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Wrenching Tips: Let’s Go Shopping Round 2: Good Tools

Tim Odell March 8, 2012 Featured, Wrenching Tips 37 Comments

hooniverse good tools tool boxes

Two weeks ago, we got into how to find tools on the cheap. It probably should’ve been titled “used tools” as that was the real focus, but oh well. This week is going to be a little philosophical, but the general idea is to guide you to purchases you won’t regret, either because you spent too much or not enough. For the sake of simplicity, we’re focusing on hand tools, leaving power tools for another day. We’ll go over brands on a scale of quality and some examples of what you’d buy at that level.

Yes, even Harbor Freight stuff…

[Upfront Disclosure: This post is covered in links to Amazon searches for the tools we’re talking about. In theory, we make money off of those links, more if you end up buying something. Obviously, you could just check out each brand’s website or go to a store instead. We’d rather try to make money pointing you to good tools than finally learning what that One Weird Trick to a Flat Belly! is.] 

The central idea is the more a tool will be used, but more quality-dependent its design and the harder it is to replace, the more money you should spend on it. Up to the limits of what you can afford, of course. I don’t want anyone to walk away from this thinking they need $5000 worth of quality tools as a prerequisite to own a $1800 car.

It’s worth spending some time up front to talk about who actually makes your tools. In most cases, there is no “Sears Tool Factory”. Tools are made by contract manufacturers, to design and quality control specifications set by the brand owner. In my opinion, it’s the second half of that sentence that makes a good tool, not the first. Foreign manufacturing does not equate to cheap crap…but it is true that when a brand manager decides to make cheap crap, they go where labor’s the cheapest. For a host of reasons, I prefer to buy tools Made in the USA™, but becoming fanatical about domestic manufacture for it’s own sake is not a cause I’m willing to take up, for a host of different reasons.

Enough prelude, let’s get down to it.

Cheap Tools include the no-name brands sold in truck stops, Sears Companion or evolv, Home Depot’s WorkForce and the various old industrial sounding Harbor Freight house brands. Regardless of what’s on the box, assume you’ve got no warranty. I’d actually recommend the HF stuff over the “lower tier” house brands as the former tends to be bare-bones industrial grade while the latter tries to use clever packaging or design to disguise their crappiness. The problem with cheap stuff is it’s an unknown quantity. Some of their stuff is on-par with real brands, some is borderline defective. This Garage Journal “Harbor Freight Pass/Fail” thread (now at 190 pages) highlights this perfectly and also provides a great reference.

P1010036

Why buy Cheap Tools at all? Because having tools you don’t care about is a powerful thing.  These are the tools that are likely to see no end of abuse or neglect, e.g. pry bars (I own a HF set) or your “backup” tools. I have ~$25 cheap tool kits in my old cars on the odd chance that I’ll have to adjust a carb, replace a hose, or yank a rear driveshaft on the side of the road (done all three). You won’t feel bad if they get stolen, lost or welded to a control arm, and that’s the point.

Probably Good Enough Tools are typically reasonably priced and offered as brands with some level of continuity. Bracketed on the bottom by the better Harbor Freight examples and on the top by major hardware store brands like Lowe’s’s Kobalt and Home Depot’s Husky, these tools will get the job done 9 times out of 10. They tend to be occasionally made in the USA and mostly covered by a lifetime warranty, but the details thereof vary from brand to brand. Husky and Kobalt seem to have upgraded to a “no hassle” replacement policy, but I’d be sure to check the box first.

kobalt vise

Personally, I tend to avoid these tools in favor of jumping up or down one tier. I’d rather pay 15% more or 50% less. That said, I’m much closer to and more frequently shopping at Lowe’s than Sears, and the few Kobalt tools I own (mostly non-car stuff) have served me well enough. Were I greeted with a Kobalt box full of Kobalt tools in your garage, I wouldn’t think any less of you. 

Good Stuff Tools are pretty much the best tools a home wrencher can say they need. The biggest differences between Good Stuff and Probably Good Enough are long-standing reputation and warranty. Craftsman is the obvious standard-bearer, but brands like Ingersoll Rand, GearWrench, S-K, Snap-On’s Blue Point or JH Williams fit in here too. Again, the Garage Journal forums are my go-to reference for “Is ______ any good?”, and they’re usually among the first hits for “[tool brand] quality?” on google.

P1010033

For me, this is Craftsman. They offer the best mix of availability, quality and price for me and what I do. Of my three tool boxes, two are Craftsman. 85% of my hand tools are Craftsman. When I need a tool I go to them first, despite their pathetic tools department staff and generally frustrating website. (Might I suggest you do your Craftsman tool search on Amazon, instead?)

