It is what it is

My first reaction to your comments on my last blog would be that you missed my point, but maybe not. Maybe you just took my point to the next level without realizing it.

When I opined last time that the U.S. manufacturers who provide crummy specs to foreign suppliers for the goods they sell here are the cause of crummy products, you took me to task as not understanding the real cause. You were wrong; I understand it perfectly.

In fact, the points a lot of you made in your comments this week I have already made many times in the years I’ve been doing this blog. The point being that the consumer, who willingly buys junk, is responsible for more junk being sold. When “they” realize that we, the consumers, will buy junk, they’ll give us more junk. I touched on this theme three times in the past year alone with the two-part “Origin of Species” (1/4/10 & 1/8/10), “Feeling Guilty” (5-25-10), and “Lettuce Alone” (6-11-10).

But one lowly woodworker living in Middle-of-nowhere West Virginia isn’t causing the glut of junk plywood in Big Box stores. This lowly woodworker knows there’s “better stuff” to be had. He just can’t afford it for shop cabinets right now – for the kitchen, maybe, but not for utility shop cabinets – and so he goes to a blue or orange Big Box store. But this single purchase isn’t why Big Boxes carry junk plywood almost exclusively. That’s the fault of hundreds of thousands of ordinary folk and weekend warriors who don’t know there’s better stuff to be had.

And believe me, I wasn’t surprised I was getting junk either, your erroneous comments to the contrary notwithstanding. Of course I knew, but I chose to accept it and work around its issues as required by my current economic circumstances. But here’s the key thing in all of this: The stuff is still junk, and I don’t have to like it.

Once upon a time I could go into any Big Box store – and, before them, into what we used to call “lumber stores” before Madison Avenue shoved the idea for “home centers” down our throats – and reasonably expect to get decent stuff. I still have things I made a few decades ago with off-the-shelf materials that would, today, be the high-priced stuff you drive miles out of your way to get.

My real point in the previous blog was that I miss those days. Oh, I understand all the reasons it is what it is today – I have no need to be enlightened on that, as my comments in numerous blogs over the last three years will attest – but knowing and understanding doesn’t make it less onerous, or less sad.

And the worst part is that those hundreds of thousands of ordinary folk and weekend warriors – most of who are younger than you and I – don’t know that better stuff exists today and that it was, at one time, the norm. These are the same people who never experienced the joy of a corner hardware store, ate a 5-cent candy bar twice the size as one you’d get today for $2, or even bought a radio that would last 30 years. As such it is they, not pro woodworkers like you and me, who are driving the glut of junk materials. They don’t mean to. They just don’t know any better.

And that’s the saddest part of all.

Till next time,



  • Gene Howe says:

    Being a only hobbiest woodworker, I am none the less appalled at the quality of sheet goods offered by the BORGs (regardless of color). Of course, I can in no way be accused of being too young to know better.

    Thankfully, there is a true lumber yard closer to me than are the BORGs, and I frequent it regularly for my sheet goods needs. While, even their supply varies in quality, one can usually count on them to offer a reasonable quality at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, they do not offer hardwood ply. Nor do they offer any hardwood at all.

    For that, I must rely on cabinet shops allowing me to piggyback on their orders from their hardwood supplier. Or, make the 200 mile round trip to buy it direct.

    I cannot imagine your normal homeowner, who wants to build a little oak shelving unit or a toy box, going to the trouble and expense of following my path to decent materials.

  • D Story says:

    Too true, AJ. I would gladly pay the upcharge for decent quality but I can’t justify the extra 2hrs it would take for me to drive to the distributor I use. Not to mention the fact that they won’t load after 4 PM and are closed on weekends. On a slightly different tac, it also makes it more difficult for me to sell my cabinets because the labor costs for a properly built cabinet (not tacked together W/ pnuematic fasteners)are skewed by the unrealisticly low prices the client might see in these outlets.

    (please feel free to correct my spelling)

  • Gene Kelly says:

    I will absolutely agree with everything that you have said and I will add to it.

    It goes beyond the individual cabinet makers here in the U.S. I have walked into high end and low end furniture stores which have their furniture manufactured abroad (name your country of choice). The labor, and material prices are much lower than what we can provide here. At the same time the quality of labor and material is also lower. But, the retailer doesn’t sell them on the value of heirloom furniture, they sell them on the value of buy it now, junk it later (or let it go when you sell the house) at these prices you can always afford another one. Sometimes that isn’t even true. One sales woman that I encountered proudly told that the $6000 cherry veneer dining table that I was looking at had a “solid” MDF core making it very stable. That may have been true, but the point is that that which makes it lower in quality and less than heirloom furniture is exactly what the sales people are using as selling points to the general public.

    The skilled craftspeople are not being recognized as being part of the process. In this throw away culture an average buyer has no reminder of the fact that the furniture doesn’t “grow” at the furniture store. They are not informed as to who built it or how the furniture was built. The masters of the trades are not only not mentioned, but it is as if they don’t exist.

    The buyers are so isolated from the process that they don’t know to care.

  • Bill Golden says:

    Hi A. J., My point is that this Chinese junk plywood , and it is junk is all the3 Chinese know about plywood. They make it for themselves and think it’s great stuff. Then our stores see that it meets their price point and import it. Then as you said the young consumers don’t know good stuff is out there and buy it. My gripe is that the big box stores who import it get it cheap but price & sell it as if it was the good stuff.

