Justifying Your New Tool Purchase

by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

Swords flashed in the sunlight, the brilliant metal clanging against other metal, sometimes making a dull, more ominous sound. Screams of anguish in two languages filled the air as soldiers fell. Deafening explosions, the blare of trumpets, flags waved, and commanders on either side vied for tactical advantage. For what seemed an eternity, neither side seemed to make progress. Then, a sudden, almost eerie quiet settled over the battlefield. For the first time, the uninjured could feel the breeze. The battle was over. As the smoke cleared, the needs of the wounded were tended and the victors stood respectfully surveying the field of death and destruction and wondered, "Why?" while the leaders on either side planned the next battle. There was a victor in the battle, and a loser, but the war raged on.

woodworking tools

The incomprehensible language of accountants. This formula can be used to calculate annual labor costs or savings. Justifying a new tool purchase can be a lot easier than this!

Throughout my career, that battle scene played out too many times to count. When manufacturing, distribution, or marketing wanted to buy something, the accounting department fought them like the Huns in the foothills of the Alps. In our boardroom battles the swords were dueling spreadsheets and the incomprehensible screaming was the lingua franca of finance. Terms like "ROI (return on investment), IRR (internal rate of return), NPV (net present value of cash flow), PW (present worth), AW (annual worth), and MACRS (Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System) spewed from the accountant's mouths. And equally indecipherable to the accountants, cries of Productivity, Cost Reduction, Safety, Quality, and Efficiency roared from the soldiers of manufacturing. The fallen soldiers in these battles were the middle management "grunts," each, in the inimitable words of George Patton, trying to make the other poor slob die for his country (or business unit).

woodworking tools

You won't need piles of spreadsheets and reams of data to justify buying a new tool. Just follow my easy suggestions.

In order to buy anything of significance (translation: new tools), you must first justify the purchase. To whom you must justify the purchase is the enemy. Every purchase is a battle. You want to buy, and they want to stop you. You may never win the war, but if you win enough battles you will eventually obtain your dream shop! If you intend to win your fair share of these battles, you need a good plan. First, you must know your adversary. Is it your accountant, your boss, or like most of us hobbyists, is it your spouse? (Your adversary might even be your own conscience, your own sense of frugality — yikes!) What are your adversary's strengths and weaknesses? What are they fighting for? Like any commander, you must outthink, outwit, and outmaneuver your foe. You must train, prepare, practice, then attack your enemy with surprise, swiftness, cunning, bravery, and, if possible, overwhelming force.

To justify the purchase of a new tool, you need every tactical advantage possible, and that is exactly what this article is intended to provide.

Justifying for Commercial Shops
If you are a commercial shop owner or employee, I am not going to spend time on conventional capital cost justification. There are literally hundreds of books and thousands of resources on the internet that will help you build a business case for capital expenditures. One of these may even define the "alternative use of funds" calculation, although I have to admit, after twenty-five years in corporate America, I am still a little fuzzy on that one. I always assumed "alternative use" meant that instead of spending money on something that would benefit the company, its employees, or its customers, the "alternative" was to give the money to shareholders as a dividend or to the CEO as a bonus. Some alternative use of funds!

At its simplest, for you commercial woodworkers, cost justification is the process of calculating the return on a potential investment. If the return is greater than the cost of the tool, you should probably buy it. Measure the projected savings, and compare that to the cost.

If Billy turns out 20 table legs a day with properly hand-cut mortises, and can turn out 50 a day with a new mortising machine, it is pretty simple to calculate Billy's salary cost, divide by the number of legs he does each day, then compare that "cost per leg" after the proposed new machine is installed. Then compare that cost savings over some fixed period of time to the cost of the machine, and your cost justification is done. Of course, you will have to figure out what to do with Billy and all that extra time (that would be the "alternative use of Billy" calculation). Conventional cost justifications are pretty cut and dried affairs. Either the numbers work, or they do not. Anything much fancier, and you are getting into the arcane arena of accountant-speak, and I will refer you, again, to the countless books and internet resources available.

