Pro-Tools sharpening its profits

It appears Professional Tool Manufacturing has discovered the heir apparent to the Drill Doctor.

More than 2.5 million Drill Doctor units have been sold since the drill-bit sharpener was introduced in 1997, and variations on the original design continue to drive the company's profitability.

The company rolled out the professional grade Work Sharp 3000 &

which sharpens straightedge woodworking tools &

in December followed this month by the Work Sharp 2000 for hobbyists and do-it-yourselfers.

The precision tool sharpener produces predictable and accurate results on a multitude of chisels, plane irons, lathe tools and carving tools. It features integrated heatsink air cooling, a flat-tempered glass grinding wheel and a motor that produces a wheel speed of 580 rpm.

"The really good sign is that the dedicated end-user, who is really critical and whose tool has to be right, is accepting Work Sharp in quantities," said Professional Tool Manufacturing President Hank O'Dougherty.

Finding the next big thing and allowing the sharpening tool developer and manufacturer to grow wasn't easy.

In 2003, Pro Tool rolled out the VersaSaw, which converted a power drill into a reciprocating saw. The company spent nearly $1.2 million in research and developing and producing 10 prototypes, but public response was rather dull.

They refocused their research and development efforts, and went back to what they did best &

making sharpening products.

"We want to develop products that are easy to use and work every time," O'Dougherty said. "We've done drill bits and straightedges and we've got a whole list of things we're going after. We want to be known as the company that sharpens."

O'Dougherty says the research and development for the Work Sharp cost between $1 million and $1.5 million and involved two or three major architectural revisions. Six prototype versions (in batches of 20) were built and distributed for testing.

Product development engineer Dan Dovel says the company began pursuing the project about a year-and-a-half ago.

"It took three or four months to do pretty heavy research and another three or four months to tool up," Dovel said. "There's a huge investment in tooling and up-front commitment of resources. We've got a lot riding on this."

He says the furniture and cabinet makers who use such tools can be a tough sell, and so are hobbyists.

"The users can be critical of tools and don't mind making their own tools and attachments," Dovel said. "They generally buy one or two sharpening products and have them forever &

if they work. This customer is very particular and is fairly jaded, but we saw the opportunity with our technology."

Just as a distribution agreement with Snap-on Tools signaled the Drill Doctor's acceptance, getting Rockler Woodworking and Hardware Stores to sign on for Work Sharp was a marketing coup for Pro Tool.

"This is how we get to the premier users of woodworking tools," O'Dougherty said.

So far, 1,200 Work Sharp 3000s, retailing for about $200, have been produced, with a target of 10,000 units by year's end, said Gary Dunn, communications manager. Work Sharp 2000s sell for $100, and 20,000 to 30,000 are expected to roll off the assembly line. comparison, Drill Doctors sell for between $50 and $150.

Home Depot and Lowe's will be among some 250 retailers selling the 2000 model, along with Ace and Tru-Value hardware stores and the Sears catalog. Wider penetration in stores will follow next year.

Product manager Kyle Crawford said local woodworkers helped hone the sharpener's performance. Crawford visited backyard workshops, learning the challenges woodworkers face to keep their tools sharp.

"We'd go back and work with our engineer and come back with prototypes and test them against the users' needs," Crawford said. "There are a lot of competitive sharpening products out there and we needed to find the sweet spot of price and features. We were able to find the hot buttons for features, and price always plays such a big part on tools and systems like this. You can spend $600 just to get a sharp tool."

Previous technology, he said, took as much as 30 minutes to set up and calibrate wet stone sharpening tools.

"At the end of day, these guys want to be woodworkers, not sharpeners," Crawford said. "With this they can touch up a tool in 60 seconds and be back to woodworking."

With a product that received kudos from such publications as Popular Mechanics and Hardware Retailing at the recent National Hardware Show in Orlando, Fla., Pro Tool expects to ramp up employment 50 percent to about 120 workers during its peak production season, August through November.

"People have taken notice of the awards," Dunn said. "Our sales people are getting in doors they haven't gotten in before."

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