to be that a company would make a tool so well that they wanted to impress you with it’s quality so you would tell your friends and they would also buy one. Now they just try to make them as cheaply as possible and when you wear it out in six months, you’ll go buy another one.

-- Every day above ground is a good day!!!

View agallant's profile


551 posts in 3429 days

#4 posted 10-07-2013 04:46 PM

I think its a subjective argument like PurpLev stated above. What does better mean? Newer tools are better in the feature department where as longevity may not be better. I would rather have latest and greatest than old and dated but again that is just my subjective point of view.

I think when people make the argument of older tools were better they need to qualify what better means. My fathers 1960s craftsman sockets do not break nearly as easy as my 2012 Huskys do, so in that case they are better. My fathers 1960s skill saw is not better than my newer one by any means, it has less power, its a pain to change the blade on, a safety guard does not exist. The only way its better is that it has lasted 50 years. In that case I would rather not have it and have one that may last only a few years.

View Dust_Maker's profile


66 posts in 2864 days

#5 posted 10-07-2013 04:48 PM


You’re on to someting there. Your theory on the apparent virtue of old tools (furniture, literature, etc.) matches mine exactly. Now we just need to hang around long enough to see whether you are right or not.

-- Jonathan 2Cor. 4:6

View Loren's profile


10477 posts in 4191 days

#6 posted 10-07-2013 04:56 PM

It’s not true. Handheld power tools today are lighter, more
powerful, more ergonomic. They work better. Junk is
on the market but it is usually easy to spot because it
is priced cheap.

Fine machines are still made today. They cost a lot of
money. You can buy an old fine machine, like an
Oliver or a Northfield or a nice old drill press meant
for production metal work. Then you look at what
you paid and how fine the machine is and it’s easy
to say “today’s machines are not as good”, but it’s
not a fair comparison because a big Northfield bandsaw,
for example, sells new for like $15,000 but a 50 year
old used one might sell for under $1000 if the seller
needs it gone in a hurry (they are very heavy). Then
you compare that $1000 Northfield against some $1000
Rikon half its size and 1/10th the weight and of course
the old machine is impressive. Make a lateral comparison
to the finest band saw made in Europe though and
the modern machine is probably close in performance
and has features than make it easier and perhaps
safer and more pleasant to use.

Compare an old Oliver pattern makers table saw (a fine
machine if complete and well-maintained or restored)
to an Altendorf Elmo. The Altendorf is a superior
machine for most work, but the Oliver gives a lot
of bang for the buck due to 50 plus years of depreciation.

View taoist's profile


124 posts in 3034 days

#7 posted 10-07-2013 05:01 PM

Plastic has put us in a disposable world it would seem. The older tools were much more robust and therefore longer lasting. Parts weren’t made of plastic and were capable of being rebuilt if something was worn out.

View CharlieM1958's profile


16284 posts in 4761 days

#8 posted 10-07-2013 05:01 PM

Some very good points made here.

IMO, there has been a vast change in manufacturing and marketing philosophies over the past 50 years. This holds true not only for tools, but for many different types of products.

In the past, durability and longevity were the key. But as technology began to evolve at a more rapid pace, new features became more of the driving force. Manufacturers figured out that they could maximize sales and profits by skimping on durability, selling the products relatively cheaper, and continually adding new features (the value and desirability of which they promote through advertising). So when your relatively inexpensive power tool breaks, you will most likely just toss it, and be happy about buying one that is newer and cooler.

-- Charlie M. "Woodworking - patience = firewood"

View Loco's profile


210 posts in 2292 days

#9 posted 10-07-2013 05:16 PM

Lets leave China out of this one.
Lincoln 225 copper.vs Alum. No contest. MM200 vs newer. No contest.
Milwaukee Mag Hole shooter. 197X vs new. No contest.
Portaband. Ditto.
Drill presses, table saws, bandsaws etc didn’t have the motors back then but they had something far far more important. WEIGHT ! IRON !
Anything Craftsman pre 1980 vs, new. No contest.
merican automobiles (no A-lost in downgrade) pre 1971 vs. any newer CRAP. No contest.

New technology on old craftsmanship. The Bomb !
Take this and put a variable speed motor and control, killer vice, light and a HQ keyless chuck and you have a real drill press.

-- What day is it ? No matter. Ummmm What month is it ? No moron. I paid for a 2 x 6. That means Two inches by six inches. I want the rest of my wood.

View crank49's profile


4032 posts in 3514 days

#10 posted 10-07-2013 05:27 PM

Don’t forget that there is a process called continuous improvement, or kaizen that’s forever looking at manufacturing methods and materials and processes with the primary goal of reducing manufacturing costs, improving profit margins, and making more from less in general.

