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I Forge Iron

Some really excellent tool-buying advice.


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I'm sure that many of you are familiar with Adam Savage, former co-host of the Discovery Channel show "Mythbusters", and with his YouTube show "Tested". For those who aren't, he's a former modelmaker for Industrial Light & Magic and has done a lot of work building props and special effects for the movie industry; not a blacksmith, but an experienced maker with lots and lots of experience and a person who has given a lot of thought to what he does and how he does it. While making dinner last night, I was listening to one of his "viewer questions" episodes, which included a lengthy discussion of how to go about buying tools, and this bit of advice jumped out at me:

If you're not sure a tool will be useful to you, buy the cheapest possible version of it, and if it IS useful to you, then buy the best version you can afford.

Hard to improve on that.

If you want to watch the whole video, here it is. Ignore the title; he actually talks about a lot more than that. The specific quote is at the 43:15 mark.

 

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  • 3 weeks later...

From many years of experience with skill acquisition in several fields, I have to say that I find that very poor advice, given by someone who is too far down the road to truly remember the beginning trials and frustrations beginners face.

If you want to save on many years of pricey tennis lessons and gear when your kid shows interest, buy him a cheap racket, or worse, one he/she can "grow into" and let him play in any shoes that they find comfortable.  It's a near guaranteed loss of interest due to lack of expected progress.

Same with hiking and long distance cycling.  I can't tell you how many people quit the hobby because of beginner level boots and pack, or a poorly fitted bicycle ridden in cotton jeans.  When my daughter was twelve years old, we took a 2,200 mile unsupported bike ride through eleven states over 56 days of stealth camping.  It changed her whole outlook on life and actually changed her personality in one summer.  Not a single adult except myself thought it was doable for her, but much of the success was that she did not have to struggle with sub-optimal gear and clothing. 

And I could go on.

If one believes in themselves, a family member or a friend, and especially a young person - take the chance.  Buy three quarters of the way up in the price ranking.  Often it turns out not to be their passion, and you lose a pot of money.  But in a subtle, yet powerful way, you show that person you support them, and their possible growth is more important than cold money.  Heck, we can't take it with us anyways, if rumors are right.  

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I get what you're saying, but I think that you misunderstand the context of the original advice. The advice isn't about whether or not you're showing emotional support for someone else. It's also not directed specifically at someone at the beginning of their journey in any particular pursuit. The point is about how to be thoughtful and strategic about how to use -- indeed, whether or not to use -- your available resources to expand your shop's capacity.

I'll give an example from my own shop: when I restarted blacksmithing some years back, I only had a few handheld power tools, including a couple of decent electric drills. For what I was doing, they were perfectly adequate, and I felt no need to replace or augment them. Then I thought I'd try my hand at bladesmithing, and after one or two attempts, I realized that a drill press would be really useful for drilling rivet holes. I wasn't sure how much else I would use it for and I didn't have a lot of extra cash, so I was more than happy to buy a cheap (in every sense of the word) used benchtop model from a neighbor who was shutting down his hobby shop and turning his tools into cash. That was really a great leap forward, but I rapidly maxed out the capacity of that underpowered and undersized little thing. I was figuring out how to put together the cash to get a good quality, solid machine when I got very lucky and was given one on long-term loan (which eventually turned into a permanent gift). However, even if I had paid full price for it, it would have more than paid for itself by now, as I've used it for thousands of tasks both big and small that have made so many other things go easier and better in my shop.

Now, this is not about being cheap for the sake of being cheap. Indeed, my own personal advice to anyone starting out smithing is that you can get a cheap engineer's hammer from Harbor Freight or a flea market and modify it easily enough, you can build a JABOD forge for practically nothing, you can use lump charcoal as a fuel, and you can scrounge scrap steel for an anvil or forging stock, but the one thing you should NOT scrimp on is tongs. This goes to my reply to ThomasPowers's point above: when adding new types of tools, spend as little as you can for adequate function; there really isn't any decent tong alternative that gives the same functionality (and safety!) for less money. This goes to your own point, P Dee, about "struggling with sub-optimal gear".

