The Slightly Confused Woodworker

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Am I being clear?


Earlier this evening I was searching for something on my blog (I’ve been doing that lately. I do research from my own writings if you will) and came across a post I wrote back in February concerning the lack of middle ground when it comes to purchasing woodworking tools.
That post covered nothing new and has been debated for as long as I’ve been working and probably much further back than that. But what I did notice was that some of the commenters seemed to feel that I was bashing Lie Nielsen tool works for charging too much for their tools. The comments were very civil, so there wasn’t an issue there. But I think there was a misunderstanding involved, because I wasn’t writing that post as a “consumer” but as a “woodworker”.

In that post, I speculated that if woodworking tools made by companies like LN, Veritas, Clifton, et al, were more readily available (as in a network of retail outlets) it may make them more affordable. Now I am only speculating, I don’t know if that is true or not. My guess stems from my dealings with electrical hand tool manufacturers for the past ten years. It could be that they run their businesses entirely different than the companies that make woodworking hand tools. As a woodworker, not a consumer, I wish those tools were more readily available “closer to home” and not solely through the internet. And it was/is my opinion that if the tools were more readily available they would sell more, and with greater sales they may become more affordable.

When it comes to woodworking tools, the cost vs. worth debate always seems to enter the equation at some point. I think the ‘cost vs. worth’ argument is really the straw-man thrown into the mix when we speak of the affordability of woodworking tools. When I wrote that post, I wasn’t questioning whether or not Lie Nielsen’s tools were worth what they are being sold for, I was questioning whether or not they are affordable, and at that not just LN but any mid to high level maker.

We can debate all day whether or not a tool is worth what it costs, but that means little in the market place. A Rolls Royce Phantom may be worth every penny of its $380,000 price tag, but that doesn’t make it affordable. You can make that same statement about most quality woodworking tools. Of course you can make this argument for any quality item from clothing to furniture. The difference being that clothing and furniture are necessities of varying degrees. Woodworking tools are a hobby purchase for most of us. Speaking for myself only, affordability is at the least as important to me as worth when it comes to discretionary spending on a hobby.

I know that this topic/post/argument is old hat. I get that. But I found it interesting personally not because of the topic, but because of the misconceptions that arose from it. If some commenters felt I was off base because of flawed logic, I can live with that. As I said, I was only speculating. But if commenters felt I was off base because my writing was not clear or concise enough, well, that is something I will need to work on.



  1. ctregan says:

    A Lie-Nielsen plane is a necessity, could not do woodworking without their block plane.

  2. Last winter, I ordered two tools from L-N, a blade for a #102 and a special “dovetail marking knife”. Had problems immediately with the plane blade; it was a bit narrower than the original, thus skewed every time I adjusted it. Much back-and-forth with L-N, no particular resolution other than “send it back for a refund”. Last week, I was cutting some dovetails, so time to try out the $40 knife (finally)…noticed it wasn’t working as I expected and discovered that the point was literally bent back on itself (the only practical explanation for this is that it wasn’t properly tempered; otherwise it had been lying around in the box, not being abused).
    So, I’m done with Lie-Nielsen. The quality of a tool lies in the cutting edge, not in the shiny bits.
    Before L-N even existed, most retail tool dealers tried buying through Robert Larson (one of the few sources for good European-made tools in the pre-internet days). Problem was that Larson had a pretty high minimum order, and their wholesale price was about 70% of retail. Most folks just couldn’t make any profit out of that. I knew several who tried.

    • billlattpa says:

      I own three Lie Nielsen tools-a #5, #48, and a router plane. The #5 I think is a great tool, the router plane I like as well, the #48 I would not have purchased in hindsight. However, I can’t say that the tools I purchased aren’t well made. But that doesn’t mean that I doubt you because I’ve seen stories similar to yours in the past.

      I used to deal with tool makers/dealers on literally a daily basis. They are notorious for their mins, and high shipping costs, and initial buy-in stock orders, etc. I have to imagine that it is no different in the world of woodworking tools. Historically, tools have a low profit margin at the retail end. Often, if you are getting 20 points you are doing really good (on a quality tool-junk obviously has a higher margin).

      As far as the number of tools sold, I think LN is one of the largest woodworking tool dealers in the world. They are doing this with only two retail outlets that I know of: Their headquarters, and Highland Woodworking in GA. I speculated that if they had a few more select distributors in the metropolitan areas of cities like Chicago, New York, Philly, Dallas, etc. They may have looked into this already and decided it wasn’t an option or wasn’t viable. I don’t know, I was just speculating. But what I didn’t want to happen was to have any person who read the post to think that I was bashing LN or any other tool company. That was not my intent.

      • Not really my intent, either. I think L-N has grown to the point that they don’t have effective quality control, and that a soft market isn’t likely to support them.
        Without “bashing”, don’t they deserve an honest appraisal?

      • billlattpa says:

        Yes, they do. I like LN, a lot, but that doesn’t mean they, or anybody else, should get a free pass when they aren’t up to snuff, in particular when it is universally agreed upon that their tools are not inexpensive. If we are paying that premium for high quality, it should be expected and demanded that we receive it, always.

  3. Tim Plavan says:

    I think your not looking at the really big picture. Electric hand tools changed everything! The days of buying a quality hand plane or hand saw at your local hardware store were before electric tools were on par with hand tools. Everyone, not just hobby woodworkers bought hand tools. People made their living with a Stanley plane or Disston saw. And because everyone from the highest quality craftsman to the neophyte homeowner needed hand tools, they were readily available. As you and many others have stated, quality hand tools are not a consideration for the biggest consumers. Demand will always be the most important factor in availability. Personally, I own a mix of old, new, hand, and electric tools. I work on my century home as well as woodworking and incorporate both. I am also fortunate in that I spend time in Maine and can visit Lie-Nielsen. Quite simply it is worth the trip. Maine is a truly wonderful place and Lie-Nielsen embodies Maine!

    • billlattpa says:

      I didn’t write that original post as a knock to power tools. I use a table saw almost every time I woodwork, so that wasn’t what I was going for.

      I think hand tools fell out of favor because power tools started to become readily available (and more affordable) starting in the 1930’s and after WW2 when the United States finally had a real middle class people had “fun money”. Power tools were pushed as “modern” and “the world of tomorrow” by magazines like Popular Mechanics and woodworking publications because they were paid to do so. There is more profit margin in power tools than hand tools because they are easier to make. Once again, I’m not knocking power tools at all, I’m saying that hand tools were sort of pushed aside the same way rail travel, newspapers, and hundreds of other things have been; not because there is a way better alternative, but to save money.

      Business is business, I understand that. But I can say from first hand experience that hand tools are still used in the trades far more than people think. I was a field electrician for almost ten years. Electricians and plumbers work almost exclusively with hand tools. Carpenters who have a union apprenticeship still have a large list of hand tools that they are required to keep and maintain. Hand tools are used on building sites all the time. And most carpenters still want good tools.

      Once again, my original post was all speculation. I have no idea if LN tried to market their tools to select outlets and decided that it wasn’t viable, or if they just don’t feel the need, or for any other reason. I feel that they would sell more if the tools were more readily available, but that is just me guessing. What I didn’t want to happen was what did happen, meaning that some readers felt that I was bashing LN. That was not my intent at all.

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