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In part one of this editorial, I discussed the international nature of large tool companies, and I laid out my basic opinion: that the “Made in…” stamp doesn’t provide enough information to determine a tool’s quality. Read on as I offer some justification for that statement and discuss the manufacturing process.

I’ve seen plenty of great stuff and plenty of poorly-made crap wearing the “Made in the USA” tag. I’ve also seen some great stuff made elsewhere — yes, even in China — as well as a significant chunk of the aforementioned crap. And I’m willing to bet that most Toolmongers can readily lay their hands (physically, or at least metaphorically) on specific tools that fall into all four categories.

But I think the evidence runs deeper than that. Over the past few years a number of tool manufacturers have offered us a look at how their tools are made and how their business processes work. While the details are almost always all off-the-record, the sum total of this experience allows us to see some industry-wide trends that are worth mentioning.

First of all, there is indeed significant difference between “cheap” and “expensive” tools. While some dishonest brands will always try to fool us by purveying the former as the latter, often a tool’s price directly relates to the manufacturing or sales environment.

Even manufacturing something as simple as a combination wrench involves many steps, from forging the basic shape to tempering, machining, and finishing. Each of these steps offers opportunities to improve the tool, and each step increases the cost of manufacturing.

For example: Often cheap-ass wrenches don’t feature as many machined details as their truck-bought, pro-line cousins. Machining off sharp edges (and radiusing square corners) dramatically decreases the chances of the tool stress-fracturing — but it ain’t cheap to do.

Don’t forget the nastiest of costs: labor. Adding quality control (QC) stations between existing manufacturing steps almost assuredly drives up the quality of the product, catching and stopping defective stock before finishing steps cover up tool (and project)-destroying flaws. But these, too add cost.

Of course, lower labor cost is one of the prime motivators for manufacturing in Asia. But consider this: How does QC work when a brand designs a product in one country, manufactures it in another, and sells it in a third? (Note that this concern holds water even if we remove Asia from the equation!) Are the products QC’d on the line during manufacture? After they arrive in the country in which they’ll be sold? Is the QC performed by locals or by employees brought from the company’s home? Does the tool company station engineers on-site at the plant or at least rotate engineers through regularly to assure that manufacturing occurs according to specifications? Oh yeah — and how tight are those specifications?

These, fellow Toolmongers, are questions you’ll never be able to answer. They’re some of the most closely-held secrets around. But they mean the world in terms of the quality of the tools you buy.

Sales environment matters, too. As many of you have mentioned in your comments on various TM posts, almost everyone offers a “lifetime warranty” on hand tools. The real question you want to ask is “How do I get a replacement tool?” The easier it is to follow those instructions — and the more liberal the manufacturer is in replacing tools damaged by misuse or abuse as opposed to true failures — the more the tool will cost.

(There are, of course, exceptions. Sometimes a company will invest in its brand by offering an incredible — and maybe even unrealistic in the long-term — warranty process. When you find one of those, by all means take advantage of it. You’ll suffer through the tough times, too, so cash in when you can!)

To be continued! Check back tomorrow for part three in this editorial where we ask what the hell all this means to you.


22 Responses to Editorial: Made In… Part 2

  1. rob says:

    Never mind obtaining a replacement, lifetime warranties don’t mean anything if the tool itself is so poorly designed or built that it’s unusable. In a lot of cases, it’s nothing but a marketing gimmick.

  2. Travis says:

    My new plan is to sell for $10 a tool that only costs me $1 to make, and offer a lifetime warranty on it. Even if I have to give you 5 replacements under the warranty, I’ll still make a profit.

  3. ShopMonger says:

    Chuck – Rob totally true , although in many cases there will be more of a “easy” warranty when the company is more assured that they won’t get all of their tools back. Yes, sometimes the warranty is driven by the advertising department, and yet most cases it is driven by the engineers saying “Hell we can guarantee this tool will not fail in normal operation”
    I think back to the tools i have broken over the years……and years, and years,,,,damn im getting old…… and when i bought some cheap junk and pushed it it broke. Then when i buy quality (note: i did not say expensive) i find that i only break them when i do Stupid things with them. I will use craftsman and Power Built as examples. Power built is a cheaper brand but stil have quality and craftsman has some premium pricing to it but still is reasonable. I have used both for these as hand tool sets in shop situation where they have done things they were never desinged to do. I have only broken 3 craftsman tools …..and only 2 powerbuilts…… and that is using htem on 3/4 drive impact guns and i still ahvea 6′ bar for some operations………… Again because the quality control is a key factor….. the more people who touch it, the better the tool, but also the more expensive it will be.


