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Bad Tool Reports and the Internet

The cyberspace version of the one bad apple theory

Text & Photos by Tom Hintz

The Internet is a great source for helpful information on virtually anything, including woodworking. However, that same instant, worldwide platform can give the claims of a few more weight, or credibility than they would otherwise deserve. One example is "bad tool" reports.

The owner of this jointer proudly emailed me about getting it jammed tight with debris from squaring wet, pressure treated 4 by 4 material and burning out the belt rather than remove the chips. He cleaned it up and took it back to the store and got another one that he took care of and continues to work fine. Think he mentioned how the first one blew up?

Woodworkers often use Internet forums to elicit information on potential tool purchases. Being able to converse with current users of a particular tool can provide real-world opinions on performance and reliability. In nearly every case, there will be positive and negative thoughts on whatever product is being investigated because there is no such thing as a universally accepted tool. Manufacturers would love to create one, but they know it simply will not happen in a marketplace full of individuals with varying needs and tastes.

The Loudest Voice

An unfortunate quirk of the Internet and human nature is that someone experiencing problems with a product is far more likely to express their frustrations in a forum posting, often titled to accentuate or identify the problem. Those using the same product without a problem simply do not feel driven to post a "no troubles" message. This trend is certainly not confined to woodworking either.

Over the last twenty-some years I have seen the same kind of vocal disparity in totally unrelated areas such as radio control modeling, stock car racing and high-end fishing electronics. While the products are vastly different, the numerical spread between complaints and happy users is equally lopsided with satisfied users always being the overwhelming majority.

Woodworkers experiencing a problem with a tool or machine certainly have the right to describe that issue in a forum message. The problem comes when readers assume that such a post indicates a trait that is common to all or a majority of the hundreds of thousands of that product that were produced.

To make that assumption requires a rather large leap of faith. We have to accept that the described problem is always the fault of the tool itself and that the user has no responsibility. Of course, this is a virtual impossibility considering the number of human beings involved.

Cutting up and old and very wet deck did not seem like a good project for the good blade so this whiz-kid put on an old, very dull blade and forced it through the wood for three days. Eventually the motor slowed. He put the new blade back on, cleaned it up and swapped it for a new one under warranty. He also posted on a forum about how weak the motor was on this model saw!

If history is at all accurate, the percentage of user-induced problems, accidental and intentional, will be considerable. In over twenty years, I have never talked with a manufacturer who was not certain that answers to most questions received by their customer service departments were in the instruction manuals packaged with the product in question. They are just as certain that a large number of problems with a product were actually caused by mistakes and misuse. They realize there will be legitimate product failures and are generally eager to remedy those.

The Law of Averages

Mass production has increased the number and quality of tools and machines available at prices more customers can afford. The production of large numbers of anything means there will be some mistakes along the way. Every manufacturer with a customer service department recognizes this inescapable fact of life. It is always to their advantage to minimize those errors but they will occur regardless of efforts to prevent them. Servicing a product warranty costs far more than manufacturing one that performs as designed.

The end users of a tool or machine have their own set of statistical certainties. Far too many will not read the assembly or operating instructions, greatly enhancing the opportunity for potentially damaging mistakes. Still others will use a tool or machine in ways that exceed the design parameters.

In addition, there is a reasonably consistent level of outright fraud when the end user will do something accidentally or intentionally but present it to the store or manufacturer in such a way as to implicate the product as the cause of the failure. A manufacturer even pointed out a forum thread to me once in which several posters "coached" someone who had actually damaged a saw on how to make it appear to be a warranty issue.

Fair Interpretations

To be fair, those considering a new piece of equipment must be realistic when reading a negative post regarding that tool. Lacking first-hand information on how the problem occurred, we have to assume that some of these posts are less than factual in reporting how the problem occurred.

That is not to say that everyone posting a message critical of a tool is concealing something. That certainly is not true. However, it is a virtual certainty that some are and that must be considered.

Perhaps most important is to remember that for every negative forum thread, there are thousands of woodworkers who are happily using that same tool in their shops.

 

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