How to find your way in tool brand names
May 20, 2003
The Bottom Line Assess honestly your needs for tools and shop smartly.
With the zillion tools available on the market to choose from, anybody shopping is in for a big surprise. Theres plenty of choices, colors, performances, features, nice add-ons, qualities, etc. How to find your way in tool brand names? Which criteria will you use to narrow down your final choice? Are you going to waste 200$ on a tool that will prove later to be junk when 20$ more invested into another brand would have got you the top notch that will last a lifetime? How can you tell?
I hope I can give some advices here in this document for beginners looking to invest wisely their money on their first power tools. I decided to name each tool manufacturer and identify their target market. Ill also point out their best tools and their worst. Youll quickly find out theres something for everybody and for every budget especially if you do your homework and you identify properly your needs.
There's at least one thing on which everybody will agree; no tool manufacturer have all the best tools ever made under their line of products. Usually, they will be renowned for a few specific tools while the rest of their line will be considered as serious performers. Unfortunately, all tool manufacturer have one or more of those nightmare tool they wish they never produced.
The following list of manufacturers here will try to help providing you a starting point where you can evaluate their products and position the brand with your current needs. No brand has to be avoided at all cost but only your needs and your expectations will dictate where you should be looking. If youre looking for an affordable cordless drill for light use only, any manufacturers listed below will meet your needs for the price youre willing to pay but if youre looking for a very precise and vibration-free jigsaw, you wont have the choice to shell out the money to get one of the most expensive one even though you might need it for a very light use.
Obviously, older this review will get, less reliable will be the information here because of the simple fact that tool manufacturers make new products everyday and they usually come up with better tools than they're replacing. The other issue as well with such a listing is than some people may have been very lucky with a certain tool, which is known to be unreliable, and others won't have as much luck with one renowned as being indestructible. My intention is not to bash a brand name or promote another one on purpose. If you purchase a belt sander from Black & Decker, you might be very well satisfied with it and this product will sustain your workload easily. If you earn your life sanding and varnishing floors, I can tell right away your Black & Decker belt sander wont last a month. Anyway, I will just try to shed some light and tell which brand or which product gained a good reputation on the market. I hope I can explain and position each company in the market and provide enough information for someone whos looking to buy a tool but doesnt have enough experience to avoid the common pitfalls.
Dont forget that most if not all of this information come from my personal experience, friends and co-workers and also my tool store folks. Speaking of my favorite tool store, since I go there just too often, I hear those stories and I see whats happening with the tools they sell. They know better because they get all the returns, the warranty claims and they see the product during its life cycle. This happen to be very valuable information that keeps me away from the problematic and unreliable tools.
But before I start with this countdown of tools, I would also like to position myself into the whole portrait. I must confess that Im a tool junkie and I invest some serious money in my tool collection. Woodworking is my favorite hobby and theres nothing that get me more satisfied than having wood pieces mating perfectly or getting perfect assemblies. Im also a perfectionist and I never look for a deal when tools are involved. If I want a tool for specific reasons, I wont pick the other model from another manufacturer because it was 10$ cheaper. Money is no issue when comes the time to assess my needs and my expectations. I like to invest in durable and professional quality tools because they will probably last as long as I will (if not more) and theyll retain a high resale value. I think its wiser to invest in high-end tools because you get a stronger motor (more power means safer for you), the tool will be more forgiving if any errors occur and youll enjoy the pleasure of using a fine tool. That high-end tool can be sold back after the job is done or after many years of service (keep it clean though) and youll be surprised on how much you can get for it. Ive seen people buying used tools from reputable manufacturers on eBay for the same price they sell new. I also wrote an advice regarding the purchase of quality tools, feel free to read it as well here: (http://www.epinions.com/content_2304483460) and see why I promote the purchase of good and reliable tools even for beginners.
But I understand not everybody is like me (fortunately) and this is why I spent the time to write this advice. My intention is not to bash certain tool manufacturers but simply tell the most objectively as possible what you should expect from the product you buy.
Again and again, I repeat my disclaimer. Whatever youll read here doesnt mean its the plain truth and cannot be argued. You may know a friend who has a certain product I will claim to be junk here and youll tell me hes been working with this tool since 20 years every day and it never failed. I can also tell you people who bought the best of the best and the darn tool died after 10 minutes of use. How can it be? Well, I know a man who smoked 2 packs/day for 75 years. The old bastard died in a car accident at 95 years old. Some get away with it and you get all those exceptions that will just prove you wrong. Tools are not different. When people talk about great tools they had for 10, 15 or 20 years, one question should be asked: How often and how long the tool has been really used excluding time spent on a shelf?
