When you make things that other people use to make a living, you can't afford to make many mistakes. Above all else, professional tools have to be functional and durable.
Yet, during my years of covering the tool industry for Popular Woodworking Magazine, I was shocked every year at the outright dumb and dangerous stuff that came to market. After becoming friends with tool designers and makers in the woodworking industry, I asked them these simple questions:
Why? Why do toolmakers insist on making crap? Or, why do they make decent tools with useless features?
The answer is that introducing new products every year helps the sales of the existing products. If you make the same drill every year for 10 years, you will go out of business.
Now, I don't believe the above statement to be true. Some toolmakers, such as Lie-Nielsen Toolworks, have made the same tools for 25 years, such as its 60-1/2 block plane, and the company is doing just fine. Yet, "innovate or die" is the typical battle cry among corporate toolmakers.
The design blunders aren't always obvious. Many times you have to be a serious user of a tool to understand how the designer failed. (This is why field-testing is so important.) The following examples will, I hope, show you how good intentions can result in bad tools. For each tool, I'm going to present the "innovation" from the point of view of the marketing department. And then from the point of view from the victim – I mean, customer.
I call these the "tool-shaped object" design awards because these things look like tools, but they don't quite behave like tools.
The Chisel & Rasp Combination Tool
The marketing department: Site carpenters need both chisels and rasps on the job, especially when installing locks, hinges and other bits of residential hardware. This tool combines the two tools by adding rasp teeth to the front and back of the blade of the chisel. Now the carpenter needs only one tool where he or she needed two before.
The carpenter: Chisels are two-handed tools during paring operations. One hand holds the handle and the other holds the blade. Holding rasp teeth is like trying to cuddle with a cheese grater. When you use a chisel to chop wood, you hold the blade about half the time to position the tool accurately. So, once again, this tool is going to shred the fingers. Finally, rasps are also two-handed tools. One hand holds the handle. The other hand holds the tip of the rasp, which you have thoughtfully made into a hand-ventilating sharp chisel.
Slick Tables & Fences on Chop Saws
The marketing department: A shiny and polished table allows you to slide your work easily into position before cutting. And then to slide the waste away after cutting. Less friction means less effort.
The woodworker: Slick tables and fences are OK for rough work. But they make it difficult to hold the work in position and make an accurate cut. The work can shift left or right easily, making the cut too long or too short. It can even make it difficult to make a square cut because the work will slide away from the fence, spoiling the perfect 90° or 45°. The only way to ensure an accurate cut is to clamp the work to the saw, which slows down your work. Instead, a good surface on a chop saw would be slightly grippy.
Lasers on Tools that Aren't Levels
The marketing major: Now you can cut your wood with laser accuracy thanks to the laser we've installed on your miter saw, circular saw, jigsaw, drill press, (list continues for some time) and tape measure. The laser makes it easy to see where your tool will cut. You're welcome.
The woodworker: First, have you ever had to adjust the lasers on your own tools? It takes time. And then, as soon as you knock the tool, the laser has to be realigned. Even if you treat the tool like a baby bird, the vibrations from the tool's motor loosen the settings, allowing the laser to move. I put tape over the laser to prevent my employees from using them because they (the lasers, not the employees) are never reliable. And why would you put a laser on a tool designed to cut curves (such as a jigsaw)? Lasers on levels are the best invention since the bubble level, but I suspect you guys ordered too many lasers and are going to install them on sanding blocks next Christmas season.
I threw out all my crappy carpenter's pencils. This is what a good one is supposed to look like.
Carpenter's Pencils that Don't Mark
The tool store: Here's a free carpenter's pencil with our store's name printed on it. You're a carpenter, so now you'll remember our store every time you take it out to use it. You're welcome.
The carpenter: The traditional carpenter's pencil is a piece of pencil lead that is wrapped in wood. It's wide and flat. You got the wide and flat part right. The "lead" is some sort of gummy plastic or resin that I can't sharpen. It just crumbles. The "wood" is also an unknown material that isn't strong enough to support the "lead" during use. The whole tip falls apart each time I sharpen it. Every time I look at this pencil I see the name of the hardware store that gave it to me and wonder if they know anything about tools.
The manufacturer: Commercial workbenches can cost as much as $2,000, which is more expensive than a typical table saw. We've developed a workbench for $149.99 that will let you get started for a fraction of the cost. It has a handy tail vise, four drawers for storing tools and four bench dogs (which are inserted in the vise and the benchtop to apply clamping pressure). What more could you need?
