It’s no secret, I’m somewhat wary of Harbor Freight’s Chicago Electric power tools. Personal misgivings aside, quite a few people have been telling me about their fondness of the Chicago Electric oscillating tools. There’s a fixed-speed version, and a variable speed multi-tool.
We approached this idea about cheap oscillating multi-tools when discussing the $35 Genesis multi-tool. In the end, commentors were on both sides of the fence, and readers’ emails since then were similarly divided.
While I believe that the major brands produce far superior offerings, I cannot help but agree that a cheap generic oscillating tool *may* be better than no multi-tool at all.
I love posts by someone who has never used the tool. I have used many oscillating tools and the HF one is awesome and the single speed can be found on sale for $29 with attachments. “*may* be better than no multi-tool at all”…what arrogance!
I wouldn’t quite call myself arrogant, but yes, I am a tool snob. I am also a name-brand snob (usually at least).
Half of the emails I receive about this tool are like your own, defending the tool, its quality, and value. Then there are the ones that say “My HF tool self-destructed and I need a replacement, what do you recommend?”
I have seen the painted coating of cheap drill bits flake off after one use, and black oxide ones dull on the first hole.
BUT, I obviously am biased against cheap tools. Inexpensive tools are fine by me, which is how I often describe cheap tools that have proven their quality. Some people treat these Chicago Electric tools as disposable – one breaks down and they purchase another or trade in the bad one for a replacement.
In terms of why I said a cheap multi-tool *may* be better than none, I have seen where bad quality or badly designed tools and equipment made a situation far worse than if an alternative tool or even a hand tool were used instead.
I re-read the comments from the original post and didn’t come to the conclusion you did at all. The one review that didn’t like the tool hasn’t tried one. Most of those that did liked it a lot, and a few commenters had some concern about the longevity of the blades and attachments. Even you threw out a faith-based review, stating that you “believe that the major brands produce far superior offerings”. Come on, try one and see how it holds up first before you make a statement like that! 😉 Heck, you can get the new single speed model for $20 now. Buy one and take it apart to see if its shoddily built. I used to dismiss everything from HF as junk, then I started looking more carefully at each tool on an individual basis and it was hard to keep that attitude. The quality on some of their products is going up. If you are a careful shopper, you can save a great deal of money on tools and shop supplies.
I have had the single speed version for quite some time now – I bought it cheap with the idea that if I like the utility of the tool – I will invest in a better brand version. I often do this with tools I am not sure are really worth using – and have done it before with HF tools that were later replaced by more expensive, better versions.
I do not feel the need to do so with the oscillating multi-tool simply because this one is actually very good for everything I threw at it. It just works fine for all the things I use it – and has not failed me once.
Is there a good chance the brand name tools are better? Sure. You often get better quality from non-HF tools in my experience – but is it worth the difference in price? I tend to think it might not in this specific tool’s case – simply because the HF version is just a good tool, regardless of price paid.
A good portion of the feedback I receive is sent to me privately/anonymously, and I’m not sure why. And it could also be that I hear more bad things than good due to squeaky wheel syndrome.
I’m a skeptic by nature – a miter saw for less than the price of a quality saw blade? A 105-piece tool kit for less than the price of a single brand-name ratchet?
I really would like to do a sort of performance test and tool-dissection evaluation, and it’s in the planning stage. I may also have a colleague, friend, or family member or two do comparison testing to ensure that no preconceived opinions taint the objectivity of the tests.
I greatly appreciate everyone’s feedback and constructive criticism! And I’m sure that others reading through the post and comments are appreciative as well.
Part of the reason I wrote this post was to solicit feedback and user opinions. I had a feeling that the I love it!! side of the fence was increasing in numbers, and you guys are proving it. From your comments I can see that I’m going to have to face these tools myself to see just how good (or bad) they are in comparison to the brands I’ve tried.
As we know there are many aphorisms relating to prejudicial behavior. “You can’t tell a book by its cover” is one that comes to mind. So maybe it is worth doing a sanity check from time to time to test our tool-buying assumptions. With more and more goods coming from China and Taiwan – many bearing labels from toolmakers we have come to trust – it is more than likely that factories and workers in these countries are becoming capable of producing quality goods. I say “capable” because given the right training, proper motivation, supervision, quality control and factory/work-floor culture – the same can be said for many (if not all) places in the world. Made in the USA was once synonymous with high quality – but I suspect we are mis-remembering some of the junk that was produced here. Made in Japan – was also at one time akin to shoddy or second rate. TQM programs, Deming and others worked in Japan to turn that around for many of their companies. It may now be China’s turn.
Buying tools for the workplace, however, brings some additional considerations. First cost and O&M costs are certainly a consideration. While having a UL or FM certification may provide a basic level of assurance – is the tool OSHA compliant? What is the track-record of the manufacturer or vendor? Lifetime warranties are OK – but what is the likelihood that the tool will fail – resulting in downtime or worse? What is the expected lifetime of the tool and its components (motor, brushes, bearings etc.) and is the tool serviceable – or just replaceable. If the tool bears a store brand (like Kobalt or Husky or Chicago …) do I know from batch to batch that the OEM has not been changed out – and that consistency of quality may not have changed? And finally – while this may be “snob appeal” If the tool is being used on a customer’s premises does it convey the potential for craftsmanship?
