What should tools cost? When does a cheap price represent a bargain -- and when is it only a fool's bargain?
The price of metal is pretty much the same around the world. So except for labor intensive products such as clothing, the main price advantage many Asian imports have is newer manufacturing ability, lower development costs, and a cheaper design.
Newer machinery gives you an advantage because if you are building a new product line to make something, you buy the latest equipment in the competitive markets of Asia, and the equipment might even cost less than it does in America or Europe.
Lower development costs are pretty obvious. While some Chinese companies do innovate, the faster route of a cost reduced product is to start by copying the original product. At the very least, you saved development costs and probably marketing costs as well.
A cheaper design can knock off a proven winner and use thinner, cheaper, and less accurately machined materials -- and save the manufacturer a boatload.
Why do I care? I get frustrated when generalizations about a knockoff product affect the expectations of the original USA made product. "Why should I pay for your overpriced product when I can buy X for much less?" the customer thinks. That original product may perform much better than the knockoff -- and even demonstrably save time and money -- but the knockoff can redefine the worth of the product.
I recently bought a knockoff bar clamp from Harbor Freight to test it against the Universal Bar Clamp made by Dubuque that we have been selling for over a decade. What are the differences between the original clamp and its knockoff? The results were striking.
Metal thickness: the wall thickness of the original aluminum tubing is almost double the thickness. This means the original is much stronger and not prone to flexing. The knockoff is not nearly as strong as the original, and it flexes if you bare down. All the casting of the original are heavier and better finished than the knockoff.
Length: Both clamps are sold as 24" clamps, but this ostensibly straightforward number means different things for these different products. For the Universal clamp, 24" means you can clamp something 24" wide. The knockoff, on the other hand, has a maximum clamping distance of 20" and another 4" that do nothing. Beware the "overall length" measurement - a bait-and-switch abuse, in my view and a big deal.
Overall fit and finish: The screw on the knockoff is drilled at an angle not straight on. Very annoying. The original has deeply punched slots for a wide range of adaptability and solid engagement. The knockoff has half the slots, which are barely punched in.
The import costs about $10; the Made in USA original costs $26.
I am not categorically knocking cheap tools. I would much rather you do woodworking with the equipment you can afford, even if it's more work, than not do anything at all. That would really suck. But it's bizarre to read an article in the woodworking press that shows a style of clamp with a "how to fix it" hack that unintentionally by omission tars all clamps of that style with the same brush. I would have been much happier if the article mentioned that the flex in the clamps they were using aren't typical of all the aluminum bar clamps you can buy -- just the low end ones in the article.
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I had a set of the cheaper ones which amply demonstrated the shortcomings mentioned. I proceeded to get rid of them in a garage sale before the fixits on youtube etc came about. I hadn't seen the Dubuque original until now (really hadn't gone looking to much to tell the truth) and they do look serviceable and fair in price. I do hope that more distributors on the net like yourself run these comparisons and the response from consumers bites the poor quality manufacturers on the behind. I have never regretted the purchase of a better made tool , even if the wallet aches a little.
I saw a post on PWW's site on just this subject. When there are comments asking "how many should I buy in what lengths?" it tells me that these purchases are not addressing immediate needs but outfitting for potential needs.
I think cash is more readily available if it has not already been spent on unknown needs. Collectively, we are in a race to the bottom and few of us cannot be underbid by cheap imports. Why not support companies like Pony, Wetzler, and Dubuque who make good products at fair prices and hire tax paying Americans in the process?
If someone is making something of value in their shop, paying an extra $45 for the 3 clamps required is cheaper than buying 10 clamps for $100 and never using most of them. Also, when the quality tools show up they can be used on a project instead of being a project.
Sadly Wetzler has finished up - really wonderfully made clamps. I know Pony went under but I think has been resurrected. Dubuque is alive and well and the makers of the Universal Clamps we stock and compare above.
03/21/2018 Ken De Witt
Thanks for this story. Just went thru the same kind of story with a chisel and a nephew. He was shocked that I could make a smooth and clean cut.
The only one he owns his father had been using to open paint cans as that was all it was good for.
03/21/2018 Bob Groh
Loved your post - and, yes, we do need to have more of those comparisons. Bravo for your words of wisdom. I do like to buy quailty. I did have a very nice experience with another wood working tool vendor (Highland Woodworking in Atlanta) - I was looking for a decent drawknife at a price I could defend to my wife. I looked at used, I looked at new, I looked here and there. One place I looked was Highland so I emailed them and asked if their lowest cost drawknife was a good purchase (frankly not expecting any reply). But, lo and behold, they did respond and said, basically, 'not really'. Very honest of them. Huzzah. By the way, I did buy a great vintage one on eBay - built like you know what and really, really sharp. And made in the USA 50+ years ago.
