Tool Shopping Strategies

For fifty years I’ve been trying out tools of all kinds, mostly being thrifty, outfitting my studio and workshops with equipment, stocking our large household, making stuff as big as houses and as small as electronics, splurging on obscure hobbies, tracking gear for my kid’s enthusiasms, and all the while writing tool reviews. Here’s what I know about buying tools. (This philosophy informs this site.)

Cool Tools recommends four different types of tools:

The best tool made
The highest common quality tool
The cheapest possible tool
The tool you did not know about

The standard advice for a tool-buyer is to always purchase the highest quality tool available because, the argument goes, in the long run you’ll have no regrets and the premium item will pay for itself. That’s not generally true. Purchasing the best possible tool is neither always optimal nor doable.

The Best

It makes sense to buy the best tool available in cases where the tool type is well-proven, has few moving parts, and is general purpose. So when it comes to screwdrivers, hammers, clamps, pens, ladders, stuff like that, go for the best! These tools won’t go out of fashion, they are inherently stable in design, probably won’t wear out, and have multiple uses. Might as well get the best. For these I am happy to spend money on a few good ones.

It also makes sense to buy the best when you know what the best is. If you are using a tool every day, or even every week, or your income requires the tool, you’ll educate yourself on what capabilities are essential, and you’ll eventually require dependability. In these cases you will want to have the best possible model.

But most tools these days are not stable in design, they have many moving parts, they are not income related, and are more specialized. In these cases I have found it best to grow into quality.

The Highest Common

To grow into quality my advice is to buy the “highest common denominator” tool at first. This is the cheapest decent quality version. It’s about the quality you can find at Costco. It is not the rock bottom cheapest, but a mid-range that will allow you to use the tool long enough to decide whether you need to graduate to a higher quality.

Often — in fact very often — this mid-level highest common denominator quality is sufficient for occasional use. If you are not sewing every week, a Costco-level sewing machine is good enough. Ditto for the occasional use battery charger, or camp lantern; all you need is good enough. When you find yourself sewing more, camping more, woodworking more, then you can step up to the premium.

However, at Cool Tools we don’t review a lot of tools in this category because this kind of quality needs no recommendation. For the average tool there is a very simple formula: the more money you spend the better quality. This can be summarized in this graph. Each dot is a model with a different price and quality point.

Tools Costs

Durability, usability, the number of features, etc. increase as the costs increases. It’s an even slope; no one brand or model of that tool usually stands out. For instance, right now cordless power drills follow this line. At the bottom you get a simple model for cheap; at the top you get a premium model for dear. Because every drill falls on this line, with no drill uncommonly better for the price, there is no reason to highlight one particular cordless drill in this bookXXX. Most tools are like this. No one model stands heads above the other; you merely get what you pay for. (Any jumping off the line are a great deal.) Just follow the price to get either the best, or the bargain — or head to a place with a limited selection of highest common stuff like Costco and shop there. However, Costco has a very narrow range of things they are selling at any one time so you’ll need to rely on reviews hereXXX.

The Cheapest Possible

There are at least 5 perfectly good reasons to buy the rock bottomest cheapo tool that will actually work:

1) You just want to try it out, have no idea whether you’ll use it more than once and can’t find a way to borrow or rent one (see Tool Lending Library).
2) It’s all you can afford.
3) It’ll be used by a community, or kids, or in settings where its care cannot be guaranteed.
4) You want to modify or enhance it.
5) It’s in a fast moving field with high obsolescence

This last reason is important, and one of the best arguments against paying a lot for the very best tools. In highly technologically-driven fields, the “best” can be bettered every 3 months by new models and revolutionary innovations. For instance the best camera or laptop today will be second best in a few months. In two years, you might have trouble selling it. As a tool category becomes more innovative, rates of obsolescence increase. It makes more sense to aim for the low end — unless your job depends on it.