  4. ShopMonger says:

    P.S. I think it would be awesome when this is all said and done after part 3 and all… to have a podcast with Chuck, Sean, Joe Brown, and Jimmy A. and just dedicate the show to the “Made In” tool discussion, because fundamentally this is one of 3 main topic that drives tool monger….

    1. Made in ?
    2. Quality versus Branding
    3. Warranty


  5. JH says:

    I don’t like to buy tools that have gone through extensive manual QC. Only thing it adds to the tool is the price. I prefer to buy tools that are made so well that the only person who needs to check the quality is me.

  6. Jerry says:

    Lifetime warranty. Sounds great. However there are a lot of factors in just that term. Does it specifically state “lifetime of original purchaser” or not?
    Scenario: “Hi. My tool broke and it has a lifetime warranty. Can I have a replacement?” “No. The lifetime of that tool has ended.”
    Seriously though, do you have to pay return shipping? Is it a totally free replacement or is pro-rated (like batteries and tires)?
    It all reminds me of the shills on TV selling a product with lifetime replacement of those expendable parts. Of course, you have to pay “shipping and handling” that far precludes the cost of the entire item new.
    As I have mentioned before on this forum, it seems that many name brand tools have lowered their standards and often have cheap tools made with their logo on them. Sad but true. It really seems that the brand is no guarantee of quality – it used to be.

  7. russ says:

    While labor costs are lower in Asia it isn’t the only reason why companies manufacture there. Labor costs just isn’t the hourly wage as alot of people think. In the U.S. the employer has to match the SS earnings per worker, unemployment insurance, workman’s compensation. If the company gives any benefits that is another cost. Then you have regulations such as OSHA, local codes such as fire, building, and ordinances, taxes, and other regulations such as pollution controls and monitoring, and fines for too much polluting. It is the combination of these that ultimately forces companies to offshore manufacturing. Did I miss anything? I probably did. Finally — If you lower your operating and manufacturing costs your profit increases and so does your incentive package the excecutives receive such as bonuses, stock options, etc.

    Are we talking about quality or are we talking about making money?

    If you noticed the recent congressional hearings involving Toyota some information came out that they saved about $100 million or more by avoiding recalls. I think one of the problems is the bean counters have taken over the quality control departments in some industries. Toyota isn’t alone, they have plenty of company.

  8. Mr P says:

    My way has always and will always be. By the best tool that the job needs to have and if it breaks I usually never bother with the warranty because I make so much more money working than trying to get a replacement under a warranty that I just buy a different tool.

    Bottom line work harder and make more money. My tools work for me not vice versa.

  9. Mickey Rat says:

    Some people wont call it a tool but the best warranty I have ever seen(still going strong after 75 years) is the made in USA Zippo lighter,repair or replacement if broken

  10. russ says:

    Mickey – Yeah, I love the good ole Zippo lighter and their warranty. A warranty is as good as who backs it and for how long. It’s companies like Zippo that have a brand name you can link with quality. If it breaks send it to them they will return it in better condition than you had sent it – Now That’s A Warranty!

  11. Alex French says:

    My experience with Craftsman tools ties into a lot of the different points made here:

    1) I have Craftsman hand and power tools that belonged to both of my grandfathers, some used hard on a farm or in the body shop a full sixty years ago. Most hand tools are in great shape. Most power tools are in great shape even! I certainly prefer a newer tool with a plastic shell and all sorts of modern features, but these things were really built to last. AND I’ve had no problem walking into a Sears and exchanging a 40+ year old wrench that had been run over with a tractor (in retrospect, a huge mistake… it was worth so much more as a memento).

    2) 10 years ago, I wouldn’t have bought any Craftsman power tools, but I thought they were a great source for things you were likely to use the exchange on (I haven’t found any tape measure that holds up to much abuse), and many of their hand tools still seemed to have great quality (pliers, ratchets, wrenches, etc.).

    3) Today, even with the ease of exchange, I’m getting close to refusing to buy anything from them, even if the alternative is whatever Home Depot has today.

