Sunday, February 9, 2014

Cabinet Shuffle

* I inadvertently hit 'publish' while in the middle of writing this piece yesterday so some readers saw this before it was ready. My apologies!


When I was 19 or 20 years old I had part time work as a bicycle assembler and mechanic. That was my winter job through the years spent at college. When I started that job, the assistant manager took me down to a local tool store where they purchased a set of basic mechanics tools and a small three-drawer toolbox made by Waterloo on my behalf. I paid them back for those tools and toolbox with a portion of my earnings over the next year or so.

I still have that toolbox today and it works fine, except for one problem. In the intervening 25-odd years since I, uh, met my Waterloo, I have made various purchases of more tools, such as wrenches and socket sets, etc.. I have not however acquired another tool box, preferring, ahem, to completely over-stuff that three-drawer unit and then to stack excess tools on the floor, or anywhere I could find a place. This wasn't out of choice necessarily, but I kept putting off doing something about the tool storage situation. It only rears its ugly head as a problem when I'm wrenching on my truck, and searching for, say, a 14mm wrench involves completely unpacking about 30 wrenches crammed in a drawer before I can find it - or find it isn't there, in all likelihood, and have to go looking elsewhere. Does this sound familiar to anyone? It does get old after a while, let me assure you.

I was in my local Napa auto parts store about 3 months back and noticed a fresh display they had set up with a Homak brand of tool cabinet, a 40" or so unit with a cabinet stacked on top. They were on special until December 31st, and the price was around $750 for the upper-lower combo I was looking at. That wasn't a crazy price by any stretch, and it reminded me about my tool box situation and so I started looking at what was available in the world of tool boxes in a bit more earnest.

A few weeks later I decided to pay a trip to my local Sears store, a 30 minute drive down the interstate. It's located in a mall, which I avoid like the plague, however there was an exterior entrance so at least I didn't have to brave the full-on retail scene and zombie hoardes.

I have memories going back to childhood of going to the Sears store (called Simpson Sears in Canada back in the day) and have some familiarity with their Craftsman® line of products. While one could argue that tools from Snap On or Matco, etc., might be better in some minor way, the Craftsman tools shared the concept with those other tool companies that if anything went wrong with the tool, you simply returned it and would be given a new replacement on the spot. Presuming it was in stock of course. Presuming it is not a now-discontinued item of course. Presuming you are not trying to return more than 3 items at time. The Sears Craftsman® no-hassle replacement warranty, though I'm sure the subject of a certain degree of consumer abuse, was in effect a means by which Sears obtained brand loyalty among their customers. They're like a good friend, standing by you in thick and thin. Well, this was the idea, the promise it appeared. Now it is more accurate to place an asterisk next to the Craftsman Lifetime Replacement Warranty. I say this because one can certainly find instances where this warranty does not appear to be all it is cracked up to be. Cases in point can be found readily online.

I haven't been in Sears in years, however when I visited I was immediately reminded of the last time I was in the Hudson's Bay, another Canadian department store: staff are few and far between, and only to be found at the cash register in most cases. you're on your own for the most part, unless you get lucky and stumble upon a staffer lost somewhere in the shelving aisles. I spent a good hour looking at the various tool boxes Craftsman had on offer, and it was a bewildering array. What wasn't clear were exactly what the differences between various models, and a large handing sign depicting tool box models turned out to be more than a year or two out of date and quite misleading. I kept searching for a model that they don't even produce anymore after perusing that sign, only to realize later on that it was simply an old sign and nothing more. The fact that such a sign was still hanging up gives you an idea as to how 'with it' the store seems.  I might have saved myself some time and trouble if I could have found a salesperson to give me the rundown, but for about half the time I was in there weren't even staff manning the cash register, about 3~4 paces away from the tool box displays. They did have a 'badass' Harley Davidson' painted toolbox, but it was the same quality of thing as the others:

Dude, did you see those mag wheels! Yawn. Okay, okay- I understand that if you have a Hog you might find this attractive, but it did nothing for me.

They also had a pink toolbox which was a 'cancer awareness' model - Sears being another company jumping on the corporate pinkwash bandwagon:

The quality of the boxes was not particularly impressive - regardless of paint scheme - fairly similar to the 'Husky' brand that is flogged by Home Depot in most respects. If there were important differences, there were no staff available to educate me in that regard. And when you see them resorting to cheesy tactics like paint schemes to sell product, I begin to wonder about the quality otherwise. A lot of what makes a toolbox good or not relates to the gauge of metal used, the details that are largely unseen, like the internal and floor framing. They know you're going to open and close the drawers of the boxes in the store when you check them out, and start at the paint, however that doesn't tell you much about how the drawer slides stand up over time or how well the drawer works when it is loaded with 70 lbs of tools.

