Hot Rod Forum : Hotrodders Bulletin Board - View Single Post - Best quality hand tools? Are Snap On, Mac, Matco worth the extra $$?
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Old 09-15-2011, 02:19 PM
Brian Martin,Freelance adviser
Join Date: Jun 2004
Location: Boise, Idaho
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Here is a little basics I wrote on buying tools about ten years ago. Since then, things have changed a little. The Mac, Matco and SnapOn trucks don't have the same tools they once did. They are still probably the best for the most part (though the cheapie lines they carry are most certainly NOT) but there are some big differences in the quality in these tools from decades ago. When I bought my first socket set off a SnapOn truck in 1978, there was NO comparison what so ever with ANYTHING on the market. It blew away Craftsmen by miles. These days, the top end Craftsmen stuff is pretty damn good.

It's not the tool truck tools aren't as good as they once were (though the cheap lines they sell certainly aren't) the difference is the CHEAP tools are much better these days. They aren't the "Made in China" tools that would break in your hands, HOWEVER there STILL are VERY poor quality ones. Many are DAMN nice compared to years ago.

But I have to tell you, Ratchets, I am still going to use SnapOn. I do have Craftsmen 1/4 sockets, they are perfectly good for even the pro. It's not like you need to have super strong 1/4" sockets, and the walls are a little thinner to get into tight spaces. My wrenches are all Snap On outside of my GearWrenches. And they are a specialty tool, I am not going to muscle a rusted suspesion bolt or nut with one, they WILL break, done it. I use my SnapOn for stuff like that.

Screw drivers, SnapOn, Mac, Matco ONLY, that is what I have found, they are WELL worth the money.

My box has a mix of many different brands, some high dollar some not. You learn what you really need high dollar and what you don't.

I do know one thing, I was taking apart the bed on my truck a short time ago that I had put together in 1980 when I realized that I was using the same sockets, ratchet and wrenches I bought off that SnapOn truck to put it together.

Me personally, I am damn happy I have bought quality tools over the years. I never have thought "Damn I wish I would have bought the cheap tool".


Basics of tool buying.

The subject of tool buying comes up often, there are many tools we NEED and thousands of tools we want. The following is more of an editorial than one of my “Basics of Basics” which is largely factual based, this is my opinion that is basted on experiences I have had. Only you can decide what to buy and how much money to spend buying it. What tools each of us “need” is going to vary quite a bit. A tool I have found to be the cats meow and can’t live with out, could possibly gather dust in your tool box. If there is one thing that I have learned as a hobbyist and a pro doing body work 40 hours a week is that I am never sorry that I bought a tool. If I only use it one time a year, I am glad I have it. What tools you could have sitting around to only use once a year is going to be different for all of us. One guy may feel his twenty dollars in sanding blocks is as far as he would go. While another guy would have $3500.00 Mill in his garage to save fifty dollars a year in machining costs (it is more likely he simply MUST be in “control”). This is something only you can decide how far do you want to go. I can say this, having the proper tool can make a difference in how long it takes to being able to do the project at all. I have found that many tools I have bought for a particular use have ended up being a far more useful tool than first thought. And some I thought would be very useful have been more limited. The one thing I have found is if you buy a good quality tool and find you don’t need it, it is worth darn near what you paid for it and can recoup your money if you decide sell it.

Quality tools truly are an investment, I have bought and sold (I have sold VERY FEW of my tools) for much more than they cost when new. A cheap tool, is worthless used, totally worthless. So you are not “saving money” buying cheap tools. Cheap tools make your work harder, you can damage yourself of your project. The cheap tool can take learning MUCH harder. In fact, it can make it impossible. If you can not afford the better tool, barrow it. I have been amazed at what is available to rent. I have a tool rental shop near me that has everything from slide hammers, MIG welders to dump trucks. You may find that after you have borrowed it, you will find a way to afford it. As a pro working with a shop full of other pros, if I have to borrow a tool more than twice, I buy it, period. In your home workshop, you may want to make up a rule such as this to help you choose what to buy and not buy.

Learn as much as you can about what tools are available for the particular things you are doing. You can’t make an educated decision on what to buy, borrow or rent if you don’t know what tools exist.

Quality VS cost:

There are three basic levels of cost and quality when you look at tools. The best, most expensive are found on the “Tool truck” here you will find tools that are darn near works of art. A 12 piece combination wrench set is about $200.00. The second step in quality and cost is your major department stores and REAL auto parts stores (like NAPA, they have a very good quality product). Sears offers a good tool in their Craftsmen line. Here you will find that 12 piece combination wrench set for about $75.00. Then there is the last, lowest junk you can buy, places like Harbor Freight with shelves covered with products made in China. That set of 12 combination wrenches will be as low as six or seven dollars! These tools should be avoided at all costs!! This is extremely general but it is a good guide line to use.

For the home hobbyist to spend $65.00 for a ¼ ratchet on the Snap On truck like I do would be ridiculous. But if you go to middle cost and quality like at Sears or Lowes (Lowes Kobalt wrenches are made by Williams tools a division of Snap On) you will get darn near as good a quality (just not the artistic quality) as the Tool trucks. There are many specialty tools that can only be found on the tool trucks or similar outlets.

