“They don’t make ’em like they used to.”
We hear this phrase frequently when people are discussing tools and machines.
The old tools from the 1940’s – 1970’s are generally regarded as the best of their kind. This was the golden age of manufacturing, when men were men, women were men, and cast iron was liberally applied to everything in sight.
Table saws, band saws, milling machines, shapers, jointers, lathes, pretty much any non-portable tool, you only have to scan a few blogs to find scores of DIYers and professionals proclaiming the virtues of their old machines and descrying the inferiority of the modern equivalents (to see what I mean, just google the phrase “Chinese crap” … actually … on second thought, ignore that suggestion).
Some companies recognize this appeal, and work it into their product line. Powermatic, for instance, charges a premium for their tools because they DO make them like they used to (Harbor Freight, on the other hand, sells almost nothing but Chinese sheet metal).
You generally won’t hear me dissenting from this view that older is better. I have an old Rockwell table saw that I fixed up and love to use (although I bought it because it was cheap, not because it was old).
However, I have never bought into the idea fully. It just doesn’t seem possible that modern design and manufacturing techniques could have universally degraded. Granted, I do get pretty upset when tools are advertised as “improved” when all they have done is add a laser; but there must be cases in which the old tool had some deficiency and the newer tools have corrected it.
This brings me to my latest Craigslist experience.
I was browsing through the current tool postings when I came across something I had never seen: a 1940’s scroll saw.
It was big, heavy, had a good motor, and was only $30 so I bought it, thinking I could tune it up and replace my current scroll saw.
I got it home and started to take it apart.
The first thing I noticed, was that the blade was “tensioned” by a spring loaded plunger at the top. There was no mechanical linkage between the lower and upper blade mounts, which meant that the tool could ONLY cut on the down stroke. Which meant that many modern blades with a mix of down and up cutting teeth could not be used with this tool, and the blade had to be thick and rigid enough to not bend when being pushed through a cut.
I took off the cover for the lower housing and saw two things:
- The mechanism to to convert the rotation of the motor to the raising and lowering of the blade was a heavily lubed set of slides, not the ball-bearing + rod and piston design I had expected.
- The housing was full of oil!
Either that or this was an extraordinarily rare four-stroke internal-combustion scroll saw.
As I did a little more digging and research, I found that these old scroll saws are really not comparable to the new ones.
Because the blade cannot be tensioned, the blades must be thick and rigid (relatively), so they cannot be used for delicate scroll work or tight curves which, in my opinion, are the only reason scroll saws exist.
It occurred to me that this tool was basically an upside-down, non-portable jigsaw that could not do anything my band saw could not do better, and which was unable to keep pace with my smaller modern scroll saw.
They don’t make them like they used to, and it’s a good thing (at least for scroll saws). Since it was only $30, I don’t feel too bad about picking a lemon. Plus I got a nice little motor and I can probably re-purpose the cast-iron table from the saw. Otherwise, this is scrap metal, and I don’t feel guilty about its unceremonious demise.
It lived a long life (72 years), but I cannot imagine it ever brought joy or even marginal satisfaction to anyone that used it. It’s just a miserable old tool.
May it rust in peace.