Lastly, Professional Grade Tools. Think about how often you actually use your tools; even the busiest among us is only spinning wrenches on nights and weekends for a few hours at a time. An automotive professional does this all day, every day. Professional tools don’t offer any more function over Good Stuff tools, but they’re built and supported with this use in mind. And ohgoodlord are they expensive. Go price a simple ratchet from Snap-On, Mac, Matco or Cornwell and be prepared to gasp. But then again, they’ll replace that ratchet for all eternity under any circumstances, provided you’re the original purchaser.

Snap-On DrawerP1010041

It may seem counter-intuitive, but your tool box gets more use than anything else. Every time you grab a tool, you go to your tool box and pull a drawer. If there’s any Professional Grade purchase I’d recommend, it’s your main tool box.  I own a Snap-On 72″ roller box, and it’s one of my most prized possessions. The drawers will hold almost two of me by weight, and despite their width have no slop. It weighs 450lbs, empty. It was my present for Christmas 2010, because The Missus is awesome and would rather only make the purchase once. We saved money by buying a 2 year old example from a dealer mechanic at 50% off. The warranty technically doesn’t transfer to me, but a I understand it, dealers are ok to replace a slide or the like to gain a new customer.

That’s my take on tools, but I’m not so arrogant as to assume it’s the only valid one. What do you use?

  • dukeisduke

    I'd love to have a rollaway, so I can combine the tools I've got in a toolbox, WWII .50cal. ammo box, in workbench drawers, and on multiple shelves. New is expensive, so I may go used.

    I will say, I avoid Northern Tool and Harbor Freight. I've always had good luck with Craftsman.

  • M44Power

    The Garage Journal pass/fail thread is wonderful. I've discovered more than a few gems at Harbor Freight, like my composite ratchets that feel tighter than the base model Craftsman. Then, I've found other things like the socket adapters that rounded off when tightening a nut.

    All in all, I am pretty satisfied with Craftsman. Their stuff meets 90% of my needs on quality and durability and the price is no where near as scary as what comes from the truck. Plus, the warranty can't be beat.

  • M44Power

    My 2002 was missing the entire tool roll (go figure, after almost 40 years…) so I picked up a super tool set for her at Harbor Freight. I have a complete socket set, wrenches, razor lock back knife, screwdrivers, various other tools, and a bag to store it in for about $30 total. That's cheaper than the cost of a reproduction tool roll for the car. Considering how often I use them, and the fact that their presence will somehow keep me from ever encountering a situation where I will need them, that's money well spent.

    • FЯeeMan

      Prevention is the best cure!

    • scottymc

      Alwasy pack a complete box for vacations/major road trips. It's obvious insurance. Because I've NEVER had to use them.

  • DemonXanth

    Very good tips. Another thing to consider is how much you're likely to abuse a tool. The higher you go the more likely the wrench-in-a-wrench breaker bar is going to work without injury. I do keep a $5 socket set in my car because if I broke down, that $5 socket set will be worth it's money. And if I leave it on the side of the road it won't even be worth the cost in gas to go back and get it.

    The biggest thing to think about is "what happens if this tool breaks". If the answer is no big deal, go cheap. If it's "I'll lose a day's pay to replace it", then go pro.

  • Surprisingly, the people I've talked to rate Harbor Freight floor jacks fairly high on the scale of Floor Jacks That Cost Less Than The Car You're Lifting. The catch is that they're drop-dead reliable… after you rebuild then.

    • How complicated is the rebuild?

      • Supposedly it's just a teardown of the hydraulics and replacement of some O-rings, with some judicious deburring as needed. I've never done it myself, as my super-cool HF aluminum "racing jack" has held up so far for the couple of years I've owned it.

        • MindHacker

          Be sure to debur the front roller and keep it sliding… I had one jam, which caused the lifting plate to slip and punch my radiator in the gut.

    • I've got an HF floor jack that's about 15 years old. It just now needs a rebuild, 10 years later than the one I bought from Sears.

    • dukeisduke

      I bought a Harbor Freight floor jack one time (one of the small ones), took it home, cranked it up (I was replacing the rear axle bearings on the truck), and it wouldn't stay up. I took it back, got a refund, and then went to Sears and bought one. Never been in Harbor Freight since.

      The big floor jack I have is a Craftsman, and I'm not crazy about it, because once you lift something, the handle won't stay down – it rises until it contacts the bumper or body of whatever you're working on. What I'd like to have is one of the twin piston jacks like they use at Discount Tire. They're made by American Forge & Foundry (although made in China, like the Craftsman), and they go for around $250-$300.

