Machines and Tools: Cost Versus Value

Are expensive tools worth the money? Are cheap tools worth the hassle? Pros on the Woodweb Business Forum talk about how much to pay for quality equipment, and why. September 4, 2005

As I read the posts here over the months and years, one thing keeps jumping out at me in regard to buying equipment. Some of us are too cheap to spend good money on good tools. We expect import junk to work as good as quality equipment. In the long run, we spend a dollar to save a dime, then grumble about the job we didn't get because the potential client didn't want to spend that much money on "high end" furniture, trim or cabinets. Instead we bought "some cheap junk form Home Depot." Interesting.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor B:
I agree. The investment in my shop is an investment in myself. It sells me as a serious cabinetmaker. That's why I moved out of the basement into my commercial space and put down the cash to do it right. I can't see using a piece of peg-board to do my system holes or rigging up a sled to cross-cut my sheets on the Delta contractor table saw. If the customer wants price over quality, they can keep looking.

From contributor D:
I try to separate myself as a cabinetmaker and stay away from competing on price. However, price is almost always a factor is the customer's decision. When I purchase tools, insurance, supplies, etc., I want value for my money. Sometimes the best or most expensive tool isn't the right purchase for me. Paying a bit more for insurance or lumber from a supplier that has great service is smart business. People that consistently go with the low bid or buy the cheap tools are motivated by getting a deal even if there isn't any value to be had.

From contributor S:
I too am dismayed by all the talk of chasing the ever cheaper rainbow. Perhaps this is the result of the Wal-Marting of America - cheaper is the major consideration, maybe the only consideration.

A mentor once took me aside and explained that my livelihood came from the edge that was cutting the wood, and the quality of my livelihood was directly related to the quality of that edge. Maintain that edge and you'll do as good as can be expected.

"Maintain that edge" became a metaphor for the better equipment, joinery, materials, methods, and even business practices with vendors, employees, competitors and customers. It has served me very well - beyond expectations.

While one cannot start out with a shop full of Martin type equipment, it needs to be a goal - to ever work towards better. Just as the status quo may work now, don't relax or accept it as good enough - move forward. After all, most of us that are business owners did not accept the status quo, and struck out to improve things.

We all know that we will starve if we try to compete with the mass producers, since we are faithful readers of these forums, so we have found niches to exploit. Quality and service are the basis of what we can excel at. So we are back to the quality of that edge.
Keep your chisels sharp.

From contributor E:
A poor man can only afford to buy the best because he cannot afford to buy it twice!

From contributor H:
My take on buying cheap tools is as follows. There is a difference between cheap and inexpensive. I always buy the best tool I can for the money I have available to spend. The most expensive tool is not always the best for the job at hand. Consumer testing and rating have proven this.

For the small shop to survive, overhead must be low. Borrowing or leasing to have the latest and greatest isn't always prudent. The secondhand auction market is proof of that.
In our shop, we have many different brands - Dewalt, Delta, Cresent, Rockwell, Portercable, Bosch, Makita, Grizzly, Oliver, Powermatic, Walker Turner, Reliant, Bridgwood, Jet, etc., plus a lot of off brand hand tools.

Many of these tools are made in the same foundry and labeled for specific brands. Rockwell, for example, is made for them to their standards. Fit and finish sometimes is the only difference in these machines. So if you can buy the same machine in a different color, green instead of white, and save a few hundred bucks, why wouldn't we?

We must also take responsibility. To believe a 12 amp saw can honestly deliver 3 hp on single phase current for only $***** shows just how uninformed some folks are. Marketers know this and exploit it. It's sad that one of the things that made this country what it is, making a quality product, is being eroded by American industry's need to pay Mr. Dow and Mr. Jones more money than they deserve.

From contributor G:
Sometimes I am amazed at how much good work I've done with really cheap tools. True, I've cursed my stupidity for buying low-end pieces of junk, but then when the next tool purchase decision comes up, I ask, do I really need the best? If a Delta saw can be made to do the job, are you really well advised to buy a Martin for $15,000 more? I don't think so.

