Much like cars, power tools come in different grades and price points. Just like General Motors sells you a Chevy in hopes you’ll move up the ladder to eventually buy a Buick or a Cadillac from them, toolmakers do the same thing, selling different grades of power tools at increasing price points, under different brand names for each.
Most tools that hardware stores sell fall into three ranges: consumer, prosumer/enthusiast, and professional grades, at increasing price points. As long as you use the tools how the manufacturer intended, you can be happy even with inexpensive tools.
Understand grades of tools
Just like anything else, tools come in different grades, ranging from cheapo models for people who don’t use them very often to professional grade tools for people who use them every day to make a living. Buying the appropriate tool line for what you’re going to do with them saves money in the long run.
Most of these tools are made by a small number of companies to meet certain price points. Stanley Black and Decker has four different tool brands competing with each other and with their biggest rival, Hong Kong-based TTi, who controls three brands.
While the difference between GM cars was mostly cosmetic by the 1980s, there are differences between a Black and Decker, Porter-Cable, and DeWalt tool, even though the same company makes all three. As you spend more, you tend to get better, more powerful motors and better bearings. This means the costlier tool has more power and lasts longer under heavy workloads.
I have a friend who’s a skilled construction worker, and if I hand him my cheap Harbor Freight tools, he’ll still do a better job building with those than I can do with his DeWalt tools. The sloppiness and lower power in the cheap tools may slow him down a little but he’ll still do a good job. The major difference is the cheap tools will break under his workload, possibly in a matter of days. He can use his DeWalt tools every day for years and not have to think about it.
Cheap power tools
The cheapest tools are brands like Chicago Electric and Drillmaster, sold at Harbor Freight, and Hyper Tough sold at Wal-Mart. These tools won’t hold up long under the demands of a professional, but if you only do a few projects a year, these cheap tools can do fine, and you can buy a collection of tools for the cost of one high-end tool. The biggest danger I find with these is by the time the batteries wear out and you need new ones, you may have trouble finding replacements.
For handheld drills and saws, I would step up at least a grade, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute. But when you’re ready for a router table, consider theirs. Also consider their table saw if you can’t find a better one secondhand in your area, though I do recommend estate sales before resorting to this grade of table saw.
Something you can do with these tools is buy them with a coupon, save all the packaging, and if you find you outgrow them, clean them up and sell them. You should be able to resell a Harbor Freight miter saw, table saw, or router table for $60-$70 as long as they still work, then put that money toward a better tool.
Ryobi, Black and Decker, and Harbor Freight’s Bauer brands fall into this category, as do other similarly priced tools. These tools aren’t suitable for professional use, but they’re fine for household use. You won’t see people on TV using these tools unless a sponsor is paying them to use them, but they’re designed to hold up to the needs of a do-it-yourselfer who tackles several projects per year.
I personally own a lot of Ryobi tools, because they’ve committed to never change their battery system and the same batteries work in not just their saws and drills but also in their yard tools. This is a unique opportunity for a homeowner to save. And Ryobi’s tools range from adequate in the case of their saws to surprisingly good in the case of their nail guns.
Pro-sumer tools occupy that range between the consumer and the professional: Someone who knows tools and uses them a lot, but has a day job. If I used my tools every weekend, I’d probably step up to this grade, at least for my most frequently used stuff.
Rigid offers an interesting value play with a lifetime warranty on its tools and batteries, but there are strings attached. You’ll have to keep all your receipts and register the tools, and the warranty only applies to the original owner. And they may still deny a warranty claim citing abuse of the tool. So it’s not like the old Sears no-questions-asked guarantee. But if you’re willing to do the work and can tolerate the occasional claim being denied, the money you save on batteries could make this a worthwhile platform.
A note about Porter-Cable
If you see a corded Porter-Cable sander in the usual places used tools hang out, that’s not a midrange tool. Porter-Cable was famous for its sanders before Black and Decker repurposed the brand name. Black and Decker wanted to replicate its experience with DeWalt by repurposing an existing brand name and letting it compete, rather than trying to position the Black and Decker brand as something other than consumer-grade.
When it comes to grades of power tools, at the top of the spectrum you’ll find brands like Milwaukee, DeWalt, Bosch, and Makita. These are the brands you’ll find professionals using, and they’re where the best new technology appears first. You could get a brushless drill in these lines before you could get one in the consumer lines. But for someone who only uses tools occasionally, these tools are probably overkill. If you’re starting out, these probably are more tool than you can afford or justify. Unless you find a phenomenal deal, buy something more affordable, then upgrade to something in this tier if you find yourself using the tools a lot.
There will be times when one of these brands outperforms the others, but unless you do this for a living, there’s money to be saved when you pick a platform and stay with it. A professional may pick and choose the best tool from each line to use within a specialty, but will probably stick with one brand for general-purpose tools. And that brand may very well be DeWalt, because more stores sell it than the other brands. From a practical standpoint this makes sense: In an emergency, you’ll rarely have to drive more than 30 minutes to get a DeWalt battery.
The strings attached to professional grade
Just like anything, there are caveats to professional grade. The big home improvement stores don’t sell the full line of any of these tools. They’re trying to meet a price point, so there are tools sold in specialty stores where professionals shop that you’ll never find at a big-box store. Some of these are brands that these stores don’t sell, but there are Milwaukee and DeWalt tools that never make it into big-box stores either.
These tools tend to be better than the tools the ordinary stores carry, but the price is higher too. Since these tools don’t sell in huge volumes, it makes more sense to sell them in specialty stores where there’s less price pressure. The mass-market retailers may sell a similar tool, but the SKU will be different. In some cases the major difference is the battery, and you can remedy that by buying a higher-capacity battery. But frequently the mass-market version will have lighter-duty components inside. It’s still a good tool. Just not the best.