Where the average woodworker shops for his or her woodworking tools and supplies has become a hot topic on some of the woodworking forums during the past two days. Most woodworkers realize there are cheap tools, great tools, and tools that fall somewhere in between. Most woodworkers also realize that there “knockoff” tools being sold on the market as well. Sometimes these knockoffs are serviceable, sometimes they are complete garbage. For my part, I don’t own any knockoff tools, at least that I know of, and though I would do my best to avoid purchasing knock-offs, I wouldn’t criticize others for doing so. Though I can’t condone purchasing knock-offs, I can sometimes understand how it happens, because there are two major problems in the world of woodworking: Mid-level tool manufacturers don’t really exist anymore, and, real hardware stores don’t exist (on a large scale) anymore, either.
Speaking for myself, the nearest actual woodworking store to my location is roughly 30 miles from my house; the nearest hardwood dealer (that is open to the general public) is more than 50 miles away. So if I want to go to a real store that has stock I can touch and salespeople I can talk to, I need to plan on spending at least a few hours just for travel time. That doesn’t sound like much, but considering I live in the most densely populated region in the country, you would think that there would be more than one woodworking store within a 30 mile radius of my house, but there isn’t. I can only imagine what it must be like for those who live in more remote locations, in some cases, there may not be a woodworking store within a day’s drive, let alone a few hours. That to me is a problem.
75 years ago, the average hardware store from small towns to big cities carried woodworking tools. I have an honest to goodness old fashioned hardware store right where I live. They don’t carry much in the way of woodworking tools anymore, but according to the owner they used to way back when. What is the difference between then and now? The answer is Stanley Tool Works.
Stanley Tools did one thing that Lie Nielsen, Veritas, and the plethora of smaller makers could not,cannot do, and will not do: they made it easy for stores both big and small to stock their tools. If you think good quality and affordable tools are important to the consumer, they are that much more important to the retailer. While I may not be a woodworking expert, I am an something of an expert in hardware and how a hardware store operates. Because Stanley was such a large operation, they could sell their tools at a reasonable price. This low cost allowed even the smallest hardware stores to stock those items on their shelves and still keep their overhead down. If you don’t think that is important you are very much mistaken.
Small businesses live and die on the stock they keep. There is a very fine line between carrying too much stock and not enough, as either can doom your business to failure. Much of the time, a business will err on carrying too little stock simply because it is less expensive on paper to do so. When the accountant looks at the books at the end of every quarter, one of the first things you are going to hear is, “You have too much stock”. Too much stock is a relative term, of course. ‘Too much stock’ doesn’t mean that you should be carrying only 900 ½ inch lock nuts rather than 1100. It means that you spent too much on stock, and it is hurting your overall profits.
Most small hardware stores simply cannot afford to stock high-end woodworking tools, even in a consignment situation it can get somewhat tricky. When Stanley got out of the woodworking tool business, so too did many hardware stores. Hardware stores both large and small will not carry woodworking tools ever again until a mid-level maker re-emerges, like Stanley used to be, and sadly that may never happen. There was a time that a person could walk to his local hardware store from small town to big city, and actually pick up real woodworking tools, handle them, and even purchase them and bring them home. The ability to see a tool on display, pick it up,get a feel for it, and then purchase it on the spot because it was reasonably priced and for sale right in your home town is a pretty powerful thing. That is something that is almost non-existent in the world of woodworking today, and it needs to change, badly.
Today, if you want to purchase a good woodworking tool you nearly always have to do it on the internet. I’m lucky in the sense that there just so happens to be a Woodcraft within driving distance to my house, even if it isn’t necessarily close. Woodcraft may not be a perfect woodworking store, but it is really my only option if I want to actually walk into a store and see real live woodworking tools in the flesh. I’m sure I’m not the only woodworker who is in that same boat. As far as I am aware, Lie Nielsen doesn’t sell any tools there, Veritas just a select few, and the boutique makers sell none at all.
