The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Sophie’s Choice.


As woodworkers, it is said that we now have more access to high-quality hand tools than we’ve had in nearly a century. With the advent of the internet, we now have something that was at one time unheard of: access to small makers who once dealt only regionally. High Quality full line makers include Veritas, Lie Nielsen, and Stanley to a lesser extent. Of course there are dozens of others: Clifton, Emmerich, Gramercy, and a growing list of smaller, “Boutique” makers. It is the smaller makers I would like to discuss, briefly.

For fear of angering somebody, I won’t list any of the smaller makers by name because in most cases the name of the company is also the name of the maker. While I don’t really own any tools from the small makers, I’m going to take it on good faith that they are all of high-quality. Nearly every time I’ve seen a review of one of the boutique tools it has been glowing. They generally cost more than the larger manufacturers tools, but they also promise to have been personally made and tuned by the company owner, with the added costs being considered “worth it”. Once again, I will not dispute that. My question doesn’t concern the boutique tools quality or value, but its practicality. Broadly speaking, is it to the greater benefit of woodworking as a hobby to purchase from the small maker, or the larger company?

 

In North America, a woodworking hobbyist can pick up the Lie Nielsen and Veritas tool catalogs and in a matter of a few weeks fill their entire tool kits from those two lines (that is if you are interested in hand tools and you have the money). The same can be said of the other makers I listed for the most part. When purchasing from a smaller maker, orders can take anywhere from 6 weeks to more than a year to fill, at least according to the inquiries I have made. I have no problem with lead times, and I understand the nature of a small manufacturer filling custom orders, in fact I understand that end of the business better probably than the average person. My point being, does manufacturing ability trump better quality?

Leaving money out of the equation, because a high quality hand tool from a large manufacturer is at times no less costly than purchasing from the small maker, is the success of the larger tool maker more important than the smaller maker in keeping the hobby of woodworking viable? I don’t know the answer, which is why I am asking. As hobbyists, we are often asked to support the smaller makers whenever possible; I can understand that philosophy. However, the potential problem is that we may not be able to depend on the smaller makers to fill our kits. The odd part about the situation is the more successful the smaller maker becomes, the less efficient his production will become. So, can high level woodworking tool production survive without larger manufacturers? Is the company/corporation more important than the individual in this instance?

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12 Comments

  1. Jeremy says:

    Good question. I’d say its much like food. Does society benefit more from a chain restaurant improving the health and flavor of their menu than having an awesome hometown or gourmet restaurant that not everyone can afford, visit or get reservations?

    I suspect the “ideal” model would be to have individual makers, just loads more of them. One path would be to have a consortium of makers. I believe this was done in the past in the wooden plane era, but adding middlemen usually doesn’t improve things. I hope we are in the space where the only “large” companies that can succeed are those that care (LV &L-N) and add something with their scale.

    • billlattpa says:

      I think we are lucky in the sense that the bigger makers: Veritas, LN, Clifton, ect are big enough to fill orders yet small enough to still make quality a high priority. I love the idea of a smaller maker, but it seems they have a very difficult time keeping up with demand. I know a little about a running a small business in a big business market, but I know nothing about individual tool makers and how they operate. So, anybody’s guess is as good as mine.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  2. BikerDad says:

    Don’t forget that Lie-Nielsen was once a “boutique” maker, and the grand scheme of things as far as toolmakers go, still is. As was Veritas, although the latter has the advantage of having a large (relatively speaking) ready made distribution network.

    The success of both is important. Perhaps some perspective may help.

    Instead of asking the question with regard to toolmakers, ask it with regard to furnituremakers.

    • billlattpa says:

      I would love to see some of the small, individual makers expand enough to fill orders, yet remain small enough to keep their own identity. I know that involves a lot of work, but like you pointed out it has been done.
      I always struggle with the question of where my money should be spent. Most of us are on limited tool budgets. I would like to support a smaller maker whenever I can, but I also need tools. I’ve inquired into some smaller makers and have gotten lead times of 12-18 months. I’m not a person who needs instant gratification, but I’m also not going to pay for a tool that I will hopefully see a year and a half from now. That is the part I struggle with.
      Thanks
      Bill

  3. dzj9 says:

    The smaller makers aren’t there to fill your kit.
    You can get a block plane for 20 bucks or you could pay £5,160 + VAT for a fancy one. The former gets you something to plane end grain with, the latter gets you bragging rights.
    Whole lotta compensatin’ going on, a psychologist might say.