  • I bought the telescoping ratchets (one a 3/8" – 1/4" drive combo, the other 1/2" drive) and they are easily the nicest cheap ratchets I've ever used. I pick them over all my Craftsman stuff.

    One more note: Get two of everything as money allows. Three of other items. Wrenches, ratchets, extensions, sockets, all manner of pliers, extras are not always useful, but are sometimes absolutely neccesary.

    • Pliers (or similar) and screwdrivers are things I can never have too many of, particularly of multiple varieties.

  • Eggwich James Dio

    I love talking tools, though I admit I talk about them as often as I use them.

    Toolmonger.com is a neat little blog that does tool reviews, I'll check it out when I'm at work and not working.

    90% of my stuff is Craftsman, 10% Matco. Matco makes some really nice ratchets and sockets. I especially like their sockets. They just seem to fit better, as they are designed to engage the sides of a bolt rather than the corners. Thus less rounding.

    That said, I never use anything often enough to justify Matco prices. I'm in a auto tech class at night, so for two years I got a 58% discount on Matco's monthly specials, and I took advantage of it. If you are in any kind of auto-related classes for 8 credits or more, I suggest you check it out, it's very easy to sign up and order online.

    Wow, your garage is rad. My only nitpick, which may be totally unfounded, is I've been taught to always store tools so that they aren't touching other metals, as this leads to rust. So I'd put your wrenches on a carabiner whittled from bamboo OH LOL

    Keep the wrenching tips coming, and I'll keep learning.

    • Van_Sarockin

      Dissimilar metals can undergo galvanic reactions. So steel and aluminum could be a bummer. But a great deal hinges on how long it's in contact, and the ambient humidity – and whether there's an abundant ground nearby..

  • I_Borgward

    I try to project how much I will use a tool over its lifetime to decide whether will I even look at a Harbor Fright cheapy. If I know it's only going to get a one or two uses and I'm confident it won't damage anything, I might consider it. But If it's something I'll use most every time I open my toolbox, I spring for something good and never look back.

    My bottom line is that I won't have tools that can damage what I'm working on, particularly when it comes to fasteners. If a tool can't fit on to a fastener without slipping or rounding it off, it is false economy to keep it around and worse than useless. I've seen way too many folks seriously degrade their vehicles by buggering up screw and bolt heads with ill-fitting crap tools. Not to mention time wasted by having to chase down new fasteners or extract the damaged ones… sometimes that can take as long as the rest of the project put together!

    I've had pretty good luck with Craftsman tools, although they can be fallible. I consider them medium-high grade overall. Some of their ratchets leave a bit to be desired, and their screwdrivers often aren't significantly better than what I can get at the corner hardware store. But, there's that unconditional warranty. I've brought broken bits of Craftsman tools back to Sears and walked out with new ones many, many times. It's hard to argue with that.

    When sourcing out new tools, go for as much quality as you can afford, and build up your kit over time as you need to. For the same money, one good ten piece wrench set beats an el cheapo hundred piece tool kit hands down in the long run. Your car and your knuckles will thank you.

    • Van_Sarockin

      Excellent points. Don't forget to consider the injury you can sustain if your tool fails on you, when you're applying your third kidney to the task at hand. Good tools make the craftsman look better, which represents an economy.

  • keithh

    Where does Autozone "exclusive" brand Duralast fall into the scheme of things?

    • Probably between HF and the Lowes and Home Depot stuff.

      • Alcology

        Sigh, my toolbox has a lot of snapped and broken duralast pieces in it. Some duralast stuff was good and some was bad, very large range of what is good quality, but they had what I needed at the time.

  • Van_Sarockin

    Dude, you just had to ask. My belly is flat, just like my chest is concave. Because I've been selling my organs so $kaycog can get her GT40. It's easy, painful, and you can do it to!

  • Van_Sarockin

    OK, now I've read the article and comments – and it's all great. Most of my tools are Craftsman. Because they're pretty damn good, not too pricey, and because of their no-questions return policy: When I tried to turn an engine that hadn't run in a decade by reducing down to a 1/4" adaptor and using the breaker bar to try to turn the flywheel – no questions asked about how that skinny extension turned into a pretzel. Someday, I'll do a kitchen where all the cabinets are Craftsman boxes; I'm thinking of their royal blue line…

    Of course, my nicest Craftsman ratchet isn't half as nice as the old SnapOn stuff I used to work with. But I pretty much can't afford it. It I was a professional mechanic, I'd be buying off their truck every week. And I'm sure some of their tools have so much quality and precision that some tough stuff for me – like taking off CV joint snap rings – would be so much easier, and save me days of effort.