I know first-hand the challenges of opening and running a “brick and mortar” hardware store as they are known in the internet age. I know that a lot of fat, pimple-faced computer/marketing geeks will tell you that brick and mortar stores are a thing of the past. Well, maybe that’s true, though I don’t believe it. But I do know that woodworking as an entity needs way, way more outlets than it has now. I can’t be the only person who doesn’t like having to purchase every woodworking tool online. I can’t be the only person that doesn’t like driving a hundred+ miles to purchase tools and wood. I have to think a lot of woodworkers would welcome a few more places to shop. And if I know anything about selling tools, I have to think that the proper amount of brick and mortar stores would in theory bring tool costs down, not up. I can’t tell you I have all the answers, because I don’t. But I do know that woodworkers need a lot more than $150 marking gauges, or tools that you have to order from 1000 miles away. We don’t need that option 10 years hence, or even 10 months hence; we need it now..
I was directed by a friend to read a very good post on Lost Art Press concerning knock-off tools. I agreed with nearly every word. The post was inspired by another post written by Kevin Glen-Drake of Glen-Drake Toolworks, and there is a link to that post on the Lost Art Press blog. I clicked on that link and once again I agreed with nearly everything that was said, but the key word is “nearly”.
The post author was/is quite understandably upset at the fact that Chinese tool companies are manufacturing cheap knockoffs of his tools. I don’t blame him for being pissed; I’m pissed and they aren’t even my tools. But he does, in my opinion, place too much blame on consumers and not enough on American and Chinese business whores. These “businessmen” have one job: figure out a way to manufacture it for nothing and sell it even cheaper. They pay their workers peanuts, and they have no ethical compass of which they follow. This is nothing new, and has been going on for nearly 100 years, of which the past 25 we have seen far more of an outcry over the results. Unfortunately, the American consumer didn’t so much demand cheaper pricing, rather, the American shareholder, as well as the foreign, demanded much higher dividends, which are obviously taxed far less than standard income and make a much more attractive form of capital. How do you get higher dividends? Easy; cut manufacturing costs, such as salary, quality, and safety. How do you do that? Simple; move your manufacturing to a country that will meet your wishes. Or, in some cases, that country already decided to cut out the middle man and do it for themselves.
American consumers aren’t to be held blameless either, and that is the main reason I’m even writing this post. In his post, Kevin argues that the Federal Government does little to stop this de facto theft of his designs, and he is correct, but how many times have I seen hundreds, or even thousands of comments on woodworking forums etc., that lambast ANY attempt by our Government to regulate manufacturers? When the Government tries to make tools safer, i.e. made better, they are quickly labeled by the geniuses on woodworking forums as Communists(when in actuality they should be using the term ‘Socialists’, though who can expect an uninformed commenter to worry about semantics?) The magazines are no better, and I’ve read some editorials and blog postings that made me feel sick. It turns out that we want better tools, made here in America without Government interference, but when the Government doesn’t interfere, they automatically get blamed for the consequences.
If the woodworking forums are any indication of the average woodworking consumer, then I have to say that the average woodworker is woefully uninformed not only as a consumer, but also in basic economics and basic government. For the most part, consumers have very little control over how and where something is manufactured. The good news is that woodworkers have better options and access to high quality tools and makers now than they’ve had in several generations. The bad news is we as consumers have lost much of the power that we had in years past. We can only do what we can to purchase the best quality our budget allows us. I for one will do my part and try to support makers like Glen-Drake Toolworks whenever I can. The only question is: Will that be enough?
Every so often I read a comment, or comments, on a woodworking forum that are so stupid that I have to bring it up on this blog. Before I go any further, let me state that I have nothing against your everyday stupid comment. But there are levels of stupid comment, and at the top of the list (or bottom depending on how you look at it) are the stupid comments that think they are really smart. So what is a “stupid comment that thinks it is smart”? Broadly speaking, it is any definitive statement made without one shred of evidence or real facts to back it up. Often, these stupid comments have been made before, and like many lies, if they are told enough people eventually begin to believe them.
