Here’s to a Cherished American Pastime

January 7th, 2017


Today I spent a little while reading about Chinese TIG welders. A commenter suggested getting a used Miller instead of looking at Chinese, and out of boredom, I went to see what other people thought. Man, it’s disappointing to see unprincipled old geezers bashing China on the forums. What a waste of bandwidth. Talk about “fake news.”

You can’t trust anything these guys say. They lost their cushy union jobs because American workers refused to accept a competitive wage. With the help of bad management, they killed the companies they worked for. Now they sit around lying about Chinese products on the Internet, like that’s going to bring Packard and AMC back. It will never happen. Not even Donald Trump can make us THAT great again.

I have lots of Chinese stuff. Some of it is real junk. No doubt about that. But all of it works, and a lot of it is excellent. The prices are fantastic.

Ridgid tools are very good. They come from China. Dewalt manufactures in Asia. I have no idea where Bosch makes its tools, but I guarantee you, it’s not in Europe or the US. I just got an Chinese oscilloscope which is built extremely well. My lathe is a very nice Taiwan job, and my mill, which works great, was made in Taiwan and assembled in China. My vertical band saw is Taiwanese. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it.

The other day I bought a Shars indexable end mill. I paid about $30. Shars sells mostly Chinese stuff. The end mill is magnificent. An American equivalent costs three or more times as much. Am I going to buy that? Are you nuts? Just so some guy in the Rust Belt can be overpaid? That’s charity.

I tried to find some honest comments on the AHP AlphaTIG 200X welder. It was not easy. Creaky retirees who hate China said a lot of nasty things about it. Had they ever used one? Of course not.

I get it. Old American tool companies make better stuff. SOME old American tool companes. But often they’re no better than Asian, and look what they charge. The welder I mentioned can be had for under $850, with a three-year warranty. If it blows up, the seller pays for return shipping, and then they ship you a new one. A comparable Lincoln or Miller will run you over three times as much. It will do exactly the same thing, no better. It will probably last a lifetime. That’s a plus. No one seems to know how long an AlphaTIG will last. But with the Chinese welder, you save two thousand dollars, and you get into TIG several years earlier because of the price.

At worst, you pay about $280 per year for the fun of three years of top-notch TIG and stick welding. That’s assuming the machine craps out in three years.

People always say, “Wait for a deal.” That’s a great idea. When you’re 25. When you get older, waiting five years for something may mean never getting it. You may die first. Or you may lose years of use you can never get back. If you’re 50, you probably have 35 years left (tops) to use your tools. If you lose five years sitting around waiting for a gift from Craigslist, you’ve lost a seventh of them time you could have spent enjoying yourself. If you’re sixty, it’s a fifth of the time. If you’re retired, you may be losing considerably more.

Here’s how it looks:

1. AlphaTIG 200X: $838, delivered.
2. Miller Synchrowave 215: $2735, delivered.
3. Miller Synchrowave 215, used, from a dubious no-name seller, with no warranty: maybe $1600.

Lincoln prices are right up there with Miller.

If I had to rely on a welder to make a living, I would buy American. No doubt about it. I wouldn’t want to worry about having two months of down time while an importer waits for a part or a welder for me. That could kill a business. But to goof around in my garage, Chinese is fine.

If I had to rely on machine tools or ordinary power tools to make a living, would I buy American? No way. Absolutely no way. American mills and lathes are no better than Asian. I’m not sure American power tools even exist. Where would I find them? I know we still make a few big things, like table saws. I think you can still buy American air tools. I don’t know about drills and grinders and so on.

It would be neat to have a shop full of beautiful American tools from the golden age, but people like me never, in the history of the country, had the opportunity to buy those items new.

I remember looking up the Clausing lathe I bought used, to find out what it had cost new. It was tens of thousands of dollars. No normal American had one of those in his garage in 1965. It cost several times what an average worker made in a year. If I spent that much for a lathe, I would have nothing else.

Aside from that, the Clausing was not that great.

Look at the American tools hobbyists were able to afford back when the big American companies were still manufacturing. Atlas and Craftsman lathes. Flimsy garbage, with tiny capacities. Nobody had a new 15″ LeBlond in his home shop. The closest you could get was WWII surplus.

There are a lot of people who buy old US junk and “restore” it. They’re proud of what they’ve done, and they put pictures and videos on the web. About 95% of the time, when it comes to machine tools, they’ve just repainted tools without returning them to new condition. For example a guy will buy a lathe with worn ways, and he’ll strip it, paint it, and make the feeds work. That’s not a restoration. It’s still junk.

Some kinds of machines can be restored without spending too much. Woodworking tools aren’t very precise, so they don’t have to be scraped and ground when they get old. I have a beaten-up table saw which works as well as it did when it was new in the 1990’s. But lathes and mills lose accuracy with time, and you can’t get it back with a can of spray paint.

