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I see lots and lots of comments here on Toolmonger regarding where individual tools are made. And while I did grow up during a time where it was easy to tell “Made in America” from “cheap imports” in terms of hand and especially power tools, I have to tell you that after writing, researching, and using tools professionally in recent years, I’m not sure the line is so clear anymore. So what does “made in wherever” mean today, and what does it mean in terms of quality?

Consider this: We’ve gone to all sorts of lengths here in America to help consumers understand where their cars are built. Take a look at the window sticker on a new vehicle, and you’ll find numbers indicating what percentage of the parts ship from what countries as well as where the car was assembled. But it’s still a bitch to figure out what’s domestic and what’s “imported.”

Do we, for example, follow the money or the shipping receipts? And which money would we follow? the profits made from our purchases or the money paid to assembly workers? Or the money spent on parts? Or design? The result: Nissan sure sounds foreign, but I know lots of people in Mississippi who’d argue otherwise. And that all-American Ford? What if it’s built in Mexico?

Now consider tools again. The design and manufacturing of tools is every bit as complex as autos, but we lack even the window sticker’s vague data to clue us in as to the true nature of a given product’s national (or more likely international) legacy.

Though the United States represents a huge market for the sale of hand and power tools, it’s by no means the only one. Europe also represents a large market, as does Asia. And as the largest tool companies service the entire world, they’re not only manufacturing tools internationally — they’re also designing them, managing the production of them, and spending the cash made from the sale of them internationally as well.

It’s by no means uncommon for large tool companies to conceive a tool a facility in one country, design it in another, manufacture it in third, test it in a fourth, and sell it all over the world. While a tool like this might carry a “Made in China” stamp (or “Made in the USA” if it happened to be assembled in the US), what does that really mean?

Here’s my opinion: Where a tool is manufactured — when viewed on its own without other data — no longer offers a good indicator as to the tool’s quality nor its contribution to a given nation’s economy.

To be continued! Check back tomorrow for part two in this editorial where we delve deeper into the manufacturing process.

 

27 Responses to Editorial: Made In… Part 1

  1. Dave P says:

    Damn, Chuck. Pretty good little essay.

  2. Pezdad says:

    Even what factory a tool is made in isn’t a great indicator. Many chinese factories make name brand tools where there are foreign (US or Euro) inspectors makings sure of the QC – and all the tools that fail the QC checks still get sold (just under a generic name). That is why you can sometimes find power tools that look “just like” a Delta (or whatever) yet cost less and perform like crap – they came off the same line and failed the QC (like the mythical buffalo hunter, nothing gets thrown away).

    A real problem is that name brand is not always an assurance – some don’t bother to inspect, or don’t do so enough. A good example two years ago was Mattell – they had a problem with a contract mfg using cheap parts and wanted to make sure they used good (non-lead) paint, so they went to the trouble of buying (& testing) the paint themselves and giving it to the factory. The factory manager then went and sold the good paint and replaced it with cheap (lead) paint and pocketed the difference – and Mattell had to recall millions of lead-paint covered toys. Those kinds of problems just don’t happen in North America or Europe, so there is something to the “made in China is bad” comments – there are some great products made there (my iphone, for example) but they are also the main (really ONLY) place that is also churning out huge amounts of tainted (deadly) dog food, deadly baby formula, lead paint toys, children’s juwelry made of lead and chromium (just to name the big stories this past year). If they will cut corners to save a penny a gallon on milk while knowing it will kill babies, do you think they are concerned that the steel in your tool is the correct grade?

  3. fred says:

    Thanks for this thought-provoking piece. The reality is that we compete in global economy on a variety of levels. One of those in price – another is quality and/or craftsmanship. “Made in America” is not now (and probably never was) absolutely synonymous with higher price – nor higher quality. Absent recent events in the auto industry – many were thinking that Made in Japan (or made by a Japanese car company) was a hallmark of automotive excellence and quality. It appears that we need to continually test our assumptions and adjust based on the evidence. I’ve heard (and recall) that postwar (World War II) Japan was producing goods that often were considered “cheap junk” as opposed to high quality. Folks like Deming helped Japan turn this around into their Kaizen philosophy. China now is at a stage where their economy is burgeoning – building construction is booming – and manufacturing capability is expanding rapidly. Not surprisingly – there seems to be a mixture of quality in the goods that arrive from China. When I purchase a batch of tools, carrying a name-brand (e.g. Milwaukee, Makita, Bosch etc.), I am relying on those companies to stand behind their products. Perhaps I am naïve in my expectation – but I hope that these firms will exercise an appropriate measure of design and manufacturing control (QA) over their OEM suppliers – whether those suppliers are in China, Mexico or elsewhere. I have less faith in suppliers who deal in look-alikes and knock-offs – not because they are necessarily of inferior quality – but more because I prefer not to take the risk associate with their use in a commercial setting.
    I also don’t buy most of my tools at big-box suppliers, who some say exercise their own predatory practices – forcing suppliers to cheapen the tools that they produce.
    Again, while I might be naïve, I also have some expectation that major firms may be more sensitive to the needs of workers in their OEM facilities – and as an example would not knowingly seek out manufacturers that employ labor practices considered unethical.

  4. MattC says:

    Excellent essay. As with the previous posts, Made in the USA does not necessarily equate to top quality and Made in China does not necessarily mean poor quality. The US and European companies do abide by their respective safe work practices and QC. The problem lies in that China does not play by the same quality standards as western companies. Recalls, unsafe materials (lead/chromium) and rampant cost-cutting marr the image of many name brand tools that have shipped manufacturing overseas. However, Western Companies have realized that there is an obligation to maintain rigorous QC when using overseas facilities. Unfortunately, for every legitimate IPhone, there are cheap knockoffs that have copied Apple’s design theme and OS. The same applies to hand/power tools that may or maynot meet quality standards associated with a specific brand. The example of Mattel is telling at the risks major companies face when using cheap labor without proper oversight.

    As an aside, I will always buy Leatherman because they maintain manufacturing in Portland OR. I do the same for other companies who resist the temptation to manufacture overseas, despite the lure of cheap labor and lax gov’t oversight.

  5. Doug says:

    I think where something is made is still an important indicator. “Made in China” to me has come to indicate a much higher likelihood of a product being a throw it away soon, potentially toxic, worthless piece of junk. I’m not saying nothing excellent comes out of China. The odds are just not as good versus anywhere else producing similar products. Quality control and public/private oversight make all the difference.

  6. Patc131 says:

    I am an electrician, and if I can, I buy Made in USA or at least North America. I have worked in dozens of manufacturing facilities, and Harbor Freight’s manufacturers have never and will never, put any bread on my table, or anyone that I know.

  7. Bob in IL says:

    With very few exceptions, I have opted to purchase tools and other items made in USA to keep my friends and neighbors employed. Sure, I often pay more, but I feel better about the purchase.

    This is not a new practice for me. I’ve been giving preference for USA-made items for over 40 years.

  8. Old Donn says:

    USA is always my first choice, but I’m afraid we’re getting to a point where we won’t always have that choice. Even truck brands are adding more & more off-shore inventory. Pros will hold out longer, but we DYI’ers who buy USA are already a minority. The crowd at Harbor Freight on any given Saturday or Sunday is 2-3 times bigger than Sears, HD and Lowe’s tool departments combined. Amateurs will vote with their wallet, especially in this economy. A set of full polish wrenches for $17 at HF compared to $100 at Sears? Both lifetime warrantied? For what most DYI’ers do? Don’t need a an economics degree from Harvard to figure that one out. Do I like it or agree? No. Is it the way things are? Looks that way.

  9. fred says:

    I can relate to many of the comments made about buying American when we can. What I have found, however, in buying tools for particular jobs there may not be an American equivalent available at any price. A lot of what we buy, unfortunately, is almost throw-away by nature. We segregate our tool purchases into categories that include capital tools (e.g. a table saw), O&M expensed tools (e.g., a hammer) and consumables (e.g. a sawzall blade.) In dollar value, drill bits, saw blades, abrasive disks and the like – account for a lot of our spending – and a lot of this is still available from American manufacturers. But. If we are buying some portable circular saws – I may not be even able to find ones made in the USA. Our old Skil 77’s were made here but the newer ones come from China and the Milwaukees and Makitas we have bought lately were either Chinese made or Mexico- assembled from global parts. So while I’m hoping that the pliers and screwdrivers that I buy from Channellock and Klein continue to be manufactured here, I may not be able to find vise grip pliers that are – so I’ll buy ones from Bessey made in Germany – instead of an Irwin (Newell-Rubbermaid) made in China.