What professionals buy
Dont forget that many other reasons may push a professional contractor to buy low-end tools. Theyre readily available, theyre inexpensive and can be replaced easily if they break or get stolen. Whatever the brand, when a tool falls from a 100 high, they all break so why waste money on high-end stuff? Many construction business owners admitted to me it was cheaper for them to buy cheap tools because none of their tools could see the end of their life expectancy. Either they loose them, break them or drop them. Waiting for them to be repaired is a not an option so they end up buying a new one anyway You can have 6 low-end circular saws for the price of one high-end. But with all that being said, it doesnt invalidate my argument that higher-end products will usually last longer and are more reliable, it might not be the choice of the professionals though.
The only thing to remember is the following: Each product has been designed to answer specific needs. Unfortunately, those needs arent written on the box. As a customer, youre left with very little reliable information. Among the choices you have to educate yourself on each product youre planning to buy, theres obviously Epinions.com to start with in the first place. The second clue is the price. We always end up getting what we pay for Dont expect the same performances from a drill you paid 29.95$ as opposed to one you would pay 125$. Your third level of clues will be the specs. More usually means better but not always. The extra money is often explainable by more Amps, stronger bearings and gears, more features or protection devices.
Buy from trustable places
Finally, I would suggest to rely on a trustable tool store. If youre satisfied at one place, try to concentrate your tool purchases there. Try to avoid buying tools in Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowes, etc. Theyre large surface stores and their work force change regularly. You may end up requesting information to a clerk who knows less than you do or will point you out to the tool that sells well. He might not know why though. You obviously dont need that kind of answers.
On the other hand, your local tool store has nothing to gain to sell you a piece of junk. They just know too well youll come back angry at them. Theyre in business by selling tools that wont come back to eat their profit margin (they dont make money when they process warranty claims). Since they see what they sell, they see what comes back for warranty claims. The other advantage to purchase from the same tool store, they get to know you and they can help you better in the long run. I remember once I showed up to my store to get a hammer drill for an important job. He didnt have any in stock but was expecting them in the following days. Well, he lent me his floor model to use and called me when he got the new batch. I returned the tool and he gave me a new one. Try to do that at Home Depot
Here it starts...
Black & Decker
Black & Decker makes a whole bunch of different products ranging from cordless drills to toasters. They usually make good products for the average customer. Obviously, tool speaking, they're not at the top of the line. I personally have one of their 3/8" corded drill and it still serves me well today but in no way this drill would be capable of taking a lot of abuse. If I'm not mistaken, they were the first company to introduce a cordless drill. Obviously at that time, this drill was in no way a professional product but it was useful enough to have one around. The idea got its way and now, try to find a company not making any cordless tool?
Black & Decker is a trustable brand name to purchase if your objectives in your tool acquisition plan are to have a decent featured tool that will be used lightly and not too often. If you like gadgets and eye-catching designs, you'll be served well too with them because B&D is also working hard on the design of their tools. Again, I'm repeating that you might be a professional and use a B&D tool everyday and be surprisingly satisfied with it but it remains a brand name that targets the home hobbyist market.
Black&Decker used to have a professional line that had great tools but I think this line disappeared and has been replaced by DeWalt, their sister company.
Bosch is a German company making fine tools since 100 years if not more. They're actually the inventors of the jigsaw we know and still today, make one of the finest one on the market. Among their great tools, you'll find the sanders in general (random orbital, belt, etc.). They also have some great cordless drills as well as corded drills. Their portable table saw also got some great reviews. They've also started to produce better miter saws than before. They make some very good routers and their grinders are good too.
Bosch is a professional grade company and they have the German way of making things. Bosch is present in many professional construction sites and will get the job done. Obviously, their tools are more expensive but you always get what you pay for. If you're looking into a long-term investment in quality tools, Bosch should be one to look at closely.
Craftsman is sold at Sears only and has a wide variety of products. You can find mechanic tools (forged steel), power tools, lawnmowers, snow blowers, etc. Obviously, Sears don't manufacture all those products themselves but sign contracts with manufacturing companies that will provide them their products. Hidden under the name Craftsman, you may have many companies with different level of quality.
