It seems as though we humans are fiercely loyal beings by nature. We defend those we love to the death, we root for our favorite sports teams with an extreme passion, and many of us even “pull” for a product or brand name to the point of heated discussions. I’m guilty of the “essence” of all of the above at some point. Somehow it’s just more comforting when we feel like we’re getting something special from those Goodyear tires, Purdue chickens, Bose speakers, John Deere tractors, or Porter Cable routers, but is that comfort based on fact or fairy tale? What do we really get in return for our brand name loyalty? What really shapes our opinions in the first place? Ask yourself honestly… is it really the superior quality of your favorite brand, or are there other factors that influence our views? In this day and age of huge corporate buyouts and mergers, the “name game” is more complex than ever, changes rapidly, and the reality may very well be that our brand allegiance is misguided and detrimental to our pursuit of owning the best of anything at a given price point. No single tool manufacturer makes the best of every type of tool, and even the less respected names may offer some tools that are surprisingly suitable.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Toro lawn mowers, and I know why…my Grandfather was a Toro fan, and he sang their praises every time a lawn mower was mentioned. Being that my Grandfather was one of my boyhood heroes, it’s understandable that I also had a fondness for Toro mowers, whether Toro earned it or not. As a woodworking green horn, I was as loyal about my tool acquisitions as any one. What we think is “good”, is really relative to what we’ve been exposed to and what’s worked for us.
My first significant tool acquisitions were a Craftsman router, Delta 36-600 compact table saw, Grizzly 6” jointer, and Grizzly 2hp dust collector. My first trip to Grizzly in Muncy, PA was a road trip to one of their famous tent sales. I made the 3 hour trip from Rochester with my best friend, and it took us on a scenic drive through the southern tier of NY, and into northern PA. It was a beautiful crisp morning with blue skies, and we were riding in a big shiny diesel Dodge “dualie” pickup truck that was just made to be driven into a parking lot filled with envious tool junkies. It was the ultimate tool chariot! The whole trip was perfect. Grizzly is “tool Mecca”, we ate at restaurants, bought tools, laughed, smiled, and just had a great time from beginning to end. How could I possibly come away with anything but a deep fondness for Grizzly tools that day? 9 years later I can say with reasonable objectivity that both of those Grizzly tools were good purchases for my uses, and both are still serving me well. But 9 years ago, I was likely to be adamant about the quality of my first router and TS, both of which I will now admit were mere “stepping stones” to better things. As I’ve gained experience with a variety of hobbyist caliber tools, and have now owned many brand names, I think I’ve become more objective about what makes a “good” tool. With experience, I’ve become less prone to wanting to believe a tool is good because I recognize the name, and more adept at identifying advantages of one tool over another. I look more to design differences, construction, features, capacity, and/or value, among other things. I now view the brand name as more of a simple name tag on the front of the tool than anything else. No doubt some brands offer a better line up than others, but that doesn’t mean that a particular brand will always offer the better tool.
Case in point – My first table saw was a Delta 36-600 cast iron compact saw with a leg stand that resembled a contractor saw. Being that my saw carried the same logo as the venerable Unisaw certainly meant that Delta was a well regarded brand in table saws, right?! Telling people that I owned a cast iron Delta saw commanded some respect. In hindsight, that resemblance was only skin deep. The 36-600 was physically smaller than a standard full size contractor saw, and weighed in at only 150#...a full 100# lighter than most contractor saws. My Delta also had a loud universal motor driven by a tiny cog belt that didn’t offer the smoothness, torque, or reliability of an induction motor with a true belt drive. It had lightweight steel wings, and also didn’t have much of a fence. Even though it was making the cuts I needed, after two years of use I realized that my Delta was too small, too light, too loud, too unreliable, and possibly not accurate enough for a lifetime of good service for a serious woodworker. I have fond memories of owning it regardless of it’s shortcomings. In this case, the flaws of this particular Delta were more of a reflection of this style of saw and it’s intended market than on the core quality of all Delta tools. The Delta was upgraded to a larger full size General International 50-185 contractor saw that weighed twice as much as my 36-600, had a larger cast iron surface, an excellent fence, and more power. For a couple of years I touted all things “GI” as being excellent tools, and I loved that saw even more than my smaller Delta. In time I realized that the traditional design of the GI contractor saw suffered the same draw backs as all traditional contractor saws…the outboard motor took up extra space, required a longer drive belt, created a lifting hazard when tilted, was hard to align, and made DC a challenge from the start. I also realized that Jet, Grizzly, Shop Fox, Bridgewood, Powermatic, Delta, Woodtek, King Industrial, Ridgid, and other contractor saws weren’t so different than my GI, even though I could argue otherwise! About the time I was gaining an awareness of the “obstacles” that my much loved GI contractor saw posed, a number of hybrid saws hit the market that addressed most of those concerns. Jet, GI, Delta, DeWalt, and Craftsman all had strong early entries in this