Rotting the bone marrow – Dependence on China for tool steel

I noticed several years ago a person can’t get good drill bits in the US anymore.  When you buy them they’ll barely cut into aluminum, afterward they’ll cut nothing and can’t be sharpened to hold an edge capable of cutting.

Today I walked up to Gale’s to look at some spectacular rocks he’s acquired [opalized petrified wood], and this drill bit thing was on my mind because I’d just attempted to drill through some aluminum.  I mentioned the Chinese steel drill bits and how we need to watch the thrift stores for US bits from a time when they’d hold an edge.

“I’m seeing the same thing in saw blades,” he mused.  Damned band saw blades won’t cut with any duration.

As we discussed it the light dawned.  Even Chinese screwdrivers bend instead of breaking.

“Do you suppose it’s the alloys they’re using, or the temper?”  Neither seemed to me to satisfy the symptoms.

“Might be a bit of both, but it doesn’t make sense.”  Gale’s done considerable tempering of steel, as I have.  “Tempering just isn’t that big a deal.”

But whether it’s intended or not, whether it’s the alloy, which it probably is [There’s a good possibility they’re sending us something nearer IRON than carbon steel] the fact is it creates a still greater dependence.  Nobody in the US is going to be able to operate any of a hundred metalworking businesses if they can’t get good tool steel bits, blades, tools.

I’ve got a pair of wire pincers out on the porch I thought about when I got back to the cabin.  I’d noticed just the gripping them enough to cut woven wire bends the handles to the center.  This was a more-or-less expensive pair of pliers.

If I believed in conspiracies, I’d be tempted by this.  But I’m at loss why we’re not getting high quality tool steel inadvertently.

How, I wonder, would it appear differently if it were a conspiracy?

Old Jules

16 responses to “Rotting the bone marrow – Dependence on China for tool steel

  1. I can say the same of the drill bits we get up here in Canada, as well as socked wrenches. I have ripped and twisted a couple of those taking the wheels off my truck. When it comes to saws, I have gone completely to Japanese saws which cut on the pull and not the push. Makes more sense anyhow. Have a great day…eh.

    • Hi Fred. Thanks for coming by. Do the Japanese saw blades hold an edge, or do they have to be sharpened frequently? Japanese steel used to be pretty good, but there came a time it seemed all I could find made of Japanese steel was stainless. Gracias, Jules

  2. yeh jules its been nearly two decades that states rely on china including consumer goods. I went to few exhibitions in Vegas and realized. Thats why if you see states start investing in vietnam for nearly over a decade or may be more. 🙂

    • Hi Tale of my Heart: I wasn’t aware the Vietnamese had a steel industry these days, but if they do I hope they make better quality than the Chinese. Gracias, Jules

  3. Coming from a long line of carpenters and mechanics…I can totally understand the lack of good tools these days. My grandfather had hand-saws that were his dad’s dads hand-saws…and they were oiled and sharpened, and cared for. A good saw would last a life time- and then some. Nowadays nobody sharpens tools…you run down to Lowe’s and buy some cheap-ass saw for $14.99 until it bends,rusts,or you throw it away out of disgust. Same with chainsaw chains, drillbits,etc.etc. Good tools were a lifetime investment…now even with a warranty they try to give you ‘rebuilt or refurbished’ versions of some other broken tool. It has come down to a throw-away society. And yes, I have Grandpa’s brace and bit…and a set of masonary bits to boot…still punches holes as good as any china-quality crap on the shelf these days, and its old as hell.

    • Blue88journal: Morning to you. Seems it’s a snake swallowing its own tail. I sharpen drill bits, even when they break, sometimes make my own sawblades for hand saws, sharpen them. But the old stuff from the time when the US steel industry made good steel is a lot harder to find except in estate auctions and occasionally in a thrift store or flea market. Gracias, Jules

  4. I have old tools I’m happy to say. I have new tools as well and they are not worth a crap.

  5. I tend to mostly blame the dominance of inferior quality, Chinese-made consumer goods of all types in the U.S. market on the American consumer. Most people simply will not make an effort to shop anywhere but “big box” warehouse chain home improvement stores for tools or other such household supplies and do-it-yourself products, and they demand the absolute lowest prices on everything they buy. American owned companies then have to ship manufacturing overseas to exploit low paid foreign workforces (an ethical offense on their parts) in order to make any profit; skilled, good paying American manufacturing jobs are lost as a result; and now far too many people in the US can only afford to purchase cheap, poorly made Chinese tools and other goods. Most people can almost always be counted on to “vote” against their own best longterm interests, for the sake of short-term convenience and instant gratification.