    Bill G.

  • Don says:

    I find it hard to believe that any US company providing crummy specs to a Chinese supplier would say it is OK to put metal, rubber and whatever else is laying around in the factory in the laminating press. Or that it is acceptable that a sheet of plywood delam very quickly. This has got to be an issue with the lack of any quality control in the Chinese plants.

    The US companies providing these specs need to be made aware of the kind of junk that is showing up in their “spec’d” products they have outsourced off shore. The only problem is, who are the US companies providing these specs and how do we let them know about the junk that is being sent back here?

  • Chuck says:

    Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.

  • Steve Jacobs says:

    I happen to be a senior citizen and I think you hit it absolutely on the nose! Hear, Hear.

  • John Brooks says:

    Do you suppose there will come the day when the young fellas will look back to these days and say, “we had great stuff back then, not this junk.”

    One thing that your post points up, to all of us, is that if we use good materials the things we make last. We are soooo tempted by lower price, especially these days, but maybe we have to find the way to resist. Its not easy, that’s for sure.

    I have a principal for this sort of thing I call the “popcorn principle.” A friend of mine could not study in college without popcorn to eat. Being in college, he would go to the store and balk at price of the Riechenbacher popcorn, even though he loved it, and instead buy the no name stuff. He would get it home, it wouldn’t pop very well, some of it would burn and my friend would end up frustrated and unable to study. He would end up going back to the store for the Reichenbacher. The popcorn principle is this: buy the good stuff, in the end its about half the price.

    Hang in there,


    Is it worth making a little video on what good plywood is and putting it up on Youtube? Education sounds like one of the keys, to me. Many “kids” don’t see good materials in shop classes, since the shop classes are disappearing.

  • Mark Slafkes says:

    I’m one of those people who live far away from a Big Box Store (1.5 hours over mountain roads). The problem I have is that everyone seems to have lowered their standards and when I ask the three, local lumber yards about the quality, what I get back is “that’s what we sell.” The people who tell me this are, for the most part, that generation you are talking about who don’t know what used to be sold and who truly believe “that’s what we sell and why are you complaining about it.”
    The quality problems range from wood to hardware and beyond.

  • John Gresko says:

    I would agree, 100 %.

  • Fred Friar says:

    AJ you don’t live in the middle of nowhere West Virginia, your just across the Ohio River (which belongs to West Virginia)from Ohio. You live in the middle of some of the best hardwoods in the world so start using them.

    As for plywood find yourself a good cabnet shop and get them to order your plywood needs along with their order good prices and the quality is exellent.
    Middle of now where shame on you.

  • BVD says:

    But AJ- a few months ago you had a blog where you were talking about how easy it was to go to the big box stores and that is what you usually did rather than driving across town to the lone remaining single owner hardware store. And you wonder why “junk” is the norm- every time you go into one of those places you are encouraging those stores to carry more and more junk and lower quality junk (as if that were possible!) and as a consequence you are driving the smaller quality places out of business. It might be easier and yes you save a couple bucks- but you really don’t because instead of buying that “radio that lasts for 30 years” you buy one that last for one year – thirty times!! One of my students has bought every tool he owns twice- once based on price and then once more based on quality- my point is- buy it once- you might have to drive a little farther but every time you encourage the big boxes you just end up spending more $ in the long run.

  • Great blog. Sentiments on point. Thanx

    Off the subject…my mother’s maiden name is Hamler. Haven’t seen that name in quite some time. Any relation to the western PA Hamlers?

  • So , what is the resolve? I suppose we can boycott , but who can wait several months or possibly years for these companies to make a better product. What do we do in the interim, bake cookies? Has anyone ever voiced the complaint to a big box manager about the quality? Might as well be talking to a deaf dog. You have to go to corporate , again talking to deaf dog. I always thought to form a co-op,such as farmers do. Order quantities of materials from a GOOD supplier , divided up by several shops. ( Key word good suppliers). The suppliers need to make sure their product is top quality. easier said than done. I found that Columbia forest products seem to have the best ply in the country . There may be others , but I am not aware of any. Please add to the list if you know of any. If anyone has formed such a co-op please inform us how it is working and how to do such a thing. I personally am tired of paying the current high price of plywood’s only to find voids , de-lamination , and all kind of foreign part in the core. Hard to say you build high end cabinets , furniture , charge high prices and then the above problems occur more often than not. I may go back to building only solid projects again. Not sure who will be able to afford them.

  • I remember a time way back when you were able to get good quality wood products for a reasonable price. Sadly those days are long gone. Now you must pay exorbitant prices and the quality is usually nowhere near what was once available. It takes me a long time to find something that is worth using in the projects I create. Sometimes I find an old piece of wood cabinetry or other thing like old furniture and I cannibalize it for the wood which is of far better quality than most new materials. I won’t destroy something that is in good shape, but I have found that there is plenty of good wood to be had from things that may go to the landfill if I do not rescue it. My point is this; if you cannot find new good quality wood products, look for older materials that you know will work well.

  • John Zlatohlavek says:

    You are 100% correct.
    It’s not easy but it can be done. I will not buy a tool made in China etc. I either go without or find an old used one – they usually can be refurbished. I live very close to a “big box” store yet I have not been in it since 1981. I drive across town to a real lumberyard for supplies. Yes it can be inconvienient, and yes it may cost a little more, but look where not doing it has gotten us – and it will just get worse.

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