$5 for a 1/8″ Twist Drill? Only in America…

The more powerful and original a mind, the more it will incline towards the religion of solitude.” –Aldous Huxley

This morning, during my morning routine of purging… junk mail from my inbox, I took a break and read the latest blog post by Chris Schwarz–who happens to be a writer that sounds like Tom Brokaw when he speaks.

This post reinforces the belief that conversations amongst kindred spirits are best lubricated with beer–surely beer is the foundation of all folklore.

But I digress. I shared the following experience with Chris via email today and thought it worthy of the Drivel Starved Nation.

Do you think Americans would pay $5 for a 1/8” twist drill?

You bet. By the tens of thousands times ten. And as unbelievable and absurd as it sounds, here is how.

About 10 years ago I was in an OEM Chinese factory that made bench grinders. You have seen them, ½ HP motor, two 6” grinding wheels, pig tail cord, a small plastic face shield and no nameplate—these would be attached by the American companies that bought them. The total cost per grinder, landed in the US was $7.15. Of course at this price it would be asking too much for a UL tag.

These grinders were, and still are being sold here and the prices range from $49 to $200– awesome margins by any standard.

Behind the factory floor there was a small mountain of insulated wire that had been pulled from old cars, appliances, televisions and the like and it was replenished daily. Surrounding the wire mountain were a couple of dozen women who were stripping the wire of insulation. These wire remnants were then spliced together and used in the grinder motor windings. Completely illegal, and dangerous. But cheap.

I thought I was shocked until I walked into the factory section that made twist drill bits. Here they were making, for the AMERICAN MARKET, those 59, 89, 119 pc drill sets found at the box stores and other discount joints for $19.95. Again, there were rows of women who were dipping the bits in what looked like Easter egg dye.

I asked the interpreter what they were doing. He replied, “They are making all the bits the same color as these four.” The four bits he pointed out were the 1/8”, ¼”, 3/8” and the ½”.

I asked why.

I learned that those four bits were properly hardened. The remaining 115 bits were made with what I call pot metal. The reason?

“Because those are the only four hole sizes that Americans use.”

I asked, as politely as I could, if there was any guilt or remorse for duping their American customers. The reply was shocking.

“In America, if it cost less than $20, nobody complains about quality—everybody in China knows this.”

So for those that complain about prices, you should be screaming mad if you have purchased one of these deals because your twenty bucks just likely purchased the four most expensive twist drills you will ever own. And in so doing, have made it that much more difficult for honest companies to compete.

More recently, I found myself at the local paint shop to purchase a Purdy paint brush—I have always liked them. So when I walked into the store I asked the sales rep to show me the most expensive brushes…

“I don’t get asked that very often..” he replied.

I then learned that the cheapest brushes outsell the flagged end bristle brushes by about 20 to one. The reason?

So people can throw them away rather than clean them.

And I am here to report that properly cleaning (and storing) a well-made paint brush is an honor for a tool that will last a lifetime.

In short, we are the world’s worst consumers and those that complain about prices are likely leading the chorus.

Obviously, as a member of the DSN, you are dancing to the beat of a different drummer, or, you are here because of my awesome and totally professionally rendered cartoons…

Either case I thought you might find my experiences enlightening.


22 comments on this post:

  1. Enlightened? Sure. Depressed? Definitely.

    The question that comes to my mind (as I desperately try to push the observation that we are such awful consumers to the side) is, does the same thing happen in the US? Do American companies produce similarly crappy materials because they know that their market has come to accept it? If we suddenly lost the low-priced competition from China, would things change? Would consumers pay more for American-made goods? Or would American companies produce similarly shoddy products?

    I guess you get what you pay for. “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of lower price is forgotten.” Benjamin Franklin, who surely would have been a member of the DSN.

    - Peter

  2. I’m not surprised or disappointed (because I know too many similar stories). Metal substitution and fraud has a long history–including pot metal. Honestly, my frustration is with people who count bargains by units/dollar and, even more, by the disappearance of the middle market in low priced things.

    On that last count, your post reminded me of one by a colleague of yours…

  3. Trouble with the link….search Joel Moskovitz’s blog for Footprint about the demise of Footprint Tools.

  4. Footprint is alive–they went through a corporate restructuring.

    The real consumer issue (my 2 cents) as it relates to the internet is that the vocal majority, which happens to be a real minority I believe, (those that complain about prices) have no governor. Those that understand what the gravity of the marketplace does to quality long term largely remain silent. And that is unlikely to change.