While some Craftsman tools are still made in the USA, the tool boxes are not. I wonder when they were last made domestically? They come from China now, just like the Homak and the Husky brand boxes. Like those boxes, they don't exactly ooze quality. While they have metal slides and all, the drawer sheet metal is simply cut on the edges, not folded over. The wheels are cheap on the roller cabinets, with uncertain bearing quality - if they have bearings at all. I figured if Sears was selling the same sort of Chinese-made boxes as seemed to be available at any number of other stores, then why should I be supporting them? Simply because the plastic badge says 'Craftsman'? Sears is now just a brand within the K-Mart family and K-Mart, well, it has a particular focus in retailing similar to its main competitor, Walmart. Not sure how compatible this retail strategy and outlook will be with the Craftsman brand over the long term, but I would suspect it doesn't bode especially well. We'll see. After my Sears experience, I starting looking online at reviews for different tool boxes, and checking out dozens of different brands.

There is a basic division in tool box land here in the US:
  • Those items made in the US
  • Those items made offshore or 'down south'
There are of course fine toolboxes made in Germany and Japan, but we don't see any of those over here for some reason.

The made-in-USA tool boxes include Snap-On®, and their competitors in similar lines of business supplying direct to the trade out of large vans crammed with beautiful and expensive tools.

A representative example from Snap-On® might be the KRL series, which, according to Snap-On's sale literature,
The KRL storage cabinets are built with double-wall construction, which uses two full-sized layers of high-quality "Class 1" heavy-duty steel to provide ultimate strength, durability and finish. Heavy-duty ball bearing drawer slides help drawers open smoothly and interchange easily, and the Snap-on® Lock N' Roll® system prevents drawers from drifting open during unit transport and non-slip liners keep stored tools in place.
 Yeah, yeah, a bunch of marketing hyperbole, right?

Well, they do make a pretty darn strong tool box, as this picture attests:

And there's the matter of the price. The KRL roller cabinet, depending upon length, color, specifics, costs anywhere from $2600 to $5900. Full Snap-On tool box arrangements, of lower roller cab, upper cab, side cabinets, etc., can range on up to $18,000. Yes, I meant to put all those zeroes in there. The products from Matco, Mac, and so forth are not too different. And they hold their value extremely well, as used ones still typically command prices in the thousands.

IF I were a full time mechanic making my living wrenching on cars or helicopters or dump trucks, I would have no qualms about obtaining a fine quality product like that and getting on a first-name basis with my local Snap-On dealer. However, my use of a metal tool box is sporadic at best and there's no way I can justify spending thousands and thousands for something I won't use on a daily basis and is essentially a box to store tools. It's the tools themselves that are the important thing. I'll happily make similar investments for woodworking equipment as it is my bread and butter and passion, but won't do the same for those tools, like wrenches sockets, pliers, etc., which I only pull out once every few months. Were I a zillionaire, it might be different of course.

So, the other option in terms of a new tool box is the offshore one it would seem, and 99% of the time that means 'Made in China'. I did some research and found a thread on garageforum or somewhere like that where a guy had gone into various stores and checked out various toolboxes in detail, measuring the gauge of the metal used and noting the details as to how they were framed, what sort of wheels they had etc.. His conclusion was that the best bang for the buck, the best value was a 41" roller cabinet sold by an outfit called Harbor Freight. I'd sort of vaguely heard of this store before, a nationwide chain that sells heavily discounted - that's code for cheap - tools. I'd never been in a Harbor Freight store, however I found that there was one located in Springfield, MA - that's right, the home of Smith and Wesson, and, at one time in the past, Indian Motorcycles - about 35 minutes down the interstate from where I live. It's a place with many boarded-up brick factory buildings. I decided to go and take a look and see what was what at the HF store.

Well, the Harbor Freight store sign should really be changed to 'Made in China'. That would be the most accurate description of what they sell. Just about everything in the store is from China as far as I could tell. And boy, there were bargains on top of bargains, and if you happened to have some Harbor Freight coupons in your possession, so much the better. I looked over their tool boxes, branded 'US General', and they seemed okay. No worse, certainly, than what Sears or Napa or Home Depot were selling, and, if that web review was accurate, a notch better in certain respects. With the right coupon, I could purchase the 41" roller cab for $349.00. Yup, for the price of the cheapest Snap-On KRL roller cabinet, I could buy 7 of the US Generals.