The issue seems to be one of repetitive quality... If you are constantly doing the same repetitive operations, you really should have a top end tool. But if the use is occasional, then the cheapo stuff will generally work.

For example, for retrofitting seismic safety bolts in concrete, I bought a Harbor Freight 1" concrete impact hammer/drill for about $50 when the competitive models go from $300 to $500. Sure, it's not high quality, but then I only use the tool 2 times a year, and it has worked great on those occasions.

At 1/5 or 1/10th the price of the highest quality tools, this poor man can indeed afford to buy the tool twice if needed... but for a much smaller 30% to 50% difference, I think I'll get the best.

From contributor V:
Contributor G, I don't understand your logic. On one hand, you curse your own stupidity for buying low-end, but when the time comes to buy another tool, you buy low again?

From contributor X:
I believe to maintain high quality products, the use of high quality tools is the only way to produce with any speed at all. Professionals use professional equipment! This doesn't mean someone can't produce quality work with poor equipment. The question is, can he repeat his work and how many pieces will it take?

Our shop keeps very good equipment in top shape. I would sooner buy an old, truly industrial machine than a shiny new import with weak bearings and a million parts only available at Hung Chow's Machine and Asian Food.

From someone who has made bad choices and has learned the hard way: Buy quality, even if it is older than you! A responsible business will not spend more than can be earned by any machine. This, of course, varies from shop to shop. That is why there are so many different machine companies and price levels. But to buy a cheap machine that can't produce quality product makes less sense than not buying anything, in my humble opinion.

From contributor T:
Spending 15000 on a tool to build kitchen cabinets will be a hard sale in my shop. I'm competing with people who cut sheet stock with a 7 1/4" skil saw using a clamp guide.

When it comes to building square boxes, you really donít need top shelf tools as a one man shop. Great tools are nice to have. But so is a brand new BMW, and I canít afford one of them, either.

You need money to make the house payment, so you have to sell your work, so to have something to sell, you have to build something. To build something, you need tools. If you buy the less expensive tool and it helps you build something you can sell and that helps make the house payments, then go for it. If you have an unlimited budget and you have a secured flow of work coming into the shop nonstop, then you can afford to simply set up with only the best of everything. If, on the other hand, you start off small and plan to grow from your earnings, then you need to keep your overhead low, so during the 7 skinny years you donít lose your house. Thatís why we sometimes buy used tools or less expensive tools. We are growing. Nobody that can afford to buy the best buys the worst simply to make their own lives more interesting.

From contributor A:
Have you ever heard of an exit strategy? The resale value of that beautiful German engineering is painful if you have to close shop sometime in the near future. I would rather sell my one year old Honda than a one year old BMW. If most business owners look reality in the eye, they will admit that they may not be in business in 3-5 years. My old boss took 30 years to acquire the "best" machinery, but he was the best at using farm tech to solve the most difficult problems. We always say "it's not who has the best tools, it's who uses their tools best." We all like to have the best of everything, but don't fall into American materialism. It runs your credit cards up and your company into the ground.

From contributor G:
Of course, I'd love to have better tools, shop, truck, etc. than I have today, so it's just a process of continual improvement. I agree on working toward the best, and someday I'll get there. But for now I have to pay the bills and keep the family going, so I think hard about any capital purchase.

Bottom line for me, is that for critical items, I buy the best that I can afford, which is never the best item in its class. For non-critical items, I buy the cheapest I can get away with.

P.S. My friend is such a fanatic about having the best tools and keeping them perfect; that he just chrome-plated the inside of his edgebander. It's quite a beauty, and it also edgebands! There is lots of room for different approaches when it comes to buying tools, which is why there are so many options out there.

From contributor C:
I know that most people use the term "imports" to mean Asian imports, but keep in mind that the really fine stuff comes from our cousins in Italy and Germany, which are also imports. We have software development perhaps 20 years ahead of them, but the engineering and manufacturing quality of some of the European machines is incredible by comparison. Not many machines made here anymore - Delta, Powermatic, etc. are all going to Taiwan, it seems. You can get good results on cheap tools or good tools. It's just harder or more time consuming with the cheap stuff. Like most of you have said, get the adequate tool for the job, so that the results are at least predictable. Knowledge is power. You save money on the capital purchase but expend it with higher labor or unpredictable results. You spend it on the front end for better tools but have to add a little something to every job to pay the difference. I find I have less and less patience for unpredictability and poor performance. My standards go up with every purchase.

