Buying tools from grocery and dollar stores is similar to purchasing musical instruments from Wal-Mart and expecting professional results. Cheap tools are a waste of your hard-earned greenbacks and will likely end up in a landfill after a couple of uses. You’d be better off investing in Lotto 6/49 tickets. At least that way, you’d have a one-in-13 million chance of realizing a return on your investment.
I feel justified in making bold statements about cheap stuff because, like many DIYers, I too have been sucked into the frustrating black hole of wasteful purchases. Therefore, to prevent others from going where many others have gone before, I have compiled a list of tools that should never be bought; that is, if you wish to remain at peace with yourself and to retain you DIYer integrity. The list was mainly assembled by examining the contents of my brother-in-law’s toolbox, and by keeping an inventory of the worthless tools I have used and quickly trashed over the years.
The No. 1 offender on my list is the multi-bit screwdriver selling for about $2 in the miscellaneous section of many grocery and buck-saver stores. This piece of trash contains a selection of Robertson, Phillips and slot bits housed inside a hollow plastic handle with a plastic lid. The bits are made of soft, surface-hardened metal that will bend or break after a couple of twists — the fins of the cross-shaped Phillips’ bits being the first to go.
Aside from this defect, the collet that holds a bit in the screwdriver is so badly machined that the bit will often fall out even when the collet is tightened with pliers. Finally, the joint between the screwdriver’s plastic handle and the metal collet is so feeble that it can break before a bit bends. In this case, you will be spinning your wheels, so to speak, as you turn the handle.
Five hammer rating: 0. Suggestion: buy a good set of zero to three Robertson and Phillips screwdrivers from a lumberyard or tool specialty store. At the same time, purchase three flat screwdrivers including a 5.5 mm, 6 mm and 8 mm.
Running a close second on the list is the metal-fingered curve copier. This fiendish device, which resembles a comb with tightly-placed teeth, can be found next to cheese graters in grocery outlets and in the “tools your brother-in-law will buy” section of bargain stores.
What’s particularly distressing about this tool is that it has the potential to be useful for copying small curves, but is so cheaply made that it becomes an object of contempt and frustration in service. In my case, the needle-like teeth, which move back and forth inside a metal spine to allow you to match them to a curve, began to fall out while I was adjusting them. It was a nightmare, as if watching my own strands of hair drop out of my pate with no method to stick them back in place.
Moreover, even after an assiduous vacuuming of the shop by my wife, I kept finding the darn things like hair in soup.
Five hammer rating: 1/2. Suggestion: Check out some of the well made curve-copiers available at Lee Valley.
No. 3 on my list of ubiquitous cheap tools is the block plane. If well made, this device can be used in all kinds of situations, especially where a small high point needs to be removed without planing an entire board. In fact, I once knew a carpenter who carried a block plane in his pocket, whether on the job or attending the symphony. One story is that he was called upon to use his plane to smooth out an annoying high point on the neck of a harp during an intermission of Das Rheingold.
Be this as it may, be wary of block-plane repros. Cheap knock-offs can be purchased at dollar stores, though I don’t think I’ve seen one in a food outlet, perhaps because it might be confused with a new-fangled cheese grater/slicer.
The main problem with repros is the low-quality of the steel from which they are forged: the blades will not hold a sharp edge and the soles are generally warped, preventing a flat, level cut. Moreover, the adjustment screws are poorly machined, making it very difficult to set the thickness of shavings to be removed.
Five hammer rating: 0. Suggestion: buy a Stanley block plane for about $40 from a reputable tool dealer.
The fourth tool on my list is the magnetic bit holder. If properly made, this tool has the potential to save a lot of time when you are using a power drill to drive screws of different sizes or designs into materials such as wood or metal. (A magnetic bit holder is chucked into a plug-in or cordless drill to allow a quick change during a project that requires the use of several different bits.)
The idea is ingenious and can save time lost to loosening and replacing bits by opening and closing a chuck. Unfortunately, like many tools, this clever invention has been reduced to a frustrating gizmo by manufacturers willing to forsake quality to produce a low-priced product.
I recently purchased a magnetic holder with insufficient magnetic power to hold a bit in place once a screw was driven into place. The result was that the bit remained stuck in the head of the screw and had to be extricated and reloaded into the holder by hand after each use.
Was I frustrated and disappointed? You bet, especially because I had purchased the High Point holder from Home Hardware (usually a reliable source) for almost $7, which is a hefty price for a small accessory. In retrospect, I should have instead bought a DeWalt holder for $12.
Five hammer rating for High Point: 0. Suggestion: you can increase the magnetic holding power of the High Point tool by purchasing a couple of half-inch round by 1/8-inch thick rare earth magnets from Lee Valley (about $1 each) and taping them firmly to the product’s shaft.
Finally, do not buy any power tool that is so ludicrously inexpensive that Scrooge himself might wonder about its quality.
Two of the biggest offenders in the cheap power tool category are King Canada and Skil, both of which offer plug-in drills for under $20. Needless to say, any of the wood or metalworking tools sold by these offshore, knockoff specialists are made predominantly of low-grade polymers and light metals. Moreover, the gaping tolerances of these machines make you wonder how they pass government safety certification requirements.
Five hammer rating: 0. Suggestion: though Bosch has had to lower its standards to compete in the international market, the company’s power products remain the best on the market. In fact, the Canadian Woodworker in Winnipeg sells mainly Bosch hand tools because of the German-based company’s reputation for manufacturing quality products, albeit a little pricier than most.
As the saying goes, “You get what you pay for.”