Buying Good Tools for the Wrong Reason

***previously published on Popular Woodworking’s Blog***

There is no easy way.

There I was, on my butt halfway up the hill on my seventh try, tackling what I refer to as the single-track-mountain-bike hill of death. The throbbing from the inevitable bruise on my butt beginning its rhythmic mocking chant only to be quickly magnified by the kid behind me on a K-Mart BMX bike who had to literally ride over me to avoid crashing himself.

“Why’d you stop peddling.” He yelled at me once I’d managed to carry my bike up the rest of the hill.

“I didn’t, I crashed.”

“You crashed cause you stopped peddling,” snarked the kid, followed by the condescending, “Nice Bike.” As if I didn’t deserve to own such a nice machine.

My bike was a Proflex 856 with aftermarket coil over shocks, Girvin springer front forks, XT gearset, superlight rims (front now bent from either crashing or being ridden over) and new tires specifically bought to help me tackle this hill. I was proud of that machine, having purchased it in my late 20s by selling my motocross bike and dumping the entire amount into this new hobby with dreams of getting back into shape and maybe a little competition

Doesn’t it suck when whippersnappers like that BMX rider are right? That bike was wasted on me.

I’d tried to buy skill via equipment. Isn’t that what manufacturers preach all the time? This gizmo or that is all you need to be able to do … And the pros swear that the doodad will cut time, add control, leap tall buildings, and make the ladies swoon. Thousands of dollars spent to compensate for less time in the saddle. Woulda been better off working a few hours less overtime, saving that money and spending those extra hours on the trail enjoying the hobby.

I did the same thing again when I got into golf by buying a set of clubs marketed to help my slice, and drivers guaranteed to go farther straighter, along with a putter for accuracy. And after a few weeks at the driving range getting accustomed to them, sure enough my slice improved, my drives when farther, and three putting became rarer.

And then some old golfer we picked up at the course to make a foursome commented, “do you really think it was those clubs or the little practice at the range that made those improvements?”.

Doesn’t’ it suck when old farts like that point out the obvious stuff you’re blind too?

OK, raise your hand if you’ve ever been similarly motivated to part company with hard-earned dinero? A push-button fix for a skill you lack. I’d like to snark that was the GenX way, but I’m quite sure it’s a time-honored technique

It’s a strange mentality that seems to permeate hobbies – that as beginners, we can buy something that’ll make us better at a skill without having yet learned said skill.

I’m getting to the point now where people are asking “should I buy this” and “what do you think of that?” Maybe it’s the old motorcycle salesperson in me, maybe it’s perspective from the little bit of experience I have under my belt, maybe it’s that money is much dearer in your late 40s compared to your early 30s, but my first thoughts are, “Why does this person want this? Is it to learn a skill or avoid learning a skill? Is it to get something done or avoid having to do something?”

You see, if you’re wanting to get satisfaction in tool purchases, motivation matters. It is possible to buy a good tool for the wrong reason and be disappointed in the long run. I think back to all the tools I regret buying; the reasoning behind those purchase usually comes down to avoiding learning something. The $200 dovetailing jig (not including bits and routers), used once and put up to collect dust. The mortising attachment to make a drill press do what it shouldn’t. The handplane fence to hold the tool at 90°. All bought to avoid a little learning stuff which in the long run I ended up having to learn anyways.

And what’s worse is that hindsight has shown me time and time again these skills I was avoiding really didn’t take that much time or effort to learn. But when you don’t know, you just don’t know.

Of the types of tools you’ve been most dissatisfied with in your woodworking career, can you say in hindsight that it was the tool or the unrealistic expectations brought about by poor purchase motivations?

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