    But I also have a sub-Harbor Freight two ton floor jack that has served me well for decades, and plenty of no name tools in my box. Some of them are there to be expendable – go ahead and hammer on that screwdriver… And some of them are just good enough to do the job, and to keep working.

    I always have a small working tool kit in my car or truck, too. Just a few, cheaper, handy things that might help get me out of a jam or fix a small problem. So it's pliers and screwdrivers and a cheap ratchet, lug nut wrench, flashlight and knife, and a few other odds and ends. And it never hurts to keep a few emergency supplies in the car either, like bulbs and fuses, belts, flat-flate, etc. Just for fun. I was so happy when I could get my dead van back to life in the midst of the Jersey Meadowlands, by cleaning my points with a striker from a book of matches.

    • Joe Dunlap

      This year marks my 40th as a professional, and I can tell you that Craftsman, while not as shiny and sexy as a Snap-On is every bit as good. I quit buying Snap-on 30 years ago after having 3/8s ratchets fail repeatedly, and not for any abuse. Screws coming loose, ratchet mechanism jamming, and the fine tool model shearing teeth tightening 1/4 inch bolts. Snap on built a rep on good quality in the 50s and 60s, but I started seeing a definite slide in the 70s and early 80s, while the prices went into the ionophere. I have a set of Husky 1/2 drive chrome sockets and ratchet I bought in 1970, that while beaten and peeling chrome still function perfectly. The handle on the ratchet has lost most of its knurling due to beating on it with a hammer but it still functions perfectly. Snap on? Meh.

  • salguod

    Great article, spot on. I buy Craftsman, unless it's something I'll use rarely, then I'll go cheaper. The Craftsman warranty is the kicker. I'm skeptical of other brand's lifetime warranties, although I have a rubber mallet from a no-name tool company ('Pro Series' by KR Tools) with a lifetime warranty that disintegrated after trying to pound in tent stakes into very hard, dry ground. Just for kicks, I called for a replacement and to my surprise, they sent me a new one, no questions asked.

    I have a Craftsman rollaway and tool box, not unlike the red set pictured up top, minus the middle chest. Best purchase I've made, wish I had done it years ago. I stayed away from their low end series and the overpriced high end stuff and got the middle of the road set with ball bearing drawer slides. Not the smoothest, but plenty good for a weekend mechanic. Plus, it cost me like $300-$400 new for the pair.

  • One other thing to mention is tool design. For example for many years the Craftsman "vice-grip" pliers were just a horrible design, same went to the ratcheting box end wrenches, those were about 30 deg per tooth. They might have improved in recent years when some patents expired. Between The Good Stuff and the Probably Good Enough, get the ones that feels the best to you.

    One of my current favorite ratchets is a Husky 3/8" ratchet with a handle that extends out and a swivel head. It is a pretty good all around ratchet.

    If you did want to treat yourself to a really nice Snap-On tool, start with the ratchets, those are probably used most.

    There are some other common names that are probably as good as Craftsman, including Cooper which makes Chan-L-Lock pliers and Crescent adjustable wrenches among others, Stanley, Klien, and Vice-Grip pliers.

    I was fortunate enough to inherit about 2/3 of the tools that I have. I have some of my grandfather's Craftsman stuff from the 1930s or 1940s. At one point in the 1970s it was probably easier to point out the tools in the Craftsman catalog that my grandfather didn't have than the ones he did.

    • What's the brand to have as far a ratcheting wrenches go? I've passed them up when I see them, since they seem tremendously expensive for what they are, but then I'll be in the middle of a job with tight clearances and I'll say to myself, "Damn, but wish I had a ratcheting wrench right now!"

      • I have both Craftsman and Gearwrench examples in regular and stubby lengths.

        I suspect neither are going to be heirloom pieces, but they've held up to about 5 years of pretty rough use on my previously semi-paved driveway, junkyards and LeMons work.

        I really want to try some of the new pass-through stuff that GearWrench and others are offering.

        Your desires are correct, as they speed up tasks like you wouldn't imagine. Whenever I have to use a normal box open-end for something it feels like I've downgraded to a 14.4k modem.

      • GlassOnion9

        I have a set of the Gearwrench and they're fantastic. They're obscenely expensive, though.

        I was at Sam's Club the other day and I noticed they have ChannelLock brand racheting wrench sets (they have both SAE and metric) for something like $15. I haven't used them, but the 'try me' action on them feels pretty good. Not quite as fine a rachet mechanism as the GearWrench, but better than a number of others I've tried. I'm a big fan of ChannelLock pliers, so I'm thinking I'll pick up a set of those wrenches next time I'm there.

