Origin of DeWalt tools

The origin of DeWalt tools can be a little confusing. In some regards, the DeWalt brand has two origin stories. That’s why DeWalt started in 1923 but you might not remember seeing it much until the early 1990s. DeWalt is a good example of clever marketing.

DeWalt invented the radial arm saw in 1923. The company changed hands in 1949 and again in 1960, when Black and Decker bought it. Black and Decker divested the product in 1989 but didn’t sell the DeWalt name, which remained dormant. In 1992, Black and Decker turned around its struggling professional tool line by re-branding it DeWalt.

Who makes DeWalt power tools?

Origin of DeWalt
The origin of DeWalt tools is this, the radial arm saw. DeWalt invented the radial arm saw in 1922, but the brand’s owner, Black and Decker, repurposed the name in the early 1990s, in what turned into one of the best marketing turnarounds of all time. The saw isn’t yellow because no one cares what color industrial tools are. But consumers do.

Quick: Who makes DeWalt power tools? I bet you didn’t guess Stanley Black and Decker. That’s by design. DeWalt started out as the old Black and Decker Professional line, but the parent company doesn’t want you to associate the two lines.

In the early 1990s, Black and Decker looked into why their Black and Decker Professional line was struggling. The results of that study became a popular case study for MBAs.

Black and Decker invented the portable drill in 1917, so it knew how to make professional-grade tools. It had been doing so for decades. But the study found that the market didn’t associate Black and Decker with pro-grade, top-end tools. It associated Black and Decker with consumer grade tools that were fine for household use, but not durable enough for a professional. Black and Decker wanted the Black and Decker Professional line to compete with brands like Milwaukee and Makita, but the market saw it as the equivalent of the Craftsman line sold in Sears stores.

Rebranding as DeWalt

Black and Decker executive Joseph Galli Jr. undertook a complete rebranding. First, they replaced the bland, nondescript black color with something more bold. Yellow was the only gender-neutral color not in use by a major power tool brand, so they chose it. Second, they scrapped the Black and Decker Professional name. The name was fine for consumer-grade tools, but it was too closely associated with consumer-grade tools to try to use upmarket.

Black and Decker owned the DeWalt trademark, which it had purchased in 1960 but stopped using in 1989. DeWalt still had a positive connotation among professionals, and good name recognition. DeWalt isn’t quite as blatant of a zombie brand as Packard Bell was, but it fits the definition. It was dead and gone, came back, and slapped on a product other than the one it had been known for.

Leveraging the existing brand recognition and relaunching the Black and Decker Professional line as DeWalt proved to be a winner. Today, Stanley Black and Decker controls 14% of the power tool market, more than any other single company. Part of the reason is its Goldilocks strategy of selling three brands of different grades at retail, with Black and Decker as the entry-level low-end brand, DeWalt as the high-end, expensive brand, and Porter-Cable in the middle both in terms of price and quality.

How DeWalt fits into a Goldilocks strategy

Goldilocks marketing involves using three different brands at three different price and quality tiers. The idea is that most consumers think of themselves as moderates, in the middle. Faced with three different brand choices, a majority will take the middle. In this case, Black and Decker is too cheap, and DeWalt is too expensive. So Porter-Cable, sitting in the middle, draws sales away from Black and Decker, increasing profit margins. It may also steal some market share from DeWalt, but the upsells from Black and Decker outweigh the downsells from DeWalt.

Some percentage of consumers will buy the cheapest option no matter what, and this strategy doesn’t affect them. The strategy also doesn’t affect the percentage of the market who buy the higher-end tools.

It only takes a second with a search engine to find out that Stanley Black and Decker make all three tool lines. But the parent company doesn’t try to associate the three. The boxes and marketing literature just say “DeWalt,” not “DeWalt by Black and Decker.” IBM famously refused to compete with itself, but for Black and Decker, both before and after its merger with Stanley, competing with itself works very well.

How can competing with yourself work well? It keeps power tools from becoming a race to the bottom like the consumer industry did. Realistically, Black and Decker is more than good enough for most consumers. But giving customers something to aspire to upgrade to seems to work, just like it did in the auto industry.

The downside of competing with yourself

The problem with competing with yourself is that you’re not competing just with yourself. Bosch and Techtronic (the makers of Milwaukee) also make tools that are better than Black and Decker. How do you get Black and Decker customers to upgrade to Porter-Cable and DeWalt instead of brands like Rigid and Milwaukee owned by someone else? Play up how some of your stuff is made in the good o’ U.S. of A and appeal to their patriotism.

It ought to work. Bosch is German and Techtronic is in Hong Kong. Neither of them are going to make stuff in the United States.

Wait, what? Where are DeWalt tools made?

Select Stanley Black and Decker products often state “Made in USA with global materials” on the box. That wording is the easiest way to pick Stanley Black and Decker-owned brands out of a lineup. The “with global materials” is in smaller print so you won’t notice it, of course. That’s a weasely way of saying “Assembled in USA of foreign and domestic components,” but it seems to work. My Stanley toolbox was “Made in USA with global materials” in Sedalia, Missouri, a small town about 90 minutes west of Kansas City.