I'd be willing to bet that when you taught your daughter how to ride a bike, you didn't put her on a specialized touring bike costing thousands of dollars. There wouldn't have been any point, and she wouldn't have learned any better or faster. Giving her the right gear for long-distance cycling at the point she was learning long-distance cycling was clearly the right thing to do, but that point was a waymark, not a trailhead.

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Well actually, I really like what you are saying here.  I did have her learn on a moderately  expensive $1800 bike, the same one that she rode on our trip, but the reason for that was that it was one of the few that fitted a person of her size ( 4'11" at that point) and still had the ability to have her in an ergonomic position, while still having the safety of well designed brakes, good wheels (one of the most important details of a good long distance bike) a Brooks saddle ( of course) and a Dyno hub to power her all important iPhone and lights (we did a lot of night time cycling to get away from the daytime highs in the 102 to 104 degree F range) 

But the most important detail was that the frame was properly sized, with the right geometry for an all day posture, for someone as small as she was.  It also had the trail for a ride that was going to keep her going in a straight line.  I'd have loved to get a much less expensive way to get her started, but many of the bikes in the price ranges of 400 to 600 dollars are deadly in the hands of a novice.  

But the thing you mention about a specialized touring bike is important, because the fact is that it is the only sort of design that is forgiving of a novice.  A touring bike will want to travel straight and takes bumps and potholes in a gentle manner.  A Walmart bike, or one not designed for purpose is more all over the road, under similar challenges.

I guess it's like starting one's 12 year old with a 1.5 pound hammer, rather than a five pound hammer. An odd thing happened.  She knew how expensive the bike was because her mother went on a rant about how crazy that was.  And she felt a deep pride about having such a thing given to her.  She said that "yeah, some of my friends have these little bikes" but nobody had a bike like mine - except adults.  My take-away from her comment was that pride, and feeling special are a big deal in how we view ourselves and our efforts in life.

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You have to teach your kids to appreciate good stuff; sounds like you did!

When I started giving my daughters tools I went with good used stuff, (just ran across their tiny french crosspeens from the lynch collection yesterday when doing the pre-new years shop clean.)  I cut down a good used saw to fit their hands---both the blade and the handle. We used to let them buy their own school clothes; didn't take long for them to figure out they could buy one new set retail or fill a cart with the same stuff at the thrift store.  OTOH when Lord of the Dance came to town we had seats close enough to see the dancers' sweat!  Trained my daughters to save when you can to have money for stuff when you can't.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Here's a practical example: I'd heard a lot of people talking about die grinders, so I was thinking about getting one. Spotting a secondhand Makita at the surplus place, I nabbed it and got some cutters to go with it. It was awesome, so I'm keeping my eyes open for a stronger one in better condition. 

So the point holds: I got the cheapest on I could afford, but having had neither the resources not the immediate need to get a beefier one, I'll be sticking with this for a while.

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From personal experience and looking at this forum, it is a piece of advice we all or most of us have already used. Anvils are expensive, so we use anvil shaped objects, not because anvil aren't useful but it is hard to justify their usefulness if you are using it for couple of hours a week, hence they are not useful to you. But as we start to forge more often, than we decide to buy the best we can afford.

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I buy both cheap and good tools.  It all depends on the use case for me and if I can find a good quality used version of a tool.  Some cheap tools will surprise you as I bought a set of HF impact sockets for occasional use because they were cheaper than anywhere else.  Oddly enough they provide a better fit than some of my older style craftsman  non-impact sockets.  I was kind of surprised at the comparison.  My drill bits on the other hand are good quality and will outlast any HF bit. 

 

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  • 2 months later...

Late in the discussion, but I'll add a little something that wasn't specifically mentioned.

Why buy the inexpensive tool (not necessarily cheap) first? Because, if have never used that tool, you don't have the expeirence with that tool that will help decide which features are worth spending money on.

P Dee, the reason you could select a good bike for your daughter is because *you* had the experience and knowledge to determine what was worth spending good money on.

If you can consult with someone more experienced than you are with the tool, and whom you can thrust, then you may be able to forego buying the inexpensive tool and go directly to the good but more expensive one.

But if you have to learn about a tool, and don't know if you will use it regularly, it may be better to buy the inexpensive one first.

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