While on vacation my wife and I have a few idiosyncrasies. Alyssa and I like to visit food stores we don’t have at home to see how the locals eat, try some new foods, bring home unusual condiments etc. It kind of gives us a feel for ‘could we live in this place’?
I also like to visit hardware stores and lumber yards to see what is available and popular in other parts of the world. We were recently in Quebec Canada for the Early American Industries Association (eaiainfo.org) Annual Meeting. The meeting was enjoyable as they always are — if you are not familiar with that group but love old tools and methods of work I encourage you to check out their website — don’t worry, I’ll wait for you to check out the site — I built out their webpage so you’ll see me over there as well. ;-)
While in Quebec we went to ‘RenoDepot‘. At first glance it reminded me a lot of Home Depot and Lowes — many of the same major manufacturers, same power tools etc.– but with a nicer blue-green color on everything. It was a little smaller in scale and reminded me a bit of what Rickles/Pergament/Grossmans used to be like before they were all driven out of business — a big store but limited selection of brands and supplies. I made a bee-line for the hand tool section.
I was happy to see a larger hand tool section compared to the American big box renovation stores I was used to. A larger selection of chisels (still not fine chisels), files etc. Stanley seemed to have a larger presence on the shelves of stores we visited followed by Fuller and the usual generic/store branded imported brands. There seemed to be more items made in Canada and North America in general, but not drastically different from home.
I also searched online in the area and checked out a RONA home store. Apparently RONA owns Reno-Depot and it seems like a RONA is the larger Super-Center type store with a wider selection.
Again I went straight to the hand tools section. I was much happier with the selection at Rona. 5+ different makes of chisel including the BlueChip style Irwin/Marples/Record chisels which are the first tier of big box chisels I’d consider — I learned on them as a student and they were always a good value for a lower end chisel and work great out in the field. (The website showed the old Record ones at a great price which is why I went there, but on the rack was some of the early 2000s Irwin flavor chisel with round handle and the newer style with the stumpier handle). The price was right and I bought 2 of each style in odd sizes I didn’t have to round out my travel tool roll and will compare them to my old English made Marples Blue chip chisels in a future post. I heard the metal quality was not as good in these later Asian made lines so we’ll put that to the test.
What made me really happy with the hand tool aisle here was the quantity and variety given this was not a specialty woodworking store. There were a few low-end Stanley bench planes (Still better than the Buck Brothers or generic planes at similar stores near me), far greater variety of Nicholson and similar files and then lots of things I wish local big box stores still stocked — card files, sharpening stones and oil (not hyped up cheap diamond plates, but traditional oil stones etc), Stanley spoke shaves, card scrapers, record woodworking vises and that sort of thing.
The other neat thing was to see a selection of safety gear, working gear (jackets, overalls etc), work boots etc for the carpenter on the run.
It was clear that the Canadian renovation market still made use of human powered woodworking. Sure these stores still had all the latest cordless power tools as well, but at least craftsmen and handymen and women in Quebec had the option of filling their tool-boxes with reasonably quality hand or power tools. At my local big box stores the brand name hand tools have been increasingly swapped out for cheaper and cheaper brands, smaller selection and replacement by cheap gimmicky power tools.
As energy becomes increasingly expensive, folks spend their limited funds on higher quality materials and results and green/conservation movements help put pressure on the disposable society mentality of the 20th century I hope the current hand tool renaissance can spill back over into mainstream carpentry/renovation. Only time and our efforts to spread the word will tell.
P.S. I also checked out a BMR Lumber (great name as those are also my initials) and a Canac store with similar findings. I was hoping to find a store that stocked a lot of Bahco tools — I still want to try some Bahco files but never see them offered in the US. I love my Bahco Superior saws, card scrapers and paint scrapers. If you find other regional chains that value and sell quality hand tools, please share it in the comments below.