Wrench Tip: In Defense of Cheap Tools

by Matt Brown


I have a $400 multimeter in my toolbox. I’m not sure why, but at some point in the recent past, I decided I needed to measure voltage with an accuracy of less than one-tenth of one percent and current down to ten microamps. Sitting on top of it, is that red multimeter that Harbor Freight occasionally gives away free with any purchase. Guess which one gets used most often?

The Fluke has its uses, but nine times out of ten, it is overkill; most of the time I just need to know if resistance is near zero or near infinity, and occasionally, if this wire has 12 volts or no volts. Also, at $400, I’m always worried I will break it , scratch it or cause it to go out of calibration by accidentally probing the wrong wire. I’m afraid to use it. On the other hand, I wouldn’t even think twice about using the other meter to hammer in a drywall nail.

The thing about cheap tools is that they aren’t just cheap. They are cheap. Even at the normal price, the Harbor Freight meter is not 20 or 30 percent cheaper; it is almost two orders of magnitude less expensive.

The reliability of expensive tools is undeniably better, but when I need to replace one of my tools, it usually isn’t because it stopped working under normal operating conditions. It’s usually either because A)  I lost it, or B) I was doing something really sketchy with it. The kind of sketchy thing that voids even the most liberal warranties. The kind of sketchy thing that uses several simple machines in series to leverage already existing leverage- like a breaker bar on a torque multiplier attached to a hydraulic winch. Something is going to break loose. Hopefully it is the bolt.

If it’s possible you won’t need a tool more than a handful of times, get the cheap one. A big problem with cheap tools is quality control, so if it breaks on its first use, return it. If it doesn’t, it’ll likely last at least ten more times. After that, things can go three different directions:

1 - You never use the tool again. Perfect. Done, and you saved yourself a bunch of money.

2 - You use the tool a lot and it gets broken. You use what you learned about the cheap tool to make a more informed decision on which good tool to buy.

3 - The tool works well enough, but you want/need better quality/accuracy. You buy the better one. Now you have the nice one, and you get to add the cheap one to your holiest of tool collections: the beater toolbox.


The Beater Toolbox


As much as I love cheap tools, I actually own a lot of nice tools. I have a toolbox full of Craftsman, Klein, Knipex, even a few Snap-On tools. Almost all of them were preceded at one point by their cheap counterpart. I still have most of those cheap tools in another toolbox. A toolbox I dip into often. A toolbox filled with grotesque deformities: Allen wrenches cut to fit tight places, wrenches welded to other wrenches (usually on purpose), and screwdrivers that get used all the time, but never to drive screws.

I recommend buying this exact screwdriver set, but not as much as I recommend never using them as actual screwdrivers.

I don’t worry about them getting broken or lost by me or other people; when one of my roommates asks where my pliers are, I say “You know my beater toolbox full of shitty tools? Third drawer down.” These were all primary tools at one point, but were demoted after they were deemed unsuitable for everyday use. 


There is probably a “proper” $40 tool for this.

Admittedly, my regular toolbox gets more use than the beater toolbox, but not as much as the mobile toolbox. The best toolbox is the one you have with you, and I don’t wheel my primary toolbox into my car every time I leave the house. Thankfully, I have $30.


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Friday, October 20, 2017 1:23 AM
The multimeter is a bad example. Unless you have a strong background in electrics and are checking a complex circuit, you do not need that 400$ one.

The main problem with cheap tools is you never know how cheap they are until you actually need to use them. Worse than that, sometime there is no way to know until you can actually use whatever was fixed with them.

I recently bought a complete set of imperial sockets since a big country with a seemingly senile president has trouble with the concept of "international standard" (use meters and newtons please :( )

It came in a box with a ratchet drive and a nut driver, so i thought it was pretty cool for 20$.

And then i tried to use it. The nut driver plastic stayed in my hand, while the metal part stayed on the bolt head. Which is a problem considering i was turning it. It just broke inside.

Then I tried using the socket wrench, which locked randomly then fell apart. This was on a simple 3/8 small bolt holding a wire ...

I binned them, but kept the sockets, and tried with another wrench. More than half the sockets i used did not exactly fit and had play, and i ended up rounding bolt heads.

So i binned them too, bid farewell to 20$ and my weekend since i now had broken bolts that needed extracting.

I also nearly lost 2 wheels when driving on the highway because of a cheap torque wrench. After each usage, it would "lose force". So the first wheel was correct-ish, the second was missing 10Nm (while the wrench was still set at the correct setting), and so on. My front wheels were only holding with 1 nut each when i managed to stop.

I all comes down to 2 questions: "how important is that part ?" and "how cheap is that tool" ?

If you cannot answer to both these questions, do not buy cheap tools.

