If you are unfamiliar with the Harbor Freight retail chain, hopefully you know of a similar concept near you with unbelievably cheap tools that are frequently dismissed as “Chinese Junk”. If this is the case, substitute each reference to “Harbor Freight” with the retailer of your choice, because the basic assumptions and principles will likely hold true.
If the concept of such a retailer is completely foreign to you, you should still read this post, because I am sensitive to rejection.
If you are extremely familiar with Harbor Freight, you can skip the next two paragraphs, and save yourself a few seconds.
Harbor Freight is a remarkable store. All manner of tools can be purchased for absurdly low prices, and there are always sales and coupons for even bigger discounts.
It’s a wonderland for the budget-conscious Do-It-Yourself-er in pursuit of a well-stocked garage. I have clamps, angle grinder blades, earmuffs, safety goggles, a vice, a bench grinder, magnetic tool holders, air hoses, a small hydraulic shop press, a tap and die set, bi-metal holesaws, a gas motor, and a flux/mig welder, all from Harbor Freight, and each is serving its purpose admirably.
<those of you already familiar with Harbor Freight, resume reading here>
However, my relationship with the company has not always been so symbiotic.
My first experience there was terrible.
This was several years ago (seven, I think), during a trip to visit my family in Washington. My dad was looking for a certain type of wrench, and I was looking for parts to make a potato cannon.
I was immediately struck by the amount of JUNK merchandise on the shelves.
“There’s no way a $10 angle grinder will last more than a week…”
“For a tool store, I sure am seeing a lot of plastic…”
I didn’t end up finding what I was looking for, and vowed never to darken the door of a Harbor Freight store again, or a Walmart (same family visit, different story).
I held this view and kept my vow for four more years before my heart started to soften. This thaw was precipitated by a change in circumstance followed by a sudden realization:
Circumstance: I bought a house with a garage
Realization: Harbor Freight sold a welder… at a price I could justify to my wife
I had been looking at welders and wandering through cyberspace reading rants and reviews, and my initial dismissal of all references to Harbor Freight gave way to a remarkable fact, people were buying these welders and were giving them good reviews.
This fact deeply disturbed my worldview.
No longer could I make character judgments upon hearing the statement “I bought it at Harbor Freight”.
No longer was the term “Happy owner of a Harbor Freight tool” a laughable oxymoron.
Up was down, down was up… what was left that I could know was true?
I bought the welder.
Once I got used to the basic principles of welding and worked through a few projects (such as my router table), I could confirm that this was a very usable welder that turned out good-quality welds that looked clean and were plenty strong for my purposes.
After buying an auto-darkening welding mask from Harbor Freight which also worked without any issues, I began to wonder if my initial assessment, and the widely-held sentiment, of the retailer’s inferiority was completely erroneous.
I found some coupons and went back to the store and bought some F-clamps and a bastard file. The F-clamps worked great. The bastard file was useless.
So I started forming a more accurate picture of Harbor Freight’s merchandise: some of it’s great, some of it’s junk.
I continued to make selective purchases, and slowly developed a series of guidelines and bits of wisdom to keep in mind while shopping at Harbor Freight:
- If you need precision, buy elsewhere, and don’t be stingy, tools with tight tolerances are NEVER cheap
- If the cheapest version of a tool at Home Depot is unreliable, the Harbor Freight tool will be just as bad, but not worse
- A cheap air tool or rotary tool will probably die young, wherever you buy it
- Don’t buy anything with a lot of moving parts
- Don’t buy power saws (Circular saws, reciprocating saws, compound miter saws), the motors and the bearings they use tend to burn out prematurely
- If the tool is simple, blunt, and made of metal, the Harbor Freight version should be okay
- Subscribe to Popular Mechanics
- Aside the fact that they often review Harbor Freight tools, they, like many magazines, contain a regular Harbor Freight ad, with a “20% off anything” coupon
This is not a foolproof system, or universally correct, so if you are considering a particular Harbor Freight tool that you cannot afford to have fail, check reviews online and consider buying the extended warranty.
Of course, that being said, your first choice for the majority of your tool purchases should be Craigslist… and I’ll still never shop at Walmart.