What should tools cost? When does a cheap price represent a bargain -- and when is it only a fool's bargain?
The price of metal is pretty much the same around the world. So except for labor intensive products such as clothing, the main price advantage many Asian imports have is newer manufacturing ability, lower development costs, and a cheaper design.
Newer machinery gives you an advantage because if you are building a new product line to make something, you buy the latest equipment in the competitive markets of Asia, and the equipment might even cost less than it does in America or Europe.
Lower development costs are pretty obvious. While some Chinese companies do innovate, the faster route of a cost-reduced product is to start by copying the original product. At the very least, you saved development costs and probably marketing costs as well.
A cheaper design can knock off a proven winner and use thinner, cheaper, and less accurately machined materials -- and save the manufacturer a boatload.
Why do I care? I get frustrated when generalizations about a knockoff product affect the expectations of the original USA made product. "Why should I pay for your overpriced product when I can buy X for much less?" the customer thinks. That original product may perform much better than the knockoff -- and even demonstrably save time and money -- but the knockoff can redefine the worth of the product.
I recently bought a knockoff bar clamp from Harbor Freight to test it against the Universal Bar Clamp made by Dubuque that we have been selling for over a decade. What are the differences between the original clamp and its knockoff? The results were striking.
Metal thickness: the wall thickness of the original aluminum tubing is almost double the thickness. This means the original is much stronger and not prone to flexing. The knockoff is not nearly as strong as the original, and it flexes if you bare down. All the casting of the original are heavier and better finished than the knockoff.
Length: Both clamps are sold as 24" clamps, but this ostensibly straightforward number means different things for these different products. For the Universal clamp, 24" means you can clamp something 24" wide. The knockoff, on the other hand, has a maximum clamping distance of 20" and another 4" that do nothing. Beware the "overall length" measurement - a bait-and-switch abuse, in my view and a big deal.
Overall fit and finish: The screw on the knockoff is drilled at an angle not straight on. Very annoying. The original has deeply punched slots for a wide range of adaptability and solid engagement. The knockoff has half the slots, which are barely punched in.
The import costs about $10; the Made in USA original costs $26.
I am not categorically knocking cheap tools. I would much rather you do woodworking with the equipment you can afford, even if it's more work, than not do anything at all. That would really suck. But it's bizarre to read an article in the woodworking press that shows a style of clamp with a "how to fix it" hack that unintentionally by omission tars all clamps of that style with the same brush. I would have been much happier if the article mentioned that the flex in the clamps they were using aren't typical of all the aluminum bar clamps you can buy -- just the low end ones in the article.
The wall thickness of the US made original is about twice the thickness of the knock-off
More and deeper slots make the original faster and easier to adjust
The heavy cast aluminum fitting on the original will last generations - I bought my first ones in the 1980s
The poorly drilled thread on the knockoff makes it harder to adjust when at a wide open setting
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.