the Carpentry Way: The Search Continues                                                          

The Search Continues

Since my last post on this topic, "The Best a Man can Get?", I've been looking at, and for, tools in earnest. It's hard work traipsing up and down the aisles of the tool sellers and comparing umpteen features vs price points. I'm learning a lot, not all of it good.

I had my eyes on a mortiser (morticer for those of you in Britain and possibly Australia) that had a lot of great features, and the asking price wasn't too bad at $750. It is a Multico PM22, which has a 1hp. motor and a head assembly that tilts all the way down to horizontal, which would allow for incredibly versatile mortising. This is what a new one looked like:

It was made in the UK and was sold through Garrett-Wade in the US - 'was' being the operative expression. Garrett-wade stopped carrying Multico several years back and no one else in the US picked up distributorship. There is a Multico UK website, however it hasn't been updated since 2006, parts of it are dis-functional, and after having sent 2 e-mails to the company, I tried calling their number only to get disconnected. It would appear that they are defunct. Rumor has it that the product is still being made in France, but I have not been able to confirm that. So, given the bleak picture for parts and manufacturer support, and that the machine is still a pretty decent unit, I decided to write the seller, explained the situation with Multico being likely defunct, and offered him $500 for the machine. Was that too much? He hasn't replied -yet- so I have no idea if I 'insulted' him or what.

Then I was looking at another older machine, a Hitachi F1000A jointer/planer. Unlike a lot of combination machines, the jointer and planer are side by side in the F1000A so there is no futzing with flipping the tables up and down to go between machine functions. These were made by Hitachi Japan and imported to the US until the mid 1990's from what I have been able to gather. I found one in Boise, Idaho that had had some recent rebuilding work and appeared to be in good shape. The seller had upgraded to larger equipment, which is why he was selling, and he proved to be a most helpful fellow. You could tell from his messages that he was a decent guy. He even offered to use his discounted shipping company account and split the shipping cost with me. He wanted $950 for the unit. Here's what an F1000A looks like in case the reader is unfamiliar:

This machine has a 12" wide planer, and a 6" wide jointer, more or less. It is also a 110v, 3hp. motor, so in operation it will not exactly be quiet or capable of planing much off of wider boards. Still, I knew it to be a decent unit, the best one Hitachi ever brought over to the US (but hardly the best one they made or make!), so I was tempted. But it hasn't been in production a while, so I was concerned about spare parts availability should something go wrong with it. I called Hitachi's main service center in Georgia yesterday, and they confirmed that there is no parts support at all for the F1000A. That means, for instance, that if a board got jammed in the planer and the drive belt slipped and burned, to later fail, I would be SOL and my machine rendered largely a cast iron recycling project or deluxe paperweight. I told the seller the situation and he came back with an offer to sell the machine for cheaper, however the shipping proved to be such that he would have had to pretty much give me the machine for free in order for my go-ahead on buying it. So that came to naught but I learned something.

Curiously, Hitachi doesn't seem to be bringing in any planers of any kind of late, save for the little 3" handheld jobbies, to the US market. There was a sort of shoebox planer with attached 6" jointer, the P12RA, that was sold, and can still be found, but at $1500, well, I don't see too many people ponying up for that.

One thing that is interesting is the bigger picture with Hitachi, Ryobi and Makita in terms of what they sell in different markets and for how much. The advantage to living in Japan is that the full range of these company's gear is available, but the prices aren't so great. In the US, the available range is considerably smaller, but what is for sale is often quite a bit cheaper than in Japan. The little Makita 2012NB planer for example:

This machine is among several Makita products on sale across the US for the next month or two, and can be had for as little as $482.50, shipping included. The same planer is sold in Japan, where the retail price is ¥116,000. With a customary 15% discount that you would get through a retailer, the price would be around ¥100,000, which converts to US$1078. The machine is less than half the price in the US than in Japan. I've found similar examples with other machines.

Now, wouldn't it be nice if Makita exported this model?:

An 18" planer and 12" jointer, side by side. Price? Don't ask, and they are never going to export that sort of stuff anyhow.

I've learned a few more tidbits about various companies and their wares during my explorations of the power tool world. It's easy to get fixated on various brands and lose the bigger picture. In the last post on this topic, I slagged Dewalt for their disposable planer blades and apparent poor customer service. I was surprised in fact not to get mail from people loyal to the company and anxious to defend the product, or tell me how they had had good experiences themselves. Well, Dewalt may once have made decent stuff, I don't know, and maybe the 735 planer is an anomaly in their line up, and the rest of the stuff is fine. What I do know is that Dewalt, along with Porter Cable (which produced some okay stuff) and Delta (which has been junk since the 1950's) were acquired by the Black and Decker company a few years back. Another case of a large company with a poor brand image, in my eyes at least, trying to acquire a better brand image by consuming companies with more favorable brand identities. I'm sure they have other reasons for such acquisitions as well, and I would bet the reduction in competition might have something to do with it, no?