So for home use – I’m more inclined to give a HF offering a try – and go from there.
Partially fueling my bias is how I look beyond the metal and plastic.
Is the tool a copy or did engineering know-how go into its design?
Somewhat related, I have heard that there is a lawsuit pending between manufacturers of a particular cordless tool style. One company essentially copied the other’s unique design without authorization. Before knowing this bit of information I have tried both tools and, although I initially assumed they were made by the same OEM and performed similarly, I noticed a very distinct difference between the tools’ results.
Were quality components used in the construction? At such a low price point, I cannot imagine that the innards will be as robust as in a higher-end tool.
This also brings to mind computer power supply units (PSUs). On the outside, a $20 PSU looks a lot like an $85 PSU. On paper, they may both claim 550 watts of peak power, and may have similar power distribution among their power rails. But when you pick them up, the better PSU will be heavier. Opening them up, the better PSU will usually have better quality components. And in performance, the better PSU will usually be capable of delivering the advertised output at true operating temperatures and then some. And if the PSU is overtaxed, a better PSU will usually endure for longer. If a quality PSU fails, the failure is usually isolated. But if a cheap PSU fails, it can potentially destroy an entire computer system – I have seen this happen in a roommate’s builds a few years ago. Yet there are many people that insist cheap PSUs and higher-end PSUs are equal and that you pay more only for the name.
Back to tools, while I have yet tested firsthand the difference between an incredibly cheap multi-tool and a costlier one, I have learned from choosing cheaper tools in the past. Why pay $10 or more for a single chisel when I can get a set of 3? A ratchet for $50 when there’s one included in a $10 socket set? A $30 6pc screwdriver set when a 20-piece is $5?
Not all of my cheap/inexpensive tool experiences were bad, but most left me with a bitter outlook towards cheaper tools. Especially regarding tools that are sold for less than the sum of their parts should realistically cost.
I may be biased, but I’m not closed minded. A post like this, even if tainted by my predisposition against the tool, may help others determine what is right for them, at least that is what I hope. But, you all are right, and it really is unfair for me to feel so strongly without giving it a try. I’m not happy at the idea of bringing one of these home, but I may give in to my responsibility to do so.
I bought one of the single speed units last weekend, because I have a small hardwood flooring job pending, (read condo foyer), and I haven’t needed a “multi -tool” like it in the past. I did run through some shop time testing it to get a feel for it, but nothing heavy duty.
Granted, on this job I only have two doors to do(casings, and jambs) however the price was below renting a similar tool from a major manufacturer, and I still can have the tool if it holds up.
If you, and the others here would like, I will post my findings, and results to you following the wrap of that job, but my hopes are that it will do fine, if not, luckily, the nearest HF is about five minutes away, and the big box home improvement stores only a bit farther down the same road..
Blair, your findings will of course be appreciated.
I ordered one of the single-speed versions for potential review and breakdown. It’s still very hard for me to push my bias aside. I noticed that the cordless version is currently $40, or $32 after 20% coupon. Most major brands’ 12V batteries aren’t even that cheap.
I purchased the black variable multi tool from HF. First I used it to install an exhaust fan in a bathroom, complete with cutting out the hole for the electrical box, and the ceiling hole. It worked great.
Then I had to replace a sprinkler valve. Cutting the PVC risers near the dirt used to be a pain with a sawsall or hack saw, but the multi tool again did great, even when I had to cut a little more off one riser.
Is this a good tool for a pro? I don’t know, but for $44 with a coupon, complete with attachments, it is one of the best tool purchases I have made recently.
The variable speed model from HF is a home run hit. Will a $300 name brand model be better? Possibly but is there a practical difference? My hunch is no. I think being a Tool or Brand snob is a very ineffective. But awareness is the first step!
Here’s the deal – you could literally equip a crew of 15 guys with one of the single speed HF tools – or you could buy ONE Fein Multi-Master. However I wouldn’t be caught dead buying or using one of these Chinese vibrating turds. Why? Because I think it’s OUTRAGEOUS that China is allowed to employ children and adults for less than $.40/hr – akin to human slavery – working 12-16 hrs/day in conditions you wouldn’t let your DOG sit in for five minutes, no worker safety and no concern for the envirohment – all so we can have a $20 oscillating tool. If you people – the tradespeople of the USA – don’t say NO to this crap – who is going to? Think about it. We’ve lost almost our entire manufacturing base because of US companies selling out to China. It’s time to put a stop to it – and the way you do that is with your wallet. REFUSE TO PURCHASE OR USE CRAP MADE IN CHINA – PERIOD.
Our economy has changed. Its now a service based one instead of manufacturing. Let China have all the pollution. Nobody who is currently struggling is going to pay union wages for an American made product out of a misguided sense of loyalty, so that an assembly line worker with a 3rd grade education and limited job skills can make the equivalent pay of a master’s degreed management person. Not gonna happen when they can go to HF and buy a product that serves their needs for a third of the price. That’s called reality and all the complaining in the world won’t change that.
