Cheap or frugal?

I talked last time about how some cheaper components in my new table saw didn’t mean that quality had been compromised. I’ve got some more thoughts on the issue.

To refresh, my new saw is the replacement model for my 10-year-old saw design. Same company, and basically the same machine updated with features like a riving knife and superior fence system. But some of the components are smaller, lighter and less substantial than on my old machine.

That disappointed me at first, but the more I got to thinking the more I realized that those “cheaper” components serve just fine. For the example, I cited how the hand wheels on my old saw where larger, heavier and had chromed metal handles, while those on the new saw are smaller, thinner, lighter and have plastic handles. But the thing of it is those old wheels must have cost a heck of a lot more; maybe up to five times as much as the ones on the new saw, or perhaps more.

But consider this, what if the saw was available with a choice of hand wheels? That is, what if the saw came with the smaller wheels at the base price, or you could opt for the fancy wheels instead by paying five times as much for them (twice, of course, since there are two wheels)?

Let’s go a step further and apply that to other components. My old saw had a hinged, steel rear door with a metal dust port; the new one a molded plastic rear panel and dust port held on with thumb screws. Again, suppose you could take the saw with the standard plastic panel, or get the fancy metal door instead? Surely, it would be more than my hand wheel example of costing five times as much.

The way I figure it, once you added everything up, I’d guess that going for the fancier, all-steel and cast iron components from my old saw over the standard aluminum and plastic ones on the new saw would easily bump the price by at least $150, maybe $200.

I’ve been using the saw for two weeks now, and can report that it performs marvelously. Those lighter hand wheels, plastic rear panel and other cheaper components are perfectly fine and function as well as (and in the case of the hand wheels, better than) the much “nicer” ones on my old saw. I see no indication whatsoever that the new components will wear out more quickly or show any degradation in performance over the years. The bottom line is that the only difference between those beefy components of my old saw compared to the lighter ones on the new saw is just a factor of “nice.”

Oh, yeah, and the fact that you can pay extra for nice, or save money with perfectly fine.



  • Lee Gordon says:

    Having the options you described would probably increase the price of the basic saw, even if you did not order it with the high-end options. Just producing and stocking those heftier hand-wheels and metal dust ports in addition to the standard components introduces extra expenses for the manufacturer that inevitably get passed on to the consumer.

    So if they can use some lighter, cheaper materials and not compromise (and in some cases, enhance) the quality of the product, so much the better. There are some cases, however, where this is totally unacceptable. For instance, Oreo cookies used to come in a package of three rows of eleven cookies each; now you get three rows of ten for the same price, if not more. That’s like getting 11 donuts in a dozen. Some things just should not be tolerated.

  • Sawdust says:

    I like your thought provoking practical take on this. This post reaffirms what I was thinking after the initial post last week. Whether or not I’d pay more for “nicer” parts is based on the purpose of the part and my plans. If I’m buying a stationary tool for life, I’d go for (and be willing to pay for) the metal parts. Metal parts can be more durable, and often repairable. Plastic is typically remove/replace and tends to become more breakable over time. Aside from rust, which is preventable with proper maintenance, metal parts are lifers. If you accidentally smack a plastic part, it’ll likely break. Metal parts may bend, but can often be straightened or repaired. And if the manufacturer no longer exists, I can have a local machine shop create a duplicate of the original – not so with plastic. So I tend toward metal parts for durability, repairability, and replaceability, but the real answer to your query is, “it depends.”

  • James Thompson says:

    When I replaced a Milwaukee tool a while back I noticed that it was made in Mexico. Oh, well, I thought, it’s still a Milwaukee tool. Can’t be bad. And it wasn’t bad, until it fell apart. They move manufacturing to other countries with low wages, then reduce the quality, which makes them a lot of money. Unfortunately for the consumer, the tools suck bad, but they don’t care. It wouldn’t have cost the company any more to use quality items on your saw, but they chose to make the extra money and give you an inferior saw. It might work well today, but there is a tomorrow. Tell us how the saw is working in a few years. My ’60’s model Unisaw is still going strong.

  • Frank says:

    A.J. – I get your point, but what’s an extra $200 when you are probably spending in the range of $2000 – $3000 for a quality table saw? In a home hobby shop the plastic might not make a difference, but in a production shop I’m sure the plastic wouldn’t last 10 years like your old saw. You also have to wonder what other corners were cut to keep the price of the saw lower ( and the company’s profits higher). I’m not against companies making money. We are all squeezed by our customers to bring in a product at lower prices. But there are still customers who are willing to pay for quality. Let’s hope your new saw is that – a quality saw.

  • Lea says:

    I think that only time will tell if these plastic components will last as well as the older metal ones did. In average climates, or climate-controlled shops, they will probably be fine. But in shops that experience long stretches of extreme cold or heat, it may be a different story.

    Two years ago I bought a 13-yr-old third-hand BMW sedan for a great price. It had low mileage and had been parked in a garage when not driven. However, my garage is my shop, so now the car sits in the brutal AZ desert sun year-round. As a result, many of the rubber and plastic parts are breaking down, such as hoses, brackets, the hinge pin on the driver’s side sunshade, etc. My next expense will be replacing the otherwise-fine windshield because the external rubber gasket is rapidly disintegrating. Yet mechanically (i.e, all the metal components) the car is in great shape.

    Even in an unheated (or un-cooled!) shop, this type of age-related damamge may take years to show up. Hopefully replacement parts for those panels and wheels will still be available when it does.

  • Alan Blough says:

    Now let’s see how long that saw will last. My guess is it won’t be around for as long as the heavy duty cast iron models.

  • Steven says:

    You can build a cabinet with thinner sides, and doors, cheaper hinges etc, and if well constructed will last a long time also. Is it as good as a high end cabinet? What happened to quality and excellence? I guess it depends on how you define quality, and excellence, in this throw it away society. As always with new machinery, you usually get what you pay for.

  • Gary Coyne says:

    I recently purchased the Rikon 18″ band saw. For $1500, I really expected things to be “right” but alas no. While the saw itself has been a winner, the fence and the miter gauge has been a joke. Both were cheaply and badly made and were unusable out of the box. It’s one thing to be inexpensive and functional, but being cheap and non-functional is another.

    Regardless, I will never give this saw the kind of constant work and usage that you (AJ) is likely to but like others, inexpensive, functional, but short lived is not much better in the long run than cheap and non-functional.

  • Think of quality metal parts like Ricardo Montalban saying: “Rich Corintian Leather”. Most plastic is going to break down (most likely become brittle), in time: sun, heat, cold, whacking;all play a part in the premature death of plastic parts.

  • Chris Carlson says:

    Do not assume that less-expensive parts always mean extra profit for the manufacturer. There are enormous pressures to keep costs low, maintain key “price points”, absorb some unwarranted returns, and many consumers (especially in portable power tools) do not repair tools, but consider them “throwaways”. I agree that lighter and less-costly components can often function well, but may lack the “feel” of the older versions. The power tool market is a very mature industry and in the end, manufacturers build what the majority of customers want for a given price or they go out of business.

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