September 25, 2010

A Practical Philosophy of Tools

Justin Katz

"All levels lose their accuracy, so buy the cheapest ones you can find." That was among the first bits of tool advice that I received when I started in the trade. In the years since, I've found that carpenters tend to develop what might properly be called a philosophy of tools.

Like other philosophies, the experience of the individual usually turns out to be the determining factor. The builder who preferred cheap levels also suggested that one's first step, upon buying a new tool, should be to beat it up badly enough that nobody would want to buy it stolen. He'd spent his formative years in the business with a temporary tradesman agency — essentially a carpenters' union without the inflated salaries and collective protections. In such an environment, one can hardly expect tools to last, and any that are too overtly desirable are apt to disappear.

On the other end of the spectrum, perhaps, would be the high-end shop carpenter for whom top-of-the-line tools are both an aid for the fine work that he does and part of the machinery by which he builds his reputation. He buys the best equipment, first, because it is best for a reason and, second, because his being able to afford it implies to prospects that previous clients have judged his work worthy of the tools and of the premium paid. Into that premium, he must build a physical demonstration of refined taste and the habitual care made evident by a pristine workshop.

But most of us spend our careers somewhere in between — in somewhat unpredictable environments. Our tools will have to be rushed from rainstorms, from time to time. They'll wind up in the hands of apprentices. They'll be thrown in the truck uncleaned after long, frigid days spent in a mad dash for deadlines, when the irresistible call of home overwhelms the professional habit of maintaining equipment.

The biggest factor behind the tools that one buys has got to be economics. High-end tools are a luxury, and most carpenters whom I've met buy the least expensive brands that they believe will accomplish the tasks for which they're intended. Tools that are too close to the low end will often have to be replaced before they've returned even their small value, partly because they're cheaply made and partly because they won't receive the care that more respectable brands command. Worse still, "homeowner" brands can be a matter of professional embarrassment.

The common practice, of course, is hardly so considered and deliberate. We carpenters buy from among the range of brands that are considered mainstream — Bosch, Makita, Hitachi, Milwaukee, DeWALT, Porter Cable — and make our specific decisions based on limited feature differences, sale price, battery compatibility, or just plain ol' brand loyalty.

Older carpenters emerge from their vans with heavy metal boxes containing tools that feel as if they hardly need any extra protection at all. They bring them to be serviced, or service them themselves, and for the extra effort and expense, the reward is a lifetime with the same saws, drivers, and shapers. The craftsman gains a comfort with and intimate knowledge of his arsenal, the tools carry an unmistakable authority, and local repair shops are able to stay in business.

Younger carpenters have grown up in an era of gadgets and rapid technological advancement. In the long view, high-tech devices are disposable, and nobody laments their loss too much because the latest editions that replace them are always able to do so much more for so much less. Construction tools are a different matter: Try as the big-name companies might to make their older products seem obsolete — adding lasers to miter saws and fancy self-lifting table saw stands — tried and true designs achieved decades ago promise to suffice for decades more. Still, consumers raised in the high-tech culture that has straddled the millennium find it natural that purchased items should be discarded every few years, even if the replacement is pretty much the same as that which it replaces.

There is a wise middle road, here, acknowledging (1) that a philosophy of tools depends on what kinds of carpenters we want to be, (2) that most of us don't figure that out before investing years in the trade, and (3) that tools can be very expensive. After about six months of working in construction full time, I began filling my nights and weekends with side jobs and using the profits to expand my collection. Thousands of dollars later, I had every tool necessary to build a house from start to finish.

I'd still be collecting... and borrowing... and struggling to use the wrong tool for the job in some instances had I not been taught to be practical about my purchases — to see tools as far less than sacred objects. Now, as my first tools fail from the abuse of having been used to train me, as much as to accomplish the tasks for which they were designed, I've a far better sense of what features (and dollar amounts) are appropriate for the work that I actually do.

More importantly, I've a better sense of what investments I'll have to make in order to move my career in the direction that I want to go. Years after my first clumsy cuts with a circular saw, I've learned that the path of disposable levels and deliberately mangled power tools is not the path that I wish to take. I've also discovered that the perfect shop is likely either to be the product of luck or a means of semi-retirement some decades away, several generations of midrange tools down the road.

