Highland Woodworking Wood News Online, No. 155, July 2018Welcome to Highland Woodworking - Fine Tools & Education Learn more about Highland Woodworking View our current woodworking classes and seminars Woodworking articles and solutions Subscribe to Wood News
The Down to Earth Woodworker
By Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

This Month's Column:

• Disposable Tools
The Language of Woodworking
Hiring It Out
Mystery Solved!

Disposable Tools

Last year I had new gutters installed on my house. The two guys did the installation in about seven hours. Fact is, the company owner measured everything the day before, and when he and his helper came to the house the next morning, all the gutter pieces were already formed, cut to length, and ready to go. The only thing they fabricated on site were the downspouts.

They set up a chop saw on the ground in the driveway and cut the downspout parts there. I noticed the chop saw was from that big store that is likely best known to woodworkers as a purveyor of off-brand/store-brand air compressors and dust collectors. You know the store. Their web site says they have 850 locations, so there is probably one near you. No one buys anything there unless they have the ever-available 20% off coupon.

I asked the owner of the gutter company how his chop saw worked for him, and his answer surprised me… but just a little. He said, "Oh, I buy those things two at a time… they last me a few months then burn out, so I just replace it with another one. They are really cheap, and spending money on a better saw is such a waste."

Well, it seemed inappropriate at the time to question the guy's math skills, especially since he hadn't finished the job yet, and I had yet to pay him, so I held my tongue… but, really? Can it be financially advantageous to buy "disposable tools?"

Well, I guess so, in some instances. When building my barn, I hired professionals to pour and dress the concrete slab, but I still mixed a fair bit of concrete myself. I used copious amounts of concrete to set all the posts, and after the main barn pad was poured, I built forms and poured a small 8 foot wide and 4 foot long "ramp" where I would be driving my tractor into the barn. Comparing the price of renting a cement mixer, it turned out I could buy one at the aforementioned discount tool store for just a few dollars more than renting one for a week. With my luck, it probably would have rained all week, and then I would be renting it again! Well, it worked out pretty much as I had envisioned. Had I rented the thing, I would have probably paid for four weeks of rentals and gotten about four days of honest work out of the machine.

Figure 1 - My "disposable" tool...cheaper to buy than rent, and I
may be able to recover a portion of the purchase price when I sell it
I'm done with it now, and it still works. The motor sounds like it is struggling, possibly about to go out any minute and even when the mixing barrel is empty the unit shakes and rattles like an out-of-balance washing machine. The arm that tilts the bucket over to dump the mixed concrete won't stay in place without a bit of coercion. But, all in all, it worked out for me. When it is finally warm enough here to spend time outside with a prospective buyer, I will put it up for sale for whatever I can get. Financially, this "disposable tool" made sense, even though I will never quite forget the absolute torture of trying to figure out how to assemble the thing with faulty directions and an inaccurate bag of fasteners, many of which were missing or the wrong size. Whatever I manage to sell it for, the buyer is getting a bargain simply due to it already being assembled.

In the case of the cement mixer, a "disposable tool" made sense, but it didn't make sense to use that other 20% off coupon that was burning a hole in my pocket to buy a torque wrench. You see, I might not use a torque wrench but two or three times a year, but I intended to use it for a lot of years. But the torque wrench I bought from the discount tool outlet was a mistake. It was inaccurate, uncomfortable to use, and broke the third time I tried to use it. It was unfortunately past the time window for a return, so I tossed it in the garbage and bought a good one somewhere else. Wasted money, time, gasoline… tsk, tsk. This was not intended to be a "disposable tool."

Recently I needed a coiled hose for a little portable battery-operated air compressor I use in the shop to power my 23-gauge pinner. You may have heard that compressor running in the background of some of my videos… noisy little critter, but handy as all get out. I found a replacement coiled hose at a discount big-box store, bought it, and it worked just fine for exactly one-half of one hour, then started leaking. The leak was caused by a crack in the hose near one of the fittings. I cut the hose back of the crack, attached a new fitting, and it now works fine. If I add up my time at a generous, oh say, three bucks an hour and the cost of the new fitting, plus the original cost of the thing, I spent only about a buck-sixty more than I would have spent buying a name brand product from another retailer. Pretty good deal, I suppose. Ha!

There are, in our world, disposable tools, tools made for reasonably long "consumer-duty" life and tools made for reasonably long "pro-duty" life. And there are, of course, tools made to last virtually forever. Your personal best buy will depend in large part on how much you intend to use the tool, whether you are a hobbyist or a professional, whether or not your livelihood depends on being able to work every day without interruption, if perhaps you wish to "pass down" your tools, or if perhaps, for you, periodically replacing a tool in order to take advantage of new features is desirable. I guess there are no hard and fast rules. But don't forget the option of buying a "disposable" tool instead of renting if the numbers make sense.

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Steven Johnson is 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 sjohnson@downtoearthwoodworking.com

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