The origin of the stupid comments I read just yesterday was the origin of many a stupid comment made on a woodworking forum: IKEA. For the record, I do not shop at IKEA nor do I own furniture from the store. I may likely never enter an IKEA. I have no strong feelings either for or against the place. But it does bother me when I read about the professed “hatred” of a store. Why? Because that so-called hatred leads to comments like “IKEA drives down the prices of real craftsman and makes it harder for them to earn a living!” What?
Let me tell you a story. It was a crisp, lovely Autumn morning roughly 12 years ago. My wife and I had just purchased our house and we were looking to furnish it. I thought it would be nice to go a furniture shop and have a nice bedroom set made. I had in mind a dresser, two side tables, and an armoire; oak was my wood of choice. The shop I went to had a book where I could choose a style I liked, or if I was ambitious enough I could bring in my own photos or even my own concept drawings. We picked from the book because there was a set my wife liked, and it was close enough to what we had originally had in mind. The person at the shop said they would work up a quote and mail it to us. Less than a week later the quote showed up. While I can’t remember the exact number, I do remember that it was more than the car I was driving at the time. Even more to the point, I could have gone to a place like IKEA, or Raymour and Flanigan, and furnished my entire house for what that guy wanted to charge us for a small bedroom set. So my question to the geniuses on the woodworking forum is: What the hell would have been my quote had IKEA not been around to “drive down the costs”?
For the sake of full disclosure, I have priced out custom furniture since then, I even purchased some of it. There wasn’t one instance where I thought to myself “That was less expensive than I thought it would be!” There also wasn’t one instance where I couldn’t have gone to a furniture chain store and gotten something comparable, or something that would have done the same job, for less money. Would the custom furniture have been made better? Probably. Would it have looked nicer? Probably. Could I afford it? For the most part, no.
I am not using this post to knock the costs of custom furniture, I am only saying that many people cannot afford to own it. IKEA has not affected the cost of custom furniture one way or the other; custom furniture was expensive, is expensive, and always will be expensive. “But IKEA contributes to the ‘throw-away society’ mentality!” Here is another story. I have a computer desk and chair I purchased at Staples at least 15 years ago. I paid $99 and change for the set. That desk, made of plywood, particle board, and veneer, would be considered a throw-away item to certain people on a woodworking forum. Well, it probably is a throw-away item in the sense that when I die it won’t be willed to anybody, nor will relatives fight over it. But, considering that at this point in my life it has cost me less than $7 per year to own, and it still works just fine, I would hardly consider it a piece of junk. A similarly sized custom-made desk, built from maple, oak, or cherry would likely cost in the neighborhood of $6000 if I know anything about furniture. That is 60 times the cost of the very serviceable desk that I own. Of course the custom-made desk would look far nicer and would definitely be of better construction; I just don’t know if those features are worth 60 times more to me. But that is just my opinion.
In conclusion, this amounts to nothing more than me ranting. But when people make stupid statements it makes me want to rant. Places like IKEA exist because they fill a need. Mass-produced furniture exists because it fills a need. At the end of World War 2 when entire continents were displaced, people needed mass produced furniture that was affordable; people still need it to this day. Today, maybe one person in one hundred can actually afford to purchase high end piece of custom furniture. Maybe one in ten thousand can afford to furnish their house that way. Now, I will freely admit that I have no real facts or figures to back up that claim, I am only using my knowledge of the cost of custom furniture and my knowledge of what the average person earns. Or to put it another way, nobody I’m friends with could afford to purchase more than one custom piece of furniture, let alone furnish their entire homes with the same. Yet I am supposed to believe that private furniture makers would be thriving if IKEA didn’t exist?
I’m going to say this for the tenth (and hopefully last) time on this blog: the golden age of heirloom furniture is a myth; it’s pie in the sky. I’m not sure where this notion of every home containing masterpieces came from, but it needs to stay off the woodworking forums. If almost nobody can afford custom furniture today, why would it have been any different in 1750? As I said, maybe one percent of the population will ever be able to afford to own a piece of custom furniture. Now, even half of one percent is still a lot of high end furniture, but what about the rest? Should furniture businesses stop manufacturing inexpensive furniture for the masses so as not to upset the sensibilities of a few people on a woodworking forum? Is that what the forum geniuses want? Or maybe, just maybe, should these people develop some sort of an informed opinion, shut up, and get back to woodworking?
