"signature tools", why buy them?

I was on my way to help a club member the other day. We were going to meet at Lee Valley. As I was driving, I was thinking of the many excellent tools I’ve bought there through the years. I've also been hampered by a bit of illness lately and I have to give a little more thought to my purchases. With that in mind, I started thinking about the tools I did buy and got to wondering, once again, why I had bought a particular “Signature” tool a few years back.

There are some things you should never attempt to analyze too much and this may be one of them. I have often prided myself in finding justification for my purchases. Do I need this? Will it make me a better turner? Does it help me accomplish something I really want to do that my present tools don't? In fact, I just this morning explained to my wonderful wife the benefits of finally purchasing a slow rpm grinder to replace my old Delta 3800 rpm monster. Slow speed, less heat, better control, longer lasting tools, less fatigue using better sharpened tools, etc.

I am also an auto and heavy duty mechanic of old. I have been privileged to work for some excellent companies through the years as well as some really terrible, cheap ones. I learned more from the cheap ones. Especially the ones that sent me out in the boonies in the northern Alberta oil fields to perform miracles without the proper tools. You quickly learn to adapt and when the need arises, to make your own tools when need be. I still do this today in many ways and I admit I really enjoy it. Every turner gets a feeling of pride turning a nice piece. I often also get the extra feeling of pride when I've done so with a tool I've made with my own hands. If you've ever made your own tools, you know what I mean. It’s like getting twice the bang for the buck!

How does this translate to my woodturning activities, you ask? I see tools differently. To me a gouge is a steel rod, preferably HSS, with a ground or stamped flute, the right length and heft, stuck into a handle and sharpened. That’s it. Simplistic? Perhaps but it works for me. I look at a tool and my mind immediately turns to an “how do I make this” mode. Sometimes, it’s just the challenge. Sometimes, it’s because I can't see the rationale in spending the money and prefer to try the tool out first without putting out “the big bucks”. At times, I make the tool and using it realize that it works well for me but would work even better if it were manufactured using more precise methods so I will go out and buy it.

My tool making arsenal isn't extensive or complicated. Angle grinders, torches, grinders, files, a Dremel tool. Fat unused Philips screwdrivers have become small gouges with an angle grinder to shape a flute, box-end wrenched have become ring tools, old heavy duty band saw blades are good for parting tools, numerous useless scrapers have become single purpose scrapers for the inside of small boxes, box sides, or dovetail tools to make tenons for my chucks, unused Allen keys have become small hollowing tools. I haven't bought a band saw blade in years preferring to use discarded, but still usable industrial blades and silver soldering them to fit my band saw. Learning to sharpen has saved me thousands of dollars over the years, whether it be band saw blades, table saw, chain saw, or anything with an edge.

How does all this relate to the first paragraph of this story? As we were talking in the parking lot, my friend mentioned he needed to buy a new tool. He already has perhaps a couple of dozen (which is admittedly about a third of what I have!). I asked him what he was looking to purchase and he mentioned a tool he had just seen used at an Alan Lacer seminar our club held a short while ago. I started laughing because it was so much in line with what I had been thinking on the way over to meet him. He asked why I was laughing and I said: “You do realize that buying the tool does not mean you are also buying some of ‘Alan Lacer the turner’? Or even a teeny bit of his skill? Right? Whatever skill you have now will still be the same as what you'll have after you've signed your credit card slip.”

Why do we do this? This should be an officially registered disease associated with woodturners! Like carpal-tunnel syndrome is associated with excessive computer use. I can't count the number of turners in our own club that have spent numerous dollars on tools because they saw a particular turner using them in a demonstration or seminar. Do we actually believe that buying signature tools will make us better turners? I realize that some people just do not have the time to make their own tools or have better things to do than experiment with other, perhaps not as useful tools and adapting them. In some cases it’s a matter of economics. If I can spend one hour turning a piece worth $1000, is it worth my time to spend an hour making a tool I can buy ready made for $50? Of course not. But most people are not in that situation, so why do we do it anyway?

I can't figure it out. If you can, please drop me a line and let me know. While you're at it, if you can find the justification for the $110 David Ellsworth Signature gouge I bought 2 years ago and have only used 4 times, please include that as well. It’s a great tool and I have a lot of respect for David Ellsworth’s accomplishments as a turner, but what the hell was I thinking?