There are 3 types of cheap hand tools.
First, you have dirt-cheap hand tools that are built to be as cheap as possible. Sure, they work, but they don’t work well.
I try to stay away from dirt-cheap hand tools, not even considering them entry-level. You know the kind – stores like Harbor Freight and Home Depot have these tools in a tub on the bottom shelf, as they’re so cheap they don’t even get their own packaging outside a UPC sticker.
With cheap hand tools, the handles are basic, the jaws soft, the cutters misaligned, and the pivots rough and clunky. They’ll do the job once, twice, three times, and then you either never need them again or throw them in the garbage in disgust.
Second, you have gimmicky garbage – tools that are low priced and with fancy “innovations,” often several of them.
Gimmicky garbage are often sold around the winter holidays or Father’s Day. They’re designed to be appealing and sell to impulse-buyers and gift-givers, and might be used a couple of times before collecting dust.
While gimmicky garbage sounds a bit rough and impolite, I struggle to find softer language that doesn’t sacrifice accuracy.
Lastly, you have entry-level hand tools that are functional, but with some compromises to allow for lower price points. The Husky adjustable pliers, shown above and reviewed here in 2012, are a good example of this. These pliers were priced at just $11 and worked pretty well.
The entry-priced category includes quite a few brands. There’s no hard number as to pricing, as costs can vary widely depending on the type of tool. When talking about pliers, for instance, I’d consider entry-pricing to be maybe $5 per tool. Once you get above $10, that’s Channellock USA-made pliers territory.
In my long nose pliers post from a few years ago, I pulled together different styles from a range or brands – Knipex, Craftsman Pro, Craftsman, Channellock, Stanley, Gearwrench, Crescent, Vise-Grip, and NWS .
How many Stanley or Crescent pliers could you buy for the price of just one Knipex or NWS? If I recall correctly, that Stanley long nose plier (black handle with yellow accents) was from ~2003-2004.
I wouldn’t consider my Stanley pliers to be cheap, although they were inexpensive – I believe I spent $10 for a 3-piece set, but it could have been more – maybe up to $15. These days, you can get a similar Stanley set for $13 at Home Depot.
Here are some of my slip-joint pliers from a while back, with Craftsman Pro, Wilde, and Stanley offerings.
Cheap doesn’t necessarily mean bad. My Stanley pliers were simple, but they worked. I should mention that even Stanley entry-level pliers are leaps better than the dirt-cheap tools I bought for testing a couple of months ago. They’re basic, but far more functional than those dirt-cheap tool-shaped chunks of metal.
Cheap wire cutters don’t produce the same results as higher-priced cutters with sharper or offset jaws, but they get the same job done. Or, cheap pliers might not be as smooth, strong, or comfortable as higher-end models.
Consider a meal prepared with a $10 budget and 20 minutes of prep and cooking time. What happens when you have a $20 budget and 40 minutes of prep and cooking time? $50 and 90 minutes?
What’s expected, of course, is that benefits diminish after a point.
Is a $20 hammer batter than a $10 hammer? Certainly, but that $10 hammer will usually still be capable of driving in nails. Spending more will get you things like better vibration damping and a magnetic nail-starting feature. What about when you get to $40? At that point, you might see lighter harder-hitting designs and with more features, driving up the production costs.
You’ll also have titanium hammers, but those aren’t direct upgrades from lower-shelf barebones hammers.
I tend to focus more on mid-priced tools here because that’s where differentiation become more interesting and research more necessary. Does anyone spend time researching $2 pliers and $5 hammers? I didn’t – I just bought them and later upgraded once my needs and wants outgrew their capabilities.
I went through a box of older belongings recently, and found an incomplete set of jeweler-style screwdrivers I “borrowed” from my father. Two of the drivers are missing because their shafts separated from their handles and I discarded them. I eventually upgraded to Kronus precision screwdriver set from Radio Shack for $10. After that, I upgraded to better precision screwdrivers.
Cheaper tools are okay to start out with if you’re on a tight budget. I upgraded tools as my needs and wants increased, and other times because the opportunities allowed for it. I can’t tell you how many tools I purchased from Sears using credit card points and gift cards.
But here’s the thing – where’s the line between dirt-cheap and entry-level? Where’s the point below which you get tool-shaped chunks of metal and plastic for your money, rather than tools that’ll last beyond a single application?
I still remember some of the purchasing decisions I had to make. Do I buy Home Depot’s Workforce-branded bolt cutters, for cutting wire shelving to size, or HK Porter? I wanted the HK Porter, which I believe were made in the USA at the time, and their lighter-feeling I-beam-style handles, but they were priced maybe 4X higher than the Workforce. Since I had very specific tasks in mind and only short-term needs, I went with the Workforce.
A lot of my other entry-priced tool purchases went the same way. Short-term needs or undetermined needs led me to start off with cheaper offerings. What do you get when you spend $25 on pliers vs. $7? I didn’t know, and I also had a lower budget. $25 can get a whole lot of entry-level tools, compared to just a single premium pliers.
In coming weeks (or most likely months), I’ll be looking at more entry-priced offerings, in an attempt to find a solid series of starter recommendations, at least as far as hand tools are concerned. A lot of my previous recommendations are still valid, such as Bondhus for ball hex drivers, but there have been a lot of brand change-ups in the industry, and design trends have also evolved.
Do you still use entry-level tools? For your higher-priced tools, did you upgrade from entry-priced tools in time, or did you start off spending more for higher quality?