Buying Cheap Tools

All About Power Tools
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Experienced people tell me that you should always get the best tools you can buy, because there is no substitute for the proper tool for a job. Don’t be fooled into buying cheap tools, because you will be disappointed when the tool doesn’t provide precision results or it breaks down on you.

I agree that in home improvement, woodworking, metal working, and other pursuits, it is always important to have the proper tool for the job. But what is the proper tool for the job, and how much should you spend on it?

I’ll share my thoughts on how, why, and when you might want to spend less on tools.

Investing Your Money

Everyone agrees that investing your money is wise. But there are multiple ways to invest money, and this applies with tools also.

Spending money on high-quality tools is an investment.  The money you spend will save you time and hassle; it is an investment in productivity.  If you just want to get a job done, buy a good tool and get on with it.

But spending money on cheap tools can be an investment also.  If you are like me and have a short attention span, ahem, I mean a broad variety of interests, there are many repairs, activities, and hobbies you might like to try.  If you buy the best tool available for each one, you may spend a fortune on equipment that you rarely use.  Buying a cheap tool can be an investment in your education, allowing you to try out many things that you could not otherwise afford.  Once you have tried things out and know what you are likely to pursue further, and have a better idea of what features in a tool matter to you, then you can spend more money on selected better tools.

Cheap Retail Tools

Modern manufacturing has brought the ability to mass produce complex items at incredibly low costs. Today, Asia is the low-cost manufacturing powerhouse. The U.S. is hard pressed to compete with overseas manufacturing.

Harbor Freight Tools is a nationwide chain of stores in the U.S., selling primarily Asian import power tools and hand tools. While they are not top-quality and most won’t stand up to heavy use, they are incredibly inexpensive. I signed up for their email mailing list where they send weekly advertisements and coupons, and have gotten some excellent deals. They send out 15% off coupons on a regular basis, which are even good on sale items. I bought a bench-top drill press for $35. A drill press like this might typically sell for $80 to $100 in most stores. Harbor Freight normally sells it for $70. It was on sale for $40, and I had a 15% off coupon, and they have a store within driving distance so I didn’t have to pay shipping. Getting deals this cheap requires some patience, waiting for sales to come up and keeping track of the coupons. But in this case it was worth it.

For higher-quality large power tools, Grizzly Industrial imports power tools built in Taiwan. Better quality but still good prices.

Used Tools

The other way to get good tools inexpensively is to buy them used. Most American power tools built in the last century were made to last and will keep on running, given some cleanup and care.

I bought a tablesaw at a local estate sale for about $20. A comparable saw at the store would probably cost about $100 or more. Mine is fairly solid, and I got the advantage of the previous owner’s upgraded motor. It took some cleanup but mostly worked fine immediately.

I certainly like the satisfaction of taking an old piece of equipment with some history and personality, and adding some more life back into it with some cleaning, oiling, and perhaps a little paint. There is too much waste in our society in my opinion. Just as I get satisfaction from using tools to fix things, I enjoy fixing the tools also.

One thing to watch out for if the tools are more than a few decades old is the safety features, or lack thereof. I added some guards on to my tablesaw, and you’ll want to watch for similar situations with older power tools.

Balance

At some point you have to make the decision on when to buy a more expensive tool. This is a personal judgment call, which needs to fit in with your values of time and money.

I bought a cheap heat gun from Harbor Freight for $10. I had not owned one before, so I didn’t know how much I would use it. I ended up using it a lot. I burned it out, bought another one for $10, and ended up breaking that one also. By that point I knew this was a useful tool to me, so I went to another store and bought a better one for $30. It has performed great and I expect it will last a long time. Was this a waste? I don’t think so. I spent $50 altogether and ended up with a good tool that will last. If I hadn’t shopped around, I might have spent that much anyways. I balance this against all the other expensive tools I didn’t buy for occasional use, and I have definitely saved money.

Status Symbols

Some people like to buy expensive tools because they see them as a status symbol, for showing off. I don’t think tools (or other material items for that matter) should be used in this way, but the reality is that our posessions do reflect something of our values to other people. Therefore, I like to reflect the values of not wasting money and being creative with less. Using an inexpensive tool to get the job done, or better yet fixing up an old tool to do it, is quite satisfying to me, and I hope it inspires others to do the same.

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