There is no doubt to anyone who knows their salt that the USA clamp are indeed far better, in every way. The cheap ones require quite a bit of retrofitting to get them to work right and even then they aren't the most fun to use, or very durable, I know because I have 50 of them. I only bought them because the USA made ones are not available outside the US and TFWW were unable or unwilling to ship the Dubuque overseas.
Eight years ago I built five small tables, each 16" square, instead of one coffee table for my living room. Each table had twelve joints, eight of which had to be glued at once. I considered using my four, 30" Bessey K bodies for the job, but their size and weight made it impossible. I purchased four Harbor Freight 20" clamps for about $22.00. All the joints closed and all glue ups were square. These tables receive near daily use. All forty joints are still tight, What more can one ask of a clamp?
Thank you for highlighting the difference in quality between the two products, but what is the important point here? The quality or the patriotism? Would the story have changed if the good clamps were made overseas and the lousy ones in the USA? I hope not.
Personally, I appreciate good quality products, and will seek them out wherever they are manufactured. Thank you for stocking quality products.
03/21/2018 Sam B
I don't know how you go about using your clamps, but I'd suggest you "bear" down instead. Just saying...lol
I have used the HF models without problem for basic clamping. I fitted a piece of wood inside the clamp to help with strength. I also have a more expensive model bought at Woodcraft. It is thicker and I would prefer it if I were a full time wood worker. As a hobbiest I do not use clamps enough to spend more $.
Hey Joel. this is outstanding! OK, sometimes all that is needed is a cheapo tool to get an occasional rough job done, but in general, inferior tools get sold because the buyer lacks understanding and thus chooses the path of false economy. That is why this type of side-by-side comparison is so helpful. I particularly like your pointing out that the [inferior] "knockoff can redefine the worth of the product."
This issue applies to so many things. Those who produce and sell excellent quality goods and services must show consumers where the true value is.
I'm in Australia. Many years ago I got caught out buying what you might call a "folding workbench". Kind of like a folding sawhorse but it unfolds to produce a flat top surface comprised of two parallel planks of wood, and the gap between the planks of wood can be adjusted with screw handles for clamping stuff.
Anyway, the original two I bought cost me $55 each, were made of heavy gauge steel, and had solid hardwood planks on top. They were Asian made (I think), but they were made to a standard not a price.
We have a large auto+everything store over here called SuperCheapAuto, and in their catalogue they had what looked like identical saw benches for $20 each. I thought it was an absolute bargain and bought 2 sight unseen (my wife picked them up for me). The difference was astounding.
The cheaper ones were perhaps half the weight, the steel was visibly flimsy in comparison and the section sizes smaller, and the planks were melamine-coated MDF not hardwood. They were not entirely stable in use.
I still have both sets, but the cheap ones are stashed in my garden shed. I won't ever use them as anything more than a "sawhorse".
I learnt some lessons that day. Back then (20 years ago perhaps) I didn't even know that ripping these kinds of products off was "a thing". I mean I knew aftermarket car parts had been around for ages, but this kind of copying was kind of new to me. I literally thought I was buying the same product.
Also learned that when something seems to good to be true, it probably is. The other aspect is that at the time, upon finding the $20 deal, I originally thought the seller I bought from originally had taken me for a bit of a ride, so for a [very] brief period of time I actually had negative goodwill towards the seller that was selling the "decent" product, thinking they'd ripped me off on price.
I'm quite selective what I buy now.
I retrofitted the HF clamps as illustrated by Paul Sellers on Utube. The performance is excellent and I was able to afford enough clamps to make my glue-ups much easier due to the increased number and sizes of clamps.
Oh, I did want to comment about the metal thickness issue in each of these clamps. It's hard to see on the knockoff, but the sidewalls of the knockoff are thicker near the corners than along the central axis of the sidewall (look at the sidewall furthest from camera and its visible).
I don't denigrate your observation that the knockoffs flex more - clearly they've taken out "too much" metal, but it's also clear they've tried to apply an element of proper engineering practice to refining that part of the design.
From an engineering standpoint, thick metal along the centreline of the sidewall (of the Dubuque clamp) doesn't contribute much to its bending resistance. That "meat" near the centreline would be better off shifted out towards the corners on the sidewall, or the top or bottom flange. You could use the exact same weight of aluminium, just use it "better".
Look at a typical I-Beam. Thick flanges top and bottom, thin web running vertically in the middle. It's the extremities away from the centreline taking the majority of the stress.
