I can’t count how many times I have heard a tool guy say, “they don’t make them like this any more” while pointing to an old hand tool hung with reverence in the shop. We talk with folks all the time who love to tell us how an old planer, level, or saw they have can cut (or measure) straighter than anything on the shelves today while simultaneously rescuing wounded dolphins from fishing nets and ending world hunger. While that sounds great — and we love old tools as much as the next guy — it’s also largely incorrect.
Tool companies put a great deal of time, testing, and research towards improving their hand tools. When you compare a good quality tool from yesteryear to a good quality tool of today, the new offering will very likely offer more features and do a better job at the task for which it was designed — and more durable to boot.
Take Stanley’s No. 96 level for instance: the 96 is a brass-bound rosewood level with a laminated structure to give it better stability. It has ground-glass vials, a nailed-on brass strip along the top edge, and either brass tips or a bass plate on the ends. It was — and is — a great level, famous for its solid construction and reliable accuracy.
But compare the 96 to its modern counterpart, Stanley’s FatMax Xtreme level, which features aluminum box beam construction, a magnified center vial for improved visibility, and machined leveling surfaces.
There is no question that the newer level will out perform the old. It can get wet without fear of ruining the finish, surive knocks and drops better than the brass from the old model, and its vials are easier to read at a greater distance. The FatMax’s grip — and the addition of rare earth magnets — make the new level easier to handle and control than the old No. 96, too.
If Stanley could have produced the FatMax Xtreme way back in 1898 they most assuredly would have. It stands on the shoulders of over a century of testing, knowledge, experience, and science, and it just outmatches the poor 96. Pitting the two against each other is like picking a street fight with George Foreman then figuring you’ll outlast him.
The 96 is certainly pretty, though. The soft shine of its brass edges and the dark, grainy beauty of the rosewood beam give the 96 a nostalgic glow of days gone by. In short, it’s a looker. Hell, Stanley built an entire empire on its rosewood back.
But don’t let nostalgia blind you. Today’s high tech offerings kick its well-formed ass. Old gear is uber cool, and trying to compare it to a modern model is pointless; old tools are interesting enough on their own without pumping them up with super-natural (and unrealistic) qualities.
The next time you feel like saying, “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” try this instead: “This tool has over a hundred years of history under its belt. It was used in countless construction projects all over the world and it still works. It’s simply beautiful.”