I have always been interested in benchtop power tools, usually because of space constraints, a limited budget, or a combination of factors.
One thing that has been made clear over the years is that there are some unique models on the market, and very many clones of nearly identical machines under different tool brands’ labels.
Often, there are distinctions, but they’re rarely obvious, and this phenomena can be found across many tool categories.
With respect to benchtop lathes or mini mills, the differences might be more apparent, such as in feed screw graduations, whether the main column tilts or not, or in the fitment and finish quality of cast and machined components.
But with many benchtop tools aimed at hobbyists, woodworkers, and other such users, the differences are subtle – at best – between mostly-indistinguishable tools.
Shown above are 12 very similar combination benchtop sanders. Shown here are sanders from:
For the models currently available on Amazon, the prices range from $120 to $181. Beyond Amazon, the Grizzly is $100 plus $25 shipping, the Harbor Freight Bauer is $120 (on sale), and the Ryobi is $199.
There might be others that I missed. How are they different from each other, aside from color and tool brand?
The switch plates are different, as are the belt sander work supports. What about the motors? Are the speeds the same? Power? What else is different?
For at least some of the tools shown above, it seems the differences are only cosmetic, with only brand-specific colors and nameplates. Others have additional changes, such as the Skil, with its safety key power switch.
Most of the 12 combinations sanders look to have similar motors (4.3A or 4.5A depending on model) and the same operating speeds.
So… are they all the same? Most of them? All of them?
Why choose one model over another?
This is the benchtop power tool conundrum, and it affects sanders, grinders, drill presses, planers, jointers, spindle sanders, air filters, mini mills, mini lathes, and many other such tools.
There are greater differentiations in some categories than others, such as how some benchtop jointers feature blades with helical-style inserts instead of straight knives.
Deciphering the differences – if any – is a labor-intensive, confusing, and frustrating process. Without clear differentiation, should one shop solely according to price?
What I have realized over the years is that few tool brands are invested in the benchtop power tool industry. Sure, there’s still innovation on occasion, but not at the entry and mid price point level. Most of the emphasis is in the marketing.
I can understand why this is the case, but it’s still frustrating.
The fact of the matter is that the status quo seems to be working just fine for tool brands and retailers. Major retailers, such as Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Harbor Freight carry Ryobi, Skil, and Bauer respectively, and online retailers carry all of the others by various brands.
There are pricier tools from more premium brands, although this often means larger tools, as opposed to simply better-built or more-featured ones.
When shopping for a miter saw, there are boundless choices when it comes to blade size, single or dual bevel adjustment, and whether it has a sliding mechanism or not.
But when shopping for most other types of benchtop power tools, the choices are often between largely identical clones and pricier industrial-focused models.
It seems that few brands are willing to innovate in this space anymore. Could they if they wanted to?
Why is there so little innovation in the benchtop tool space anymore? Will this ever change?