Well actually kaizen is a Japanese word that just means “change for the better”, but after they kicked our manufacturers in the arse for the last quarter of the 20th century, it has pretty much been adopted as the de-facto standard way to manufacture anything here as well. But the interpretation of the word here is different. In Japan it meant better product, better working conditions, more efficiency. Here it means better profit margin, less or cheaper materials, faster production with smaller overhead. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks I guess.

View BJODay's profile


528 posts in 2486 days

#11 posted 10-07-2013 06:00 PM

I had an early model Makita battery powered drill/driver. The battery was about six inches long and slide into the handle like a pistol magazine. It was underpowered and awkward to use but very handy on a job site. Today’s drivers not only have better battery technology but are better balanced and more comfortable to use.

A tools weight shouldn’t be the sole indicator of quality. I had a Skill circular saw. It was heavy. I threw my back out using it to cut rafter tails on my first house. 90 rafters, 2 cuts on each tail. Plus the distance from the edge of the plate to the blade was 5-11/16”. I now have a DeWalt circular saw. It is just as powerful, little more than half the weight and the plate edge is 5.0” from the blade. It is a much better saw.

Lots of iron is fine if it is a stationary tool.


View OggieOglethorpe's profile


1276 posts in 2653 days

#12 posted 10-07-2013 06:08 PM

merican automobiles (no A-lost in downgrade) pre 1971 vs. any newer CRAP. No contest.

You can have ‘em…

I’ll take crappy new cars that don’t diesel and knock when shut off, pre-ignite on long hills, require a re-tune for different weather or altitude, rust perforate in 4 years, have brake fade in wet or with heavy loads, no choke that malfunctions, require a 30 gallon fuel tank to get to the next town, take five seconds to “settle” when I come to a stop, or transfer all the energy of an impact to me…

Man… I don’t miss the days of carburetors, accelerator pumps, chokes, “tune ups”, mechanical points, drum brakes, seat belts with no auto-tensioners, solid rear axles, single digit fuel mileage on daily drivers. Not one bit! ;^)

View MrFid's profile


896 posts in 2447 days

#13 posted 10-07-2013 06:16 PM

Mostly this discussion has been around power tools. If you think if a nice jointer plane of old, say the Bedrock or Record or something, and compare it with a Lie-Nielsen jointer. As long as both are tuned and sharpened, I don’t think there’s much you can do with one over the other. If anything, the LN may have nicer ergonomics. I agree with the point about depreciation, and I think it applies here too. Maybe the older tools are a bit cheaper now then they once were. We ought to compare inflation-adjusted retail prices if we really want to compare apples to apples I think. Certainly plastic has made some tools available at cheaper price points, but the point is that those price points were never available before. In the 1950s could you buy a table saw for $100 (and factoring in reverse inflation) new if you wanted to? Not sure since I wasn’t alive in the 50s, but I doubt it. If so, none of those tools are available today I bet.

-- Bailey F - Eastern Mass.

View Loco's profile


210 posts in 2292 days

#14 posted 10-07-2013 06:29 PM

LOL. I got rid of a Grand Cherokee Limited bell and whistle P.O.S. that was always in the shop for electric nonsense. The the tranny then I went to do the brakes. Looked like golf cart brakes but smaller. Unloaded it and bought this. Did a frame off.
30 MPG in 1973. Diesel. Your masters didn’t allow it to be imported. They gave you Pintos and Vegas and Gremlins instead.
This had 370,000 KM on it. had to bore it .020. The crank was fine.
Yup 10 ply BIAS tires. They won’t let you have those either.

-- What day is it ? No matter. Ummmm What month is it ? No moron. I paid for a 2 x 6. That means Two inches by six inches. I want the rest of my wood.

View Woodknack's profile


12929 posts in 2923 days

#15 posted 10-07-2013 06:33 PM

When most people speak of vintage tools being better I suspect they mean hand tools. Quality gradually declined on those after WWII, in part because electric tools were becoming more common and in part because manufacturers were focused on reducing costs. I have a hand saw from the 1860’s and it cuts like nothing (manual) I’ve used before, it’s a joy to use.

Machinery is a mixed bag. The older stuff is nice and heavy, lots of cast iron, but short on safety. During the 20th century plenty of junk was made but most of it didn’t survive. I have a 30’s era lathe that was designed for a treadle, it will run off a motor just fine but I never got the vibration to an acceptable level; fit and finish is excellent. I have a 50’s era lathe that was designed for power and it runs great but needed a lot of clean up with a file because the casting flash was not all removed at the factory. Good lathe, poor finishing. Both lathes made for the hobbyist. So just like today, the cheaper stuff needed lots of fiddling and the more expensive stuff needed little or no fiddling. Then in 1972 Nixon went to China and the rest is history.

I’ve only used a few vintage electric hand tools, a saw and drill, and you can have them. I’ll stick with modern.

-- Rick M,

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