An Ode to Harbor Freight Tools

April 10th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I buy a lot of cheap stuff from Harbor Freight Tools, even if most of it is cheap Chinese junk. Although I have many tools which I use heavily (for which I have large collection of Craftsman, MAC, Crescent, Milwaukee, and DeWalt), there are many things I do infrequently or lightly enough that a cheap tool is a valuable addition to the shop.

HFT Hard at Work

My Harbor Freight Tools at Work

For anyone reading this who isn’t familiar with Harbor Freight Tools, they are a company in California that imports and sells via catalog, internet, and retail stores a variety of inexpensive Chinese-made machine tools, hand tools, and hardware. Their catalogs are legendary for being frequently published with utterly disorganized pricing. It is common to receive two catalogs the same week showing the same item at different prices. In fact, it is very common for the same item to be shown in a single catalog multiple times with multiple prices. But such is the price you pay for being able to buy a metal-cutting bandsaw for $149. (Yes, I own one, the “green model.”)

Much of the stuff in the catalog is so poorly made that it will break or simply fall apart after a few uses. But hidden in there are some true bargains. And in due course I’ll try and write about the good ones I’ve found.

Resources

There are dozens of resources on the web with information about Harbor Freight stuff. Much good information can be found by pouring over internet forums where people discuss any kind of fabrication, from 4 X 4 enthusiasts to wood workers. However, the best and most comprehensive discussion I’ve found is at http://www.toolcrib.com/blog/2008/08/06/buyer-beware-a-harbor-freight-buying-guide-the-good-enough-the-bad-and-the-abysmal/.

On this blog, they’ve posted a list I’ve found in several places and in various forms. The list of course is the things one should never buy at Harbor Freight:

  1. Parachutes
  2. Fire Extinguishers
  3. Pacemakers
  4. Vaccines
  5. Birth Control
  6. Elevators
  7. Bullet Proof Vests
  8. Trigger Locks
  9. Pitons
  10. Scuba Gear
  11. Airbags
  12. Motorcycle Helmets

If you look through the exceptionally well done ToolCrib post mentioned above, you’ll see sections about Harbor Freight’s business practices etc. Essentially they do everything cheaply. I was reminded of this by a story in my local paper today with this picture which just has to be a Harbor Freight truck stuck under an overpass after peeling the trailer open like a sardine can:

Stuck Truck

Wanna' bet he was headed to Harbor Freight Tools?

First, notice the way the pallets are packed. Then absorb this quote from the story in the Worcester (MA) Telegram & Gazette:

The too-high trailer, packed with table saws, air compressors and other equipment, had to be off-loaded before the rig could be moved.

The driver of the truck, Jimmy Smith, said he was unfamiliar with the area and was following directions someone had given him. He was headed to a business on Mill Street.

Now, add this tidbit from the Harbor Freight website:

I see a “damaged goods truckload sale” in my future!

Anyway … Here’s a list of all the things I’ve bought over the years at Harbor Freight Tools. Note that you can sort this list by clicking on any column header, and you can search for any word. The list has more than 1 page – see the bottom right of the table frame to move forward/backward.

Harbor Freight Tool List

ToolHF Part #CategoryDescription/Additional InformationQuick Verdict
1/4" Filter Regulator Lube Unit95439Air ToolsAnother gem. The filter and pressure regulator work well and the oiler does a surprisingly good job delivering a regulated oil flow to my tools. I'd buy another.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

1/2" Air Drill7528Air ToolsDrills fine. But I don't have the reversible model. I bought this one on sale for $19.99 but I should have waited for the reversible model to be on sale. But this one functions as advertised.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

11 Piece 1/2" Deep Wall Impact Socket Set (SAE & Metric)7383 (metric)Air ToolsDon't know that I'd trust these for seriously important or heavy duty equipment, but for my minor automotive work they have been fine.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Air Hose Reel40131Air ToolsThis has been an indispensable addition to my shop. The hose is surprisingly sturdy and the reel is solid. A winner of a product.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

38 Piece 3/8", 1/2" Combination Impact Sockets36648Air ToolsHas both SAE and metric together - some sockets are shared between systems. I was worried that some wouldn't grip right and would strip nuts because of this, but that hasn't happened. A decent starter set for an impact wrench if you are limited by storage space.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

3" High Speed Air Cutter47077Air ToolsI have an earlier version with a clear plastic shield. Works pretty well. Buy some decent wheels instead of the Harbor Freight ones and it cuts very well. I use it often.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

1/4" Air Angle Die Grinder93088Air ToolsWorks really well with sanding pads for getting into small spaces and cleaning up welds.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