Side note: calibration needs to be done every year as far as the industry is concerned. Tools do not become uncalibrated only with a wrong usage, but also with standard usage, and just time.
Friday, October 20, 2017 5:46 AM
I am going to have to go with a "No" on this article.
Cheap tools suck, it may not harm you, but stripping screws and bolts because you bought a cheap set of screwdrivers/sockets/allens is one of the most annoying things that can happen when working a vehicle.
Snap on in general is over priced. Get something in between, no cheap HF and no expensive Snap on.
Friday, October 20, 2017 7:16 AM
Just a reminder that Dave Coleman is one of the biggest proponents of Harbor Freight tools out there.

I completely agree that if you're only using a tool once or twice (for example an oxygen sensor socket) there's no need to go for something high end. It's a waste of money. Another place cheap tools do well? Junkyards. If you're junkyard diving, the last thing you want to do is lose an expensive socket. It'll cost more to replace than the wheelbarrow of parts you're taking home! I also keep a very basic, very cheap toolbag in my truck, which I also throw into rental and company cars when I'm travelling for work. Again, if I lose or break these I don't care about them, but they have come in handy in the past.
Friday, October 20, 2017 8:44 AM
Great article.

I think the only thing missed was that cheap tools often require more competence, sensibility, and creativity on part of the user. No their limits, play within it. And certainly there is a difference between cheap tools and garbage tools. Cheap tools area fantastic to bring to the wrecking yard where they might get rained on and I am almost certainly going to leave a soldier behind.

Crousti, a torque wrench is the absolute last tool I would consider cheaping out on! WTF man!?
Friday, October 20, 2017 8:46 AM

It must be Friday... I hope.
Friday, October 20, 2017 11:24 AM
You just have to do your research. HF sockets and ratchets are pretty solid. Their torque wrenches are actually quite good too, I recently checked my set of 1/4-3/4 drive sizes and they were all calibrated well, included my years old 1/2 drive that's done plenty of lug nuts, been to track days and so forth. I love using high quality screwdrivers but bring out the beaters for abusive jobs. I stopped buying HF power tools because they indeed look and sound like garbage but I haven't had any fail.

There's a lot of good middle ground with Gearwrench, Wiha, Wera, Channellock, Koken, SK, etc... Made in USA, Germany, Taiwan, PRC etc. Check out garagejournal.com for extreme nerdy tool discussion.
Mike Kojima
Mike Kojimalink
Friday, October 20, 2017 4:08 PM
This story is spot on! My race toolbox is 100% harbor freight because I got tired of people borrowing my stuff at the track and never returning it. I get the lifetime guarantee harbor freight stuff and have never had any of that break.
Friday, October 20, 2017 5:35 PM
As time goes on, my tools do get better. I believe in the right tool for the right job. It really depends on how much you use it to justify the cost. Also, how good you need it to be. For example, I wouldn't mind spending 100+ on a 3/8" ratchet, because it is really a staple tool for any mechanic and can really make life easier if you can actually get it to ratchet in a very tight space.
Saturday, October 21, 2017 9:31 PM
I feel the same way. When you start out you get cheap stuff and work your way up for things you use all the time. I have my box at work that has all the nice expensive tools I use every day, and then I have old, leftover, mostly cheap stuff at home. I don't have to worry about losing it either at home or when I pack them into the truck for a track day.
Sunday, October 22, 2017 10:41 AM
that table with the vise grip and modified wrench isnt a cheap tool!
Monday, October 23, 2017 5:24 AM
BTW if you ever felt the need to have a vice bench at a track, i found something *very* useful, and did not know it existed. Portable vice bench that can open up to 35" anyone ? with 1 (metric) ton pressure ? It ranges from 100$ to 3 times that. That might be the best tool i ever bought.

Try googling superjaws SJA300. They do weight like 40lbs but once folded, they do not take that much space.
Friday, October 27, 2017 7:49 PM
When you're forced into an extremely awkward position that places a 3/4" impact precariously close to your balls, let me know how much faith you have in cheap tools.
Sunday, October 29, 2017 6:01 PM
^^ This too. lol. I can not buy the junk screwdrivers they sell anymore. If you've broken screwdrivers and stabbed them into your hand as many times as I have, you would reconsider the cheap set. Which, is why I agree on buying the junk set and not using them as screwdrivers. The real set needs to be able to handle being used as prybars ands chisels too though.
Hopelessly bugeye
Hopelessly bugeyelink
Sunday, December 10, 2017 3:43 PM
I won't buy HF power tools (Chicago Electric) but I have two sets of SAE and Metric combo wrenches and a set each of racheting box wrenches that I keep in my cars.
I have a good set of Crescent tools in my home toolbox.
I bought an HF rolling toolbox for the barn. It works great and half the price.
As long as you know what to avoid there it saves a lot of cash to spend foolishly on my project cars.
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