I walked around the store a bit more, and started feeling a bit uneasy - or was it queasy? - and left.

Therein lies the dilemma for me: Made in China

First off, I have nothing against China or the Chinese. My greatest esteem is for Chinese classical furniture and their wooden temple architecture was fabulous. They created the modular system of architecture. They created Tung Oil. But hey, I'm only looking at things narrowly of course. The Chinese invented a huge number of things without which modern technological society would simply not exist. Things like paper, printing, compass, gunpowder, dams, bells, brewing, noodles, lacquer ware, banknotes, blast furnaces, ship bulkheads,  bristle toothbrushes, cast iron, chemical warfare, fireworks, fishing reels, kites, nail polish, ship rudders, toilet paper, ... that's just a smattering of examples. Thank god for the Chinese - where would we be in the West today without having, um, ripped off so much of their technology, and doing so without paying a cent for the intellectual property? Ah it was fun to reverse that sentiment. Take away the Chinese inventions and we would still be in the middle ages, trying to stay one step ahead of the latest form of plague making the rounds.

But that history of invention is not what 'Made in China' connotes these days, now is it? It symbolizes the die-off of manufacturing in the US and elsewhere and the loss of skilled jobs, and snuffing out of skilled trade practice. Nowhere was this more poignant for me than when I was standing in that Harbor Freight store. There wasn't a single thing in that store that wasn't made here in the US at some point in the past 30 years. Lots of people are like me, I suspect, in shaking their tiny fists at this situation, cursing the term 'Made in China' under their breath, swearing never to buy any of it until...until you need something, and then you find you haven't got much choice in the matter anymore. Try to buy a light bulb or toaster oven or any number of other conventional consumer goods and the choices are pretty slim in most cases: China or nothing. And once you look at the price difference, well, the decision isn't hard to make for most folks I suspect. Let's see, this shovel is made in Pennsylvania and costs $150, and this one from China looks much the same and costs $14.99...hmm....

Made in China means both the loss of the middle class here, and the exploitation of workers in Chinese factories. They're two sides of the same coin.

To buy 'Made in China', given what that means in the bigger picture, is a hard choice for me to make, especially when it comes down to tools. I can deal with having little choice but to buy a light bulb or mop, or other mass-produced whatnot made in China, but tools are closer to my heart and interests in life. With tools, you can work on things, fix things, create things. Tools are more personal, more connected to my values in so many ways. Tools are made by skilled workers, and good tools can only be made by people who care about more than the bottom line of pricing. The bean counters of this world do not make good tools, at least not as their day job.

I don't blame the Chinese one bit for this state of affairs in consumer culture. They are making what 'we' want, or so it would appear. The Chinese just put a robot lander on the moon and are a well-established nuclear power, so they certainly can make things to the highest required level of technical sophistication. No question about that - case in point here. The funny thing is: why don't we see those sorts of things over here? Why is everything from China that we see in the store invariably low in quality? Are they trying to screw us over? Or, are we trying to screw ourselves over? I suspect the latter.

Let's do a little thought experiment. Let's say you run Acme Company, and lately you have been noticing  - well, people on the board of directors have been noticing, or perhaps the MBA's you hired to make the company more profitable have been noticing - that the cost of 'doing business' in China seems very attractive. Gosh-darned attractive, and no irritating requirements for pension plans or union scale wages or any of that nonsense. You could offshore your entire operation, lay off the employees and the shareholders - er, 'stakeholders' is now the fashionable term - would I'm sure be delighted with an increased return on their investment.

Acme Co.'s best seller is the Deluxe Widget, which has been retailing of late for $99.99. Sales have slumped a bit due to competitors offering a lower cost product. So, you scope out a few different manufacturers in China and note that you do in fact have a few options in how you can go about the offshore production of Deluxe Widgets. No matter what, operating costs at the Chinese factory are going to be lower, as are labor costs, which will be drastically lower. You have the option to import the same equipment over to China that you were using in your US factory, if so desired.

What are those production options for our Deluxe Widgets?