21 Oz. Hopper Gravity Feed Spot Blaster Gun95793Air ToolsA true winner from HF. I paid $9.99 and it is worth twice the price. Works as advertised and seems very durable.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

125 psi Air Flow Regulator36797Air ToolsIt regulates air and doesn't leak. What more could you want for $6.99? I have two of these and use them along with a dryer on my paint guns and my blaster.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Inline Desiccant Dryer/Filter94733Air ToolsLike the air flow regulator, this seems to dry air (since my blast media doesn't clog and my paint doesn't bubble). I'd buy another.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Tubing Bender3755Automotive Shop ToolsWorks for brake lines. That's all I needed.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

6 Ton Jack Stand Set38847Automotive Shop ToolsWell, I'm still alive and I have all my appendages even after crawling under my Toyota Matrix and my F-150 numerous times while supported by these. Similar quality to any cheap stands you'd find in an automotive store or catalog. Seem fine to me for the price.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Heavy Duty Creeper With Adjustable Headrest46087Automotive Shop ToolsIt rolls. The headrest adjusts. The vinyl covering is flimsy and rips easily, but a little duct tape fixes that quickly.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

3 Ton Super Heavy Duty Floor Jack34271Automotive Shop ToolsLifts my car and my F-150. Doesn't roll the smoothest even on a smooth floor and the handle feels like it could break at any time. But, as long as you bleed the leaky hydraulics once in a while, it lifts stuff fine.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

2 Piece Wheel Chocks97429Automotive Shop ToolsMy car hasn't rolled away yet. I say that's proof enough that these work.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

1500 Lb. Capacity ATV/Motorcycle Lift2792Automotive Shop ToolsHandy and pretty stable. It doesn't flex and the jack stays in position once lifted. Doesn't roll too well, but does the job.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

50 Amp 6 Volt/12 Volt Battery Load TesterDiscontinued. Similar to: 93784Automotive Shop ToolsBasically an electric heater with a current meter. Works pretty well.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

7 Function Digital Multimeter90899ElectricalNo idea if this is accurate or not. I bought two of them on the way out of the Harborfreight store and I keep one in my motorcycle tool bad and one in my car tool bag. They are strictly emergency help, not a meter I would rely on for accuracy.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

5 Piece 8 to 32 Oz. Ball Pein Hammer Set36523Hand ToolsWhat is a hammer really? Just a piece of steel on a stick. And these live up to the promise. I've never really tried to beat the crap out of anything with them, but under normal use the heads haven't shattered and the handles haven't split, so I'd call the set a winner for less than $10.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

5 Piece Auto Trim and Molding Tool Set67021Hand ToolsLittle plastic pry bars. Handy and not too breakable.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

3 Piece Long Reach Hose Grip Pliers37909Hand ToolsThe absolute best thing I ever bought from Harbor Freight. I removed the engine from my motorcycle twice to do top end work on it and these pliers are a lifesaver. They have saved me literally hours of fiddling with fuel hoses hidden behind my carburetor. So good that one year I bought 5 sets and gave them a Christmas gifts to motorcycle-riding friends.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Steel Letter/Number Stamper Set90124Hand ToolsWorks great. I now own lots of stuff with my name or initials stamped in it.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

4 Piece Heavy Duty Pry Bar Set1654Hand Tools4 heavy duty bars for $7.99. What could possibly go wrong? So far they've pried without breaking, so I'm satisfied.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

9 Piece Hollow Punch Set3838Hand ToolsWorks as advertised. They saved a couple of projects for me and have even fixed my mother-in-law's vertical blinds. I mostly use them to cut odd sized washers from sheet rubber and for that alone they were worth the price.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

7 Piece Pick & Hook Set93958Hand ToolsLarge and small sizes. Invaluable for picking out o-rings etc. This set works fine and is cheap.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

Automatic Center Punch (Set of 2)Discontinued (similar to 91080Hand ToolsCame as a set of 2 with a large and small punch and a set of replacement punches. Work great, though the tension adjustment doesn't appear to actually change anything.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Knockout Punch Set91201Hand ToolsShould have known better. Harborfreight isn't he place to buy tools designed to punch through steel. Used them on some cheap sheet metal once and they tore a ragged hole. Then used them on a probably to thick piece of steel and snapped the screw shaft clean off. I'd avoid this one.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 

40 Piece Metric Carbon Steel Tap and Die Set39384Hand ToolsWorks a good as the 25 year-old SAE tap & die set I have. Carbon steel works great for the two or three threads I need to repair each year. Handle is a bit flimsy though.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

