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The map you see above was borrowed from http://www.popvssoda.com/, a site that can almost conclusively tell you where you’re from based on what you call the carbonated stuff that comes in cans: “pop,” “soda,” or “Coke.”  Not surprisingly, we’re from Texas (finally depicted as a “red” state in the map here, if nowhere else), and most of us call it “Coke” no matter what company actually produces it.

If you’re from up North, you probably think I’m kidding.  I’m not.  “I want a Coke,” you’d say.  “What kind?  7-Up, Sprite, Dr. Pepper, Shasta?” your friends would answer.

Laugh away, but I’m willing to bet you do the same thing with tools.  Let’s put you to the test.

Have you ever called a reciprocating saw a “Sawzall?”  Or how ’bout calling a circular saw a “Skil saw?”

These are each very, very successful brand names.  Sawzall belongs to Milwaukee, and Skil… well, you get the picture.  Some very creative people at these companies ginned up these names, and they’re now a part of your vocabulary.  “Grab me a Sawzall,” you say.  “Which one, the DeWalt or the Bosch?”

As much as we — as largely men, by our count — hate to admit it, there’s an huge social factor involved in tool selection.  While we’re often faced with a huge selection of tools that’ll do the job, we often buy the tools our fathers bought.  We buy the tools our mentors own.  We buy the tools that we see Jesse James use on TV.  Whether we admit it or not, the tools we use label us in the eyes of other craftsman. 

If you’re in doubt of this idea, keep an eye out the next time you’re around a jobsite.  Even if you’re not a professional craftsman, try watching the crews on the houses they build in your neighborhood (or the new ones up the street or on the other side of town).  You’ll notice — as many of the people we’ve met in the industry have — that different groups tend to stick with different brands.  Electricians and framers, for example, each have use for and carry a cordless drill.  But what brands do they carry?  Take a look next time.  The manufacturers have made it easy for you — especially when we’re talking about power tools because each maker uses a very specific color for the casings. 

(I bet you can recite a number of them from memory.  Craftsman: Black.  Makita: Light blue.  Hitachi: Green.  DeWalt: Yellow.  Need I continue?)

Now turn this thinking inward.  What brands do you buy, and why do you buy them?

One of the true joys about writing for Toolmonger is that we’ve had the opportunity to try out all kinds of tools over the last six months or so.  Whereas in the past we’d have just bought a cordless drill that’d do the job, now we find that we’ve had our hands on a dozen or more (recently), and that has had a big effect on the way we view a number of popular brands.

Craftsman, for example, still makes some great hand tools.  The quality is still quite high, and there’s always the (still sweet-as-hell) lifetime warranty.  Craftsman makes a huge investment in supporting their hand tool warranty because it carries across — in the minds of the consumer — to many of their other products.  The Craftsman name has come to mean quality, even if you’re looking at a product to which the lifetime warranty doesn’t apply.  Are the other tools quality?  Our experiences have been mixed, but we’d love to hear your experiences as well.

RIDGID is now attempting exactly the same move, offering their how-can-they-actually-do-this lifetime service agreement on power tools.  It’s got to be hitting them in the wallet, so we can only assume that they’re doing this to reap the same kind of benefits Craftsman does: a much better public view of all their products, even those not covered by the agreement.

What we’ve discovered after spending time with a lot of hand tools and power tools is that you can’t buy based on brand alone.  Branding is a pure-and-not-so-simple marketing tool that can wholeheartedly cloud your vision when it comes to picking out a tool.

Sure, your Dad may have bought nothing but Craftsman screwdrivers, but have you seen Stanley’s offerings?  All the guys in the shop may have MAC tools, but what about Snap-on’s specialty tools?  Maybe you’ve had a bunch of DeWalt drills, but have you tried out a Bosch lately?

Let me be the first to suggest that your power tool bin should look like a United Colors of Benetton ad from the ’80s.  Do your research and buy the best tool for the job, no matter who makes it.  I’m not saying that you should pass those great warranties by — jump on board and reap the free batteries! — but take the whole picture into account.


3 Responses to Tool Branding and You

  1. Myself says:

    In most cases, I tend to carry whatever my employer hands me. 🙂 But after a while with a work-issued Ryobi drill, I’m looking for something with a better charger and more on-tool bit storage. The tool’s ergonomics are great except for the worthless bit holder. On a positive note, I’ve been superbly happy with the 3M electronics vacuum, and am looking at picking up a used one for myself. (Hooray, antistatic vacuum hoses!) Klein electrical tools carry a certain amount of “street cred” with old telecom guys, but nobody’s going to laugh at you for carrying Ideal or Fiskars snips, as long as they have the serrated edge and the stripping notches. A lot of the brand preferences in my industry are simply because the specialized tools aren’t made by a lot of different names.

    As for Craftsman and their reputation, I’ve been burned already by that one. I picked up a Craftsman-branded Dremel knockoff and used it here and there for a few months before a friend asked me when I was going to replace those failed bearings. “You mean it’s not supposed to make that noise?” Of course, the return period was up and I was stuck with a tool that’d been bad from day one. Same thing happened when my dad bought a laser level, he didn’t discover the scraping noise it’d been making was abnormal until the unit failed completely, 38 days after purchase. The manager was *no* help in either case. No more power tools from Sears!

    Hand tools are another story. I generally start with whatever cheapies are sitting around, be they the Harbor Freight junk, or garage-sale screwdrivers, or whatever. When I break or mangle one, I replace it with a Craftsman. My logic says that the tools I use enough to destroy are the ones worth paying for the lifetime warranty on.

