When people visit our shop, they almost always marvel at all the tools and machinery sitting around. And they almost always say: “It must be fun to get to play with all these tools.”
Truth is, reviewing tools has always been the least favorite part of my job – well, it’s actually right above unclogging the dust collector.
My feelings about tool reviews might be colored by the fact that I’m not really a gear head or gadget freak. Case in point: I am crazy about cooking, but my knives, pots and pans are mundane. I follow music as closely as I do woodworking, but I have a stock stereo in my car and don’t even own a home stereo.
So maybe I’m not genetically predisposed for reviewing tools.
I’m sure you’re thinking: You whiner. What’s not to like about trying new tools? Well, nothing really, except that it takes away from time I’m actually building. I get an endorphin squirt when I’m writing, building, cooking or listening to music. I don’t get much pleasure from comparing stats on drills or measuring the sole flatness of a handplane.
What makes it harder for me is that I’ve come to know many of the people who design and make the power tools and hand tools that pass through our shop. And being asked to compare brands A, B and C sometimes feels like I’m choosing who to side with when married friends get divorced. I try to separate my feelings from the tools on the bench before me, but I’d be lying if I said it was easy.
Another thing that troubles me: When I review tools it always feels like small differences get magnified by writing about them. With almost any kind of tool, there is a point where the differences among the brands are minor. Let’s take cordless drills as an example. You don’t need me to tell you that a $39.95 drill is disposable. You can’t build a durable tool for that. Once you get somewhere above $100, most drills are pretty good, especially if you don’t make your living with it.
Lastly, there are some qualities of tools that fall under the adage: familiarity breeds.
Each tool has a personality. Once you get used to it, you can even learn to like it (ask my wife about this re: my personality). My first dovetail saw has a certain feel to its tote – its thickness, girth and the distance between its horns. When I pick up a similar saw, I’m immediately more comfortable with it than, say, a new design.
The solution to these problems are not things that any woodworking magazine could afford to do, such as forming a peer-review panel, having a team of reviewers or reviewing tools over a year of daily use. All those ideas are great for medicine and other critical comparative tasks. But they are financially unworkable for a small publisher (and for large publishers — have you ever read a tool review in Consumer Reports about a category you knew something about?)
So why have I dragged you down this path? I’m not soliciting solutions. I think I just want you to understand the forces at play when I do discuss tools in the magazine and on the blogs, and that I would always rather be building something than flattening another chisel back.
— Christopher Schwarz