The woodworker: Mass, perhaps? So that it won't dance across the floor like a spastic chicken when I work on it. A base that will stay together and not sway? Dogs that don't slam into the handy drawers right below the benchtop? Honestly, for about the same price, I could screw together some yellow pine or fir 2x12s and have a better bench.
Saw Handles with Billy Club Handles
The tool designer: Our tool company looks to the future, not the past, for inspiration. Our tool designs ignore the ornately curved handles of the past and embrace the clean lines of modern life.
The woodworker: I'd like to shake your hand. Why? To see if your hand is just a robotic clamp without nerves, tendons, flesh or muscles. Your design for a saw handle offers all the comfort of a corncob. Early saw handles were curvy so they could be used for long stretches without hurting your wrist or blistering your palms. Your saw handles are cut out on a CNC router so they can be almost any shape. Why the heck would you pick this one?
Most Rotary-tool Accessories
The marketing department: There's almost nothing you can't do with our rotary tool. It cuts wood and metal with our abrasive spinning disks. You can sand hard-to-reach areas with our sanding sleeves. Shape metal or other hard materials with our grinding wheels. It's a workshop you can hold in your hand!
The user: I have yet to find anything I can do with your rotary tool. It dents wood and metal with your spinning disks. (I think erosion might be a faster way to get the job done.) I can burn hard-to-reach areas with your sanding sleeves. And I can throw stone fragments into my face with your overly friable grinding wheels. It's a great gift for an annoying neighbor.
Anodized Aluminum Measuring Tools
The manufacturer: Aluminum layout tools are inexpensive, lightweight and incredibly accurate. They are much less likely to bend or warp than steel tools – a huge improvement over traditional tools.
The user: Every time I put my aluminum try square down I see a new ding on its blade. Where did this come from? I don't remember dropping the square. Did I perhaps just look at it too hard? Why is my aluminum straightedge covered in tiny dents and dings all up and down its blade? I hardly used it. Oh, now I remember. Aluminum is inexpensive, lightweight, accurate – and it's really too soft for a hard-working shop environment. If you hang your tools on the wall and admire them, these will serve you well. Otherwise, get some traditional steel squares or get ready to sand out some dents every so often.
$6 Stinky Rubber Mallets
The tool store: Do you need a rubber mallet but don't have enough money to buy even a hamburger? We have you covered. It's a stick of wood with a rubber head – everything you need.
The homeowner: I always wondered what happened to the company that made Superballs (TM). Now I know – they make these dang mallets. Every time I hit something I duck because the thing bounces back at me like it's on the attack. Oh, and what's that smell that never goes away? It's like vinegar and raw sewage had a baby. Next time I'll just tie a rock to a stick, sniff some rotten meat and get the job done for $0.
The manufacturer: This motorized C-clamp provides 350 pounds of clamping force; all you have to do is press a button. Squeeze the trigger and bam – you're clamping. No more turning a handle around and around.
The woodworker: No. Just no. For the love of all that is holy, this is a complete waste of ABS plastic, pot metal and batteries. There is not a single application in the history of ever in which this makes sense. It's simply a way to snatch the money from people who are buying a Christmas gift for grandpa. "Hmmm, dad has arthritis, perhaps this will help him in the shop."
Let me list some better ways to spend the $34.95. Burn it. Flush it down the toilet. Try to feed it to some birds.
Vibrating Detail Sanders
The manufacturer: You can sand mouldings, get between chair spindles or balusters on the stairs – anywhere a big sanding tool cannot go. This sander provides 1.2 amps of sanding power and has a high-efficiency dust filter that removes the fine and dangerous particles.
The woodworker: It has enough power to maybe massage my feet. The filter is completely unnecessary as the thing barely removes any wood while in operation. While you don't need a dust mask, you will need earplugs – while in operation it sounds like a constipated bumble bee.
Time to Checkout
I always feel like a grumpy old man after I write about questionable tool designs. Perhaps I should just close my laptop and go yell at the kids in my yard. But I keep hoping that one day, someone will listen. After years of encountering tools such as those above, I became crazy enough to start making my own woodworking tools.
Maybe you will follow suit. Or, at the least, perhaps you'll think twice before buying a screwdriver with a laser on it – or designing one.
Christopher Schwarz is the editor and one of the founders of Lost Art Press, an independent publishing company that specializes in books on hand work. He is one of the founders of Crucible Tool, which makes hand tools for woodworking. And he is a professional furniture maker with clients all over the world.