  10. steve says:

    My Blue Point tools, made in Taiwan, are better than just about any other brand besides SnapOn to which they are equal to.

    My $10 set of crappy Workforce wrenches, have worked just as well as any other wrenches I’ve owned.

    I have Harbor Freight stuff that works well. I have Harbor freight stuff that came broken in its own case.

    My Made in USA Craftsman screwdriver, has twisted and bent just trying to turn a really tight screw once.

    My Made in USA Husky screwdrivers so far have survived pretty well.
    My made in Mexico Stanley stuff has so far held up well.

    I could go on and on. It really comes down to the individual tool. Not even the brand anymore, and certainly not the country of origin.

  11. Mark says:

    This essay really seems to be a rationalization of buying chineese tools. There are still some hard realities one must consider:

    First world (US, Germany, Etc) tool manufactures are paying higher costs for labor and passing them on to you, but there are big advantages too.
    1) You know at least some portion of you money is goin to a country that is not abducting its own citizens and torturing them.
    2) You know that the manufacturer you are buying the tools from operates within a legal system that could very likely hold them liable for selling a product with crappy engineering, materials or both.
    3) You have a good chance that the tool was built using higher-quality, locally sourced materials. (See #2)

    I used to buy a lot of Chinese tools, but I more recently have come to appreciate buying a tool once, and having it work well for the entire time I own it.
    I also don’t worry about the tool turning into a grenade in my hand like this:
    http://weldingweb.com/showpost.php?p=282134&postcount=8

    Sure, I have my share of chinese made tools, but if I’m given a choice between the cheapo Chinese model and a nice American model for less than 2X more, I’ll probably go American. (Or Swiss, or German, etc.)

  12. Shalin says:

    Great, concise thoughts…

    haha…on a funny note, it reminds of a scene in the movie Armageddon:
    *****
    Lev Andropov: It’s stuck, yes?
    Watts: Back off! You don’t know the components!
    Lev Andropov: [annoyed] Components. American components, Russian Components, ALL MADE IN TAIWAN!
    *****

    😉

  13. Mark says:

    I agree with Chuck’s conclusion that, “where a tool is manufactured — when viewed on its own without other data — no longer offers a good indicator as to the tool’s quality nor its contribution to a given nation’s economy” is absolutely correct.
    So, what importance do I give to nation of origin when selecting a tool? Depends on the tool. If it’s a tool needed for one project, never to be used again, a cheap offshore product might be the most economically rational thing to buy. I like to buy quality tools for the long haul, however. To mean that means buying the best product I can afford, with a preference for U.S. companies. I don’t think it’s in our national interest to continue to increase our debt with the PRC or other nations that fail to enforce international trade laws and policies. Having said that, I think we are a nation of consumers addicted to low, low prices and place of origin is almost never a consideration. If Sam Walton were alive today, I think he’d have to call his company China*Mart–and customers would still line up to buy the goods.

  14. John Seiffer says:

    I used to be involved with a company that sells a specialized kit that includes almost 200 different hand tools. They were looking for the best tools from the best suppliers. What they found at trade shows were that Asian companies were more helpful and supportive and easier to do business with than American ones. It’s not just the quality of the tool.

  15. ShopMonger says:

    Understanding the impact of any product being made here is the reason i look first for American made products. Not only does it keep the jobs here in the US. However that is not where the buck stops (bad pun i know), one job in a factory mean many others in the surrounding environment. That person who now makes the tool, need clothes so he buys from the clothier, he need food so he pays the grocer, who pays the farmer, who pays the feed guy….the tool maker also buys a car, who then is paying for the car guy, who also has food and clothing needs….. it is a major cycle that continues to domino until all the pennies of each dollar he makes is spent in the USA. So i look for those tools and products that are MADE in the USA, not necessarily where the money goes when i buy it, more and more i am concerned about who the dollar is paying.