To speak specifically about power tools, it seems there's a consensus on the public bulletin boards about the fact that the name is not up to what it used to be in the past. All the tools made before the 80's were apparently high quality products with great track records of reliability. Today all that changed and not for the best unfortunately. It still remains today an acceptable choice for homeowners but might be more risky if you're a professional working with his tools everyday. I would compare the quality of the Craftsman tools as what you can expect from Black&Decker. It not might be exact but it's probably not far from there.
Ive also noticed an annoying practice too: their tools are usually overpriced but once in special, they sell for about the same thing as other tool manufacturers. They do claim a 50% off rebate but when you look at the price and what you get for that money, theres no bargain there it should be the regular price in the first place.
Delta has been there for many years and makes mostly stationary woodworking tools. Their table saw "Unisaw" is a classic and many people drool at the idea of owning one like this one day. Delta does produce high quality products but had to make a decision a few years ago to follow up with the competition They had to have some of their power tools made overseas, more specifically in Taiwan. Theres nothing wrong with that but the reactions we read in the various public forums are clear. Watch out! Quality control is on the loose and you have to be careful. Some products are OK, others are really bad.
One way to insure a certain level of quality is to look where theyre made. Those made in the US are more expensive but are of higher quality. I cannot be more specific here aside from telling you to ask a lot of questions and look at them closely in and out. Ask to have a demonstration of the floor model and check out for vibrations, ease of adjustments and the overall finish.
DeWalt is the sister company of Black & Decker and makes, in general, higher quality products. Their market is the professionals as well as the serious hobbyist whos looking for good and reliable tools. Theyre probably the only manufacturer to offer such a wide variety of tools and the speed at which they introduce new products is simply unbelievable. They have almost everything for everyone. I had a lot of DeWalt tools and have been happy with most of them. Ive noticed their tools are usually boosted with steroids spec wise compared to other manufacturers. They often provide more Amps, more rpm, more everything. The body of all their tools is made out of a tough and rugged yellow impact-resistant plastic. Their tools are usually expensive but are often a good compromise between the real pro stuff and the lower-end market.
My own personal opinion about DeWalt is simple. I believe that they have a blurry line between their truly pro stuff and their weekend hobbyist tools. The difference is huge. Some tools are designed to sustain a certain level of use in minutes per hour and others are designed to work 8hrs/day with no break. Put simply, it just means that before starting any design process, the market is targeted beforehand. Based on these criteria, the design process can start and hundreds of decisions will be made before the product is sent to mass production. Those choices will have a major impact on the longevity or the reliability of the tool. If you use a specific tool in a way it has not been designed for, it will simply shorten its life expectancy and youll pay for a new one faster.
How to differentiate their higher end products then? Well, heres the catch When you shop for a DeWalt tool, you may end up hesitating between a 29.95$ corded drill or a 90$ corded drill. There will be very few differences on the outside and even a close look at the spec sheets of both drill wont tell you why theres such a price difference. My not too scientific eye managed to notice that all their tools, which have a black rubber grip around the handle are usually their best tools. Those with a complete yellow plastic handle are their consumer grade and most probably wont last as long or will have less features than their black rubber grip hand brothers I dont like the fact that I need to learn what DeWalt had in mind when they designed a product. When I was doing some home improvement projects around the house and had low expectations from my tools, I was happy with almost their entire line of products. Now that Im producing a lot of work and I push many of my tools to their limit, I became pickier about reliability issues. This is why I stopped buying DeWalt. Why? Simply because I feel that Im taking a chance when I buy one of their tool and I dont like this feeling when I shell out hard earned money. I cant really afford to replace a tool every 2 months. Unless one of their tools is known to be the best on the market (and I dont trust magazine tool reviews for that matter), then I might take a chance again.
Also, one of my biggest gripe with DeWalt is their pricing structure. Some of their tools are known to be unreliable and theyre sold almost as expensive as real pro tools which are legends on the market (example: jigsaw (Bosch, Metabo), hammer drills (Metabo, Hilti, Bosch), belt sander (Porter-Cable, Hitachi). You would shell out 20$ more and you would get the best on the market but because you didnt do it (or you didnt know), youre stuck with a less than acceptable tool.
If I have to define the perfect customer for the DeWalt tools, I would say someone interested in a higher level of quality than the entry-level consumer brands but someone whos not going to earn his life with his tools. I know you can probably point out many people using those tools on professional construction sites. It doesnt mean they cannot be used professionally, it simply mean for a certain amount of money, you may be better served with another tool manufacturer.
DeWalt is renowned for their circular saws, miter saws, cordless drills, biscuit joiner, portable planer, portable table saws, some sanders (not the belt ones), etc.
