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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.”


9 Responses to Tool Quality, New vs. Old School

  1. Michael W. says:

    Nice and thoughtful, Sean. Are you getting all philosophical on us now?

    Just kidding. I agree with what you’re saying. While not all new tools are better than some of the classic old tools, there were junky tools made in the past also.

  2. Kurt Schwind says:

    I’ve had this very conversation with people. I think part of the difference is comparing a high-quality tool of yester-year to … well… what *I* have in my shop. If you compare a modern cheap tool to a high end tool that has been well taken care of, you might have cause for real comparison. Example: This guy inherits an old planer from his grandfather who was a cabinet maker. He compares that professional-grade tool to the modern planer I have and I’d rather have his too. But that’s a comparison of a modern cheapo tool vs. one that was the highest standard of the day.

  3. Freddie says:

    Let’s ask stanley to laminate the FatMax…

  4. Freddie says:

    Let’s ask stanley to laminate the FatMax…
    why shouldn’t good tools look cool too?

  5. Freddie says:

    stupid double posting firefox…mumble……^$*&$&^….

  6. james b says:

    Saturday, I picked up a new stud finder that came with ‘bonus’ Stanley level. That POS level isn’t worth cutting up to take out the spirit level. Not all Stanley tools are this bad, but this one is. It speaks poorly of the brand that they would put their name on this twisted plastic.

  7. BJN says:

    I’ll accept that a contemporary level can be more durable and accurate than a lovely old wooden level.

    But this marketing crapola of calling everything “extreme” is ridiculous. An “extreme” level? I’ll use it with my extreme pencil when I need something extremely level. Stanley’s current stuff is often more about styling than function, and no, I don’t think their current product designers really distill Stanley’s cumulative expertise into the new stuff. A beautiful tape measure would indicate the tape body length is large, contrasty characters, not mold it illegibly and hide it behind a belt clip.

    Here’s something to chew on. Which of these levels would inspire you to do a better job or attempt something more difficult? Which shows that craftsmanship can be an art form?

  8. I own a Stanley #96. I’ve known it since I was a kid working in my grandfather’s shop in Champaign, IL. For years it was among all the other tools in my own shop, more for its aesthetics than functionality. One among the many hand tools that I took possession of upon my own father’s death 30 years ago, presented to me in a long grey wooden toolbox my grandfather had built. For the first ten years, I used what was in that box, even showing my own son, barely out of diapers, what they were and wh they were important. But when they began to go missing, and show up later, month’s later, in the sandbox or at the bottom of his toy chest, I gathered them all up and returned them to the long grey wood toolbox and stored the toolbox on a shelf in the shop where it collected dust for the next 32 years. Reading this post, b shere accident, I went out yesterday and pulled down the toolbox and pulled out the #96, still in it’s olive green box with my grandfather’s name engraved on a small plate provided, I assume, for that very purpose. What an unbelievably gorgeous tool.

    I’m in the business of inspiration, and innovation, and I promptly brought the #96 into the house and made room for it on the bookshelf–a bookend between Tolstoy and Dumas. And tomorrow I’ll show my youngest son, now in his twenties and in charge of the shop, this tool he won’t remember. This tool he used to leave in his sandbox, because it’s important that he know from where he came, the heritage of why he’s driven to spend his days in the shop. A tool like this will outlive us all–currently on it’s 4th generation of Prowell’s–and how it’s functionality stacks up to the current fleet of Stanley offerings is, well . . .missing the point all together. It inspires us, and it’s all about inspiration.

  9. rich says:

    Dear Mr. Prowell,
    I was taught at a young age to respect tools. Especially when I didn’t put them
    away as agreed.)
    But I don’t always remember to think of great old tools as pure objects of inspiration.
    Usually, it’s the things created with great old tools that inspire me.
    But tools, toolmakers, and tool users are also worthy of that admiration.
    Thanks for reminding me.
    I’ll have to hunt a 96 down on ebay.
    PS-I’m jealous.

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