A good rule of thumb is if the tool costs only a fraction of the cost for a top quality one, how could it possibly be very good? A real Roper Whitney metal punch like I use is about $135.00. The cheap copy available at the cheapie tools store are about $25.00, how could it do even a similar job? If you are looking at a tool and there are a number of brands that are similarly priced, then you are talking apples and apples. Say a 4” electric grinder. Something like a DeWalt is going to cost you around $100.00. There are a number of brands like Makita., Milwaukee all around $100.00. That $29.00 one at the cheapie tool store is JUNK.

My personal experience has found that how long a tool will last is only a small part of it. Common sense will tell you that as pro I need high quality tools so they last the many times I will use them over the coming years. As a home hobbyist you only need to use them a very small amount compared so why spend the extra money. I have found that most of those cheap tools that sell for 20% of the quality ones do not perform the task even one time properly. The punch I mentioned will damage the metal more than it will punch the hole! If the tool doesn’t even do the job you bought it for, it really doesn’t matter how few times you use it, you got hosed. Now, what do you do with it? Throw it in the trash that’s what. If you are going to buy those super cheapie “Dollar bin” tools, instead spend the $25.00 on a nice Stevie Ray Vaughn double CD. At least you will have some cool tunes to listen to while you spend all that time in the garage.

My employer pays me a lot of money to do my job, I have to be able to do it as fast or faster than the industry standard or I am out of a job. I also need tools that help me do it with the least amount of effort to save wear and tear on my body. Plus, I need to last a long time with a high amount of use. Good quality tools help me do this.

So what do these issues have to do with the home hobbyist?

First off, that garage time is very valuable. You are making a living everyday at your job and then you want to come home and relax and get some hobby time. You need tools that will help you get the most done in the least amount of time. It makes no sense to spend two hours of your valuable time doing something that could have taken 30 minutes with the correct tool. It even makes less sense when you think that most operations are done many, many times one each car. Then to add to that the fact that this is probably not going to be the only car you ever restore. Your time to you is as valuable as my time is to my employer.

You also need a tool that does the job easily. Again, it goes back to time spent plus the fact that you may just be learning this art of auto body and paint. It is like learning to play a piano with some kids toy. You just can’t imagine the difference a tool can make. For instance I recently bought a set of three “panel poppers” off the Snap On truck. These are the screw driver looking tools with the fork at the end to get under the clips that hold on door panels (as an example). This set of three cost $65.00! But, I am so thrilled with them I have “sold” another three sets for the Snap On man. They are so superior, my old ones (also Snap On) have been moved to my “seldom used” drawer. I spent $125.00 for a spring hose clamp remover, I can’t see how I lived without it. Why fight with things, it is hard enough to learn this art. Plus you can get hurt using those cheap tools.

How about how long it will last? As I said, these tools are an investment. I have bought used hammers and dollies on eBay for $35.00 dollars or more. What do you think you would get for one of those $20.00 hammer and dolly sets if it were used? Listen, I bought one myself for my first tools. I ended up using the last unbroken hammer to close paint cans and it BROKE the head!! LOL. You know as well as I do, you are hooked on cars. You will be building or co-building cars for the rest of your life, why not just buy the good tools now. I have Snap On tools that I bought 25 years ago, unless I loose them I will hand them down to my kids.

I do the same thing with other non-auto tools. My gardening tools for instance are all pro quality, and those that were not have long broken and been replaced with high quality ones. My time (read that my LIFE) is much more important than saving twelve and a half bucks when I buy a tool. The other day I was doing a carpentry job with my brother and a cousin who is about to retire (next month). I learned so much working with him. We started the project and I walked in with my $15.00 claw hammer. He laughed at me and said that it was for a woman to hang pictures on the wall. LOL I used his pro hammer that costs about $30.00, what a difference! I could drive three times the nails in a day with that hammer. All I could think of is all the nails I had driven with the piece of crap, working my butt off, all over a lousy $15.00 savings.

There are exceptions to the rule, I have a $99.00 Astro Portapower I bought 20 years ago that I still use every day. I’d bet you a dollar, if it were the “shop” tool, it would be tossed in the trash in a month. There is NO way it would hold up. It is more like my last few experiments where I bought a cheapie Vice grip. Those things are expensive right, the little ones I like to use hanging quarter panels are about $11.00 each, and when you have twenty or thirty of them that adds up big time. Well I picked up a couple for two dollars a piece at Harbor Freight. They didn’t even hold their own weight clamped on the panel! I tossed them in the garbage. I needed some large ½ impact sockets. I shopped and shopped, and no Tool truck was stopping by the shop so I broke down and bought them at, you guessed it, Harbor Freight. There was one warning they forgot to add along with the “WARNING WEAR SAFETY GOGGLES”, they should have put “WARNING DO NOT HOOK AN AIR HOSE UP TO THE AIR TOOL YOU ARE USING THESE SOCKETS ON”. I broke three sockets the first or second time I used them. I broke down and spent $200.00 on a 26 piece set of S&K, they WILL last me the rest of my life.
I do have to say, the miniature windmill, trailer dolly and the little rechargeable airplane I bought at Harbor Freight are TOP NOTCH. My little boy and I have had a ball with the airplane.

These are simply my person opinions and experiences. Shop around and before you spend your hard earned cash, think about it.

By brother has a very profound saying, “I have never said, damn I wish I would have bought the cheap tool”.