Are we willing to pay for tools made in America?

Sept. 4, 2003

I like to fix things, and I like tools. Especially the hand toolswrenches, screwdrivers and pliersthat make the critical connections between my will and the task before me. In these tools, the difference between okay and exquisite comes down to infinitesimal degrees of sophistication in dimensions, weights, materials and finishes.

To some of us, tools are more than commodity items. "A nut on a bolt is a terribly simple thing, conceptually speaking. But it may represent a completely impenetrable barrier if all you have to work with are the hands with which you were born," says Mark Barnes in the June, 2002 issue of Motorcycle Consumer News. "So we've come up with better fingers. They're made of steel. We call them wrenches and pliers. Depending on our means and how much we love them, we purchase our improved fingers with subtle curves to make them look and feel beautiful, coat them in chrome and high-tech plastics to further enhance their form and function and store them adoringly in rubber-lined shrines coated with thick red enamel. They're joined by superior versions of fists, and fingernails and wrists, better eyes and ears and teeth."

Over nearly five decades I've collected a lot of tools, most because I needed them but some just because I like them. Around 1975, I bought what was to become my favorite hand tool of all time, a Snap-on 10-millimeter combination wrench. This long, slender, strong and beautifully rendered little devil bears the markings "OEXM100 PAT 3273430" and "USA," and sells today in the company's online store for $25.25.

That's a lot of money for a little wrench, and it's the reason Snap-on tools are a tiny, but important, minority in my toolbox. Though I can't rationalize purchasing more than a few such tools, I sure appreciate the option.

Snap-on recently announced that it will close its Mount Carmel, Ill., and Kenosha, Wis., plants by early 2004 "to further enhance operating performance and competitive position," said company spokesperson Richard Secor in the local paper. The company will consolidate manufacturing in its other, more efficient U.S. plants. Competition from products made overseas was a factor, Secor said. "We have to make difficult decisions to remain made-in-America."

It's a stretch to understand how foreign competition threatens a company that has the patents, reputation, distribution and product quality of Snap-on. The imports I've seen are either about as expensive, not nearly as impressive, or both.

The competition may well come from within the company as it looks at the possibility of producing tools to its specifications overseas, an option many manufacturers have taken to reduce costs and improve margins. In those cases, it doesn't matter how much we're willing to pay unless we also insist on seeing "USA" on the handle.

And it's clear what will happen the minute we stop.