Justifying for the Hobbyist Shop
This article, instead, will focus on the hobbyist. The part-time woodworker who needs to make the crucial justification case for a new tool acquisition to that most cunning, guileful, and formidable of all enemies is the target audience for this article. And who is that tool-buying enemy? Your spouse, of course! You want to buy, and your significant other wants to stop you.

The first step in building a justification, or business case, for a new tool is to decide the most appropriate direction from which to wage your battle and the techniques you will employ to successfully win the justification argument. Should it be a flanking move, a full frontal assault, or should you parachute in during the night and make a surprise attack? Would espionage provide an edge? Will psychological warfare work? Are there historic battlefield lessons from which we can learn? Like fighter pilots after each mission, every "debrief" helps shape future battles. You are about to get the ultimate "debrief" from a battle-scarred and experienced tool buyer. I am positive there is a cool new tool you really need and with the right justification, you can get it!

Full Frontal Assault
For most woodworkers, the full frontal assault rarely ends well. "Honey I need a new table saw" lacks subtlety, finesse, and, for most of us, even a modicum of surprise. If you haven't bought a new tool in ten years, there might be some small element of surprise, but who among us "tool junkies" can say that? The likely spousal counterattack to a frontal assault will be "No you don't," "Don't even think about it," or my personal favorite, "Is that all you ever think about, 'buying new tools'?"

The full frontal assault on the modern purchase-justification battlefield is roughly akin to armies of soldiers marching into an open field, bending to one knee, and shooting their muzzle-loaders at one another. This approach has been replaced by far more sophisticated and cunning warfare.

Modified Full Frontal Assault
Some people have tried the "modified" full frontal assault. They beg their spouse to accompany them to the woodworking store or to a woodworking show, then when the time is "right" (a judgment call, usually made in error) they say, "Wow, isn't that a great table saw — I wish I could get a new saw like that." This is also a losing gambit. Expect responses like "I knew there was a reason you dragged me to this place," or "Forget it — and don't ever ask me to go tool shopping with you again." Okay, admittedly, there may be some small victory in this gambit, but I digress.

Surprise attacks also rarely produce the desired results. These types of "justification" attacks usually fall into one of two sub-categories: behind-the-lines infiltration and espionage/sabotage.

Behind-the-lines Infiltration
If you parachute into hostile territory in the dark of night, you still must eventually face the enemy, only now with a real element of surprise. So, in reality, the behind-the-lines approach is really just a pre-emptive frontal attack, but with some subterfuge. For example, "You know honey, I've been working really hard and the only relief for my stress is in my shop. They are having an unbelievable sale on table saws, so I ordered one. But before you get upset, I already have a buyer for my old saw, and when you deduct that from the price of this one on sale, it practically cost nothing."

Like any nighttime stealth attack, the killing will be silent... only it will be you getting killed and the silence will be surrounding your spouse like an impenetrable shield. You know, all too well, that deadly silence means, "Just wait, I will remember this, and someday I am going to bring it up, at the worst possible time, and your life will never be pleasant again." If you just felt a shiver in your spine, it is because you have tried this, or some variant, and you know. You just know.

A friend tried what I initially thought was a novel and creative twist on this approach. He ran an advertisement in the local paper. "Tools for sale!" the headline screamed, and in the small print he wrote, "Buyer must purchase all items, no individual sales." On the day of the sale, dozens of woodworkers were on his doorstep, anxious to see his workshop. Of course, he had no intention of selling all his tools, but when his wife asked what was going on, he said "Oh, you know, I'm just not satisfied with my table saw. It's sloppy, noisy, and dangerous, but I really can't afford to get a new one, so I'm just going to give up the hobby." Then, with a sniffle and a dab at the corner of his eye, in a performance to rival anything Hollywood could turn out, he added, "I am really going to miss working in my shop, though."

