In this issue the cybercritic looks at woodworking tools websites

Reviewed Feb. 18, 8:45 a.m., Explorer 5.0

The Cybercritic prefers gripping a computer mouse to a power drill. So the fact that the home page of Bridge City Tool Works manages to get me excited about tools is high praise. Granted, the excitement is slow in building, given the tortoiselike pace with which the page loads.

But once it does, a large photo of a gleaming brass brace dominates the center of the page, topped by the headline “Brace Yourself for the New Millennium.” The copy goes on to describe the brace as “truly one of man’s greatest tool inventions,” which is why “the toolmakers of Bridge City Tool Works are paying tribute” to it with a commemorative brace and bit set. A link to the set follows.

Scrolling down, I see that another product, a pin vise, is given a similar hero treatment. “A pin vise is an age-old work-holding tool designed to secure work in the hand without placing your fingers at risk….” How did I survive all these years without one? Then I notice that the frame in which these products are featured is rather small, given the wasted space below it. In fact, it’s so small that I almost overlook a third product highlighted after the pin vise – not to mention the subsequent blurbs and links for the catalog request form, the production schedule (the company makes its own tools, so if it’s out of a particular item, the schedule tells you when you can expect more to be made), and the Bridge City Tools Club. Having grown accustomed to frames being used on the sides rather than the center of a home page, I’m temporarily thrown off by this Website’s format.

Along the top and left side of the home page are more links, to the usual Contact Us and About Our Company as well as to trade shows that Bridge City reps will attend, Articles & Testimonials (which unfortunately offers no testimonials but does invite users to submit articles about woodworking), and Community Center, in which customers can advertise to buy/sell/trade tools.

The shopping area features four product categories: Tools, Shop Accessories, Software & Plans, and Books. Under Tools are more than 115 items in about 30 subcategories, from adjustable squares to T-bevels, all displayed with thumbnail photos and two prices (the regular price and the discounted price for club members). On the bottom of the page, for good measure, is a search engine that lets you find items by product category and by price range.

The product page for the Adjustable Try Square displays a larger photo and three solid paragraphs explaining why this square is worth a hefty $139 ($125.10 for club members). “When any square takes an unexcused trip to the floor, the factory specifications typically go out the window. Now it is possible for anyone to recalibrate one of these squares with a simple hex key.” On the bottom of the page is a link to Applications & Uses, which gives such benefit-laden tidbits as “The slide stop…allows for `no hands’ work. This is a Bridge City exclusive!” Another link is to Sneak Preview Details, which provides reams of data about the genesis and creation of the product. Also on the bottom of the product page is a pull-down menu with links to related items, such as the version of the Adjustable Try Square that displays English measurements rather than metric.

Given how fabulous this product is, I’m not surprised it’s temporarily out of stock, according to the message on the product page. Nonetheless, I put it in my shopping cart (or toolbox, in Bridge City parlance) and head to the checkout. There I’m told I need a customer number to order, but since I’m a first-timer, I can order with the temporary number I’m assigned. And so I proceed, waiting to be reminded that the item is out of stock and informed of when it will be available. But even as I’m about to input my credit card number, I still haven’t received any notification, so I abandon my toolbox and return to the home page. From there I click the Order Status button – maybe backorder information will be included there – but “due to technical reasons” it’s temporarily offline.

By this point my enthusiasm has waned – or rather, reality has thumped me on the noggin. Given my handyman skills, a cheapo square from the neighborhood Home Depot will suit me just fine.

Reviewed Feb. 18, 10:50 a.m., Explorer 5.0

Were it not for the bright, organized design, the Woodcraft home page would overwhelm the Cybercritic. In the upper right corner is a photo of two men deep in discussion (the first shot of people I’ve seen on any tools site, incidentally) with a link to information about store locations and classes offered at each locale. Buttons along the top include Shop, Login, Specials, and Order History, along with a search capability; links along the left side include Complete Catalog, Closeouts, New Products, Gift Certificates, Sharpening Shop, a sign-up to receive a newsletter, something called Shop Tip (this month it’s “History and Use of Shellac”), and links to other woodworking sites. And on the right side is What’s New, with links to five items, and Our Top Sellers, with links to seven products.

