Really Good Tools (as Rated by the Haters)


During my 23 years of working in group shops, I’ve seen a lot of oddball behavior. Most of it is run-of-the-mill laziness – never emptying the dust collector, putting your rotting food waste in the bench room garbage cans and never ever returning the router wrenches to their designated nail. (Honest, I once found the wrenches on the back of the toilet.)

The weirdest thing I’ve observed, however, is straight-up duplicity when it comes to tools.

Ever since I could afford good tools, I’ve bought them. And I make no apologies for spending more than $6.37 on a block plane. When you own nice tools and work in a group shop, however, people give you crap. They’ll sing the praises of the plastic-handled Greenlee chisels they bought in a dollar bin at a meat market in Tijuana. Or the paring chisel they made out of a bumper of a Ford F-150. Or the prybar made from the springs of the aforementioned F-150. Or the tack rags they cooked up themselves.

These are all true examples.

What I’m here to say is that most of these guys are blowing hot air. When they needed a bevel gauge that held its setting, they were the first to snitch my Vesper bevel from my tool chest.

And so today, as I was hanging up a new (actually very old) Plumb 16 oz. hammer for shop use, I thought about the most-borrowed tools in my chest. These are the tools that the cheapskates borrow constantly.

I can’t think of a higher endorsement.

  1. My Chris Vesper sliding bevels and squares. People rail against the prices but they greedily swipe all of my Vesper stuff. I am constantly returning his tools to my chest (and I’m now thinking about a lock).
  2. My Starrett 6” and 12” combination squares. Sorry that your plastic home center combo square sucks a trailer hitch.
  3. My Lie-Nielsen smoothing plane. Wait, I thought you said that all handplanes could be tuned to an equally high level?
  4. My Tite-Mark gauges. I guess you wanted a clean baseline for those dovetails.
  5. My 16 oz. hammer. You might as well borrow my underwear, you savage.
  6. My Lie-Nielsen dovetail saw. Is your Dozuki’s blade still bent?
  7. Sterling Toolworks Dovetail Marker. I thought you marked your dovetails by eye….
  8. Blue Spruce 16 oz. round mallet. Ah right, round-head mallets are for carvers.
  9. Veritas Shooting Plane. I thought it was too expensive and just a toy?
  10. My card scraper. Again with the underwear!

I could go on, but you get the point. Good tools cost money. And they are apparently worth the ridicule when you borrow them.

— Christopher Schwarz

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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46 Responses to Really Good Tools (as Rated by the Haters)

  1. Rick says:

    Chris, you’re much better than “a dollar bin at a a meat market in Tijuana”

  2. Morgan R says:

    Great list! Because of Bill Anderson over at Roy Underhill’s school, I found a tool more coveted than the Tite-Mark: The Bridge City MG-3 Marking gage. I found a “blemished” one, and ever since, it’s one of the first tools I see visitors coveting/fondling when they are in my shop. Of course Bridge City doesn’t make them any more, which probably only makes the temptation greater…

  3. Eric Diven says:

    I can understand a lot of these, but borrowing somebody else’s plane baffles me. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s objectively nicer than an old Stanley, Record, or whatever, including mine. But I’ll leave yours to you and pick up mine every time because I *know* mine: how it’s set up, how much lash is in the adjustment knob if I need to back off the depth of cut a hair, how the lateral adjust behaves, when I last sharpened it, how much crown I have on the iron, and how all of these things affect what it’s going to do when I put it to wood.

    Your plane is safe around me, but that guy over there looks like he has his eye one it. And no, I didn’t just see what happened to your Vesper bevel gauge.

  4. Don Hardeman says:

    I just spit out my whiskey laughing so hard. I can relate!

  5. Leonard says:

    All of my tools have an attachment that insures proper use and immediate return to where they belong. Me.
    Any tool i loan out comes with an owner operator at no charge, although the wait time varies with how interesting the borrower or project is to me.

  6. Tony A says:

    My hope is that these two groups (elite tool users and cheapskates) represent the tails of the distribution, and that the bulk of your shopmates represent the reasonable middle. Those who can admire, appreciate, and value the best tools (and don’t give you any crap), but can’t reasonably afford them in the context of a hobby.