    For about a year I’ve been looking off-and-on for a good quality, rechargeable-battery-powered hand drill for under $200, and have yet to locate one manufactured by the most recognizable brand names made anywhere but China. The last one I had (purchased at a locally owned Ace hardware store, which has since gone out of business) was a Black & Decker, made in Mexico I think, and the battery packs quit holding a charge after about four years, and that model battery apparently isn’t made any longer. We have mostly ourselves to blame…

    • Hi Psilomelane: Yeah, there’s a lot to what you say, although it’s a complex issue as to how things might have been done differently and who to blame about the fact it wasn’t. I’ve been playing around with the cordless/rechargeable drills and lights trying to manage to get them to work with jury-rigged cords running through various sorts of power regulators such as a variac or directly off a 12 volt car battery. It’s cumbersome, but it works. I’ve just about given up on ever finding any cordless tool that doesn’t end up having to be tossed or jury-rigged to run with a cord a lot sooner than I’d have hoped. Thanks for the visit. Jules

  6. Hi Jules,Yep the same thing has been happening in the UK. We had a pretty good reputation for steel here with Sheffield and the Port Talbot plants in South Wales, but the production of tools has meant that India and China are now using the plants we sold to them in the 1980’s to make the steel they are now selling us. It is strange but when India and China, India in particular, used to produce steel in the cottage industry style their tools were both cheap and of pretty good quality, but, as the mass production facilities became available the quality plummeted.
    I know someone who imported tools made to his spec. from both Indian and Chinese sources. They made great prototypes-using the stainless steel etc but when the orders were shipped they’d use standard. There was something in the fabric of what they believed about it all that just stopped them seeing the long term benefits of keeping the quality instead of losing a few rupees or yen on a single deal.

    • Hi whitbreadjohn: Thanks for the detailed observations of your experience. I’ve wondered about Sheffield, particularly. I’ve always admired their steel products but haven’t seen any in a longish while. Gracias, Jules

  7. Steel (no not steal) from China

    The quality of tools may have nothing to do with steel produced in China, Vietnam, etc, but more to do with capitalism/consumerism and planned obsolescence, which, if I’m not mistaken, was invented by the American auto industry before or soon after World War II when the US dominated 90% of the global car/truck market.

    If that starter or fuel pump or brake pads wear out sooner, that means more income.

    If the tool company wants the tools to wear out so you buy another one, they tell their engineers to order the quality of products and plan a saw that will wear out needing to be replaced. This keeps the money rolling in so owners of company stock are happy with the quarter profits.

    The same goes for China. Since most of the products made in China are ordered by American companies such as Home Depot and Lowe’s, then the contract specifies how the product is to be made and the American side of the manufacturing equation may be who decides the quality and life span of that tool. IF the Chinese factory owners/managers complain, which I doubt would happen, the US Company just takes the contract to someone that will build what they want.

    Take Apple computers for example. More than 90% of Apple products are either manufactured or assembled in China yet they are considered of a high quality and costs much more. Apple engineers told the Chinese companies how to make the product. Very few decisions are made at the Chinese end on the quality of these products ordered by huge American companies such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Costco, Sam’s Club, Target, Lowe’s etc.

    It’s also all about competition.

    “After World War II, the U.S. steel industry faced increased competition from Japanese and European producers, who rebuilt and modernized their industries. Later, many Third World countries, such as Brazil, built their own steel industries, and large U.S. steelmakers faced increased competition from smaller, nonunion mills (“mini-mills”) that recycle scrap steel. The U.S. produced about half of the world’s steel in 1945; in 1999 it was the second largest producer, with 12% of the world market, behind China and ahead of Japan and Russia.”

    Source:: steel industry —

    The next link will lead you to a list of steel production by country. However, China trades with the entire world and although the US may be China’s largest trading partner, the total imports to other countries is far more than what China sells to the US and most of China’s steel production is going into modernizing China. Building new bridges, rail lines, highways and cities takes a lot of steel.

    While China is the number one steel producer in the world at 489,240 thousand metric tons, China uses most of what it produces and the steel industry in China is not export oriented.

    Thanks for the topic. I’m going to revise and edit this comment and use it for a post over at my Blog. I would have never thought to this without your post.

    In fact, this link will take you to this report for the US Congress regarding Chinese steel production


    The CRS Report for Congress says, “China’s steel industry has grown significantly since the mid-1990s. China is now the world’s largest steelmaker and steel consumer. In 2009, China produced over 567 million tons of crude steel, nearly half of the world’s steel. That was 10 times the U.S. production.

    However, “The majority of Chinese steel has been used to meet domestic demand in China.”

    In addition, this link will take you to a New York Times report that U.S. Steel Exports Finally Overtake Imports with a chart that shows the US started exporting more steel than it imported. I wonder who is buying that US steel?


    In fact, then there is this piece from the New York Times. As China Grows, So Does Its Appetite for American-Made Products. For example, in 2000, the US exported to China $16.2 billion in goods but in 2010 that number leaped to $91.9 billion.


  8. I did some research on tool steels at They present tons of information regarding tool steels and their uses. Could it be that China in not using a high-speed steel for the production of tool bits and saw blades? Every tool and high-speed steel contains carbon. So, they can say that they are using a “carbon tool steel” but that really doesn’t mean that they are using the right grade. They should be using a high-speed steel like M-2, M-4, T-15 or M-48 for these types of products. Proper heat treating and tempering are essential

    • Ron: I’d guess you’re probably right though I haven’t researched it. Likely they do their best to take a one-size-fits-all all-purpose grade of steel for the entire tool application industry just because it’s cheapest that way. Thanks for the visit. Jules

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