A Practical Philosophy of Tools
“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.