Our Lady of the Shitty Tools

Anybody who’s ever worked with hand tools will recognize what I’m about to say:

You can buy shitty tools.

I mean, there are companies out there who actually make and sell shitty tools. Tools deliberately MADE to break, or perform badly during use.

It’s a price-point thing, of course.

If there’s a set of characteristics of a good, usable Phillips screwdriver – one of which is steel hard enough to resist the concentrated force and torque on the working end of the tool as you press it into a resistant screw – a tool made that way will cost a certain unavoidable amount. Good hard steel costs. And costs still more, unlike soft iron, when you have to machine it into its useful shape. That cost has to be passed on to the buyer.

But for all those people not willing to pay that amount, there are ways to make a cheaper screwdriver. One of those ways is to make it out of softer metal.

Of course we don’t like to think about a tool designer sitting down and deliberately coming up with a tool that will break under pressure. The rationale of these screwdrivers is really that they’ll perform well-enough in the light use some users, say homeowners, will put them to.

But they really are designing them in the full understanding that the thing will break if put under any greater pressure. They’re designing them deliberately so that they will, in certain circumstances, fail.

You bear down on a screw, twist the screwdriver with your full strength, and rather than the screw turning, the end of the screwdriver will burr off, round out. You end up with a screwdriver that will not only not work in the current situation, but in all future situations. A useless screwdriver.

Which, if you put it back into the toolbox, will be like one of those used-up pens dropped into the pen-and-pencil catch-all rather than thrown away, so it will continue to annoy you by coming to your hand and failing to work every time you need a pen.

If you’re not a frequent tool user, I can tell you exactly where to find these tools: Walk into WalMart, or any big hardware store, and stroll around until you find a big “kit” of tools on display, something that has 8 screwdrivers – Phillips and straight-slots and Robertsons! – plus a complete set of tiny jeweler screwdrivers with interchangeable heads, plus 3 sets of pliers of varying sizes, two sizes of vice-grips, three sizes of crescent wrenches, and ooh!, ratchet wrenches with 24 chrome-plated sockets, all made to fit snugly in a beautiful red, pebble-grained, molded-plastic carrying case. Something to make you think “Wow, this is EVERY tool that I, Handy Homeowner, will ever need! And all for just $19.95!”

That’s them. I guarantee you, if you really use those tools, there will come a time when you say “This screwdriver, this pair of pliers, this ratchet, is a piece of shit! What a rip-off! Why did I ever buy this goddam thing!”

The crescent wrenches, for instance, will absolutely not grip the bolt head onto which you’ve applied them. They will automatically loosen every time you try to turn the bolt, so that you’re forced to try to hold the wrench’s adjustment screw in place while simultaneously trying to torque the wrench handle. After fifteen minutes of this, and ripping the shit out of your knuckles a couple of times when the wrench slips off repeatedly, Mother Teresa herself would throw the thing across the room and scream “FUCKFUCKJESUSFUCKINGFUCK!!”

But oh my god, when you first see the whole set in the store, it is sooo seductive. It’s just very hard to believe that something brand new, right in the store display, can be bad. Decades after I learned the Good Tools lesson – which is basically that good tools are expensive, that there’s no way around that fact, and that if you want good last-a-lifetime-and-perform-every-time tools you have to pay the high price – I still occasionally see those beautiful molded-plastic toolkits with all the gleaming sockets, the colorful handles and machined-chrome perfection, and lust after them.

There was a long period of time, some years back, when soft iron was all anybody had, and they made all the tools out of it, and everybody just had to make do. But at some point, someone discovered how to make hardened steel that could take ten times the stress of the soft stuff. After that, it became known that THIS was what you used to make screwdrivers that would never bend or burr, THIS was what you used to make hammers that would never chip or break. THIS was what you used to make close-tolerance crescent wrenches that would never loosen and slip.

At that moment, soft iron tools became obsolete.

It didn’t mean nobody made them anymore, or that nobody bought them. It just meant that they sucked. Compared to the good ones, I mean.

And so we come – yeah, you knew it was gonna happen – to religion.

There was a time when it was all we had, and everybody just made do. But at some point in history (it was a long, stretched-out span of time, actually, but, hey, I’m being poetic here), someone invented Reason, someone discovered Science, this whole other way of approaching the Big Questions of life and the Little Questions of everyday living.