A few weeks back I contacted wacky woodworking tool dealer Patrick Leach about purchasing a 1/4 beading plane he had listed for sale. Unfortunately it had sold, but Patrick mentioned that he could probably find another for me fairly quickly, that was fine with me. Lo and behold I received an email last week notifying me that a serviceable plane had been found, I sent Pat the check, the check cleared, and Pat sent me the tool, which arrived on Friday. On a side note, I don’t know Patrick, at least not enough to call him “wacky”; I just base that on the wording of his monthly email, which sometimes are pretty amusing. What I do know is that Patrick has an impeccable reputation of finding high quality “user” tools that he sells at a very reasonable price.
This morning I went into my garage to work on the plane. Thankfully, the plane was in very good condition when it arrived. The iron was in decent shape, and at the least it didn’t look like the last owner attempted to sharpen it willy-nilly with a power grinder. The tang was a little bent, but I easily straightened it up with a ball-peen hammer. As for sharpening, I started with the back on the coarsest grit of the DMT diamond plate. There was a bit of a high spot, but the diasharp fixed that easily enough. I then moved to the fine grit, then to the 1000/8000 grit water stone. I had the back flattened in less than ten minutes. I then sharpened the bevel. For this iron only one of the bevels really matters, as the other one doesn’t really do any cutting. Still, I went the same course as I did with the back: coarse and fine diamond plate, and 1000/8000 water stone. Next was the bead.
To sharpen the bead I once again started off with a dowel, 3/16, with 120 grit sand paper. I moved up to 220 grit, 400 grit, then finished it off with the 4000 grit slipstone. Once again, I had wanted to strop it, but you will have to forgive me. The high temperature today was somewhere around liquid nitrogen, and my garage wasn’t much warmer, even with space heaters running, and I wanted to get my ass out of there ASAFP. I ran a practice bead on the same junky piece of pine I used for the 3/8 beading plane. After a few adjustments, I very quickly had a very respectable bead.
I finished off the plane by lightly sanding the wedge, and wiping the entire plane with linseed oil. I even poured some in the cavity because it was looking a little dry in there. After letting it soak for a while, I wiped it dry, placed it in the tool chest, and got the hell out of my garage with the water stones in tow. As I said, it is too cold in my garage to leave them in there. Still, I can’t complain, for less than $50 including shipping, and around 30 minutes of rehab, I got myself a very usable tool. I just wish it was warm enough for me to use it.
Last night I entered my garage to do a little preventive maintenance on my tool kit. As I said in yesterday’s post, we have been experiencing some frigid temperatures in my area for the past few weeks, and the next few days are expected to be the worst of all. Because of the expected deep freeze, I decided to oil my tools, and I even drained my water stones and brought them inside from the garage. So as I was removing my tools from the tool chest to clean them I took notice to how the chest was holding up. I’ve already mentioned in another post the issues I’ve been having with the lid, but last night I also noticed that the removable front has taken a beating as well. That shouldn’t be a surprise, as the lid and removable front are obviously the parts that see the most movement and abuse. Thankfully, the rest of the chest is in good shape, and really only needs a coat of paint to freshen it up. But, I’ve already come to the conclusion to replace the lid, and now I think the fall front panel will be replaced along with it.
I’ve decided to go with a frame and panel lid, which should be relatively easy to make. I had planned on using Poplar again, but then had the idea to use Oak, which will make the lid heavier, but should also make it stronger. It then occurred to me that I wouldn’t even need to paint the Oak, I could just add a few coats of linseed oil or clear stain and allow the natural brown/red of Oak to nicely contrast with the deep black paint color. Adding a new oak front panel would only help accentuate the look. There is only one flaw in my otherwise brilliant plan, and that would be the fact that I would need to purchase the Oak, and without sugarcoating this in the least, I am being cheap and I simply don’t want to put out the money for it. Enter plan “B”.