    • Hmmm… I don’t think I’m an elite tool user or a cheap skate and I don’t think any of the tools on Chris’s list are out of the range of most people. No, I couldn’t go out today and pay cash for all of them, but each of them is certainly achievable with a few months of saving/doing without/earning a little extra/shopping smartly (or doing some combination of those four methods).

      I can always look at my spending for the last two months and figure out where I regularly spend a few dollars here and there. Then over the next few months, I can take an average of the same expenses and put that away in a jar for the tool I want. Some of the tools on Chris’s list cost a LOT of money brand new, but are regularly found at garage sales and estate sales for pennies on the dollar. I see Starrett combo squares and dividers and calipers at the time at estate sales for $1 or $2 or maybe $10. A lot of it is patience and persistence and a bit of good luck. I once saw four Lie Nielsen tools for sale on Craig’s List – a face float, the small bronze spokeshave, the 1/8″ bench chisel, and the low angle block plane – all for $135 (that’s $350 worth of tools brand new and the resale on LN is very good). I immediately messaged the person and said I’d take them. I was the first person to contact him. Within an hour, he said he’d received over 100 emails from people. I was lucky to have seen it first. And there are still bargains to be found on eBay if you know what you’re doing. More importantly, you’re banking on other people NOT knowing what they are doing. But there are deals out there.

      Or… I’m a woodworker! I make things out of wood! And if I’m good enough, people will pay me money for these things. If I’m not good enough, I can keep working at it until I am. Then I just need to figure out a little niche in the market and fill it! I don’t have to make it all with the sale of one thing. But it all goes in the pot and I will eventually reach my goal.

      Setting the goal is the most important thing. For me, I have to see it every day. And I have to see the progress I’m making on reaching it. So I take a picture of what I want and put it on my wall at work, with my target price I need to meet. Then every time I earn some money and put it towards the tool, I write that down below the target number and subtract it. That visual of seeing the target goal get smaller and smaller becomes motivation.

      • tsstahl says:

        I have to agree as that is pretty much my philosophy. I’m not quite as visual, but I do have a small pad where I track how much I’ve saved for X. Budgeting, plus taking care of what you already have is the no fail way to a nice set of tools. I still have my first electric drill and circular saw from nearly 30 years ago. Heck, the same blade has been on the saw for nearly ten years since it is so easy to sharpen with a bastard file.

  7. Tom Bittner says:

    Lock your treasured tools up! Don’t loan them to ingrates! Don’t even let them touch them!
    I’ve spent a lot of time tuning up my tools for my personal use, I don’t lend them out to people or even let them touch them. ( my sons are an exception) my brother is not included!
    Not because I’m stingy but because others don’t appreciate what I have done to make the tools fit me and work for me. I have a “cheap set” of Narex paring chisels that I reworked to fit me, I wouldn’t sell them for Blue Spruce prices.
    Why do you listen to people who don’t understand that tools are very personal to the user.
    The first thing I do is modify tools to fit me, then they are mine and mine only. Rarely do tools fit right out of the box, when you use them and find their defects and fix them it’s for you alone.
    Just my .02 opinion.

    • T.H.Paulsen says:

      I second that. I do not lend out my tools (with the exception of bog standard easy to replace non-edge tools to a couple of close associates). I used to be much more ‘generous’ but bad experience soon changed my mind. If anyone as much as puts a finger on my tools they get a stern look and a “that’s my tool…” If that warning is not heeded things escalate rapidly.

  8. Tommy Reese says:

    I was out of town and a friend asked me to help with a quick project. The job called for a multi use screwdriver. My wife and I drove the the nearest Ace store and we went looking for that tool. at the time that I thought I found one, my wife calls me , with a loud voice, I found you one. It was a multi driver with a flower pattern on the handle. I laughed and said,” my other tools would not want to sit next to that tool”. No soon that I finished my sentence that a big biker looking man walked up and said that other workers would borrow his tools and would not return them except for the flower pattern driver that he has in his tool box. He laughed and also said that the flower driver was the best investment in his tool collection.because it is always returned.

  9. Rob Hoffman says:

    I was fortunate enough to attend North Bennet Street School for preservation carpentry. We were taught how to restore old planes for use in the field and we given license to buy whatever tools we could afford. Some people had Lie-Nielsen and Lee Valley orders shipped directly to the school. Others bought their stuff out from the Blue and Orange stores.