And at that moment, religion – as a source of true answers, anyway – became obsolete.

And at that moment, religion disappeared, right? Ha-ha, good guess, but no – it stuck around like a fart in a submarine.

Instead of it disappearing, people started trying to fine-tune it. Because really, that was the best idea anybody had. People had been fine-tuning religion for thousands of years, when you think about it. When you realize your old religion isn’t giving good answers, you tweak it a bit and see if you can make things better. You kill the old shamans and appoint some new ones. Pull down that big blue rock and invent an omniscient God of Thunder. Or, wait, no, how about a God of the Underworld, who drags everybody but true heroes down into a pit! Oh, yeah! That way, us True Heroes™ will get respect and hot babes and stuff! No-no, what if we appoint one guy the big daddy, somebody infallible – call him the Pop – so that he can tell people all the answers, and, you know, collect money from people so us priests can all live in a big castle and have cheese and wine and little boys waiting on us – wink, wink – hand and foot.

The problem with fine tuning is that, if you start with shit – something that not only doesn’t work but CAN’T work – no amount of fine tuning will turn it into Shinola.

As it turns out, the GOOD tool – the one that returned true answers and useful tools – is Science.

And Religion? Oh, man, if ever there was a product for WalMart customers, this would be it! It comes in a beautiful package – a soaring castle in every city in the world –  and there are these guys dressed in impressive costumes with tall hats and gold sashes, and there are holy virgins, bloody tortured men hanging by nails, and ceremonies where people sing and wave their arms and cut off parts of babies. And it’s all in this one convenient kit. But wait, you also get Eternal Life! In Paradise! With Virgins! And if you order in the next 15 minutes, you also get absolution and forgiveness! NOW how much would you pay?

But … like that cheap crescent wrench you buy at WalMart, you get it down on the bolt head and start turning it, it loosens itself and slips off. No matter how much you adjust it, you can’t get it to hold. You can’t fine-tune religion so that it works.

It turns out that the REAL fine-tuning, the fine-tuning that worked, was when someone peeled out all the stuff that worked, ONLY the stuff that worked, and took it off to the side so they could see what would happen without all the fantastic mystical stuff. That peeled-out stuff ended up being called Science, and whoo-boy, did it ever work well! In a few years, we were flying like birds, bringing people (some of them) back from the dead, talking to people on the other side of the planet, and making screwdrivers with hardened steel rather than iron!

But like that pen that runs out of ink and gets thrown back into the catch-all, most people never really threw out religion. They kept it. Maybe, well, “just in case,” or maybe because “It might be a shitty tool, Earl, but it was my GRAND-DADDY’S shitty tool, and I’m keepin’ it for sentimental reasons.”

It’s still around, as you well know. Maybe it’s just a problem of too-narrow perspective. The fact is, if you buy a brand new tool, you just naturally assume it works, and works well. If there’s nobody there older and wiser to clue you in to just how bad cheap tools can be (like for instance, a history that records crusades and witch-burnings and stuff), and if you’re in an established, reputable store that sells stuff, gleaming new things that come in brightly-colored packages that shout out to you how wonderful they are … given no other information – and especially if there’s also a legion of recruiters and persuasive salesmen who would never, ever tell you that their tools became obsolete several hundreds of years ago – you are absolutely going to buy it.

All the while, though, just a few shelves over, is this other tool: Science. Maybe — to you — not as shiny. Quite a bit more expensive. And MUCH more demanding – you have to read and understand the big book of instructions, for instance.

But then again, it works.

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About Hank Fox
  • Lofty

    And this is why you shout “Jesus” when a shitty tool slips, cos he’s the patron saint of useless tools.

  • PETERFRAN

    Knowledge without wisdom equals stupidity. Atomic power; last century’s greatest scientific achievement, holds the world as hostage. Science and Christianity ain’t the only tools in the box. Moral virtue and ethical behavior have nothing to do with the Pope, while honor and civility are not derived though science.

  • crocswsocks

    Wow. This makes me feel a lot better about my job selling high-quality knives.

    • Artor

      Please don’t say they’re Cutco “high quality” knives.