Though I don’t keep much lumber in my garage because of space constraints, I do have a decent amount of Walnut. There is more than enough to make a new lid and front cover for the tool chest. The only minor problem with that idea is that I had visions of a the contrasting black paint and red oak, and I believe that the Walnut, even if stained, won’t contrast as nicely with the paint. I had thought about doing something I rarely do and ask the opinions of anybody who happens to read this blog and see what they may happen to think about the idea. In other words, I was going to ask for a little help.
In any event, I am going to use the Walnut. It may not look as nice as the Oak would look, but it’s quite frankly stupid to purchase new material when I already have perfectly good stock in my garage. And the oiled Walnut may turn out nicely enough contrasted against black paint. And to really be blunt, this is all for a tool chest that I really am not overly fond of. So if I don’t turn into a block of ice over the next few days, I may get this project rolling.
It is supposed to be bitter cold this coming weekend. How cold? High temperatures are expected to be somewhere around 16 degrees on Saturday, and 9 degrees on Sunday; lows are expected to be just below zero. Now, we aren’t talking Celsius, we are talking Fahrenheit. It is expected to be so cold that tonight after work I took my waterstones out of the garage and brought them inside the house, and I took out most of my hand tools and wiped them with a light coat of oil. While I was doing that, I decided to photograph those tools, as they are the tools I use most while I woodwork, and because I’ve received several requests to see them. So in honor of Hand Tool Thursday…
Of course I have other hand tools: files and rasps, setting tools, a few other hand saws, measuring tools, and carving chisels. But this represents the lion’s share of tools I would use on most projects. I also have a table saw, a jig saw, and a router(which sees little action anymore). So I hope this offers a glimpse of my set-up, for those who requested to see it at least.
I’ve mentioned many times before on this blog my propensity to follow woodworking blogs. I follow many amateur blogs and a small handful of professional blogs (as well as one Legendary Blog). Like most people nowadays, I have a Twitter account. With that account I generally follow other woodworkers, once again both amateur and professional, as well as a few friends. Yesterday afternoon I culled about 30 accounts from my “following” page. Most of those were sports related, and there were a few “celebs” as well. I like James Franco as much as the next guy, but I really don’t need to read any of his daily ramblings. I truthfully don’t think too much of Twitter, as in I neither love or hate it. But there is one feature of Twitter that caught my eye. On Twitter it is easy to see how many people are being “followed” on each account.
Why does this seemingly innocuous stat bear any importance? On Twitter, nobody cares how many people you follow, right? It’s all about how many people are following you, isn’t it? Well, there is one thing that is very telling about that feature. I’ve noticed that several people I follow(ed) who happened to have a large amount of their own followers did not follow very many people themselves. I personally follow nearly everybody that follows me. Why? Because the way I see it, if a person is following me because they like what I have to say, chances are I would like what they have to say as well. I feel the same way about woodworking blogs. So a person with a large number of followers, that also seems to have a hugely disproportionate number of people he or she follows (or does not follow), tells me a lot. It tells me that they don’t care.
I’m not talking about celebrities in this instance. You obviously can’t expect a person or group with 3 million followers to reciprocate on every occasion. But when a woodworker has 2000 followers and he or she is following 18 people, it comes off to me as a person who wants everybody to know what he or she is thinking, but could really care less about anybody else. Is this a stretch? No, because the “phenomena” has been somewhat documented, though under a different context.
So why does this bother me? Firstly I don’t care for self-important people. Secondly, it tells me that the woodworking “community” and its “celebrities” are not so much a community but more like a clique. I’m not a “Star F#$^er”, and I would hardly expect everybody I follow to return the favor, but I would expect them to follow at least somebody. As I said, I follow very few professional blogs because I think most of them suck. And I’m not here to tell anybody what to do. But I think everybody should think twice before we give our most important commodity, our time, to people that care very little about anybody but themselves.