Things I would never buy from them: reciprocating saws, belt sanders, hammer drills, jigsaws, rotary hammers.
General / General International
General is a Canadian company and they are producing large stationary tools like table saws, planer, jointer, etc. They have a complete line of woodworking tools. They also have another division called General International which are tools imported from Taiwan sold under this name.
They have a very good quality and youll find many of their tools in production shops and professional businesses. They do have large tools and if you are only a weekend woodworker, youll barely qualify for their entry-level products. This is why the General International line may suit you better because they have smaller and more affordable products.
They make great table saws (contractor & cabinet type), jointer, and planer, dust collector, etc. You wont make any mistake if you purchase their products and I would state that in many products, theyre a much better choice than Delta. You can buy in confidence.
Hitachi is a Japanese company and makes tons of products like TVs, VCRs, home appliances, etc. One of their divisions makes power tools and like many of their products, you can trust them. They make high end products but arent very well known here. According to my tool store, theyre not very well represented by sales representatives and they have to order from Hitachi in bulk (buy at least 100 tools at the time). This creates a problem because theyre often out of stock of Hitachi products so clients in a hurry pick the competitors products, which are more available. Then youre stuck in a vicious circle. Less clients buy, less the store can order, less they order, less you see them on the shelves and that explains why we dont see more of their fine tools.
Even though some of their tools look more like toys with their ergo-grip and their flashy green and black colors, dont be mistaken, theyre high end products. Obviously, like all the other major tool manufacturers, they have a good all-purpose entry-level 3/8 corded drill selling for about 70$.
Their best tools are probably in the compressed air nailers and staplers. Most, if not all their nailers are usually listed at the top of every tool review you can find. If you want the best nailers around, Hitachi will make it in your list for sure. Hitachi also makes great belt sanders, impact drivers, reciprocating saw and cordless drills.
Makita has been around for over 25~30 years now in North America and has been known as making affordable high-end power tools. At that time, Made in Japan meant that you were getting the most bang for your buck. Their tools used to be gray and I remember back then, construction workers saw them in high esteem. The brand eventually became more popular and was demanded by average weekend woodworkers. The company then started to introduce a low-end grade of their most popular tools to benefit from their reputation when competing with the bottom of the market.
Unfortunately, you can no longer say Hey, I cant go wrong with a Makita. The truth is: Yes you can go wrong big time if youre looking for professional tools within their line of products. The problem with them is similar to DeWalt; they have a blurry line between their low-end, consumer level products and their high-end stuff. How can you tell when youre shopping in the Makita line of products? Again this time, a black rubber handle will help you weed out the low-end stuff but you can also look at the tool design. If the body of the tool is made out of two symmetric parts screwed together to form the final shape, most probably its the low-end type. Higher quality products have many parts put together and is more complex in assembly.
Again, I dont like to study the corporate marketing strategy to identify which products is good for me. I also had many bad experiences with Makita when I worked for a general contractor for about six months. He was a real Makita tool junkie and had no other brands in his truck. I used all of his tools and most of them died during this project. Among the unfortunate piece of junk, two screwdrivers, a reciprocating saw, a ½ drill, a belt sander, a circular saw and a cordless drill. I happened to live next to the Makita repair center and I was bringing the dead tools for repairs. The mechanic has told me that you must be careful with certain of their tools which happen to be junk. He did told me which one were OK but that was over 10 years ago so I cannot really bring this back here as a fact.
Among their vast line of products, youll probably be very satisfied with their high-end cordless drills (watch out for the low-end products), their miter saws, their impact drivers, their sanders.
Things I would never buy from them: circular saws, biscuit jointer, reciprocating saws, electric screwdrivers and their low-end cordless drills.
Metabo is a German company and they make fine tools for the professional market. Their designs are sometimes unusual and it takes time to get use to them and appreciate them visually speaking but once you do, most probably youll be hooked to them forever.
Definitively, their best products are their hammer drills. Theyre all over the construction sites and my tool store sells about one or two/day. You cannot go wrong if you get one of their hammer drills. They also make great cordless drills as well as a very good 6 random orbital sander. We unfortunately dont have the entire line distributed here but I guess eventually it will happen. If youre looking for fine and high quality tools, Metabo will be unavoidable on your road to better tools.