From contributor S:
Two more things come to mind. It is a pleasure to spend your time with better tools. 6-8-10 hours a day with solid, well-performing and predictable tools (chisels to molders) makes that day not only more productive, but also more enjoyable. Not to mention what customers/vendors think when they visit. A skilsaw and sawhorses will impress customers (and scare vendors) looking for the cheap guy to underbid the previous guy. German, Italian and industrial American says professional and will draw those people looking for professional quality work.

Improvement over time was not stressed in my earlier post. Yes, it does take time. Forever worrying about that guy in his garage with the sawhorses will trap you into that rut, and you'll be just around the corner, sweating in your leased garage, for life. Define your business and your goals, and focus on that. The larger picture is the better picture. Looking over your shoulder to see where you are in a horse race is less desirable than focusing on the horizon, with a clear view of what is ahead and how to get there.

From contributor I:
If you buy the best, you get the best. But, what is the requirement? When one of my companies, some years ago, went down the Quality Assurance path, it helped me discover the best is not perfection! Perfection is costly and difficult to manage. The cost to get a 2% increase in something when itís already at the top end anyway can be more than 50 to 150% of the previous cost. When it comes to machines and tools, I do not look at the cost as the key factor on purchase.

1. Task requirementÖ from that, I determine the acceptable and workable quality I require from the machine. You do not need or want perfection. You want and need fit for purpose, which can mean a big difference both in purchase cost and profit/time ratio.

2. Can the machine or tool provide the fit for purpose tolerances I need to work with?

3. What will this machine be helping produce dollar-wise for us? Or is it what I call a dead spend, i.e. simply enabling a job to get done but adding nil additional profit capability in time or markup?

This helps determine the workable budget/cost factor range for me. If it's a profitable purchase, I will set a budget based on a profit/loss analysis for that item, and the purchased item needs one way or another to come into the dollar purchase range I felt was acceptable.

If it's a dead spend, I will not go over any budget I have set and my budget will be the minimal amount aiming for the maximum life period.

Only after the above do I start the buying process. Out of the last six items we have purchased, two have been new, and four have been top end products purchased from auction dirt-cheap. Purchased from poor buggers now insolvent, who thought they needed the best and ended up paying the most, when in fact "fit for purpose" would have given them the best and cost less!

From contributor P:
On the other hand... once you get past the very small shop phase, then the minimum requirement changes. We have 10 cabinetmakers making all kinds of cuts all day. On our old table saw, it would take several to 20 minutes for each cut setup, and each person had to check the saw every time they used it to make sure that it was square, etc. So we were already paying for our new Martin (and a lot more) in lost productivity. If you think cheap tools are saving you money, try to make an honest assessment of the time spent messing around with them - you have probably paid for better tools already.

From contributor S:
Contributor P's point is right on. When I walked away from running a 25 man shop and went to work with myself, I was in the "eat beans, keep it cheap" survival mode. I bought one of those horrendous, one-bag dust collectors and hooked it up. It screamed, collected dust, and blew dust. Often, I had to empty the bag several times a day. Once, as I was on my shop porch waiting for the dust to settle and clearing my sinuses, I went back into my "big shop" mode and simply calculated the time spent changing bags and dealing with the dust. Surprise - I had already paid for a centralized system - I just didn't have it. I called Oneida the next day, and only look back as a reminder to keep my mind open and focus forward.

From contributor R:
When I was working in New York, the shop had only Martin tools and I got spoiled. Once you go Martin, you never go back. I always promised to myself that when I had a couple bucks I would get one for myself and, being a one-man shop, it cost me dearly to have, but now it is paid for and still working as if it were new. It is the only machine in my shop that I do not have to worry about and the peace of mind is golden.

