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

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.


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.


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?

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