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Someday, you should write about the philosophy of choosing candidates, and run the pieces side by side. The overlaps and contrasts would be interesting, especially between those needed to get the job done and those that will last for a long time, and when to settle for less than you would prefer.

Posted by: Bob Walsh at September 25, 2010 7:43 AM

"A poor workman always blames his tools" - Mom

Posted by: Warrington Faust at September 25, 2010 2:13 PM

I used to do finish work with a 22 oz. Estwing. My finish work looked like I did it with a 22 oz. Estwing. But my forearms were huge.

Can't find the Estwing, and now my forearms are puny. Nothing lasts forever.

To make matters worse, now I usually use the little wooden hammer that my wife keeps in "the place" and I'm terrified to not put it back.

Posted by: michael at September 25, 2010 11:02 PM


Please don't take offense but you sound like a rescue guy and not a ladderman. They think the only tool to use is an axe.

Posted by: Phil at September 26, 2010 12:58 PM


I used to be a Ladderman, now I'm just a bum... er, rescue man.

Posted by: michael at September 26, 2010 1:21 PM


so now you can't do the roll over anymore.

Posted by: Phil at September 26, 2010 6:11 PM

I like your overall view of tool acquiring, Justin. Most of us in the business assess tools by value. Cheap tools just don't cut it and the super expensive stuff are for the hobby crowd. I try to purchase tools as part of a job - buying a new nail gun before a house project is justified to facilitate the project. Or, in the case of a custom house that called for timber trusses-the purchase of a used 16" Makita circular saw that can saw through 6x 10 beams is justified and needed. Now I do not know on how many jobs I will need a 16" saw, but by purchasing it for a job that made sense, the purchase makes sense. To me, that is how one acquires tools.

Posted by: David S at September 26, 2010 7:19 PM

To further Bob Walsh's point, why not assess government functions the way you do tools. Although it is the particular conceit of the right people to deny the existence of any aid of government that directly affects them positively, it would be interesting to have a discussion about the wisdom of choosing cheap government over lasting, durable government.

Posted by: David S at September 26, 2010 7:32 PM

I'm contemplating a response to Bob, but I think he begins with a faulty premise that you compound. Candidates and elected officials aren't the tools, in the parallel, they're the disposable components — the blades and bits. I wouldn't use a new, expensive blade to section flooring prior to demolition. The "tools" are more akin to our structure of government.

At any rate, I'd suggest that there are multiple ways to define "cheap government." You seem to be directly suggesting "inexpensive" government. I'd look more to fortitude and intelligence. It is cheap, indeed, to try to use government to fix all ills and direct all lives.

PS--- A 16" circular saw? Sheesh. My last company had a 10", and I didn't like using it; it bucked when it started, and I was always aware that if it bound and kicked back, I'd have no chance of stopping it.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 26, 2010 7:39 PM

I am "cheap". I do my 8 x 8's by running my circular saw around the outside, then a sawzall through the middle. A little 40 grit on my Porter Cable 5" smooths off the cut. Spinning 24 footers to cut them was a problem, so we suspended them off two cherry pickers to cut them to size and finish the lap joints with an arm saw.

Did I mention the toolmaker helping me complained that the "dot" from the lazer level was "too big" for him to get a "good level" on the beams with it. "It must be at least 40 thousandths". For comparison, a dollar bill is approximately 3 thousandths.

The 14" boards we used for sheathing were so wet that it made him crazy. I agreed to hang them with duplex nails, wait a month for them to dry, then take them down and renail them. The port-a-power he used to close the joints did seem like an excess.

After this, we head to Pennsylvania. I am sure we can show the Amish a few things about barns. Actually, the Amish know quite a bit about precision machines. I run into them at auctions regularly, they are some of the biggest dealers in used industrial equipment and industrial generators.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at September 26, 2010 8:52 PM

It was a 16 and a half inch saw and it scared the hell out of us. Imagine a table saw starting up in your hands. But we needed it - to do the production work needed to make the project reasonable. Warrington is clearly a hobbyist. Good at what he does but like Robert Frost said- it is like playing tennis with the net down. So be it. Time does not matter to him. He is a rich rollow that can indulge in his little enjoyments. I can not afford the same indulgences.

Posted by: David S at September 28, 2010 3:55 PM
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