    However, the only tool that our instructor specified that we were required to purchase both make and model was the Starrett 12” Combination Square. I have the 12, the 6, and the 2 1/2”.

    Chris, you should treat yourself to the 2 1/2. It’s surprisingly useful.

  10. I knew a guy who got tired of the same boob borrowing his rule without asking. He started leaving out a shrink rule instead.

  11. Bill Dalton says:

    Thank you Chris, I’m so tired of listening to all the cheap solutions to buying a few good tools as opposed to buying HF and then can’t understand how it doesn’t work out.

  12. durbien says:

    I run across a variant of these on the construction site: the guys who constantly ridicule either the type of tool I carry (“gadgets”) or the amount of them (“A real carpenter could get by with a ___, ____, and ____”). And yet.. next thing you know, it’s “Hey, can I borrow your ___?” I usually reply with, “Its an honor to carry your tools all day, sir.”

  13. Pascal Teste says:

    Put mouse traps in your tool chest…

  14. Polonius says:

    Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
    For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
    And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

  15. fitz says:

    Also: your fancy microfiber woobie and Kroger pencils.

  16. Judith Katz says:

    Walk into any top rated chef’s kitchen and his knives are worth more than the average joe earns in a year (maybe even two). They are not status symbols. They are tools of their trade. They cut cleaner and hold their edge longer. Making the job easier and faster. A good craftsmen is known by his tools. Not so much for their value as for the value he/she put in their craft. A good tool saves time, lasts longer and is a pleasure to use. I know few craftspeople (I know a few) who do not replace their cheap tools with better ones when they can. Very, very few do it for the boasting. They just get on with the job and do it better than the boasters or those who pho pho the purchase.

  17. Salko Safic says:

    I loved it! I think this is the best post you posted by far.

  18. greg says:

    I’ve always reckoned fine tools are like fine wines. First, you have to be discerning enough to appreciate good quality, which takes both learning and experience. Next, a high price tag is no guarantee of high quality or vice versa. And last, the law of diminshing returns applies. That is, a $20 tool may be 10 times better than a $2 tool, but a $200 tool probably won’t be 10 times better than the $20 one.

  19. hbm-la says:

    I’ve always wanted to try a Vesper sliding bevel. Does that make me a cheapskate when I ask to try yours, because you have it? I really can’t think of another reason to ask.

  20. Blzeebub says:

    LOL 😂 Great stuff. The whole notion of “just as good as…” is as ubiquitous as arguing over the differences between art and artistry. If you didn’t make your good tools available they might just grow legs 🧐 Tool envy like religion and politics can bring out the worst in people.

  21. Eric R says:

    There have been more than a few times I’ve disagreed with you, but this isn’t one of them.
    The woodworkers I’ve allowed to borrow anything from my tool selection ALWAYS go for the good stuff.
    Funny how the “OK” tool never gets borrowed but the top of the line one is always missing.
    I am considering a lock as well…

  22. Joe says:

    I thin I will pass along the advice my gave me in 1975 when I was 7 that is applicable here. There are two things you don’t lend out in life – your knife or your wife.

  23. Tyler says:

    Jerry Jones says it best – You never go wrong paying a premium for premium quality.

  24. Steve Vlahos says:

    I couldn’t agree more. For whatever it worth, in my (meager) experience quality tools are not only nice to work with, but they inspire you to lift your game and strive for excellence. Personally, I buy them because it gives me joy to hold them in my hands and because I appreciate the insane high standards of the maker (e.g. Vesper) whom I aspire to imitate one day (unlikely) with my work.

  25. Deborah Hart says:

    I’ve heard that, over here in Britain back when all cabinet makers would
    have their own tool chest, some would deliberately make the hinges squeak or even have a little bell on the inside of the lid so they would know when tools were being ‘borrowed’ and they could put a stop to it!

  26. That was fun 🙂 Jokes aside, the reality is a bell-shaped normal curve, and finding cheap tools that performs like expensive ones is nothing more than a rare occasion, an anomaly. Anomalies occur, yet those are rare. Also, very few have the ability to think in long terms (a tool that will outlive you) and divide the initial cost by the number of projected years, that’s a common human fault.