I think of aiming for the low end in a fast changing line of gear as Time-Shifting Value Strategy. Here’s how this strategy works. Let’s say I am buying a low-end orbital sander or super light tent. While that cheap sander or tent is many times inferior to the best model today, it is at least as good as the best model from 10 years ago. In other words, for the same cheap price I can buy the top of the line model from yesteryear. That’s a bargain! All those cool features the magazines were drooling over before are now in my hands. I just pretend I am working in 2002! A simple mind-switch and now I am dazzled by what the cheapo tool taken from the future can do. Another way of thinking about this is that instead of considering tools to be a line of varying quality with ascending prices — $50, $75, $100 — think of them as being top-of-the-line models with ascending dates — 2002, 2007, 2012. Just pick a date you want to work in.

Note this caveat: Cheap comes in two flavors. There is a bad kind of cheap which means the tool does not do its intended job, or that it fails quickly. Its failure is subjective, but all too real. This kind of cheap tool does no one any good. I urge you to avoid them. But the good kind of cheap is a sturdy tool that provides only basic functions. It may be a bit slower, or heavier to hold, or it may lack many refinements — but it works okay for at least a sensible number of times. This is the kind of cheap tool worth considering. To distinguish between the two kinds of cheapness you’ll need some reviews (see below).

The Tool You Did Not Know About

The coolest tools here are those tools that are relatively unknown. The tool may be familiar to experts, or only used in a specialized field. Like, a tool for sailmakers, or for opening watchcases. Or it may be so unique that it has no competitors (I’m thinking of the Griphoist hand winch). Or it may be so full of features that it falls off the standard price/benefits line for competing tools. The cost of these tools is not as important as the fact that they exist. They are often the only things that will do the job well. Many of these are the types of tools you don’t need to buy ever — but just knowing they exist is a power that can steer you to other tools, or even other achievements, projects, and designs.

Like most areas of our life today this state is subject to churn. The tool no one knows about this year may become the cliche only a year later. When I started Cool Tools 13 years ago Garmin automobile GPS, Proton pocket LED lights, and Netflix were novelties, one-of-a-kind gems; now they don’t need to be mentioned because they are one of many. In only a few years many of the unique tools reviewed here now will become the norm. Assume the half-life of any innovation is about 5 years.

Reviews

To discern between good cheap and bad cheap, you need reviews. Once I hone in on a potential tool, I spend a lot of time checking out the reviews on both Amazon and other retailers, as well as the enthusiasts’ blogs. The enthusiast blogs and forums will have very detailed dissections, but I often find them too obsessive and lost in the details. In a sense they know too much. But occasionally you can find a roundup review that will point out what is best. (For a suggestion of some enthusiast review blogs see Review of Review Sites.) At the other extreme the reviews on Amazon often don’t know enough. Few reviewers have any experience with competing models or brands, or previous incarnations and older models. They gush over what they just bought, and are impressed by anything that works. Studies have shown reviewers have an uncritical bias to 5-star reviews. These 5-stars are useful only when their sum outpaces, or overhangs, the normal distribution curve, indicating something out of the ordinary. If there are as many 1- and 2-stars as 4- and 5s, that is a no-go.

Ratings graph

The Acquisition Sequence

In summary, here’s my checklist for buying tools:

I like to borrow, or rent a tool first, or to at least see it in action with my own eyes. That gives me some idea of what the tool wants. Is it forgiving, delicate, fussy, or idiot-proof? Sometimes having it accessible for rent or borrow is all I need.

If renting or borrowing is not practical, I’ll consider purchasing either a cheap one or a mid-level highest common version. This is a hard decision to make and depends on a complicated equation that entails predicting how often I’ll use it, how robust it is, and how fast it will become obsolete. Usually my answer is the cheapest good one; occasionally the highest common one is better.

In those cases where I pursue a craft, I’ll check out the premium tools, and upgrade if the improvements seem substantial. Occasionally I’ll go right to the best if it is a tool that is general purpose, or stable in design, and will last a lifetime. I confess I don’t have many of these, but of the few ultimate tools I do own, they bring me great joy.

-- KK