old tools, new tools, and something in-between

I recently had an interesting exchange with my dear stepdad, concerning old tools. Specifically, the repair of old tools versus the purchase of new ones. He’s been trying to source some basic repair parts for palm sander, and having poor luck at home, has me helping to import some.

Sad but true, those same simple repair parts -themselves being foreseeable wear items, not at all a cause for tool replacement- will end up costing about as much as a new tool would. Me, well, I’m a bit of a self-annoying tool-snob; I’d probably just replace the sander. On the other hand, I completely agree with the principle of a repair. In practice, I make part of my living with my tools, and the downtime and annoyance of a repair isn’t usually worth the savings. The latest greatest best and fastest tools are almost always more than I ought to afford, but doing self-employed on-call yacht-repair work, I can’t really afford anything less.

Rarely, some sort of sentiment takes over. I’ve worked in several shops, both amateur and professional, that included in their inventory one of those ancient 3/8″ B&D electric drills; you know the ones, with the heavy cast-aluminum housings, lousy ergonomics, and arm-ripping low-speed torque. They tend to look like crap, with paint and chips and mangled cords, but have somehow managed to keep running years past any modern expiration date. They almost always come with a story; Dad’s cousin’s first drill, the drill that spun out that broken easy-out, the only tool that could tackle that cross-member bolt…

I have one survivor of my own. When I bought my last boat, I found a suspect-looking old Makita GV5000 in the bottom of a locker. The sander had seen some water and had the remains of a few cockroaches stuck in the vents. It squealed horridly, but ran. I ended up sanding half my keel with it, then used it to polish all my stainless pipework. A few years later, when I was being picked off my foundering boat mid-Atlantic (thanks again, captain & crew of the MSC Malaysia!), that same cruddy old GV5000 was one of the few possessions I managed to come away with.

Last winter, I started a job that required a whole lot of disc-sanding. I dug the GV out of storage and gave it a spin… the horrible squeal was back, worse than ever. Well, by this time I figured that the sander had earned some love, so I took it for the 20-minute drive to the nearest full-service walk-in industrial tool repair center to see what we could do. There, a very friendly gentleman patiently explained to me that a full set of bearings and brushes could be ordered, but that the cost of the repair would end up totaling almost half the cost of a brand-new upgraded GV5010. While I needed the tool for work, the repair was a lousy deal, and the replacement was more than I could afford. In the end, I did as I had a few years back: I blew out the brushes with compressed air, hosed down the bearings with teflon spray, and just kept working the tool. It quieted down and made me money for 5 weeks. I still have it.

Lately, I’ve been trying a middle path with factory-reconditioned tools. I’ve had excellent luck with these, purchased through online merchants. Usually, they come with all the usual accessories, cases, paperwork, etc., as well as a complete warranty. The real difference is in the cost, oftentimes half that of the same tool new. They way I look at it, it’s like getting your own tool repaired, except with a new warranty. Buying reconditioned comes with some shortcomings; there may be far less selection available, and some reconditioned tools may not come boxed. My reconditioned DeWalt tools come with an unsightly “R” hot-branded into the plastic case, which I can live with.

Ultimately, it shouldn’t be about the tool, but about the work, about the job. I believe that in the right hands, excellent tools lead to excellent results. However, given skill and patience, that old tool can do just as well.


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