    So to answer your question, yes, the success of the larger tool maker is more important for the hobby and for the profession also.

    • billlattpa says:

      I would agree that bragging rights are a big part of it. It may sound very “hippy”, especially coming from me, but I like the idea that small tool makers still exist. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that I will ever own one of their tools, so I can only assume that I’m missing out on something. With the bigger makers, I can get the tool I need usually within 30 days, and their price is competitive.
      I’m speaking very broadly in all of this, but I agree that the bigger companies fill the more pressing need.
      Thanks.
      Bill

  4. Greg Merritt says:

    The whole house of cards is dependent upon demand. More precisely, new demand. I own a quality #4 plane. Outside of theft or destruction, I have no reason to ever purchase another #4 plane. So the whole thing hinges on new people entering into woodworking. Each new hand tool woodworker will want to purchase the tools that are required for the craft. No new woodworkers, no new demand. Then we will see the steady decline of quality and availability that we witnessed with Stanley.

    Quite frankly I don’t think this can be accomplished with amateur wood workers alone. There needs to be a resurgence in professional furniture makers who will be using traditional hand tool methods for at least a portion of their work. For that to happen there needs to be an increase in public demand for quality furniture.

    I visit LV and L-N’s websites on a regular basis. Rarely ever buy, but just to look. It’s rare to see anything out-of-stock. So that tells me that they are easily keeping up with current demand for tools. It’s doubtful that any larger company will see the benefit in taking on production of quality hand tools if the demand is so little that the relatively smaller companies can easily fulfill the needs of the current market.

    For now I hope that demand stays high enough to keep the current makers in business and I’ll spend my money with them when I can. Price point becomes a factor at that point and is another conversation entirely.

    Greg

    • billlattpa says:

      I think the decline of Stanley had less to do with woodworking and more to do with carpentry. Up until fairly recently, as little as 25 years, the average jobsite carpenter had a pretty large amount of hand tools in his kit. With the advent of battery powered tools that actually work, the hand tools went by the wayside to an extent.

      I’ve only been in three furniture shops in my life, two were individual makers (one was Chuck Bender) and the other was a factory. Both the individual makers had power tools and hand tools that were used equally. In the factory, the only hand tools that I saw were mallets, block planes, and hand sanders. I’m not knocking the factory, just pointing out what I saw.

      I’ve been on many construction sites. All of the trades still do use hand tools, just to a lesser extent, the idea that they don’t is a myth. The difference is that you will never see a set of LN chisels or a $300 jack plane. (though I have seen Starrett squares and Veritas tools at times). Most carpenters, plumbers, and electricians are using basic Stanley handsaws, chisels, and block planes. Why? In my experience, the answer isn’t really cost, though in a roundabout way cost is part of it. The real reason is that tools on jobsites get used, abused, and sometimes stolen. Would I use my LN 750 replica chisel to chop out a birdsmouth or channel in a wet 2×4? Not on your life. 100 years ago that’s how it would have been done, because every carpenter in the country had a set of 750’s No carpenter in his right mind is going to fork out $400 today for a set of chisels that is going to be left laying in the dirt when he can spend $40 for chisels that will do the same job. People that feel today’s carpenters a doing a disservice to quality because of this fact need to spend a few weeks building houses etc.

      Now, I’m well aware that you know what I’m talking about, but there are many people, tool snobs to put it bluntly, who don’t. I’ve seen them on the forums hundreds, if not thousands, of times, wondering why a jobsite carpenter would use a $20 Home Depot saw. At my former job I was a press operator and by default a 3rd class mechanic ( I had to take the training because it was part of my job description) My company provided my initial set of tools: mallet, socket set, set of open ended wrenches, hex keys, torque wrench, tape measure, etc. The tools were decent, not bad not great. The Snap-On truck used to show up at my work a few times a month, and one day I treated myself and picked up a new socket set, impact wrench (pneumatic) and a set of open ended wrenches. I was young and single so I had the money. By the end of the month more than half those tools were gone, stolen. I learned my lesson and not only bought my own locking tool cabinet (which I could only lock my personal tools in, not the company’s set..long story) but I also never purchased expensive tools for my job again. To be blunt once again, a jobsite carpenter today would have to be a fool to purchase expensive hand tools. A century ago, a set of carpenter’s tools that today would be considered great woodworking tools were just the standard tools of the day.