It would be nice if we could make the parts in the United States too, but that’s a longer road. There are trade-offs to making it all here too. It’s also important to note not all DeWalt tools are assembled in the United States. Only select tools are, and many of them are hand tools.

Advantages of U.S. assembly

But arguably, assembling things here instead of overseas offers some strategic advantage. When an overseas jobber makes your stuff for you, they can and do turn around and sell the same design to someone else. This is why exact clones of certain tools sometimes turn up at stores like Harbor Freight, at a much lower cost.

By assembling tools in seven US facilities (Charlotte, NC; Cheraw, SC; Greenfield, IN; Hampstead, MD; Jackson, TN; New Britain, CT; and Shelbyville, KY) and sourcing parts from seven countries including but not limited to the United States and China, no single source can sell the exact same tool to someone else. Cloning a tool takes more effort than firing up the same production line for someone else.

The facilities also serve as distribution centers, and in theory doing assembly closer to where the tools are sold reduces bottlenecks and shortages.

The rise and fall of the DeWalt

Don’t worry. DeWalt probably isn’t going anywhere. But DeWalt did have a rise and fall that put it on Black and Decker’s scrap heap in the first place. This was because DeWalt once made one and only one type of product. It wasn’t always a full line. Prior to 1989, DeWalt was a brand of a radial arm saw.

Raymond DeWalt patented invented the radial arm saw in 1922 and filed for a patent in 1923. In 1925, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded him patent number 1,528,536 for his invention. DeWalt founded the company that bears his name in 1924, but you won’t find a big yellow DeWalt radial arm saw for sale at your local home center.

A radial arm saw is similar to a compound miter saw, and the compound miter saw has largely replaced it in everyday use. But the two tools aren’t fully interchangeable. A radial arm saw resembles a compound miter saw in appearance, and like a compound miter saw, you can use it to do crosscuts. But a radial arm saw can do crosscuts across a much longer piece of wood. The radial arm saw can cut a 4×8 sheet of plywood into two 4×4 sheets more easily than a table saw can.

And unlike a compound miter saw, a radial arm saw can do rip cuts, though a table saw is better for that.

Radial saws are still used in industry, but faded in popularity among do-it-yourselfers starting in the 1970s. Most do-it-yourselfers found they could do the job with other types of saws that took up less space.

DeWalt’s history prior to 1992

Raymond DeWalt founded DeWalt Products Company in Leola, Pennsylvania in 1924 to sell his radial arm saw. The company reorganized and reincorporated as DeWalt Inc. in 1947. In 1949, American Machine & Foundry Co., Inc., later known as AMF, bought DeWalt and operated it until 1960. This was the same AMF we most commonly associate with bowling alley equipment, but AMF was a large, diversified conglomerate that also made everything from nuclear reactors to bicycles.

In 1960, AMF sold DeWalt to Black and Decker, the maker of power tools and inventor of the portable drill. In the end, the name proved more valuable to Black and Decker than the saw. Black and Decker sold the saw in 1989 to Original Saw Co., who continue to market radial arm saws based on the original DeWalt design today. Keeping the trademark, which was an afterthought at the time, turned into a brilliant stroke of luck three years later.

3 thoughts on “Origin of DeWalt tools

  • February 25, 2019 at 8:22 am
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    “IBM famously refused to compete with itself” – totally opposite to Jack Tramiel (Commodore), he always saying: “You need to compete with yourself! At time when you compete with others, it is too late” 🙂

    btw I just bought DeWalt hammer (2400W) for 75$. It is a copy. But very good copy.
    You can choose between Makita and DeWalt for same price – it is same hammer but with different plastic and markings 😀

    There is like a zillion copies of power tools with different brands in east europe. Some of them are really bad, bod some are unbelievable good! There are Russian sites that disassembled these e.g. Makita copies and real Makitas and they claim that parts are interchangeable, they looks like real Makita parts!
    One more thing to note is that copies use original brand name they make obvious mistakes in branding so you can easily spotted that it is a copy.

    Reply
    • February 26, 2019 at 8:16 am
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      The strategy of competing with itself certainly has worked well for Stanley Black and Decker. I thought HP should do the same by reusing the Compaq and maybe even the Digital brands, but it may be too late for that.

      Here in the States, counterfeits happen but the penalties are pretty severe. Counterfeit clothing is a lot more common than something like counterfeit tools. We do love our knockoffs here, where someone creates a close copy. We have a tool store here that sells nothing but cheap tools made overseas, usually in China, and some of their knockoffs are really close. They got their hands on a bolt-for-bolt clone of a popular jack last year and got sued though, because their copy was too close. We worship big companies as gods, yet we want cheap knockoffs that anger those gods, which leads to an odd contradiction.

      Reply
  • February 25, 2019 at 8:23 am
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    btw Black and Decker do really good job in hiding connection to DeWalt – I was not aware of it until I read you blog post! Thanks!

    Reply

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