    As for Tools, You buy them to be tools…..so buy the tool not the brand. look for a tool that has the quality in which you need. Fred for example needs higher quality tools for his guys than the homeowner, that is why there is so many tool companies making so many different levels of tools.

    Chuck: As for following the check, hard to do in today’s world. For the last 10 years the check fro example from a Subaru purchase went 51.6 percent to GM now only 20% goes there. Nissan fro example was owned 43% by FORD for many years until then sold off some of that stock. Although Ford still has some buy in. Most large name brand companies that you know are sold and bought on a daily basis. So yes i would like to see more money filter back to the USA but first and foremost i would like to see the US worker employed, then the capitol come back, then the profit line.

    As for tools…..Chuck said it best in a podcast…….quality insurance is the key, without that follow through it is easy to make a crappy tool here in the USA and it is just as easy to make a crappy tool in china, it may be cheaper in china, but still possible to make it crappy without any consideration to the quality control. SO again, BUY THE TOOL NOT THE BRAND.

    ShopMonger

  16. nnx says:

    I tend to look at the “made by whom” instead of the “made where” tag.
    For example i imagine that Bosch (yes im from Germany xD) has a bigger reputation to loose than ChinaBrand0815. That does not mean that there will never be any bad quality products from bosch, or no good ones from China. It simply is less likely.
    Of course if I need a tool which I will use maybe 5 times, I wont go for famous brands, that would be waste.

    Also as a Mechanical Engineer in training I like to buy very cheap tools, take them apart, and replace the critical components (spindles and bearing mostly) with components I bought myself. That way, while not completely custom made, the tool still has a greater reliability and quality than pure off the shelf products.

  17. SharkyTM says:

    I find it amusing that someone brings up the Toyota recall as evidence that “Made in Japan” meant something good. First of all, many of the cars involved in the recall were assembled here, and many of the accelerator pedal assemblies that are faulty were made in the US by CTS. They are involved in blaming Toyota for the specs, but a Denso part doesn’t have the problem, and meets the same specs.

    I agree with the conclusion of this essay. A factory’s location has little to do with the quality of the goods it produces. I’ve seen plenty of crap made in the USA, Germany, and Japan. Its just a matter of volume in my eyes. China/Taiwan make the majority of cheap and crappy tools, so they get branded with a bad image. Fine by me, it lets me continue to buy the best China has to offer for pennies on the dollar compared to US/EU competitors.

  18. KMR says:

    As a tool user, I have tools from everywhere. My primary objective when buying a tool is that it has to perform to my expectations, for some tools I have higher expectations and stick with well known brands (Makita, Hitachi), for other tools I have lower expectations and have no problem using a Harbor Freight hand wrench that has a lifetime warantee just like the one from Craftsman.

    We also manufacture and sell automotive parts. Some of the stuff we produce is made in Asia (Thailand), and that started because there wasn’t a single manufacturer out of the dozen or so we contacted in the USA that wanted to do the job, or couldn’t do it for a competitive price. The guy in Thailand is an American (parents live in AZ), and he resides in Thailand and owns the factory there. We get top quality products, at a price I can make money on. When he screws up, he goes above and beyond to fix it. I’ve got his home phone number so I can call him during regular US business hours (Thailand is +13 hours from EST). He has screwed stuff up, and then did a complete new run with delivery for free. As in, I got 100% free product (didn’t pay for the junk items at all)… that is how much he values my business.

    We also sell items made by other companies that come from China or India. Depending on what the item is and who exactly made it, the quality can be variable. We get piston sets in from Taiwan all the time that 1 out of 3 sets is defective. The guy who flips the piston over in the lathe chuck, to machine the other half of the skirt profile, doesn’t center the piston correctly and an offset step gets machined into the skirt. This sucks, this has been an ongoing issue since 2006 with this item. The defects are clearly visible, so it just goes to show that the operator and that company don’t care about what goes in that cardboard box that gets shipped to the USA.

    Companies like TRW also make components in Taiwan, and they’re fine, because TRW’s internal QC systems insure that quality stays where it should be even though they’re manufacturing items at a lower cost. When you make braking components, you better be certain the stuff is going to work. TRW is bonded on every braking or safety related component they produce. Are the no-name brand Asian importers going to take on the financial burden if something awful happens because the master cylinder on your car fails? No, good luck even finding that workshop in some back alley slum row.