      I know I’m telling you nothing that you don’t already know; I’m just rambling. As far as my post, I guess that I’m trying to say that as much as I would love to support the smaller maker, it seems that the larger maker (LN, LV) is better suited to guys like us, and it seems that the more successful they are the better off the average hand tool woodworker is. But, that is just a guess taken from my own perspective, and I really don’t know if I’m correct or not.
      Thanks
      Bill

      • Greg Merritt says:

        Prior to WWII carpentry and furniture making were not necessarily mutually exclusive industries. There was a good bit of crossover and they all used the same basic tools set. That tool set was made up of predominately Stanley produced tools. Post WWII saw a dramatic shift in both industries. Suddenly millions of new home needed to be built and furnished. In order to meet that demand modern materials and methods were pushed into service. Engineered wood products and power tools quickly took the place of solid wood and hand tools. A quality hand tool was no longer paramount to making a living. Thus its perceived value declined.

        For almost 70 years now quantity has trumped quality. The 1980’s-90’s saw the peak in this trend, IMHO. What we are seeing now is a slow shift back towards quality. Quality furniture can be mass produced, but it raises the selling price. As that price climbs, the individual craftsman can begin to compete in the market place. Thus increasing demand for quality hand tools.

        At least in theory. I may be full of sh*t. Only time will tell. 😉

        Greg

      • billlattpa says:

        I hope you are right. It seems to me that there is a growing number of smaller makers in my area than in the past. The trend seems to be making cabinets, but I’m sure that furniture pieces are part of their offerings. It at least gives me hope.

  5. bloksav says:

    I think that a lot of small time manufacturers are struggling to make a living out of selling high end tools. Even though the tool cost a lot of money, an incredible amount of time probably goes into making them. So my guess is that the maker himself might end up with a similar pay check like a burger flipper at the local burger joint.
    So I would also look for slightly bigger companies like LN, LV, ECE etc. for a continuous supply of fine tools.

    I would like some of the fancier tools just to support the guy making them, but I have a hard time justifying forking out wads of cash for something like a special shoulder plane when we normally go on a cheap vacation as a family.
    My wife bought a Flinn Garlick PAX range dovetail saw for me as a birthday present a couple of years ago. I had found it myself and directed he to that particular saw to support a company that still produces in Sheffield. And the quality is all that I could want and expect. But I think I would have gotten the same from a Cosman saw etc. But I think they are both in the same price range.

    I hope that the small manufacturers will continue to exist, because I think that some of them are making their products out of pure joy, and if they can sell them and sort of make up for the time spent in the workshop it is fine with me.
    I guess it is a bit like my own philosophy for the saw mill. I am thrilled if someone can actually see an idea in getting a 20″ wide board milled out of a local tree compared to buying a piece of glued up shelving material at the home depot (which is called something else in Denmark).
    Most of the time no one will even bother to come asking, but once in a while someone will buy a piece of lumber. (about once or twice per year). My last sale was a 6×6″ x 14′ larch beam that I charged 270 dkk for (roughly 50$)
    I can get around 25 L of diesel for the tractor for that amount, so the mill does not make money, but I like to use it, and that’s important to me.
    Brgds
    Jonas

    • billlattpa says:

      I like to think that I know a little about running a small business, but when that business is both the manufacturing and sales end I am out of my depth. I don’t know enough about the costs and time involved in making single tools to know what the overhead is. I like the idea that these guys are making their tools mostly because they love doing it. I once read that if you truly love doing something you should be able to make a living doing it. I’m not sure exactly how true that is but I like to think it so.

      As I said to another commenter, I’m not necessarily all for instant gratification, but I also would never pay money for a tool that I wouldn’t even see for more than year, which at times is how long it takes for some tools from the single makers. I might not even be around next year for all I know. And generally when I order a tool it is because I need it for a project. I know there are woodworkers out there who order duplicates of tools from the custom makers and they don’t mind to wait because they already have a working version, and the custom tool they are purchasing is more or less a show piece tool that they purchased just because they like high-end things. There is nothing wrong with that at all and I think that those customers are where the small makers market their tools.

      I think for the average woodworker companies like LN and LV among others are our best bet, and the companies that deserve as much of our support as we can give them.
      Thanks.
      Bill

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