My first job out of college was designing power tools for Black & Decker in the '80s. Not the consumer-grade stuff; I worked in the Industrial Construction division—I'm talking aluminum housings, no plastic, real bearings, expensive tools. We produced the best power tools made in the USA at that time with real innovation. Our competitors were other industrial tool makers like Milwaukee, Metabo, and Festo (which later became Festool).
During that time the B&D consumer division was making three grades of not-so-great tools which were what you would buy in Sears and normal stores. This was before Makita and Hitachi had any real impact in the market. (Ten years later all of this was gone. None of the professional grade tool companies in the US are left - they are brands only.)
I was no power-tool-designing genius but I learned a tremendous amount in the year and a half I worked there. I learned from my colleagues, I learned by watching. I still quote from my experiences there to the folks here at Tools for Working Wood. It was an amazing time for me.
At lunchtime we'd walk the length of the factory to the company cafeteria and back, passing the company store. We used to pop by the store at least once or twice a week where we could buy various seconds of tools, the odd souvenir and things like this very limited edition train car in the picture. In my time there I assembled a fairly good collection of circa-1980 power tools from the company store and at the time they were the best tools you could get - I will probably write about them in the future.
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But while I have great nostalgia for my time there, power tool technology has gotten a lot better over the years. And while I feel that, especially when it comes to traditional tools, the older designs if done well can't be beat, seeing how modern technology can push the design of a fret saw or a coping saw is really interesting and keeps me from constantly looking backwards.
This is a really exciting time to be an ironmonger. In the past ten or fifteen years we have seen a revolution in the design and availability of well-made and well-working hand and power tools. The hand tools in both traditional and new designs work better than ever, and power tools are easier to use, more functional and safer than ever before.
This is happening just as the need for these tools is, I fear, peaking. The end product, furniture, has been left behind. Furniture itself as a possession is less important than it was. For all the advances in tools, building a Newport highboy, or a Ruhlman bureau is still really hard to do and takes skill and practice more than just fancy tools.
Skill is skill and that won't change.
This "Tools & Craft" section is provided courtesy of Joel Moskowitz, founder of Tools for Working Wood, the Brooklyn-based catalog retailer of everything from hand tools to Festool; check out their online shop here. Joel also founded Gramercy Tools, the award-winning boutique manufacturer of hand tools made the old-fashioned way: Built to work and built to last.