Your lack of understanding of how wealth is created is mind blowing. Service jobs and a service economy is like having fiat currency. We keep going down this road and we will end up with nothing
Gentlemen, as the only woman (I think) responding to your comments and as a home ‘sort-of’ handywoman who has to learn by doing it myself (because, sorry, handymen & contractors tend to be unreliable – i.e. not showing up on time or not showing up at all – and pretend to know what you’re talking about when you don’t until I have the job done and I find it either looks awful or doesn’t work, ahem), reading reviews, etc. I find Fred’s comments, jargon aside, the most useful for me. Same with Mike L. And Brad has a point. Unfortunately American manufacturers outsource to the cheapest labor and China is the place du jour right now.
Having said all that I guess, based on comments and my wallet, that I’ll try this brand and see what happens. My projects are all small anyway. I hate waste and will not toss the tool if it doesn’t work…but I will return it and buy a name brand. I’m glad there is a forum like this from which to learn. People like me thank you.
I purchased the original single speed oscillating tool. I used it to cut between the back splashes and counter tops. The job was tough on the tool. I cut over 50 ft. of Formica with it. It worked great. Their were a few downsides for the original model. 1. It is very loud so you must wear ear protection, 2. I could feel it heating up in my hand, but could still hold it. 3. The original tool is not ergonomic. It is hard to hold. 4. It is single speed, but that doesn’t seem to be an issue. 5. Some of the cutting attachments are poor. One for filing broke the first time I used it. The standard flush cutting ones work ok.
That said, I went to HF and bought the New version of the single speed. 1. It fits your hand well. 2. It is much quieter.
At HF prices, you don’t need a warranty. Just go back and buy another if you break it. I have not had to do that, however.
I own a harbor freight single speed unit and it works fine. I also own a craftsman nextec model cordless and the battery keeps coming out. Both made in china. And to my surprise the harbor freight is much better than the craftsman. So harbor freight wins THIS TIME.
About 6 months ago I purchased the HF variable speed multi-tool for $37.00 and I am very happy with the value this thing offers! The weight and size are perfect, the sound level is lower than I expected, the variable speed is very convenient and it has a soft-start feature meaning it starts slowly and ramps up to speed within about 2 seconds… pretty cool. I have used it to cut outlet box holes in drywall, cut through inaccessible nails when replacing fascia on an entire house, and of course trimming molding and door casings during installation of laminate and ceramic tile flooring. It is also compatible with pretty much all available cutters for other manufacturers multi-tools! The only thing I don’t like is that it did not come with a carrying case, but HF sells lots of different cases and boxes, I’m sure I could find one to fit this excellent tool!
FYI: I have no problem with big name brands as I also own power tools from Porter Cable, Dewalt, Makita, Milwaukee, SKIL, Craftsman, Bostitch, Hitachi and Bosch! (and a Ryobi mini sander)
I bought the HF multitool on sale for 14.99, and used it to cut back some shrubs. On a thick branch it quit oscillating. I took it apart. Getting the gear head off the motor body was a big headache. Inside the gear head is a spinning cam that pushes a two pronged yoke back and forth to pivot the saw shaft. One of the prongs had broken off probably due to poor quality cast rather than forged steel. I made some improvised repairs which never held up, and greased it (it didn’s seem to have alot of lube), but after reassemby the motor was overheating real bad. I don’t know for sure, but if I had to guess, the better tools most likely have gear drives or some kind of pinned connectors to the blade shaft like a Craftsman jig saw had I took apart once. So ths HF item shouldn’t be asked to do some plunge cutting where the blade could bind and over stress that drive yoke.
I own a single speed HF multitool and it has served me well except for the fact that the tiny pins that hold the blade have either fallen off or been broken off, probably due to the fact that I pushed it while cutting instead of letting the tool do the work. My bad. I’m off this morning to get a replacement. You don’t generally need this tool often but when you do its hard to beat for the price.
I have the same problem with a variable speed HF tool, can’t get spindle off to replace. Only put about15 minutes wear on it, put it aside, and, of course, it’s out of warranty.
Same problem. Did anyone ever figure out how to remove the spindle? If it fits, I’d happily buy the $15 single speed tool and frankenstein it to replace the broken spindle on my $40 variable speed tool.
Harry C .Shaw
I have two HF #68861 oscillating tools, I use them to cut rubber. They do a very good job for the money. The brushes wear out in about 25hr. and must be replaced, takes about 10/15 min. The sad news is Harbor Freight / Chicago Electric Tools/ Customer Service / Product Support – Replacement Parts do not sell replacement brushes, item # 28 as shown, in the owners manual on page 10 “Parts List ” They never have and they never will. When you ask for help, they run and hide. I bought some generic brushes and cut them to fit, 5M X 7M X 12M. Cut the pigtails to suit and reuse the retainers and springs. If you doubt me, call 188 866 5759 and try to get the brushes…let us know how it works out for you.