The brand acquisition ploy works for a while and confuses many people, but in time the parent company culture and ethos appears to ooze and seep in to all their subsidiaries and the same factors that lead to the parent company having a poor brand (cost-cutting, off-shore production, axing the labor force, etc) will lead the subsidiaries to eventually develop a similar illness. That's my theory anyhow, and while it is likely not true in all cases, it would appear to be the case with Dewalt. I noticed recently that there are a bunch of new cheap-looking Porter Cable machines now on the market, like a bandsaw and tablesaw, stuff that company never used to make. Bye-bye Porter Cable.

While big fish swallow the little fish for nutrition - it's what emerges after digestion is complete that I'm concerned about. It seems that behemoth Black and Decker itself has since been swallowed up by another large company, also with a dubious brand image these days, in my opinion, Stanley. This will create "$350 million in cost synergies" the Black and Decker Corporation crowed in their press release. It smells like more product degrade coming down the pike to me. I'll keep my distance.

Brands masquerade the truth and sell you an image. Sometimes though my brand preconceptions work against me a bit. Case in point is Ridgid and the orange-colored line of power tools by that name available only through the Home Depot chain. Ridgid, a brand of the Ridge Tool Company, is more famous originally for pipe wrenches and other accoutrement of the plumbing trade. They struck a deal with Home Depot after they were acquired by an outfit called Emerson Electrical. Emerson, based in Saint Louis MO, has been in business since 1890, and has become a large conglomerate with 140,000 employees. They were the first company to sell electric fans in the US. Emerson used to produce the Sears Craftsman line of tools, and in fact Sears sued Emerson in 2002 (case settled for $10.8 million) for stealing power tool designs and using them to make products for Home Depot.

Anyway, it IS a little confusing actually. Ridgid (the plumbing tools) are made in the US and most would consider them pretty decent. Ridgid (the power tools) are made by Emerson Electric in the USA, right? Wrong. While the Ridgid Brand (for cordless and corded power tools) is owned by Emerson Electric, that brand is exclusively licensed to The Home Depot and, get this, MANUFACTURED by Techtronic Industries.

More particularly, the Ridgid license agreement is with One World Technologies, a wholly owned subsidiary of Tectronics Industries International, and NOT Home Depot. Home Depot is the exclusive retailer for Ridgid-brand woodworking tools, and that is it.

Techtronic Industries (TTI) is based in Hong Kong and owns the Ryobi, Milwaukee and AEG brands of corded and cordless power tools. Techtronic also contract manufactures corded and cordless tools for Sears/K-Mart (Sears' Craftsman brand power tools). Lots of companies make stuff for Sears of course. TTI is also in the process of closing the four US plants of Milwaukee and moving the production to China. Now, Milwaukee used to be good stuff - their drills in particular. Apparently things are going in a new direction as far as that brand goes. I heard that many stores are not going to carry Milwaukee any more because their service support is so pathetic. I understand that Milwaukee will only pay a tool repair outfit something like $12/hour to fix their tools under warranty. I don't see how a tool repair shop could do repairs on anything for such a low rate. So if you have a Milwaukee product needing repair work, don't be surprised if the local repair shop isn't particularly enthused by the opportunity.

Lest the reader fear I am starting to ramble a bit off topic (hardly the first time!), it is the subject of warranty that has me thinking more seriously about the Ridgid products sold at Home Depot, despite my considerable misgivings about Home Depot as a voracious entity in the market destroying diversity. You see, the Ridgid power tools come with a lifetime warrantee. That's a significant point. That even includes batteries on cordless tools, a part which is frequently revamped.

A lifetime warranty, combined with a low price at the store, combined with some pretty good features on the products I have been looking at are all very appealing of course. For $499, Ridgid's table saw with powder-coated cast iron top, real t-slots, a decent fence, good dust collection, and an included carry cart, is just so much better than the other options available, including offerings from Dewalt and Bosch. The Ridgid 12" sliding compound chop saw, at $560, is a pretty good product, and can't be touched for the price. Other saws might have some nice features, but cost more and the warranty - well, the best you get with most brands is 1-year, though Festool does give 3 years. The Festool Kapex sliding chop saw is $1300. It's pretty snazzy, but at twice the price of the competition, I am not sure it is worth it.

I admit I'm a bit torn between these conflicting positions. All the branding starts to seem meaningless after a while. It takes research just to find out who owns what. And if most of it is coming out of the same factory, does the brand really matter? I didn't realize that Ryobi was now owned by a non-Japanese entity. Does that matter? I wonder if the trend of corporate consolidation continues will it end up that all the power tools on earth will be made by one gigantic factory in China or elsewhere?

Well, I don't know quite what to do, but I could use a few tools. I'm feeling seduced by the lifetime warranty of the Ridgid stuff, and yet I feel a little, uh, how to put it? A little dirty or something like that when I think of buying from that company. that said, I'm buying a product from TTI in the end, and Home Depot gets their cut. I'll be mulling that over for a while yet. Your comments and sage advice are most welcome. Is there a way through this nest of brand images? Is it better to reduce my tool set down to an axe and make do?