3 Piece Aviation Tinner Snip Set37325Hand ToolsAbout what you'd expect from cheap imports. The jaws aren't the most solid so sheet metal sometimes causes them to open and things get stuck. On aluminum and thin brass thy work OK. On all but the thinnest sheet steel they require a lot more work than a quality set.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

28 Piece Transfer Punch Set03577Hand ToolsAn indispensable tool. Usually on sale for between $5.99 and $12.99 and for that price I'd buy more than one. When marking hole locations there is nothing better than using a tool made for the job.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

3 Piece Steel Pipe Wrench Set94067Hand ToolsOK. Just OK. The wrenches work, but they just don't grip pipes as well as the 50 year-old Craftsman wrench left from my Grandfather. Good in a pinch, but there are better pipe wrenches in your hardware store.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

7 Piece Tube Flaring Kit5969Hand ToolsA nice kit. The springs ("flexible tube benders") make this kit worthwhile. You don't find these every day. The flaring jig and the cutter work great. A nice kit in a plastic box.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

6" Jaw Capacity Drill Press Vise31001Machine ToolsJaws don't have too much slop and they are square when they close. Good value.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

6" Composite Digital Caliper93293MeasuringAs long as you understand that "composite" = "plastic" you'll be OK with this caliper. I bought it as a throw-away that I could leave in my tool box and it works OK. But I should have read the specs further, Like where it claims a 0.001" accuracy and a 0.01" precision. Sure it's accurate to the thousandth -- even if you can only read to the hundredth. They now have a version which reads in fractional inches and I'd buy that one if I was doing it again.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

Pocket Digital Scale93543MeasuringI'm sure that 99% of these are bought by drug dealers, but I legitimately use mine in the kitchen, mostly for measuring small amounts of nitrite salts to cure bacon. Works well for that.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

6 Piece Technical Measuring Set94447MeasuringMostly flimsy stuff that is hard to read, but the inside and outside calipers come in handy and, surprisingly, the ends mostly align. Pretty good.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Non-Contact Laser Thermometer96451MeasuringGood value for the money. Has a wider range than my more expensive Greenlee model and seems pretty accurate after doing the ice and boiling water tests. Constantly varies in price between $29.99 and $59.99 so wait for a sale. A true bargain at $29.99. Actually an infrared thermometer, not a laser thermometer, but I guess laser sounds cooler.

Rating: ★★★★★ 

Metal Cutting BandsawDiscontinuedMetalworking ToolsThe "green model" which was discontinued around 2008. It lives on in its current red form though. Works great. I gave it its own review page. Like most Harborfreight tools it needs some adjustment to work well and the vice is a POS. But for the price it's also the most versatile tool in my metal shop.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

Grinding Wheel Dresser1682Metalworking ToolsKind of cheap and flimsy, but it seems to do something to the grinding wheels Seems more like a toy than a real tool.

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

Compact Bender (floor mount)38470Metalworking ToolsNot the most precise piece of equipment. There are upper and lower "arms" between which the main lever fits, and none of the holes line up. Getting some of the pivot pins in place takes a hammer and pry bar. But, eventually it gets there and works. I'd wait for a sale though.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

6" Bench Grinder with Gooseneck Lamp37822Metalworking ToolsI figure, what can go wrong with a bench grinder? It's a motor and a couple of bolts. This one works as you'd expect. Turn it on and it spins. Not the most powerful motor: you can stop it pretty easily with too much pressure on the wheels, but I just figure that helps prevent too much heat buildup in whatever I'm grinding. A decent tool for the price.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

4-1/2" Angle Grinder With Paddle SwitchDiscontinued (similar to 65519 but with a brown body and metallic guard.Metalworking ToolsMine is the old brown version with a lever stitch. Hideously cheap, I bought it on sale for $14.99 about 6 years ago. And it's worked ever since, in spite of having such horrible bearings that every time you release the switch the thing shakes so badly and grinds so loudly that your ears almost bleed. I never expected it to last more than 6 months, never mind 6 years. I'm thrilled with it. Hell, even if it only lasted 5 years, I could buy a new one every five years and get twenty years worth of work for the price of a single DeWalt or Milwaukee grinder.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

Propane Torch91033Outdoor ToolsWhat could possibly go wrong with a Chinese-made flamethrower? Honestly, it works great for killing weeds. Plus the hose between the handle and propane tank had "Made in Italy" stamped on it so I felt like I might not blow myself to pieces.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

1" Clear Water Pump1479PumpsThe kind of crap that gives Harbor Freight its reputation. The worst tool I ever bought from them and I was so stupid that I bought a second thinking that the first was so bad that it had to be a fluke. It wasn't. The unprotected cast iron interior of this pump will seize up with corrosion within a season. And the thing is a bear to prime - made worse by the fact that the o-ring on the priming cover falls apart in a matter of minutes meaning that the pump always leaks. Do not buy this!