  27. fedster9 says:

    Home/self made tools might be pretty high quality, depending on the maker. If my dozuki is bent (I assume you are talking about the Japanese saw), rest assured I would not borrow a western style saw I would not use properly (I started — by chance — with Japanese saws and I do not see myself able to swap to a push saw for a workshop). If your dozuki is bent and you can use a push saw, well, there is where the issue is 😉

  28. Patrick says:

    If good fences make good neighbors the a good lock will surely make good shopmates.

  29. Elaine A Higgins says:

    Re Chris’s tools, I had a memorable experience last December when I was taking a class at the Lost Art Press. Megan grabbed a shoulder plane from a tool chest and handed it to me to trim the front of my Dutch Tool Chest and told me to return it when I was finished. After completing the work, I walked back to Chris imperiously standing guard at his tool chest, handed him the plane, and said “this is yours: I am returning it.” Lightning bolts shot from his eyes. Yep, I threw poor, innocent Megan under the bus. I mumbled that she had let me borrow it, slunk back to my workbench, and steered clear of the Really Good Tool Guy for the remainder of the weekend.

  30. Gerald says:

    I agree with almost everything you said. Almost…because, although I didn’t buy any plastic-handled Greenlee chisels in Tijuana, I should have. It would have been a much wiser use of my money than whatever it was that I did spend it on. The only thing tempering my regret is the fact that I don’t remember anything but the hangover and an uncomfortable conversation with the police on the train in San Ysidro the next day. I’d also like to thank Megan for being very generous and trusting with her tools (assuming they actually were her’s and not your’s) at the ATC class. I’d like to apologize for the rotting food waste in the bench room garbage. That was me. Sorry.

  31. Dumont69 says:

    I think shark fin is supposed to be good for a bent dozuki…

  32. Best tool I ever bought was my Tormek. It changed how I approach hand tools. Some people have given me grief when I mention it on my blog but there’s a reason why I do.

  33. Steve says:

    Different horses for different courses……Ive seen some amazing workmanship using no name no frill tools…..each to their own.

  34. I used to work in a machine shop and we were required to buy our own tools. Conveniently, the Snap-On truck came every Friday (payday). Old Ron had worked there since the beginning. This guy smoked 3 packs a day, and he knew everything about anything and he had the nicest tools in the shop.

    When I was still new and hadn’t acquired many tools yet, I asked to borrow one of Ron’s. Nope. Nicest guy in the world – he’d help you with anything, tell a good story or life lesson, but he never let anyone in the shop borrow his tools. Not ever.

    So I asked him about it once. He said that everyone else in the shop buys cheap junk tools and they all make fun of Ron because he spends so much money on shiny tools. Yet, they always come to him to borrow when their cheap tools break. “Never buy cheap tools,” Ron said. Buy once and you’ll have it the rest of your life.

    I took Ron’s advice. I started buying good tools, and even though I didn’t have much, the tools I did have always worked and I took good care of them. Ron took notice. He gave a nod of approval as he walked by my toolbox one day. And the next time I needed to borrow something, Ron volunteered one of his tools for me to use.

    Life lesson: You’ll never appreciate what you have unless you’ve paid for it and taken care of it.

  35. Tom Buskey says:

    Never borrow tools without asking (and accept when they say no). Always be thankful and appreciate it when others let you use their tools.

    When I raced motorcycles, I spent time on setup. Getting it right was like a well worn pair of birkenstocks, conformed to your foot. Using someone else’s bike would let you know if you wanted to get one of your own, but it wouldn’t feel quite right.

  36. Henry Miller says:

    It is a poor craftsman that blames his tools. That is a reflection on the type of tools that a good craftsman owns.

  37. hmokry says:

    Best and the most used tool I have ever had is the free magnetic screwdrivers I use to get from the tool truck.

  38. Stillnapie says:

    Buy the best, only cry once…

  39. Kris says:

    It isn’t duplicitous. The complaint against these tools is the cost. Remove the cost as a barrier and the tool becomes desirable to the “cheapskate”.

  40. Charlotte Burnett says:

    This made me giggle; I’ll freely lend my tools and underwear to my girlfriends – and them to me – but my framing square, not my Moore and Wright, and the cotton supermarket pants and not the expensive stuff that says “hand wash only” on the label.

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