The sympathy card, played to perfection. It was stealthy, sneaky, and brilliantly conceived and executed. But his enemy was no fresh recruit straight out of boot camp. Many purchasing justifications have been presented to this battle-hardened warrior-spouse who simply replied, "It's probably best. Anyway, you will have more time to spend in the garden."

Undeterred, my friend did not give up. The next day, all tools still in the shop, he tried one last stealth maneuver. "No one would offer me an acceptable price. I guess all my tools really are junk."

To which his all-too-astute spouse said, "I tried to get you not to buy all those tools in the first place." Battle over. Call in the medics.

As much as I hate to admit it, tired of the corporate world and the constant battle to make a business case for everything from new robotic machinery to new delivery trucks, in my private life I tried the other sub-category of surprise attack to satisfy my hobbyist cravings for a new tool — pure espionage. I took a tool purchase deep undercover. With a separate credit card not shared by my spouse, and with money I made (recovered) from selling unused tools and other paraphernalia, I ordered a much-coveted machine. I arranged for the delivery to be made while my spouse was at work.

When the freight line called to arrange delivery, I had my cell phone on "silent" and only returned their call out of earshot. It was a masterful plan. The delivery came at noon. By mid-afternoon I had the wooden pallet broken into component parts and hidden amongst other scrap lumber. The shipping containers were broken down and in the trash and my timing was perfect. The trash would be collected the next morning. I rearranged some of the stationary tools in my shop, so the new machine was partially hidden. All my equipment stays covered when not in use, so it blended in. I came in and out of the door several times, just to observe whether or not the new machine would be obvious to the casual (disinterested) observer. Last, I arranged myself in what appeared to be a productive pose, working in the front garden, when she got home from work. My plan was to engage her in witty conversation while helping her carry her briefcase and laptop into the house. It was a perfect plan.

And so it went. After an hour, all seemed well, and I was beginning to feel that my covert cover was intact and my attack was successful. Just as I was lifting a forkful of something into my mouth, my spouse said, "So-o-o... what is that new piece of equipment in the garage, and how much did that cost?" I consider myself lucky that spies are no longer shot, and liars are sometimes forgiven.

With trickery, espionage, behind-the-lines stealth attacks, and full frontal assaults ruled out, the only path left to obtain victory in the spousal tool justification war is the battle-tested "flanking maneuver."

"Bump into the Enemy"
George Patton wrote that any battle consists of "...moving down the road until you bump into the enemy ... When you have bumped, hold him at the point of contact with fire with about a third of your command. Move the rest in a wide envelopment so you can attack him from his rear flank."

In practical, non-military terms, the "bump," the sustained engagement, and the flanking maneuver in the quest for a new tool should be carefully planned and executed. Follow along as I tell you my plan for "justifying" a new table saw.

First, be cool. Wait for the perfect opportunity. Patience is a virtue. Read a lot, and quit whining about some tool you need. The change in your demeanor will be detected, and sooner or later, your spouse or significant other will feel compelled to ask, "What are you reading?"

To which you reply, "Oh, just reading about how the government is now requiring that riving knives be built into every table saw sold in the U.S."

If you are incredibly lucky, your spouse might ask "What is a riving knife?" But don't count on it. More likely, you will get a disinterested "Oh." Now here is the really critical part. Do not respond or pursue it. Let it go. You have planted a very small seed, and you must nurture it carefully. It could be days, or even weeks later (but who cares, you are going to get a new table saw!) until there will be another opportunity to discuss table saws or riving knives. Wait. Don't push it!

When you sit to read now, it is imperative that it be only an intensive and studious review of catalogs. Pile all the catalogs up, as if you are searching for something you cannot find. Study them, knit your brow, and look serious (get that smirk off, and wipe up the saliva that normally appears when you look at tool catalogs).

Sooner or later, your significant other will take the bait, and with an air of incredulity and exasperation will inquire, "You're not shopping for another tool are you?"

