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Men, pull up a bench and let's talk power tools

Sometimes you need a tool to do a specific task. And sometimes you just WANT it. Is that so bad?

By WES ALLISON

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 10, 2000


photo
[Photo: Craftsman Tools]
The 10-inch stationary table saw is “the natural growth of the bench table saw,” with more features and more power.
Mom didn't understand Dad's manly needs, but you figured that was a generational thing. Now it turns out your wife doesn't quite understand yours, either, and your attempts to fulfill them are often ridiculed, or squelched with sarcasm, or flatly rejected.

Does this conservation sound all too familiar?

"You already own a drill."

"Yeah, honey, but this is a drill press."

"Do you really need to spend God knows what on a new tool that puts holes in wood when you already have a tool that does that? I'll be in linens."

It hurts, I know. But that's why we have guys like Jim. Jim is a professional. Jim understands your needs.

"You can take an 8 by 4 piece of plywood," he said happily, "and rip it right down the center."

Bingo.

Jim Lancaster, whose company, Rexon, makes exciting power tools for Craftsman, was modeling a new compact table saw with an extendable brace for cutting large pieces of lumber, like that 8 by 4 sheet of plywood. It's also got a 15-amp motor for extra power, but won't take up tons of space in the garage. It sells for about $188.

"It's the natural growth of the bench table saw," Jim explained. "More and more people are looking for more and more features."

You bet we are, Jimbo. More power, too.

For those of us who get all giddy over terms like variable speed, direct drive, keyless chuck and carbide tip . . . for those of us who strap on a tool belt just to hang a picture . . . last week brought the media event of the year: The Sears Craftsman New Product Expo 2000, a fashion show of power tools and more from the venerable line of handyman helpers.

For two days, Craftsman reps and their manufacturers turned a conference room at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater into a machine and woodworking shop for 50 or so national journalists. The idea was to get columnists for newspapers and home-improvement slicks all lathered up over the latest toys, in hopes they'll scribble flowery love sonnets about the tools that will translate into more sales.

Chances are this approach works well, especially with this overwhelmingly male audience. Power tools, like fire and sharp objects, hold some primeval attraction for many men. They're expensive and loud and, if you're unaccustomed to them, a little scary. But the successful operation of the right tool at the right time can convert you from a hapless sap to Bob Vila, or at least a member of Bob's crew.

Tool makers like Craftsman, Milwaukee and Black & Decker enjoy a symbiotic relationship with their customers. They want to sell tools. We want to buy them. But sometimes raw desire just isn't enough. So if you need help justifying $399 for Craftman's new 15-inch drill press, it helps to know someone like George Gibson, director of sales for the drill's maker, Colovos Co.

"George," you can say to him, "how can I get away with buying that new drill press? Sure it has variable speeds and a chuck box, sure it weighs over 400 pounds and could put a hole in a battleship, sure I could find a million little uses for it (another peg board, Hon?), but everyone at my house might not be impressed with that. Plus, I'm likely to be reminded that I already own a drill."

George has the answer (and you may want to clip and save this for future use):

"If I spend more money on that tool, I'm going to get a better tool, do a better job, and get a better fit," he said. "A little more money is going to make my life easier."

But beware: Even in the friendly world of power tools, there are such things as gateway tools, like Jim's table saw or a basic radial arm saw. They're not too big and not too expensive, but they're powerful enough to make you want more.

"Once you take the first step on that first tool, it's easier to make the next step," George acknowledged.

And we thought cigarette companies were the masters of peddling addiction! Plus, salesmen know that trying virtually any power tool, as long as it's well made, triggers the release of potent chemicals in the brain that make us want to own that tool.

Wisely, the folks from Craftsman allotted plenty of time for what everyone at the conference simply called "Hands On," as one might refer to "recess" or "kickoff" or "happy hour."

We had spent the morning watching a show-and-tell of various grinders, screw guns, cordless drills, planers, sanders, circular saws and other goodies. Every time one of the Craftsman reps showed us something really cool, he'd close with, "You'll see what I mean during Hands On."

So when Hands On finally arrived we all dashed off to our favorite tools, like school kids let loose in the playground. Machines roared and sawdust filled the air as 50 guys happily hacked and ground and drilled simply for the hell of it.

I'd spent a few evenings that week cutting crown moulding with a hand saw and miter box, so I skipped over to a $589 slide compound miter saw. Crown moulding requires a complicated compound angle, and it had taken me two tries -- and two loads of trim -- to figure it out with my rudimentary setup.

Not on this baby. The standard bevel for crown moulding, 33.9 degrees, was marked in red on the saw, so I just set the knob, lined up a board, and squeezed the trigger. Took about two seconds to eat through an 8-inch plank. The angle was perfect.

I was just thinking about how I could sneak it home and where I could store it when I was distracted by the ratta-ratta-ratta of a reciprocating saw. It looks like a machine gun with a blade on the end, and can cut wood, metal, pipe, the toe of your boot, whatever. Last weekend, I used mine to cut a hole in the house for a French door. Trust me, no matter what anyone says, you need one.

The guy running it was Keith Scoggins, a Ryobi sales manager who was cutting zig-zags and figure-8s into a sheet of drywall. Ryobi makes a bunch of Craftsman tools, including the saw, and his job entails figuring out what customers like, besides just "more power."

"People feel personal about their tools. The power. The smell of cutting wood or drilling a hole. It's -- well, I don't know what word you'd apply to it," he said. "It's kind of like being a race fan. At the start of the race when they crank 'em up, you get cold chills, then you smell that burning rubber."

Most of the Craftsman salesmen describe two camps of customers: The first consists of guys who buy a tool to help them complete a specific project. Andy Ginger calls them the "I have a dream" crowd, and their collection grows with their skills. Then you've got your gearheads, the guys who buy the latest and greatest simply because they have to, like a kid who collects Pokemon cards.

But Ginger, vice president of brand management for Sears in Chicago, has identified a third camp as well. He motions to an armoire-sized Craftsman Professional tool chest and cabinet combo, which runs about $2,000.

"Some guys need it," he said. "But some of the people who buy that box just want it because it's the biggest and the baddest, and it says something about Me.

"It's about more than house maintenance or car maintenance. It's about Who I Am."

Right on, Andy. Now, if he could just help me figure out how to get that tool chest home . . .

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