    I spent an hour one day opening many packages of pliers (Craftsman brand, the nicer ‘professional’ style), just trying to find one set without obvious rust, trouble opening/closing, or other obvious, major imperfections. The cardboard box on the floor of unpriced, “China” pliers was mostly nicer than anything on the wall. I ended up with ChannelLock and Klein products instead.

    Most recently, I purchased a new 3/8″ drive ratchet and a ratcheting combo wrench, identical to ones I purchased maybe 5 years ago. Both look a little less finished and are a little rougher in operation immediately.

    They used to make fantastic products and stand by them, but I think that today Craftsman does a disservice to every quality U.S. manufacturer every time they stamp “U.S.A” on an obviously inferior hand tool.

  12. PutnamEco says:

    It’s about more than just the quality of tools. It’s about lifestyles. Think of your dollars as votes, for every one you spend, you reinforce someones choices.
    If you want our country to be more like China, vote with your dollars for Chinese goods, If you think our lifestyle is better, support it with your dollars, your choice. Read the writing on the wall, China has a growing economy, while ours is a shrinking one.

  13. berettaguy says:

    PutnamEco–that is simply untrue. US GDP continues to grow. While China’s economy is growing faster, they are coming from a smaller base. When you have a larger base each % point increase is much larger in nominal terms. If China continues to grow its economy at current rates, then yes, they will surpass us. However, it is virtually assured that as they get bigger the growth rate will slow down preventing or delaying them from passing us.

  14. MeasureOnceCutTwice says:

    It’s not the location of manufacture, it’s the company.
    I’m a red-blooded American who loves his country. I’ve been living and working in China for the past 11 years running a factory for my US headquarters.

    Our products are specialized and top of the line – think medical and aerospace. Poor quality would put us out of business instantly.

    The factors that affect our quality are design, the raw materials used and the processes for making the product. If those are controlled, it doesn’t matter where it is made – China, India or the U.S. The key is the companies commitment to controlling those factors. If they think they can toss it to a new location with new local management who might not share the same ideals, they will fail – in China or in the US.

    I came to China on a 3 year plan, and have stayed for 11 years for a few reasons: 3 years is not long enough to ensure a new company is mature enough to meet the goals on it’s own. It takes hands-on work for a long time. Another reason is that China is a pretty nice place to work!

    I’m happy to say that it has paid off – our products have the excellent quality needed, at the right price. If either were lacking, we wouldn’t succeed – our competitors would. We simply wouldn’t survive if we hadn’t moved here.

  15. PutnamEco says:

    berettaguy Says:
    PutnamEco–that is simply untrue. US GDP continues to grow
    The GDP has rightfully come under a lot of criticism as an instrument that measures a countries economic health. Thing like the rising cost of health care and the stimulus program all add into it creating what I believe is a false indication of our countries economic situation.
    Two things to consider, Who is really making this increase, The Buffets, Gates, and Waltons of this country or Joe sixpack? Wall Street or Main Street?
    And what is the real source of this GDP growth. Is it an increase in real goods being produced or is it from leveraging financial instruments, and increasing the prices of goods and services.

    If you are truly interested, look into Genuine Progress Indicator or GPI where you will learn the GDP is merely a sum of national spending with no distinctions between transactions that add to well-being and those that diminish it.

  16. fred says:

    For me quality is important. Lifetime warranty is a second-order issue or maybe even worthless. If a tool breaks on the job causing downtime, loss of productivity, property damage – or worse an injury – there is no recovery. We carry spares for items that we expect will wear out. We inspect our tools (particularly power tools) to try to spot incipient failure. We run a condition-based maintenance program on our machine tools and heavy equipment. We buy as much as we can from local suppliers who also service their tools and equipment. Running back to a retail store to replace a tool that’s failed is bad business for us.

    We try to buy the best tool or piece of equipment we can – consistent with our business goals and objectives. Our Daewoo excavator was selected on this basis – not by where it was manufactured – so was our Oliver In-Line rip saw. Price versus performance is still important to us – as is the implicit quality/warranty that comes from a known brand. We don’t buy tools fro HF – not because they are made in China – but because we have no confidence that they will perform well in a commercial setting. We have yet to buy any of the Festool product line – not because it is made in Germany (we have bought other European tools made by Fein, Mafell, Virutex et. al.) but because we judge that the Festoool pricepoint is a bit too steep for us – and other products from folks like Makita, Bosch and Milwaukee better fit our needs. We continually re-evaluate our thinking – and regularly try out new tools. When we hit on ones that give good service at a fair (not cheap) price versus features and performance – then we try to standardize on that tool on line of tools – regardless of where it was made. We’ve done that for the Makita LXT line (China), Kett Shears (USA), Fein Oscillating tools (Germany etc.) , Freud Saw Blades (Italy), Forrest Saw Blades (USA), Virutex Planers (Spain), Channellock Pliers (USA), Knipex Pliers (Germany), Wiha Screwdrivers (Germany), Klein Screwdrivers (USA) – and so on.