This is another critical moment. "No, I'm just trying to see if anyone makes a riving knife retrofit for my table saw."

And if the sun, the moon, and the stars are all aligned properly, your spouse will ask, "What is it about this riving knife thing that is so important?"

You must be casual, nonchalant here. "Oh, I almost had an accident the other day, and the riving knife would have prevented it."

"What kind of accident?"

"Well, when wood goes through the saw, it has a tendency to get caught on the back side of the blade and it tries to kick the whole board back at you... at about a hundred miles an hour. The riving knife helps keep that from happening."

It is essential that you stop talking. Now. As Patton said, you have "bumped" the enemy. Now you have to send part of your force around, in a flanking maneuver. Be steely, be strong, and shut up. Talking any more about this subject will tip your hand, and like a bloodhound on the scent, it will be obvious to your spouse that you are "up to something."

Wait a few days. Two weeks or more would be excellent. Do not give in to the temptation and ruin your battle plan with impatience. After all, you are going to get a new table saw! When the appropriate waiting period has elapsed, and you know your spouse is going to be gone for a while, it is time to put the flanking maneuver into play.

The Flanking Maneuver

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You've got to really sell it! Note the bent brush handle and the displaced screwdriver and brush. A few tools fallen to the floor would add to the effect.

This phase will require two pieces of wood, a little creativity, and your best acting skills. First, place a piece of wood on the floor, behind the saw (or leave one that is already there). Sprinkle some sawdust around (or leave what is already there). Now for the creative part - imbed a piece of wood in the wall, directly behind your table saw. Some well-placed splinters, some broken drywall, and even some scattered bits of insulation will add to the effect.

It's dress rehearsal time. Change into a tee shirt. Spread some sawdust and maybe a little glue on the front (or leave what is already there). Grab an ice pack, a towel, and the aspirin bottle and put these items on a table next to the couch.

When your spouse arrives home, you should be lying on the couch with the ice pack on your shoulder. Wearing the tee shirt is a nice touch so that in the midst of panic and worry, you can gingerly pull one shoulder of the shirt down to let your spouse see your "injury." Don't worry, it will look like a real injury — the ice pack will make your shoulder turn red (or blue if it is really cold).

"How did this happen?" Listen for genuine concern in your spouse's voice. If you hear it, you are ready to launch the final assault.

"Oh, it was stupid. I was cutting a piece of wood and the stupid saw grabbed it and it kicked back. One piece slammed into my shoulder, the other piece went into the wall. Did you see the wall?"

"Oh my gosh, I don't care about the wall! Are you okay?"

"Yeah, it's just a bruise. I'm just glad it missed my face."

Your spouse will fuss over you a bit more. You may have to endure a few admonitions about being more careful. You may even have to listen to things like "That shop of yours is just too dangerous!" But don't worry. Resistance is futile. Your spouse will be utterly compelled to sneak a peek at the damaged wall. And when they see that board sticking out of the wall... well... game, set, match.

Congratulations. You have now won the justification battle. You are going to get a brand-spanking-new table saw! No "net present value" calculations needed, no arcane "alternative use of funds" analyses done. All you needed was a good battle plan, a well thought out flanking maneuver, some creative "set decorations" and a little acting skill. And other than a damaged wall and a cold shoulder, it cost you nothing.

Time to Share
What methods have you successfully used to "justify" a tool purchase? What have you tried that did not work? Let me know. If we can keep this a secret from prying spouse eyes, we may just be able to build a database of tool justification wisdom for all woodworkers to share.

One Last Note
Kickback is not humorous. If you have never experienced kickback, count yourself among the fortunate and lucky. Always use all the safety accessories supplied with your equipment, exercise great caution, think through every operation, and read everything you can about shop safety. If safety is your justification for a tool purchase, it should be for "proactive" reasons, not "reactive" reasons.

Steven Johnson is recently retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life).

Steven can be reached directly via email at sjohnson13@mac.com .

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