  • Cuttlefish

    PETERFRAN–

    careful–remember, the soft iron religious tools claim to include wisdom, honor, virtue, ethics, and civility. Of course, the last dozen times I saw the word “honor” in use, it was the word that came before “killing”, and involved archaic religious reasons for killing a family member.

    Meanwhile, the “softer” sciences are studying the behavior of people, individually and in groups, and are making progress. Half the battle appears to be convincing people that the tools they currently have are inadequate.

  • machintelligence

    Great post Hank. It’s worth a long comment, but I’ll split it into two parts, the first on tools.
    Those cheap tool sets (and the cheap tools you can get a Harbor Freight and similar retailers) are not quite as useless as you make them out to be. I gave one set to my daughter to keep in her car, since even a low quality tool (and the sockets are not bad) is better than nothing. I even keep one of those sets in my kitchen for those times when I’m feeling too lazy to go out to the truck or garage.
    I have a rule of thumb about power tools:
    If you need it once a year (or less), rent it (or borrow it from a friend).
    If you need it three or more times a year, buy a cheap one.
    If you will be using it once a month, buy a good one.
    There are some exceptions, of course, safety being the primary one.
    Finally, there are some brand name tools that are clearly superior to the generics. Nobody makes a Channelock or a Vise-grip that is as good as the real thing.

  • northstar

    Hank, I hate to brush past the terrific analogy you are creating, but can you name some names here of the good tool makers you appreciate? Because I am a shitty tool buyer. (Hanging head)
    It is exactly as you say. And as a woman who came of age in a time when girls weren’t trained to use tools I know no better. I enjoy carpentry and last summer my girls and I built outdoor furniture, no men involved as a point of honor. But yes, we had frustrating, shitty tools.
    I am teaching a new generation; can you teach me? Don’t be afraid to shill for manufacturers; I’m listening! (Oh, and good analogy by the way.)

    • Hank Fox

      Gah. It’s been a while since I actually bought any really good tools, and I’ve given away all my old stuff. All I have left is a toolbox with screwdrivers and such.

      Last thing I bought was a Poulan chain saw, and I was extremely unhappy with how hard the damned thing was to start, and to keep running. Ended up giving it away.

      Anyone else want to jump in with some suggestions here?

    • machintelligence

      When it comes to cordless tools I have had DeWalt and Makita. Both are pretty pricey, but will hold up under daily use. I am old school and still prefer the ni-cad batteries to the metal hydride types based on longer life span (about 8 vs 4 years in my case YMMV). The lithium ion batteries seem to be oddly temperature sensitive and lose a lot of capacity when cold. DeWalt also has a nifty cordless/110v shop vacuum and a somewhat larger line of cordless tools. One thing I could not get along without is the car charger that plugs into the cigarette lighter socket, since I work out of my truck so much.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lemonwax Mike L

      Any tool I’ve ever bought from Sears has been pretty damn solid. That’s the closest I come to being an old-school brand loyalist: Craftsman tools and Kenmore appliances.

      BTW, a professional handyman friend of mine calls those Walmart / Harbor Freight-type shitty tools “Father’s Day grade.” Mildly sexist, I know, but they really are perfectly designed to fool the uninformed buyer into picking them up as a gift for their parent or spouse who’s “handy.” “Why buy him one good wrench when I can get this whole kit with the pretty case for the same price?”

    • Hunt

      For power tools, you can’t go wrong with Rigid, Dewalt or Milwaukee. Personally I’m addicted to Rigid ever since I bought a lithium ion tool set with drill, circular saw, flashlight, and reciprocating saw (saws-all). It’s the single greatest tool investment I’ve ever made. You can pretty much go by price, since the market has already determined rankings based on price. My general rule of thumb is the “bottom, then up a couple steps” principle. Find the bottom of the line, then go up a couple levels. The very top of the line stuff is almost always overpriced, you’re wasting money. Bottom of the line is crap and will soon fail on you.

      • machintelligence

        True funny story.
        Years ago Rigid used to print “cheesecake” calendars featuring bikini clad models holding pipe wrenches etc. They stopped when it became politically incorrect, but as a parting shot issued a T shirt with the motto “Someday you’ll wish you had a RIGID tool”.
        I still have mine.

  • Ed J.