  17. Mark says:

    Chuck, I think you’re completely over-estimaing the importance of after-the-fact QC.
    Good products come from companies that design well and work with reputable suppliers. Maybe, if you take 10,000 crap wrenches, you’ll be able to pick out a few good ones, but if they’re all being stamped out of crap sheet metal, it doesn’t matter how many you check.
    If you actually want to make a good product, you need to design to do so up front. (This includes writing the specs for QC later.) I think we’re all familiar with the crappy chinese cast iron than many Harbor Freight products are made of. QC isn’t going to do anything about that because the drawings themselves say the equivalent of “use cheap cast iron”.
    Basically, the QC on a product may be a “trade secret”, but the fact that cheap plastic has been used at key points in a tool is not. QC is never going to turn a Harbor Freight SDS hammer into a Hilti.

    Also, warranties are nice, but who cares if you’re getting a free wrench now that you have a broken wrist and can’t work?

    I find it funny that you completely avoided the issue of liability. Companies are mostly amoral. They care about money. Companies that are subject to liability for bad products have a signifact financial motivator to avoid producing bad products. On the other hand companies in certain countries can get away with shipping childrens toys with lead paint.

    While the Chinese continue to get away with things like this:
    buying a product from China will contiue to carry with it a certain degree of risk.

    This isn’t to say that there aren’t any good products coming out of China, but they have to work very hard to overcome a well-earned prejudice.
    If there isn’t a Chinese word for “Oh well I forgot the grease…at least you didn’t pay much, did you?” there ought to be.

  18. Morgan says:

    Ever since companies started to ‘go public’ en mass, and become responsible to The Shareholders, rather than the customer; quality has taken a hit in return for investors making more money.

  19. Chet says:

    Good article in BW this week about buying local (in USA). For everyone dollar spent in local purchases $.45 is put back into that local economy. On the other hand for every dollar spent outside the local economy only $.13 goes back into the local economy. Interesting read and should have an impact on where we buy our goods and services.

    Isn’t it interesting Wall Street has said the transfer/loss of manufacturing jobs is ok and part of our economic maturation. However, when their jobs and businesses are threatened by economic changes they are not ok with the necessary balancing of their industry and the resulting job losses. What hypocrisy!

  20. b. foo says:

    Morgan has a good point. I saw this with my own company. We were a fairly large family owned company. The customer was number 1 and the employee was number 2. As long as they are both happy the business survives. Well they sold to a big corporation and sure enough the share holder became number 1. Share holders and board members that know nothing about this industry. Well, they succeeded in sucking the life out of this company and running it into the ground while they make their big bucks. We all take pay cuts and they get bonuses (one cool thing about a public company is everything is public record… so when they try to hide things from their employees we just look it up). Instead of being a people company everything is reduced to a number and a dollar sign….

  21. MattC says:

    First off, bravo to Toolmonger for bringing this topic up. It has been a nagging concern for me for years at seeing the decline on American manufacturing. “MeasureOnceCutTwice” brings up very good points at the fact that Made in China does have its share on inherent probelems. For every legitimate Western company that rigorously QC’s their respective products at the point of manufacture, there are many that have bypassed this step to increase profitability. (therefore the whole Made in China tag brings a stigma of poor quality). However, we cannot just will away the fact that sometimes it is better business practice to use lower labor/eager workforce to help in production. Especially if there is a small improvement in the margin of profitability for the end product. If we truly want manufacturing to stay in the States, then it will require a coordinated effort to relax government regulation and to provide tax incentives for companies that choose to stay.

  22. ZAW says:

    I have a few tools pliers and socket and ratchet that are made in Taiwan and Quality is superb!

    Got bunch of China tools that busted easy.

    I also have a few box wrenches made in India, they’re made with good quality steel but loose tolerance.

    Brand New Craftsman’s ratchet broke trying to undo brake bolt, went back to shop and get replacement they gave me older model as replacement which happens to much better quality than new one.

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