Long lasting tool or cheaper import?

In the last year I have read a number of forum posts where people ask questions like “Should I buy a Lie Nielsen or Veritas or WoodRiver plane?”. There isn’t really an easy answer. If working on cost alone, it would be easy to choose the one with the lowest price, but there are other factors involved. Tools that are manufactured in mass quantities overseas do cost less, partially because the cost of labour is less (but growing). However overseas manufacturing can come with its own baggage – environmental impact? workplace safety? When you buy a tool manufactured in North America you are helping foremost to employ people. People who have a job contribute to local economies, which in turn stops smaller towns from disappearing because people have to move away. Small manufacturing companies often contribute back to their local community, and obtain parts/goods from other local companies. It is a cyclic process, and sending manufacturing offshore brings more harm than good.

Manufacturing quality tools costs money – it’s not just the cost of manufacturing the tool (material and labour), but also the cost of design and innovation, and the quality of materials being used. Let’s look at cost by exploring the No.4 plane. Here are the current prices for three manufacturers planes:

WoodRiver (China) US$145.00
Veritas (Canada) US$209.00
Lie Nielsen (USA) US$300.00

There is obviously a price differential. But what are you getting for that price? The price is not just the material value of the item. There is a US$64 difference between the WoodRiver and Veritas planes. Why? The Veritas has “out of the box” usability, and innovation. The No.4 bench plane has a all-in-one rear tote and adjustable frog assembly that extends all the way to the sole, and a Norris-style adjustment mechanism. For $279 you can get a Veritas® customizable smoother, with adjustable mouth. Innovation is not possible without investment.

Eric Sloane once said “Most of today’s tools have the cheapness of mass production, the old hand-made tools often had design that made them examples of fine art.” The planes of Lie Nielsen and Veritas are indeed works of art. Yes, if you are starting out in woodworking, you may not be able to afford a cabinet full of LN/V planes. But do you need them all straight away? Likely not. Pick a workhorse, save up, buy a quality tool. Then as time goes on supplement it with another one. If cost is an issue, then it is possible to buy a vintage No.4 handplane in reasonable condition, for anywhere between $40-$100. Sure, it too will need some work, maybe an updated blade from Veritas or Hock? Finally there is the matter of value. One would like to think that investing in a quality tool will mean that it will maintain its value, or increase in value over time. The same can not be said of mass-produced tools.

Let’s call the extra cost of buying North American “social responsibility”, or an investment in our children’s future.

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