market. The same friend who I had made the historic Grizzly trip with, bought a new Craftsman 22124 hybrid. I was well aware at the time that the Craftsman name didn’t command the same respect on the woodworking forums as Delta or GI, but I really liked what his new saw offered. I did some research and discovered that the 22124 was actually made by Orion International, which is a subsidiary of Steel City. A terrific sales event put the 22124 in my shop for only $80 more than I could sell my GI 50-185 for. A fair amount of flack from my fellow cyber woodworkers ensued when news about my downgrade to a “Crapsman” table saw got out. In spite of negative peer pressure, it was hard not to smile every time I fired up that new saw though….it weighed 425#, was noticeably more stable than my GI, and ran like a top. It had a terrific Biesemeyer Commercial fence, no motor hanging out the back, good dust collection, cabinet mounted trunnions for easy alignment, 44” of cast iron surface, and a better drive system than my GI. That alleged “downgrade” addressed all the issues of a standard contractor saw, and offered several of the advantages of a cabinet saw. Equipped with a good sharp thin kerf blade, there was nothing that the 22124 couldn’t chomp through with accuracy and relative ease. It was a terrific saw for a hobbyist, and it served me well for 3-1/2 years….I was convinced that the 22124 was all the saw I’d ever really need, but an incredible deal on a Shop Fox W1677 3hp cabinet saw convinced me to make the next move to an industrial grade saw. The Shop Fox is simply a more substantial and heavier duty saw with more power than any of the other saws I owned, and is intended more for an industrial market. While the Shop Fox has my previously loved saws well covered in every performance category, somehow the emotional attachment to my new saw isn’t quite as strong as it once was with the others. Knowledge, awareness, and experience have replaced the ignorant exuberance of owning my previous new saws. While I have a great deal of respect for this saw’s capability, and appreciate the excellent customer service I’ve received from Shop Fox, I also realize that Grizzly, Jet, Rikon, Steel City, GI, Baleigh, Laguna, and others all offer saws that are in the same league as my Shop Fox, and that with good setup and blade selection, they’ll all offer similar end performance. It’s the tool that makes the difference, not the name plate.
Sadly, the vast majority of consumer grade tools are now made overseas. Very few are made in our hometowns anymore. There are more alliances between companies and manufacturers, and more similarities between brand names than ever before. Did you know that Black & Decker owned Delta, Porter Cable, Oldham, DeWalt, and Devilbiss up until recently, when Stanley Tools acquired them? Did you know that TTI owns Milwaukee and Ryobi, plus makes many of the Ridgid tools? Or that Craftsman once offered a router that was virtually a red version of the Bosch 1617? Bosch owns Skil and the Italian made Freud bit and blade business, and Freud no longer manufactures the current Chinese made Avanti saw blades sold at Home Depot. Infinity Cutting Tools is owned by David Venditto, the son of the former owner of Jesada saw blades and router bits, Carlo Venditto. Grizzly and Shop Fox are both owned by Shiraz Balolia…some of the tools are nearly identical, but some are unique to their brand. Grizzly is mail order only, while Shop Fox has a dealer network. General and General International are both owned by the same Canadian family, but are separate lines….the General line is still made in Canada, while the GI line is made primarily in Taiwan. The Powermatic PM64a contractor saw is made in Asia and has a great deal in common with the GI 50-185, Grizzly G0576, former Jet, former Woodtek, and former Bridgewood contractor saws. Many tools are forged and finished in the same factories….not all are exactly identical, but many are far more similar than we’d like to admit, often with significantly different retail prices, depending on the retail circumstances, warranty, and business model of the company.
Examples of mergers and alliances abound, and the list above is merely the tip of iceberg. It changes fast, and gives even more reason to question your brand name allegiances. Some brands cater to one specific segment of the market, while others encompass a much broader range. It’s important to differentiate the entry level type tools from the true professional grade, and not dismiss the brand because they also offer a lesser grade tool. There’s also often little correlation between the quality of tools within a brand name…they’re often designed by different design teams who are under the influence of different management teams who each have different corporate objectives. It’s better to evaluate each tool on its own merits, and consider giving the brand name a less important role than in the past. Find out where a tool is made and who makes it if possible. Check the design, features, construction, capacities, retail circumstances, warranty, and total price… then compare it with other similar tools. It’s important to be comfortable with your decision, both emotionally and physically. If two tools are very close, go with the one that feels best to you, or that you like better for whatever reason. If one tool is less expensive than another, but offers similar features and quality, find out if it offers a dealer network or is mail order. Everyone’s situation and preferences are different, so it’s important to acknowledge what’s important to you. In the end, do the homework and make the name brands earn your loyalty every time you purchase. You’ll end up with a shop full of tools that you love because they’re suitable for what you do, and represent the best you could get for a given budget.
-- Happiness is like wetting your pants...everyone can see it, but only you can feel the warmth....