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There is no question that when someone has been in business for 12 years they learn how to use certain tools to get them by until they can afford to purchase whatever tool it is that they are working around.
To start this column off, this is my quick list of obvious stepping-stone tools. Not all of these examples have affected me personally, but I'm sure if you have a shop you can relate to at least one of these:
• Using a chopsaw until you realize that a lay-down bandsaw or a cold saw works so much better and makes a hell of a lot less noise
• Learning how to lay down a clean weld with your MIG until you can get a TIG and start learning how to weld all over again
• Tolerating the horrible bend of a Harbor Freight bottle jack tubing bender hoping to one day afford or fall into a nice air-over- hydraulic bender with all the appropriate dies
• Wrestling the nuisance of a small vertical woodworking bandsaw until you find a nice metal saw that won't kill blades every week
• Finally realizing that a $200 Craftsman toolset is like a Fisher-Price set compared to the tools you get off the Matco or Snap-on truck (but, for the price you really can't beat them)
This is just a small list of tools one would graduate to, and there are of course tools that you wouldn't necessarily have an entry-level version of that you deal with while waiting for "the one" to show up. A lathe or mill is pretty much an all-or-nothing kind of tool. Finding bench-top models would be an entry point, but you really can't use a drill press for now in anticipation of a mill. A drill press simply can't mill, but a mill can certainly drill holes and anything else you can imagine (I guess this is a good reason why a mill is 10 times the cost of a drill press).
There is one graduation tool I deliberately left off the list that I'm sure at least one of you felt should be on it, but I don't agree with this one. Using an oxy/acetylene torch awaiting a plasma cutter is not a step in a positive direction if you ask me. They are two tools that have different uses. True, they both can cut, and when used properly they can both cut well, but the plasma cutter is a single-purpose tool and can only do one thing: cut. A torch on the other hand can both heat and cut, but even beyond that the versatility of its cutting abilities are vast and extremely useful if you know how to use a torch properly. I fear that the torch is so quickly dismissed as a butcher tool that most folks don't concern themselves with learning how to use one beyond lighting it and pushing the valve to make a cut. There is a line from the movie The Mask of Zorro where Anthony Hopkins' character asks Antonio Banderas's character if he knows how to use a sword. His response was, "Sure, the pointy end goes in the other guy." That statement is perfect; I think there is so much to know about a tool as simple as an oxy/acetylene torch where most only see a "hot wrench." I'll tell you this about my torch: I have spent enough time with a plasma to know that my torch is a far superior tool. I can only think of one time in my 12 years in business when I looked at Steve and said, "I think a plasma might be nice right now."
So go fill your bottles and give your torch another spin. You might even like it.