Rating: ½☆☆☆☆ 

Pneumatic Adjustable Roller Seat46319Shop ToolsVinyl is a bit flimsy and the mechanism is far from smooth, but overall it's a decent stool for working on a motorcycle or something. I'd buy it on sale though.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Large Steel Service Cart With Locking Drawer90428Shop ToolsMuch sturdier than I expected. This is a very usable cart and the drawer is a good size.

Rating: ★★★★½ 

Mobile Folding Power Tool Stand40612Shop ToolsNot all the holes line up and it's a definite finger pincher (and maybe amputator!) but once you get everything unfolded, it's reasonably sturdy and the extensions all work pretty well. Buy on sale.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Parts WasherDiscontinuedShop ToolsI have a metal 5 gallon version. It's since been replaced by the 6 1/2 gallon plastic version. The pump is a little flaky, but it's a decent tank and drying shelf.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

8" Flat Jaw Welding Pliers93062WeldingNot as nice feeling or gripping as my Crescent pliers, but handt in a pinch. A good set to leave in the portable tool box in case I lose them somewhere.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 

Welding CartDiscontinuedWeldingThis is not the 90305 welding cart, but an earlier version. I don't see it in the catalog anymore, and that's a good thing, because this was one of the flimsiest things I've ever owned. Moving it over and distance is an adventure, and I'm always convinced it is going to collapse. The 90305 version is much better - I've compared them in the store.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 

Adjustable Shade Auto-Darkening Welding Helmet46092WeldingI worried about this for a while. I mean, if this is a piece of crap I could go blind. But for the very limited amount of hobby welding I do I can't justify a few hundred dollars for a brand-name helmet. I've used this one for a few years with no apparent ill effects. Your mileage may vary.

Rating: ★★★½☆ 

4 3/4" Multipurpose Magnet Holder1938WeldingWorks.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

11" Swivel Pad Lock-Grip Pliers39535WeldingWork great. Jaws line up pretty well and they seems to be plenty strong. I have a half dozen of these.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

3-way Edging Clamp4067WeldingHandy for welding and stuff. I have three or four of these hanging around.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

3" Corner Clamp1852WeldingI have 4 of them. They work great.

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

More to come …

  1. D G Hyatt
    March 24th, 2011 at 00:46 | #1

    Harbor frieght tools seem’s like they have marked up the prices of the tools like over 50 percent recently. They have some knid of financial problem at the head quarters. Boss spending all the money. Father suing the son for mismangement of the company or something. Son took out a huge loan somewhere around five hundred million and went on some mad spending spree father charges in law suit. Seems like the tools prices have really climbed in pricing and less disocunt’s on the tools normally seen in the stores. I will say thier HVLP gravity feed spray paint gun, the purple one. I have this spray gun and it is one great deal even at up to double it’s cuurrent price.

  2. April 2nd, 2011 at 23:45 | #2

    @D G Hyatt

    I had noticed that something was happening … mainly that the catalogs started getting better and more organized! At least now the three nearly identical versions of the same tool are on the same page, instead of scattered over the entire catalog. But I had also felt that the prices were increasing.

    I did find a number of articles on the lawsuit you mention. Here’s a link to one from my local paper in Boston: http://www.boston.com/business/articles/2010/07/21/founder_of_harbor_freight_tools_sues_ceo_son/.

    Too bad. In a down economy, discounters usually thrive. Seems like perfectly wrong timing to be buying a $46 million mansion in Beverly Hills as the lawsuit alleges the son did with company money.

    Oh well … time to start buying from Northern Tools I guess!

  3. July 27th, 2011 at 01:17 | #3

    Very nice article! Harbor Freight Tools are very effective for us. I always buy a lot of cheap stuff from Harbor Freight Tools. Really, it’s great.

  4. RangerJ
    August 12th, 2011 at 09:02 | #4

    I have bought a goodly amount of stuff at HF over more than 30 years. I still have the first thing I bought – a manifold to make a pressure tank out of a freon container. I use is all the time. When I bought that, it came with a 1/4 in. socket set. Hardly SnapOn but it still works. I have a grinder that is probably ten years old, and many other things that all work well. Most recently I bought one of the oak workbenches; honestly, in many regards it is as well made as much of my furniture, which isn’t junk, and looks as good, too. I plan to go back to the closest HF store (100 miles) next week, and always look forward to it.

  1. December 29th, 2009 at 14:33 | #1