I considered buying a “restored” mill from an outfit that scrapes them. I found out it was a bad deal. They scraped a few things, yes, but they kept the old screws, the motor, the bearings…everything you would want to have replaced. The paint looked nice, though. That’s important. You could do it yourself for $15, but never mind.

Human beings love to blame others for their problems. China-bashing is just another manifestation of the inclination. What if American union workers hadn’t demanded unrealistic wages and hadn’t refused to work full days? What if the people who ran companies had been more responsible? Maybe we’d still be selling tools instead of buying them.

The most revered American lathe company is Monarch. They still sell their coveted 10EE lathe. This is a small machine that does extremely precise work. Guess what it costs? Over $100,000. And it’s not even new. They sell refurbs. They buy used Monarchs and put new parts in them. Even the manufacturers can’t afford new American products.

I’m surrounded by China, and so are the old guys who lie on the forums. They use Chinese phones and computers to bash China. Chinese goods are all around us. Why should we delude ourselves and pretend these things aren’t there? If your shoes, your computer, your desk, your TV, your flooring, your wallpaper, your appliances, and half of your American car are from China, why not buy Chinese tools, too? Come on.

Here’s something really funny: Harley riders bash the Asians from dawn till dusk, but Harleys are full of Asian parts. Americans don’t make motorcycle forks! We definitely don’t make the electronics in the bikes.

I may get a welder this year. I don’t know. I do know the China-bashers will make it harder to get solid information.

8 Responses to “Here’s to a Cherished American Pastime”

  1. Stephen McAteer Says:

    The little bits and pieces I own that were made in the USA are excellent: a pair of deerskin gloves; my Maglight; a Leatherman tool. Kodak still make my favourite film. European stuff is nice too. The price is higher but it’s usually worth it, to me anyway.
    I don’t know anything about machine tools though, so I’ll take your word for it that Chinese is good. There’s no avoiding it now anyway, as you say. I’m just wondering what the effect on the price of Chinese stuff will be if Donald Trump launches a trade war. It won’t affect me over here but it might be a different story in the USA.

  2. Steve H. Says:

    Some of it is good, and some is awful. My beef is that I’m tired of seeing people claim all of it is worthless. And they don’t really need to use words like “chinky” or “slanty.”

  3. John Bowen Says:

    China makes some really good stuff, and it’s evident that the line workers in production really care. Management? Some of the Chinese companies are run by p___ stained cowards (Ganzo, for instance, which has all the resources at their disposal to make incredible knives at reasonable prices but continues to make barely altered knockoffs of everyone else’s designs, mostly because they are terrified of hiring a design team capable of doing anything original), some aren’t. WE, for instance, and Kizer. You will note that I am limiting my commentary to subjects I have actually researched, rather than relevant subjects like tools.

    Speaking of American made, Kershaw is making a fantastic folding knife in the USA and offering an upgrade as a House of Blades (yeah, I snickered when I read that the first time too) exclusive. It’s so patriotic it hurts. Ready for this? Model #1776. Yeah. In S35VN steel, which is usually sold for nosebleed prices. Current sale price? $79.99. I felt morally obligated to buy one, and it’s worth easily half again what I paid.

  4. Barbara Says:

    Yeah, but doesn’t it bother you that everything we buy has to come from China?
    I agree, there’s no need to bash the Chinese, they’re just trying to earn a living, I used to have a lot of Chinese friends, they have a great work ethic. But I don’t like it that, because wages are kept low, people could not afford what items would cost if made in the West, so they’re all depending on China where costs are low.
    I go far out of my way to not buy Chinese goods! Not because they’re crap; some are, but some things are okay; but I’d rather buy a thing made in my country than shipped from across the globe. Yes, it does limit me. 🙂 And wherever possible I buy secondhand. I never thought I’d be praising the quality of 1980’s goods, lol, but compared to what’s in the shops today, most stuff over 30 years old is extremely well made.

  5. Steve H. Says:

    It would be nice if America was still the big manufacturing power, but I don’t see any hope that we will be in that position again. We were blessed because we were a Christian nation. Now we murder babies and put statues of Satan up in our state capitals.

  6. Og Says:

    We still are “a” big manufacturing power, but we don’t manufacture things that can be made so much cheaper elsewhere, mostly for the reasons you posit above. I just bought a new Albrecht”Style”chuck for my Powermatic drill press, for the cost of lunch. An Albrecht the same size is $900.

  7. Barbara Says:

    It’s the same in England! 🙁
    We might not like it, but I see no way it can be fixed at this point.

  8. Steve H. Says:

    Og, I think I paid about $130 for a 1/2″ Albrecht at Enco. One of their nutty sales. Now that MSC has taken over, the days of wacky Enco deals are over.

    Albrecht chucks are so slick, it’s almost creepy. You can entertain yourself just by opening and closing one and telling yourself, “It really is possible to make stuff this good.”