  1. We're going to take advantage of China's high skill in making precision equipment and we are going to have a new improved Deluxe Widget made, with even higher quality materials, at a but a modest increase in price.
  2. At the exact same price point we are going to have the Deluxe Widget made, with the same or maybe slightly better materials, and the same level of workmanship.
  3. We're going to stick with the same quality of materials, but taking full advantage of China's low wage costs, lax environmental regulations, and bribe-able local officials, etc., we are going to bring Deluxe Widgets in for only $69.99
  4. We're going to decide that the US consumer won't be able to tell if the steel and plastics used in our Deluxe Widgets are of inferior quality, or perhaps contain toxic materials - so long as it looks much the same, we are confident we can get a new line of Deluxe Widgets to market for $19.99 each. Surveys have shown that if the item costs less than $20.00, the typical consumer will not complain if it breaks shortly after being used a few times....
Well, we can discount option 1 right away - I've never seen an example of that happening. Option 2 seems reasonable but we don't see much of that either. You'll see a bit of number 3, and a great deal of number 4.

Why is number 4 the popular choice among manufacturers? Well, profitability is greatest with the cheapest things, and consumers will far more readily plonk down a 'trivial' amount of money, like $7.99, $14.99, etc., for an item than they will when the item costs hundred or thousands of dollars. Consumer buying behavior is what drives things, and that behavior is not innate, it is learned. Rather, it is inculcated to be more precise. Looking at the list above, the degree of profitability increases as you move down the list, and it does so exponentially I'm sure.

As Ellen Shell points out in her work Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, this was once a culture where a farmer might have to work for a month to afford a shovel or a rake, and when spending that hard-earned money they were careful to invest it wisely in a well-made tool. Cheap prices were viewed with suspicion, the assumption being that corners must be cut somewhere to made the item cheaper. By the turn of the century and the appearance of the first department store, and especially later in the post WWII years, where the creation of consumer culture was seen as the answer to the longstanding problem of surplus production this attitude among the consuming public began to change. More precisely: manufacturers needed it to change. In time, the perception of the consumer has come to be reversed, and the cheap item is bought with little thought while the expensive item is viewed with suspicion, the thought being that you are being ripped off or unfairly gouged.

Again, the cheapest items are the most profitable. There is far more profit in the $4.99 mini hammer they have in the 'impulse buy' shelf near the cash register than the $45.00 Estwing hammer they sell elsewhere in the store.

But what to do? I needed a tool box, and yet couldn't justify spending thousands on something that would see part time use. But I really didn't want to buy 'Made in China'. I talked to various folks and most of them seemed to think that buying the 'Made in China' item was fine so long as it was a conscious decision. Well, I remained unconvinced and sat on the matter for a while.

Then Craigslist came to my rescue. I came across a set of Kennedy machinist's toolboxes for sale down in Springfield. The owner had bought them for a project that had failed to materialize, and the boxes were new. They'd been sitting in his garage for 15 years in fact. I went down and had a look, and we settled on a price of $750. These are made in Van Wert, Ohio, and have been for the past 100 years. A rare American manufacturer who is still in business. These aren't boxes that you can park a dump truck on, but they are still very decent, and the set would cost $2100 if purchased new today. Here there are set up in my shop:

It's nice to finally have a place for my hand tools, like these Knipex pliers:

A view of a few other drawers - this tray is a great place to store some of my measuring and layout tools:

Another drawer:

I'm still figuring out where to put things and will be reorganizing a few times yet until it is sorted out in a more logical manner. I'll be getting the four tool box locks all keyed alike and lining some of the drawers with foam and fitting the tools to the foam. All in good time. There is room yet in the toolbox, and i'm liking the sensation of not being maxed out, of being able to find a tool quickly when I need it.

Speaking of storage, I also built a plywood shelf unit to hold shaper tooling and accessories:

I was able to move some of the stuff in that cabinet over from another cabinet which is for router tooling and accessories, making more space available there as a result:

Things are slowly getting more organized in my shop, though I am starting to get pinched for space. One more stationary machine purchase and I'll be maxed out, which means renting a bigger amount of space, which I'd rather avoid. I will need a table saw at some point though!

All for now. Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.


  1. Hi Chris,
    Been there, done that. I am fortunate to live near a large quality flea market. I often delay purchases to see what will show up there. It's much more satisfying.
    Harlan B

    1. Hi Harlan,

      thanks for your comment. I used to go to flea markets sometimes when I was a kid but haven't in years. I don't know of any around here. Mostly it is tag sales, auction houses and the like. I've gone to the local auction house a few times during the preview period to check it out, but haven't seen anything of remote interest. It's a popular place for locals though.


  2. Chris;
    Understand the CHINESE thing!Good catch on the box! When will the build start?Thanx for all the info!

    1. J.T.

      thanks for your comment. I'm thinking that by "the build" you're referring to the sideboard project? if so, probably will start in the next month, once I finish drawing. I have 5 other projects on the go right now, of various engagements, so the sideboard is something I only give attention to occasionally. I do think about it frequently though and work on the design in my head.



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