        Anybody used them?

      • Just check the little demo on the package. You want a fine a tooth as you can get. I think most of them are pretty good these days. I have one 1/2" – 9/16" Snap-On that I inherited. I love it. Gearwrench seems pretty good, probably the Husky and Kobalt stuff too.

  • JayP2112

    Sears has been really great about replacing my mis-used tools. No questions asked but I bet they are dying to know how I blew them out. I have a ratchet that's due for a replace. 20 years… I doubt the new ones are a good though.

    My roll away has seen some action. I looked to replace it but nothing comes close to the quality without selling a vital organ.

  • hotrodrendering

    I have mostly Craftsman also, lots of HF tools too, plus some "Crazy Benzy" (IIRC) from a store that was on woodward in royal oak years ago. I have a bunch of Snap on stuff that I didn't pay for. Seems the little kid next door to me in Detroit would take his dads tools (his dad was a mechanic at Detroit city airport) and throw them at my dog. After a few times of picking them up out of the grass, returning them and letting him know what happened, I stopped returning them. They are fantastic tools.

  • Jim-Bob

    My tools are a mix of Craftsman, Harbor Freight and hand me downs from my great-grandfather who was a house builder in the 1920's. I work on cars more than anyone who is not a professional mechanic as I drive old stuff 30k miles a year and also fix cars for people I know as a way to make some extra money. (On average, I fix cars 2-3 days a week amd even have a price schedule: $25 an hour for normal cars, $50 an hour for VAG products and $10 an hour for Geo Metros) Most of my basic hand tools have been Craftsman for years but lately I have switched to buying them from Harbor Freight. Why? Well, the quality of Craftsman's tools has gone down while HF has gone up. The other reason is that i have to make do on $20k a year in income and I simply can't afford to buy the good stuff. Plus, HF is a great place to buy unusual specialty tools that will not get used all that often. Need a set of security Torx sockets? That'll be $10-15 at HF or about $40 at Sears. Guess which ones I'll buy? Also, I bought a $6 set of metric wrenches from HF that were made in India that have turned out to be very high quality for the money. They never slip or strip and are made from decent quality steel that doesn't break or bend-no matter how hard I beat them with a mini sledge. I also got my jackstands from there for $15 and my hydraulic press as well. Not everything is a good value and some stuff is downright dangerous, but if you work on machinery as often as I do then you know how to spot the good and the bad.

    Some things though it does pay to buy quality. Anything that requires precision, like a good torque wrench, is better to be purchased from a reputable manufacturer. I do have some HF torque wrenches but I am not going to trust them with anything critical like head bolt torque on an aluminum engine. For $10 though, it's hard to beat the price for something to use in more resilient environments so you can save your good one for critical jobs. Plus, it's always nice to have a torque wrench you can bring with you in the car for those times when it's needed on the side of the road.

  • C³-Cool Cadillac Cat

    I've gathered an odd collection of tools over the last 20+ years, and I've found I really need to invest in a better than 'good' tool box. The two I have now are both over-stuffed, and must be carried from the bottom, like a bucket without a handle.

    I'll have to cruise on over to Amazon… I've been very pleasantly surprised with car parts there. Managed to buy a wheel bearing which was as good or better than what I could get, locally, for about 60% of the price. Plus, no sales tax or shipping.

    I'm all for buying locally, but there are times it's just not in your best economic interests.

  • Colton

    When it comes to tools I buy from 2 places: Basically, if it has anything to do with compressed air or metric f*cktons of force (like prybars) I go to the MAC truck. I've bent far too many cheap prybars into full-on "U" shapes.

    As far as my wrenches, sockets (and a couple ratchets) I buy it all mastercraft maximum (canadian tire, go canada!) When I can get a full set of long and stubby wrenches in BOTH metric (6mm -> 22mm) and SAE (1/4" -> 1-1/8") for $40 and they warranty them all no-questions you're damn right I'm buying 2 of each plus a full set of long/stubby ratchet wrenches.

    My box is MAC and if I had the cash pretty much everything on the truck would be mine. I hate snap-on, their ish breaks constantly.

    Next purchase is the new AWP050 1/2" drive impact gun (to the tune of nearly $500). I'm a heavy equipment mechanic, so yes, I DO need every bit of the 1260ft.lbs it can push. I regularly have to step up to the bulky 3/4" gun we have because my ingersoll rand (rated @1000ft. lbs) gets maxed out.

  • selena272

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