It’s not what you think it is (or maybe it is)

With my first tool review for Popular Woodworking going live this week on their website and hitting mailboxes in short order, and my second currently in editing, I thought it might be a good time to say something that should be understood, but never is.

This work is not quid pro quo.

That is, to say, writing tool reviews does not mean I suddenly start swimming in free tools like Uncle Scrooge in his money bin.


I used to be an avid gear head when it came to guitars, amps and everything in between the two, but I quit subscribing to guitar magazines a few years ago when I realized that for nearly every item “reviewed” by staff there was a full page advertisement for the same item on the facing page. It wasn’t subtle.

At Popular Woodworking we do not receive direct financial benefit for reviewing a tool. Manufacturers and makers do not give us free tools as any sort of kick-back. Tools are generally either purchased (at full price) by the reviewer at their own expense or sent in for consideration and review with the understanding that after the reviews are complete they will be returned. I can’t say that’s how it works at every publication, but it is how it works at Popular Woodworking, and hopefully that makes a difference in how you read the reviews. It certainly makes a difference in how they’re written.

Tools are relatively simple things, so when I’m working on a review I ask a few simple questions:

  • What is the problem this tool is meant to solve?
  • Is that a real or contrived problem?
  • If it is a real problem does the tool solve it?
  • Does it solve it well?

And finally,

  • where does this tool miss the mark?


Some reviews only ask the first, third and fourth questions and they read like ad copy. I have no interest in writing ad copy.

Some reviews only ask the last question and they read like the reviewer got picked last for dodge ball a lot – Sour grapes.

I try to come at it with a different attitude. No tool is perfect (except maybe my Swiss Army Knife) so I ask the last question first, and then once that’s out of the way the first four make more sense. There is a concept in ancient Greek tragedy (and Christian theology) that centers around the word ἁμαρτία (hamartia: to err, to sin) derived from the word ἁμαρτάνειν (hamartanein) which simply means to miss the mark. It’s an archery term. Assuming there is a mark, the question is: how far from the mark did the arrow fall?

The only way to find an answer to that question is to use the tool. A lot. In all the ways it was designed to be used and some of the ways it was not. At that point, the review writes itself and it’s about as honest and helpful as it can be.

That is the heuristic process I follow. It has nothing to do with blowing smoke up anyone’s exhaust vent and it certainly doesn’t get me any free tools. I do hope it will prove helpful to anyone reading what I’ve written.

Now, off to the tool bin to swim some laps.








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