My comments aren't intended to denigrate the Dubuque clamp, I just thought it interesting that the inferior knockoff still shows evidence of at least one sound engineering principle being "kinda sorta" applied to it. But it is hard to reconcile the idea that they knew they'd get better strength by thickening the extremities of the extrusion more, but failed to follow through on sizing the material correctly to get "equivalent" amounts of flex to the original.
03/21/2018 Bill M
Overall, I support your opinion that USA products are normally beter than foreign knock-offs. However, foreign knock-offs do serve a purpose if you need an inexpensive tool which will be used only once or twice. In this case, a foreign knock-off can get the job done at a considerable savings. Personally, I prefer to purchase vintage USA used tools. Pre-WWII tools were extremely well made and were designed to last a lifetime or more.
03/21/2018 Ron S
I have bought and will continue to buy from Harbor Freight. Now with that being said I treated myself to 2 of each size of the Universal Bar Clamps made by Dubuque Last year for Christmas. These clamps are so nice to work with, light weight, solid, easy to adjust and tighten. Just very nice to work with, I enjoy them tremendously as I glue boards together with them. Not that expensive compared to steel bar clamps which I do have to the heavy duty work or the pipe clamps once you buy the pipe and a whole lot easier to work with. Thank you very much for selling such a high quality clamp
I think kevmeister missed the point! They removed a substantial amount of metal in the sidewalls resulting in the appearance of beefier lips and corners! There was no effort here, only effort to copy and make cheap!
With that being said, for a one off job a lot of stuff from HF will work.
I know a finish carpenter who works in bad areas. He uses the HF chop saw cause he can buy 10 for the price of a good DeWalt miter saw. He uses them til they burn out and he doesn’t worry about it getting stolen cause they are worth very little and no one while buy them at the pawn shops!
03/22/2018 Charles Dinerstein
There are any number of reasons to purchase cheaper clamps that will satisfy a current need. But much like Joel's point in the changing landscape for working space in the city, if we do not support one another we will find our position weakening and our numbers reduced. Buying local supports our community, buying quality supports the artisans (that we are or aspire to be) that support our work.
03/22/2018 Danny Hellyar
I quickly read through most of the comments posted on these clamps and I seem to have missed the most important issue with these knock offs. They simply do not work well as the design of the wrap around clamping head lends itself to binding ! I've had this happen on the cheaper knock offs I've purchased and is the reason I no longer use them.
03/22/2018 Matt Robinette
This past weekend I bought 4 of the Harbor Freight clamps to glue up the Naked Woodworker Nicholson bench for my apt garage shop. They were almost $12 each they are barely serviceable but do work. I have quite a few quality clamps but they are in a storage locker along with my Roubo bench as I am in the process of building a new shop. I would expect the HF clamps to fail with repeated heavy duty use.
03/23/2018 michael michalofsky
i have many many clamps
i have maybe 10 Dubuques
i also bought by mistake a few similar knockoff clamps from rockler
i love my dubuques and i dont touch the rocklers
Dubuques are light and strong
i have many wetzlers and brinks and cotton pony and jorgenson and bessy
i do not have even one pipe clamp
contrary to popular belief i may have TOO MANY clamps
i do not buy chinese or asian knockoffs of most any tool
however i do find that jet C clamps are unusally nice
very reasonable from cripe distributing on ebay
and thats my 2 cents
michael in bx
03/24/2018 Jeff Polaski
Great post and thank you.
I'm going to casually leave copies of it around the house so if by chance they are seen and picked up, they may be read by other fine folks.
Jeff in Philly
I replaced my Jet parallel clamps with the clamps from Dubuque. they are outstanding. As a furniture builder, most of my clamping needs are for panels, and tell people that these clamps are amazing panel clamps. They are so much easier to position than heavy parallel clamps. I am mad at myself for spending so much money on the Jet clamps years ago.
Actually, the worst thing about the knock-off clamps in my experience has been that the handle will fail--either the whole casting will fall off or the caps on the turn-rod will come unscrewed. Both are easily fixed. Still the Dubuque clamps are sooo much better. When I bought my first set they replaced Pony 3/4" pipe clamps; really a pleasure to use, both because they were light weight and I didn't have to deal with iron stains caused by glue-up. I save the pipe clamps for really wide glue-ups and for when I have to really bear down.
By the way, don't get me started on K-clamps, which I find alternately (expletive deleted) infuriating and essential.
04/19/2018 Joe S Vogler
I tried the HF clamps. Took them back. Unusable!
Crap tools are always a waste of money.
Good tools are the REAL bargain.
Two good clamps is so much better than five useless ones.
To be fair, I use some of HF's "F" and "C" style clamps. Still, I'd rather have half as many well made clamps.