But wait, there’s more! In the center is a large photo of an Incra Miter Gauge: “Without a doubt, this is the most accurate miter gauge on the market today.” You want authority, this site offers authority.

Not to mention loads of product – 33 categories in all, including specialty items such as clock supplies and woodworking wear. But my initial exploration, for drawer pulls and knobs, turns up the equivalent of empty shelves: None of the six Decorative Pulls and Matching Knobs were in stock. Woodcraft would have been better off yanking those pages from the site altogether. And the product page for the Bartley Gel Finishes provides no samples of the various shade choices.

The search engine is a bit persnickety: When I type in “jigsaw,” I’m told there are no matches. But when I type in “jig saw,” several appear. On the plus side, the product descriptions are concise and benefit-laden. The Sorby Gilt Edge Try Squares, for instance, “feature a unique I-beam design that will never go out of square!” What’s more, both the inside and outside edges are square, easily justifying the $49.99 price tag. And Woodcraft offers volume pricing on some items, such as its clock faces – a good way to appeal to professionals.

I put a try square in my shopping basket and head to checkout. As with other tools sites, I need to register before I can buy. I input my name and address and am told I’m officially registered – but then I’m told that my shopping basket is empty. Apparently my try square fell out during all the excitement of registering. (Good thing it will never go out of square.) I return to the product page, order another square, and this time sail through the ordering process.

Since I’m in the process of refinishing a chest of drawers, I head back to the Shop Tip article on shellac. I already knew that the stuff was made from a secretion of the lac bug, but I wasn’t aware that to finish my drawers with genuine shellac I’d have to devote several days to dissolving the flakes in denatured alcohol. The goal of this article, I’m sure, is to sell shellac. In this instance, though, it fails: The Cybercritic is going to stick with a fast-drying, one-coat, manmade polyurethane mixture.

Reviewed Feb. 18, 9:45 a.m., Explorer 5.0

“The Traditional Craft of Woodworking” is the tagline on the Garrett Wade home page, and line drawings above the links for Home, Products, Customer Service, and Free Catalog underscore the sense that this cataloger caters to those who love the feel of wood grain against their palms and the fresh scent of virgin oak and pine. In short, this is not a site that would normally appeal to the Cybercritic.

But the pristine photo of engraved tools in the center of the page is enticing. And the businesslike links on the side, which include New Items, Sale Items, and a search engine, make it clear that even those of us who sand and saw out of necessity rather than desire are welcome.

Selecting the Products link brings up seven product categories, all of which (except for Books) are accompanied by scroll-down menus listing the subcategories. Under Hand Tools, I select Measuring & Layout, which leads me to four sub-subcategories. When I choose Squares & Bevels, three options appear. The product page for the Classic Rosewood Handled Try Square includes a short description that doesn’t even indicate whether it’s marked in English or metric measurements.

The description for a more expensive 12-inch Engineer’s Square works a bit harder: “Great for precision setting up… extremely accurate square (+/-.0005″ per linear inch).” But it doesn’t romance the product, which is surprising given the lovely and loving graphics of the home page. Worse, some product pages for drawer pulls and knobs are missing pictures – a big mistake, given that these items are chosen almost exclusively for their aesthetics.

Back at the Engineer’s Square, I click the order button; nothing happens, so I click again. And again. And then I notice on the side panel the heading “Current Order” with the name of the product I ordered beneath it. This is much too subtle for shoppers used to a fresh page appearing each time an item is ordered.

I head to checkout, and change the quantity of Engineer’s Squares from three to one. I’m informed that the product is indeed in stock and asked if I’m a new or returning customer. As a new customer, I need to fill out a form supplying my address and picking a password before I order. But once I do, ordering is effortless. If only the Cybercritic’s recent attempt to build a home entertainment center had been half as simple.

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