Finding the best tool values

June 18, 2018

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© Lincoln’s Tool Chest


Let’s face it, most of us out there are on limited budgets. In our quest to maximize our bang for the buck when it comes to tool purchases, our minds tend to become stuck between wanting to purchase the most expensive brand/model or settling for a value based version instead. The questions start to roll through your mind; What if the cheaper version turns out to be useless? No one wants to have to buy something twice. Then again, if they are identical, do you really want to spend money just for a name when you could use that money for other things…

               In this post I will offer some advice I have gained through my own experiences. I have been both the victim and the victor throughout my years of tool purchasing and feel like I have a pretty good idea on when to settle and when to go all out.

               Before I go any further, this article excludes any “bargain bin” type tools or tools sets. I’m not talking clearance tools. Sometimes you can find a decent tool that a store just wants to get rid of. Many years ago, I purchased a nice ½” drive ratchet for a buck. Just recently I found a ½” drive shallow socket set made by a very reputable brand marked down to five dollars. Those deals are out there to be stumbled upon, however, if you have found a full tool set regularly priced at less than the cost of dinner, expect it to be of poor quality. Expect it to fail, cause you immense frustration and be thrown in the garbage.

               Also, if you are a mechanic, who uses and abuses their tools repeatedly, this article may or may not apply to you…

  • Hammers: They are hammers, they are for pounding things. Look for the weight/size/type you want and throw it in the cart. One exception here would be the ball peen hammer. The cheap ones seem to not have a very round “ball” on the end.

  • Screwdrivers: I have many screwdriver sets. Some expensive, some cheap. You know what, they all work the same. I have had some cheapies where the shafts have bent, or the Philips would round itself, but those were purchased many years ago. It seems to me that manufacturing quality both here and in other countries has improved over the years. I wouldn’t think twice about purchasing any name brand set.

  • Ratchets: Ratchets are another tool that I have had good luck with value based brands. As stated above, the ultra cheapies are junk, but I have not had a problem buying any of the name brand ratchets at any of the big box stores. That dollar ratchet mentioned above? Bought it twenty years ago, still have it and still use it. As a testament to my opinion, I will offer this example: I have a Pittsburgh 3/8” drive ratchet that came in a socket set from Harbor Freight I received as a gift. About 12 inches long this ratchet is. At the time, I did not have, nor could I afford an impact wrench. One day, I was doing some work on my old Grand Cherokee, and that was the only ratchet I had that would fit due to clearance issues. After struggling trying to fit a breaker bar in the spot, I decided to try and put a floor jack on the ratchet handle. As dangerous as this sounds (and I’m sure was!), the jack made contact with the ratchet handle and the vehicle started to lift. Next came a loud POP and was rewarded with a loose bolt. Upon inspection of the ratchet, I could find no damage and it still functions fine to this day. I used that socket set to disassemble an entire car and didn’t round off or strip one fastener, which brings me to my next item:

  • Sockets: Again stay away from the ultra cheap stuff, but no need to splurge here either. I have had great luck with anything name brand. The only thing to look out for on these is if you are purchasing impact sockets, try and buy the chrome molybdenum version (stamped CR-MO) instead of the chrome vanadium (stamped CR-V) that regular sockets are usually made out of. You will find that a lot of cheap impact sockets are CR-V. CR-V is harder and more prone to shatter during impact use than CR-MO. Also, since chrome molybdenum is more malleable, it will be less likely to damage the anvil (that square thing) of your impact wrench.

  • Ratcheting Wrenches: It seems to me that there aren’t a whole lot of manufacturers of these. Unless you are buying top of the line, I believe with ratcheting wrenches are produced by few and sold by many, so chances are you are buying the same wrench even if the brand name is different. As long as you go with a name brand. I wouldn’t worry about spending a ton of money on these either. The same goes for regular wrenches.

  • Jigsaws: When I bought my first jigsaw, I wanted a good one. I spent about 75 dollars on it. I used it for about 2 weeks and it broke. They wouldn’t exchange it, so I argued and fought until I got my money back. A few weeks later I bought a generically branded jig saw for 5 dollars and still use it to this day. I think the internal components are basically the same. My jigsaw doesn’t have a light, but it was 70 dollars cheaper. It’s not an accurate tool, it relies on you for accuracy, but then again, that is what all jigsaws do. It does cut wood really well, which is all I was asking for in the first place.

  • Grinder: As with my jigsaw, my first grinder was nothing to brag about. I think I picked it up for fifteen dollars off the shelf. Again, it doesn’t have any fancy features, just an on off slider switch. The grinder is another tool that relies on you to be in charge of accuracy. Its only job is to spin extremely fast with enough torque to not get bogged down during use. 

Although I’m sure there are many more, the tools listed above are the best examples I have from my experiences. One rule I try to follow: If the tool is needed for its accuracy or precision, go with the best model you can afford. If the tool relies on you for the accuracy part, then manufacturing tolerances don’t come into play as much and a cheaper unit may serve you just as well while saving you some coin. As I conclude, I should probably mention the one item where I found this not to be true: Drills. For some reason, the cheap drills I have purchased just don’t have the torque that the higher priced drills have. They tend to bog down, overheat and burn up. If you are on a budget and looking for a drill, I would recommend the Milwaukee ½ corded drill. For the money, this thing is a beast. It’s not that expensive, they come equipped with gobs of power and I have put many of these through TONS of abusive situations. They just keep going and going.