    It is hard to admit, but as Americans, we have allowed ourselves to be shamelessly Walmartized–a striated marketplace is a good thing, but I am afraid that the under $20 rule, apparently well known in Asia, is true. All those $20 bills add up to a really big mess… none bigger than the questions surrounding our core values.


  5. I hesitate to bring it up, but I think your point about the vocal “majority” is true of politics too, John. How did we ever get into the state of mind that being “elite” is bad?!? Mediocrity rules.

    - Peter

  6. The Sheffield company–so far as I know–was liquidated and the factory closed. Things are still branded “Footprint,” but I don’t know who owns the name.

    The butyl acetate- and beech-handled chisels were $25-35 and “Made in Sheffield” (I own a set)–and are still available, probably as new old stock. The new ones are $6 and made in China:


  7. @Peter,

    You must have been listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR this afternoon. I always thought “elite” meant, well, elite (i.e., the best), but I guess nowadays, at least in politics, people take it to mean “those who have power and influence, typically ill-gotten.”


  8. I see this a great deal on one of the woodworking forums. Astonishing claims about “I could make an identical tool for for 15% of what that gouger wants” or “I would like an excellent quality, NASA grade hand plane but will not pay more than $35 for it; I think that’s fair.” Other than just putting your mouth in drive and letting any fall out of it, where do these ideas come from?

    Everyone that makes a claim as per above should be required to put their money where their overworked mouth is, and show us all how it’s done.

  9. So John or anyone where do I need to go to get American (or quality) drill bits? Thanks!

  10. Google “American made twist drills” and you have lots of choices–let us know what you decided.


  11. Josh-

    We have tested Montana Brand, and we are a customer. The rest, BCTW does not have personal experiences to share. They also happen to be “out here” on the “left coast” (close enough) and I will admit a bias exists…their products are sound…as in no pot metal. Not an endorsement…just one maker to another. I will guess the others are sound too.

    By the way, thanks for your post!


  12. I bought a really nice index of Blue Point cobalt drills from my SnapOn dealer for a mere $225.00.

    One old name that I have been very disappointed with is Vise-Grip. They used to be made in Dewitt, NE by Americans of the finest materials when owned by Peterson Manufacturing. Irwin bought them out, closed the plant and now makes them in China. Compare the new and old. Sadly, there is a difference.

  13. John,

    20 bucks you say? So is it a coincidence that many of the parts that break on a helicopter are under that? (Nope, I haven’t had to buy any yet!)

    In my opinion; the biggest travesty in this is that after a while it becomes almost impossible to buy something of quality because the companies that made the good stuff can’t find enough customers. I think it would be cool if every hobbyist; no matter what their hobby is, saved up some money and bought at least one tool, part, accessory, or item that was top of the line. Imagine the impact on marketplace, not to mention the increased enjoyment of ones activity.

    One final thought, some infant formula and childrens toys from China have been found to contain melamine, lead and cadmium. If they will put profits above our kid’s health, do you think they care about about what they’re sending adults? Of course many of our corporations have exploted their work force and citizens, so maybe we shouldn’t be suprised.


  14. Rutager;

    All good points.

    Don’t forget, the apparent lack of scruples by many Chinese manufacturers only came to a head after people’s pets started dying.


    We only have ourselves to blame. Those people screaming and moaning about prices are driving this perpetual, disgusting engine of cause and effect.


    PS: On a private note, my helicopter that blew up in mid-air only cost $3.95 to fly again! For $3.95 I can buy a snow cone that is gone in 10 minutes. My last $3.95 heli repair has lasted for about two hours and counting of flight time. (Forget the initial investment–this makes no sense and I warned you…). And I will be the first to admit, I am a hypocrite–this $3.95 part was made in China.

  15. As a late entry to this thread I can also vouch for the Montana line of drill bits. The rest of this thread is just incredibly depressing and very much in line with my belief that “The American Dream” is now strictly about mediocrity. :(


  16. John, thanks for blogging and, specifically, this post. It’s much too long to explain the labyrinth of links I took to get here but suffice to say, it was worth it. You, and your commenters, echo my worries regarding the fate of our quality of thinking as a group. In comparison to our elected Representatives, your blog takes an approach that “quality” of life is a function of “quality” thinking and action. I look forward to more positive involvement.

  17. One year I worked for a steel mill that had a federal government contract that specified a maximum failure rate of 2% per shipment. It was my job to put 98 good and tested units into the box and then take 2 units known to be bad and add them to the box. That was an American company.

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