    Stick with Craftsman or Stanley…only good piece of advice my old man ever gave me :]

    • Corvus illustris

      My impression is that Stanley isn’t what it was before they shafted their Yankee-craftsman employees in New Britain Ct. and moved their production to Bainland.

    • Pierce R. Butler

      IMHE (in my humble experience), Craftsman hand tools are high-grade (do they still come with a lifetime replacement warranty?) – but their power tools are made by the classic formula: as cheap as possible, and dump the subcontractors every so often just to keep ‘em in line (ask about the warranties, tee-hee-hee).

      (Same goes for the Kenmore line, last I heard: repairs can be very difficult, since the innards are slightly different, sometimes even in the same year’s production run, so parts are a guessing game.)

      Considering the sheer wastage of materials, energy used to make them, etc, really cheap tools and appliances ought to be taxed to the point where they cost more than the durable stuff.

      Regarding chain saws: I’ve asked quite a few pros, and they all insist on either Stihl or Husqvarna.

  • Sastra

    Interesting analogy, on many levels. Comparing religion to a tool in the first place helps to drive home the fact that — whether it’s shitty or effective — people think of it as something used to make life easier. It performs a task. What it’s made out of — whether it’s true or not — isn’t really all that critical. They’re looking at how it works. Particularly, how it works for them.

    Which wouldn’t be much of a problem if they thought of their therapeutic tool AS a therapeutic tool. Instead, they insist on inferring that it must be composed of magic — and that is why it not only works, but works best.

  • TGAP Dad

    My own thought is that those kits of cheap tools are marketed to people who 1) don’t know about tools and 2) are shopping for men who use tools (primarily women). You see these things right up front in the big box stores, perfect for the “gathering” type shopper (vs. “hunting” shopper). The assortment and organized nature of it appeals to that subset as well.

  • northstar

    I’ll admit to the buying of “Father’s Day Tools” and yeah, they have my number with the nice neat cases and variety… but in all fairness, I think they also appeal to that subset of men, more acclimated to cubicle than carpentry, who remember the old man having a lot of tools “like that” and think they probably ought to, as well. Then they blame themselves for being unhandy when the tool screws up… I know a few like that.

    • northstar

      And sorry, Hank, I know you’re trying to make a _point_ here, and I’m going on about the tools! But that was a good point, too!

  • jimthompson

    Mechanic tools — Craftsman, Snap-on, Matco, Cornwell.
    I bought a lot of stuff in pawn shops

    Circular saw — get one with a heavy aluminum base, these will cost over $100 retail, but are more than worth it. I have Porter Cable that is awesome.

    I have big collection of DeWalt 18v tools, they are all awesome, however batteries die every three years as if on a timer.

    Klien side cutters

    Rigid plumbing tools.

    • Pierce R. Butler

      If it weren’t that mechanical-type people are generally not known as spelling-type people, I’d fret that several of the above commenters didn’t know what they were talking about regarding Ridgid tools (which are, indeed, reliable and durable).

    • comfychair

      As a pro auto mechanic for 20 years I never – NEVER – not once, broke a SnapOn or Matco wrench. I have a back corner of one drawer in the toolbox dedicated to broken remnants of Craftsman wrenches.

      I have both Matco and SnapOn ratchets that I bought the first year I started that have been rebuilt more times than I can count.

      Don’t ever buy chrome sockets. They’re chrome so that they’re easier to clean, but the base material is softer, so before long the chrome will flake and peel. Buy the ugly black impact sockets, whenever possible.

      With heavy use the good stuff will wear out, but not break. And that’s OK, especially when it has a lifetime warranty. And when you personally know the dealer, there’s no B.S. about getting it replaced.

      And all that is why I spent fully one-third of my gross income on tools throughout my adult working life.

      p.s. Auto tech is a bad career choice if you like things like ‘earning a living wage’ or ‘having a family’ – well, unless you’re willing to be dishonest with it, in which case you can make really good money.

  • Chuck on Piggott

    I was a carpenter for a long time but after breaking both legs in the same year found a safer job on the ground. I did restorations, lot of log cabins,tricky work. We actually used Vise-grips and 2 x material as scaffolding on standing seam roofs. We bought the real thing.
    I have a Rockwell drill and old worm drive B&D circular saw that I’ve had for 30 years. Worth the money.