    I guess overall my priorities go like this:

    1) Quality (meeting or exceeding my expectations for that items purpose)
    2) Price
    3) Nationality

  19. ShopMonger says:

    Russ: so very true. the pedal assembly may not be the true issues, there may some scripting error in the controller also…..

    ShopMonger

  20. Toolhearty says:

    Some time ago, I needed another adjustable wrench, so I ran down to Ace Hardware and picked up a Crescent brand, chrome plated wrench. When I got it home, I found that there was a big glob of excess metal covering the screw (on the backside, obscured by the packaging), making it unusable, and the glob had been chromed over so I couldn’t just knock it off.

    I took it back to the store and showed it to the kid in the red vest. He looked at it and said “Oh, says right here “Made in the USA”, no wonder.” and handed me another one.

  21. b. foo says:

    I agree with the original post. I don’t really care where a tool is made as long as it works for what I need and doesn’t break the bank. Sure, I would like more tools to be made locally in the U.S., but all the government red tape (taxes, fees, licensing, insurance, regulation, OSHA, etc etc etc) has made it very difficult to have a profitable business in this country. To compete, they have no choice but to move their manufacturing overseas. I don’t mind spending $100 on a wrench made in the U.S. as long as its $90 better than the one made in China. If its only slightly better, theres no incentive to pay that extra money. My hope is that all these U.S. businesses will fail and everyone will be out of work (looks like its happening now) and we will wise up and boot the government out of our way and get back to more of a free market so we can get things moving in the right direction again.

  22. DW says:

    Crescent has a widely recognized brand name. Just for the adjustable wrench. Every Crescent tool I have had my hands on has left me, at best, unimpressed. Their pliers, cable and various wire cutters are awful.

    Country of origin is often a hard thing to nail down these days, often it is a combination.
    HF tools are in many cases a gamble but the price is right, though I hear some of their machine tools are worth looking at. I tend to stick with things that are either disposable, few or no moving parts or too cheap to pass up…

    The environmental impact is a valid concern, also customer support is a factor. Things fail even with the best QC…

  23. Wade says:

    I was glad to see this essay and the numerous comments that have resulted. I do believe “Made in the USA” means something but it certainly doesn’t mean EVERYTHING. Most of the companies which have moved production out of the US have done so with a lot of reluctance. I work for a major tool manufacturer and I can tell you first hand that working with groups half a world away is very different than working with a plant down the block. And it takes hard work and dedication on both sides. Unfortunately economics dictate our business just like every business.

    The point I would like to make is that even companies which produce products outside the US generally have a large workforce domestically. I know my company have about 500 employees in our domestic facility that handle engineering, research, design, marketing, quality…you name it. Sure we make a lot of our products outside the US. But if you buy one of those products you are still supporting many jobs right in your own back yard. Something to consider.

  24. Toolhearty says:

    DW Says:

    Crescent has a widely recognized brand name. Just for the adjustable wrench. Every Crescent tool I have had my hands on has left me, at best, unimpressed. Their pliers, cable and various wire cutters are awful.

    Crescent is another Cooper Group company. Their MO seems to be buying up established companies and capitalizing on their names and reputations while letting the quality droop.

  25. fred says:

    @Toolhearty

    Cooper – with their stable of brands like Crescent, Weller, Nicholson, HK Porter, Diamond, Xcellite, Lufkin, Wiss, Plumb, Utica et. al. are a real mixed bag – but probabaly not as bad as Newell-Rubbermaid that puts old English woodworking brands like Record and Marples on low-end stuff – and mixes its Irwin, Hanson, Vise-Grip. Lenox (American Saw), Bernzomatic brands across several different product lines.

  26. Brau says:

    As far as I’m concerned, the days of being brand loyal are looong gone. Today I shop for features and then select the one that I feel will do the job and represents the best bang-for-the-buck. Some cheap tools have surprised the heck out of me and some “quality name brands” have seriously let me down. It never hurts much to buy a cheap tool and let it go if you find you need a better one, but it hurts like heck when you spend top dollar for a lemon and a cheaper one ends up being much better.

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