    I’ve never owned a MAC or Snap-On tool, though I know guys who swear by them. It’s a damn shame they don’t have retail stores, because I don’t like the dealer’s truck sales environment. Ditto with Cutco knives. What’s with the MLM scheme, guys? Let the product stand on its own, in a store, and I’ll buy what I need, when I want it, with no pressure from a commissioned salesleech.

    As to the pop/coke phenomenon, I’ll confess to using “sawzall” and “hole hawg” as generic terms, just like “kleenex” and “rollerblade”. Note that all these terms are shorter than “reciprocating saw”, “right-angle drill”, “facial tissue”, and “in-line skate”. Such terms are also specific, whereas the generic terms are frequently broader: A jigsaw, sawzall, scroll saw, and power carving knife are all techincally reciprocating saws.

    I could care less about brand dilution and trademarks — intellectual property law makes me reach for a bottle of aspirin. (That’s generic acetysalycylic acid in 325mg tablets, folks. Not the Bayer brand name.)

    Back to power tools for a moment: I’m considering a serious investment in cordless tools here, establishing myself with a “system” built around one common battery pack. I’m considering 3 main criteria:

    1: What tools are available? The DeWalt cordless vacuums are head and shoulders above the competition. But Ryobi’s jobsite fan makes so much sense! If I’m going to settle on one standard, I’d like to have the option of a hedge trimmer and weed-whacker (another brand name turned generic!), even if I don’t buy them at the outset. What would be really killer is an inter-brand battery standard, so I could pick and choose tools across the different product lines. Then you’d know that someone using a particular tool was using it because it truly *was* the right tool for the job, not because they were locked in to a particular brand’s infrastructure. As it sits, no single brand seems to offer the full spectrum of tools I’m interested in. (Although I could probably decapitate a spare flashlight and build a jobsite fan for whatever standard I end up with!)

    2: Will the product line be around in 5 years? I’d say 10 but I know that’s too much to ask. I don’t use my tools heavily, so my replacement life cycle is very long. I will pay for quality if I think it means they’ll be around for my (yet imaginary) kids to use, like some of my father’s first power tools are still going today. The limited lifespan of rechargeable batteries makes this *heavily* dependent on manufacturer support. Ever more so with the growing popularity, and limited rebuildability, of lithium-ion packs.

    3: Reviews. I enjoy Toolmonger very much, but the long-term reviews in the Journal of Light Construction are definitely worth checking out too. They recently had an expansive piece focusing just on the job-site radio/charger units from various manufacturers. (My kingdom for the first one to integrate a bluetooth “someone’s on the phone so I’ll mute the music now” sensor!)

    I guess what it comes down to is that I’m a form-follows-function fellow; any brand is fine if it offers the features I need. Interoperability is a big feature, when will the industry realize that?

  2. Steve Thompson says:

    The house I grew up in was nothing but Craftsman. And I happily followed in those footsteps for many years…until I actually had to take back a torque wrench. Read the fine print. I had always assumed that Craftsman mecahnics tools were all lifetime warranty. I had learned long ago that power tools weren’t necessarily similarly covered, but in trying to return a torque wrench that failed after a week or so of light use I learned to check carefully at the terms of the warranty. The people at Sears were nice enough, and since I hadn’t purchased it that long ago, they looked up the transaction and replaced it as defective. But be aware.

    Since then my fancy for mechanics hand tools still lies with Craftsman, but for power tools I usually look at what my contractor friends have: Bosch, PC, etc.

  3. Eli says:

    I’ll also weigh in as guilty to using brand names as coverall tags (sawzall, et al) and agree with all points made by M’self, especially about inter-brand batteries, although it’ll never happen. I guess if there enough china battery knockoffs the OEM wouldn’t make the big boys any money, and hence they’d kowtow to standardization. I also subscribe to the ‘replace the one that breaks’ school of thought. I don’t work in a mocheen shop anymore where I’ll be busting down a hundred welds a day, I only use my grinder occasionally, so a harbor freight tool ($19.99) is going to fill my need as well as the best grinder at four or five times the price. But certain tools are expendables as well, getting lost or broken through hard use so often that to buy the best every time would be painful (. My pocket knife is a great example. It’s 26 bucks, and a wonderful value (Gerber EZ-out). I left two in central america and lost a third here in eight years. I’d have paid the same for one really nice one, but someone in nicaragua would have an awesome knife right now and I wouldn’t. It’s even cheap enough for me to keep a spare in the wardrobe, so I can replace it immediately if lost. It has a great blade and is light. Why would I spend more?
    As for the cordless tools, that’s developed along different criteria. I had Makita when that seemed like the best choice, and it was great until I had to buy so many batteries. Dewalt hit me right in the price point when I tooled up to redo my house a few years ago. I was also gifted some dewalt from work, so the choice was really made for me. If money was no object I’d probably go for mostly festool stuff now or something really light. The hitachi stuff is great, the panasonic hammer drills are pretty light and have the interchangeable chuck, but the batteries feel chintzy to hand. Haven’t looked in a while, but when the dewalt stuff gives out soon I’ll likely get a package deal from whomever seems to fit the bill for my specific needs…. For the record Steve, I was burned by craftsman as well, shelling out the extra spondool for their stainless contractor vacuum that was the biggest piece of crap ever. My first had been a ridgid and I assumed spending more for the craftsman would give me an even better vacuuming experience. It did suck more, for sure

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