My Name Is Tom, And I’m a Tool-Aholic

“My name is Tom, and I’m a tool-aholic.” “Hi Tom.” “Hi Tom.”

If only there were a tool-aholics anonymous, or some other support group or foundation, or even a church to help us! Although it was probably always there deep down, my addiction began in earnest while a graduate student in chemistry 40+ years ago. I found myself buying pliers, wrenches, and clamps, then moving on to electric drills, saws, and routers.

I rationalized my compulsion by telling myself that, as an experimental scientist, I needed plenty of gadgets to do my research. In the corner of my little studio apartment, I had a drill press and a big (at least for that time) tool chest with a chain saw perched in the top till. This was, to say the least, a bit disconcerting to the occasional lady friend that came over. I wonder even now what went through their minds: “A chain saw in a little Washington D.C. apartment? What manner of lunatic is this guy?”

It only got worse when I got my first real job. Giving a tool-aholic a decent salary could only mean one thing: more tools. Even now, when my wife of 35 years comes in with the mail, she will often hand me a tool catalog: “You got pornography today.” At long last, I had to construct a separate building to house my collection. I check Craigslist a few times a week for deals, with my wife telling friends: “He’s on the computer looking at porn.”

Image: Hand tools by dashu83.

It is often said that daughters seek out and marry men that are like their fathers, and in my case, my son-in-law and I are perfectly compatible! After Sunday dinners, he and I disappear into the shop or garage, much to the consternation of the women left behind. The bromance has included many a road trip to look at vintage machinery and equipment, often returning with a truckload.

Now, the reason for our occasional road trips to find the perfect tool or machine brings me to the whole point of this diatribe. We all know and bemoan the fact that most of what we buy is now made by our adversary nation: China. Nowhere is this more apparent or disturbing than what has happened in hand and power tools. That’s why the son-in-law and I are always on the lookout for “vintage” tools and machines.

Even the highest quality, good old American tool brands are now manufactured in China, probably by child slaves. At least these tools are reasonably good, being accurate, lasting a long time, and doing the job. And I can tell myself that these poorly paid workers are probably a bit better off than they would be if I didn’t buy them. But the Chinese knock-offs of American hand and power tools are a whole ‘nother story.

Aimed at the lower-end Harry-handyman market, Chinese-made facsimile hand and power tools are not simply of low quality, but they can be downright dangerous. And, yes, I have bought my share of these, only to replace them with more costly, but also much more satisfying, U.S.-designed equipment.

Even something as simple as a flat-blade screwdriver is beyond the capability of these hacks. I have had the blades of a screwdriver fracture while withdrawing a stubborn fastener from old wood. Something like that would never happen with the well-tempered steel of a vintage Stanley® or even a Craftsman® of yore. And don’t even think about using one of these to pry open a paint can or open a motor housing. The shank of the screwdriver will bend into a “U” shape before your very eyes.

An old saying among woodworkers is “You can never have too many clamps.” C-clamps, bar clamps, pipe clamps, hand-screw clamps, spring clamps, web clamps, the list goes on and on. I have literally hundreds hanging around the walls of my shop. And, when I search Craigslist, the first order of business is to locate good old vintage American-made clamps!

Chinese knock-off clamps will invariably loosen and fly off a workpiece, leaving you scrambling to salvage a project. Although I have a few lying around, I only use them in an emergency. They are even difficult to place onto a joint you are trying to bond. They bind, stick, and rub and can only be used with great frustration accompanied by a creative string of profanity.

What I have described above is merely inconvenience and nuisance; just lessons to learn from. Now, however, we get to the scary part. Chinese knock-off power tools, with actual high-speed moving parts, are a real hazard to the user and those nearby. I succumbed to the temptation and bought a Chinese knock-off cordless, hand-held jigsaw. I swear it looked really nice, and it had a built-in light and all, and it was at least $200 less than the Milwaukee®. As a tool-aholic I couldn’t help myself. I brought it home and was eager to try it out. I inserted a battery and a blade and squeezed the trigger.

Well, the light did, in fact, come on, but the blade shot across the shop and was embedded in a stud wall. I had to use a plier to get it out. I boxed up the saw and returned it. I then spent the money on a high-end Milwaukee®, and of course, I love it. It has yet to shoot anybody.

This experience is by no means unique. In fact, it is by design. The Chinese knockoffs are intentionally manufactured to low quality, with the knowledge that a large number will be returned in frustration, the profit simply being made up in volume. All too many Americans simply put up with this—oftentimes myself included. We are taken in by price and fail to purchase for the best value. In the case of tools, the best value is often in the vintage used market, steering well clear of Chinese knockoffs.

I mentioned my son-in-law earlier. He is a really smart guy. When discussing Chinese knockoff tools, he said that they are not necessarily junk, but they are just about always “incomplete.” You might buy one but be ready to rebuild it. Immediately.

We have all kinds of warning labels on everything from food to clothes to tools. He suggested a new warning label that should be applied to all Chinese knockoffs: “May require a trip or two to Home Depot.”

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