The guy across the street from me had 6 guys working for him and one Powermatic, no edge bander, no shaper, no nothing to share with 6 guys. That kind of thinking never made much sense to me, but also I did not have 6 hungry guys to feed. I buy tools based on how much I use them. The saw I use a lot, so I bought the best.

From contributor Y:
I think the gist of this thread is to always be dreaming and looking to the future. Every life and career should be evolutionary, evolving to do better, learning, reading and exploring new ways to produce a quality product.

A woodworking machinery store near me was only a stop for screws or sandpaper pads. I thought I would never purchase a slider or any of the other BigGuns equipment they sold. I could never get it into my basement, first of all. My favorite store carried all the Delta, PortaCable, etc. gear I would ever need.

But I always thought that someday that'd be the way to go. Maybe a real commercial space. Buy ply by the skid. Fork-lift it right off the flatbed truck. High ceilings. A booth to spray the stuff. Raw lumber in one door, tight, clean well-made, precise cabinets going out the other.

I drilled system holes one at a time. Then, I made up a jug to lay out the spacing better. Then I bought a Delta pneumatic line bore. 13 holes at a time! This was progress! Now, I run 50 holes at a stroke. I used to edgeband with a hot air gun. Now I band with a SCMI. The sliding table saw makes my work 200% better than I could have imagined!

It's all in steps. I know I may be further along than some of you. And I know I'm still way behind a lot of you. But as long as I keep dreaming and looking ahead, who can say what's in store for me. And I think that's the really exciting aspect of all of this. Always evolving. Doing better. And always learning.

You guys with basement shops don't have to be defensive. We were all there. Keep dreaming of what could be. And before you know it, it will be. And I gotta say, it's a blast!

From contributor N:
"It is a pleasure to spend your time with better tools. 6-8-10 hours a day with solid, well-performing and predictable tools (chisels to molders) makes that day not only more productive, but also more enjoyable."

That says a lot for me. It's very important to me that I enjoy my day. It makes my work better. To that end, in four months, I'll have my first sliding tablesaw - can't wait.

From contributor K:
Regardless of technology, the first principles of working wood - to cut, shape, fasten - remain the same as they have always been. No two men have the same set of tools or the same set of experiences, yet we all live life in pursuit of apprenticeship. Nothing is being done with wood that has not been done before, and still, working wood remains an infinite phenomenon, each man finding his own way, journeymen, yet apprentices for life.

Tools come and go. I've had a dozen sets, both good and bad, so I can tell you, the finest detail, deriving the highest quality, is still accomplished with a single edge of steel. But I had to fail as a box builder, and find myself reduced to a single hand-me-down chisel, to find the woodworker in myself.

From contributor X:
There is nothing like the topic of good tools or bad taxes to get people talking! Yes, a true woodworker needs only a sharp edge and his imagination to create.

But in the end we are professionals and we have to create at a rate that produces a dirty word known as "profit." Whether it is a second hand chisel or a Weinig molder, the quality of the steel to hold that sharp edge or to maintain a vibration free cut is all important. Without quality tools, we can create, but not necessarily at a profit. Buy quality, even if it is old, because when you simplify the issue to the core, you still need the best steel to hold a sharp edge.

From contributor O:
I started my business with practically no funds. First machine was a 6" planer and 10" saw combination and I was working in a single carport at home. I purchased the machines I could afford, the ones that could do the work as accurate as I needed at the time. Some were new, some secondhand, all were good quality. Some I paid cash for, some were on commercial hire, some purchased on lease. The machine you buy today can easily be upgraded later when finances improve. I make mostly quality solid wood furniture and an occasional kitchen. Timber used is always hardwood and my machines are as tough as they come. Favorite machine? Viet wide belt sander (1120mm) made in Italy, bought 20 years ago and still the best.

From contributor L:
My thanks to everyone who contributed to this discussion. Very revealing. The message that rings through is the mutual love of woodworking and its trials. One observation I'd like to contribute is this: It takes a higher degree of skill to work with poor tools, yet no tool is a substitute for skill. As your business grows to the point of needing help, you may also need better tools to help make your help effective, as you can not expect a tenderfoot to remember all of the many details which contribute to a skillful delivery.