This brand is tough! They offer rugged and tough tools in screaming red bodies. Obviously were talking professional stuff here and theres no low-end products to weed out. This company offers only high-ends products for the demanding professionals. Theyre the inventors of the reciprocating saw and they make the best one on the market right now. I dont know if its me but I find in Milwaukee the perfect tools for all the dirty and tough work you can find. They make great reciprocating saws (do I repeat myself here?), circular saws, jigsaws, hammer drills, corded and cordless drills, rotary hammers, grinders, cutoff machines, shears and nibblers, portable band saws, etc. They also introduced recently a great mid-range router which is shaped to be hold with one hand comfortably.
I remember this plumber who was boring large holes (4 and the like) into floors and walls for the drainage line with his large angled drill he had a hard time holding this beast but he got the job done fast. All I can say is their motors are designed to work hard and you wont be deceived if you purchase one of their tools. Be ready to shell out the money but you wont regret it.
Things I wouldnt buy from them: miter saws.
Porter-Cable is certainly one of my favorite brands in my workshop. I would quickly admit that if I had to get stuck with only one brand in my woodworking shop, I would pick Porter-Cable first with no hesitation. Why? Have you ever watched an episode of the New Yankee Workshop? The answer is simple: they make great power tools for woodworkers in particular. Their routers are legendary. Who never heard of the Model 690? They also make a great biscuit jointer (the best in my humble opinion). They have also a great line of affordable compressed air nailers and staplers. Their compressors are reliable and priced competitively. Their belt sanders are also known as the best on the market as well as many if not all their sanders. They also make the second best reciprocating saw (after Milwaukee). Theyre also renowned for gypsum board related tools like electric screwdrivers, sanders and vacuum cleaners. They also have a wide variety of specialty tools for carpenters, drywall installers, etc.
If you ever purchase a Porter-Cable tool, most likely youll be satisfied. They make fine and durable tools. Theyre also well designed and are usually comfortable to use. They also offer a great warranty (30 days or your money back / 1 year) and they give you a chance to try out the tool for 30 days. You dont like it, you return it, as simple as that no question asked. I purchased a router that had some problems, I called them and they promptly told me to return to the store and get a new one on the spot. They told me their only priority was to make sure I was happy and satisfied. The new router works fine and has no problem.
Things I wouldnt buy from them: hammer drills, profile sander and cordless drills.
I dont personally own any Ryobi tools but I do know they target the home consumer market. Event though you may see a few of them on construction sites, they usually fall short fast and are not in the same category as genuine professional tools. Ive seen some decent cordless tools from them that can be a great purchase for homeowner looking into affordable tools.
It wouldnt honest of my part to state specific tools to be avoided. Since I never had any of their tools and since they target the consumer market and I dont buy this quality, Ive never really studied or considered their products seriously.
Skil is another brand name offering products for the consumer market. They make a fairly wide variety of products and they came up with some very innovative ideas. They do have some professional tools like their worm drive Skilsaw which is appreciated among professional carpenters. I dont know their line of products very well but Ive seen their products often on the shelves and I would compare their level of quality in the same ball game as Black & Decker, Ryobi and Craftsman.
I dont own any of their tools so it wouldnt be fair if I stated which products to avoid. Despite this fact, its not exaggerated to include them in the low-end to mid range group.
All that being said, I hope you have a clearer view now that will guide you in your purchase decisions. The most important thing to remember is to assess honestly your current and future needs. Write them down on a piece of paper and state which items rate as your highest priority. Even though you dont plan to use your tool often, if youre picky about precision, you may have to look at the high-end stuff. Ask questions and dont be afraid to touch and look at every model in display. Pay close attention to all the controls, knobs and gadgets. See if they work smoothly and if theyre easy to manipulate.
If you just purchased a new house and you like renovating, most likely youll buy another house later on during your life and your tool collection will follow you for another round of home improvement projects. Why not spend a little bit more to get some good quality tools and forget about them?
As another advice to limit your expenditures, I would suggest to buy tools in a way that they can be useful in many different occasions. For example, a reciprocating saw will take care of any rough cutting of steel and wood inside the house but also at pruning trees with a special blade. It might be easier to justify this purchase with that application in mind.
A jigsaw is often a good purchase over a circular saw. Unless you saw sheet goods often to justify it, a jigsaw with a good variety of blade will take care of many cutting tasks. If you need precision and security, I would consider a miter saw before a handheld circular saw.
Cordless drill are also a much better choice over the regular all-purpose corded 3/8 drill. Why? Simply because you can carry them anywhere without an extension cord and its a lot easier to install screws with a cordless drill.
Happy tool buying!