BUYER’S GUIDE: Which $200 Mechanic’s Tool Set Is Best?

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Over the years, the “Craftsman” name has been synonymous with hand tool quality. Recent developments, though, have challenged that perception in a big way. If you’re looking to build a comprehensive starter set for the DIY’er in your life, is Craftsman still the way to go?

For the record, I’m a Sears guy. I’ve written about it several times before, but my father was employed by Sears my entire life, and still, most of the hand tools I have were tools that he either purchased at the store for his own use or purchased for me.

Over the last 30 years of use and abuse, those tools have proven themselves to be quality items. I’ve never broken a ratchet or rounded off a socket. The screwdrivers still maintain their Phillips and slotted tips (for the most part — we’ll get to that later), and the wrenches have never come apart. I’ve never had to use Sears’ lifetime warranty to replace a tool, because they’ve simply never broken.

What’s the problem, then? If those tools have worked well for 30 years, why not just recommend starting and ending the tool quest at the local Sears store? Well, if you can find a complete Craftsman set from 1986, buy it.

One thing nice about older Craftsman tools is that they have a model number prefix, which you can decode to determine the original manufacturer of the tool. Look at the first three digits before the decimal point on the tool and cross-reference it against the list at VintageMachinery.com.

Craftsman tools and the return policy on them have changed a lot in the meantime, and there may be significantly better options, with much greater variety, at a competitive price.

We’ll compare four similarly-priced mechanics tool sets on quality, quantity and warranty and we’ve provided links to the online store for purchase, and to the complete warranties available online.

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All of these sets come it at around $150, but we’re calling the set “$200” because we’re also adding the one essential mechanic’s tool that’s never included in a “mechanic’s tool set”: a 3/8-inch drive torque wrench. We’ll select the 3/8-inch “clicker” style wrench that you dial to your preferred setting. When you hit that torque value, the wrench clicks to indicate it’s tight.

Our base requirements:

    • SAE and Metric
    • Wrenches, sockets and screwdrivers (or at least screwdriver bits)
    • 1/4-inch, 3/8-inch and 1/2-inch drive ratchets
    • Deep sockets
    • Under $200

Craftsman (Sears Brand)

craftsman-153-piece-tool-set

153 Piece Universal Mechanic’s Tool Set (MSRP: $161.99)

Contents (from Craftsman’s Website):

7 – 1/4″ Drive Standard Universal Socket (3/16 – 3/8″)
6 – 1/4″ Drive Metric Universal Sockets (5 – 10 mm)
6 – 1/4″ Drive Standard Universal Deep Sockets (3/16 – 3/8″)
6 – 1/4″ Drive Metric Universal Deep Sockets (5 – 10 mm)
1 – 1/4″ Drive Universal Ratchet
1 – 1/4″ Drive 3″ Universal Extension Bar
6 – 3/8″ Drive Standard Universal Sockets (7/16 – 3/4″)
7 – 3/8″ Drive Metric Universal Sockets (11 – 17 mm)
5 – 3/8″ Drive Standard Universal Deep Socket (7/16 – 11/16″)
7 – 3/8″ Drive Metric Universal Deep Sockets (11 – 17 mm)
1 – 3/8″ Drive Universal Ratchet
1 – 3/8″ Drive 3″ Universal Extension Bar
4 – 1/2″ Drive Standard Universal Sockets (3/4 – 15/16″)
5 – 1/2″ Drive Metric Universal Sockets (18 – 22 mm)
1 – 1/2″ Drive Universal Ratchet
1 – 1/2″ Drive 3″ Universal Extension Bar
10 – Standard Universal Combination Wrenches (5/16 – 13/16″)
11 – Metric Universal Combination Wrenches (8 – 18 mm)
1 – Universal Bit Driver
30 – Screwdriver Bits
14 – Nut Driver Bits
22 – Hex Keys (11 Standard and 11 Metric)
Carrying Case

craftsman-micro-clicker-torque-wrench

Micro Clicker 3/8-Drive Torque Wrench (MSRP: $44.99)

Back in the 1980s and before, there was really just one set of Craftsman tools, and the only difference in the price of the sets was the number of tools in it. Today, Craftsman has a whole range of hand tools, with at least three different styles of ratchets and wrenches. At the lowest end is its “Universal Mechanic Tool Set”.

This set differs from more expensive Craftsman sets most obviously in the finish: none of the tools are polished. There are advantages and disadvantages to a polished finish. A chrome vanadium polished finish allows for easy cleanup, but that also means they can be a little slipperier to handle.

The tools also have Craftsman’s “universal” design, which supposedly works on 6-point, 12-point, square, spline, torx and partially rounded fasteners.

You don’t get actual screwdrivers with the set, but you do get 30 screwdriver bits which will get you a long way toward loosening a bunch of the fasteners on your car. Larger T-25, T-40 and T-50 Torx bits are available, but at additional cost.

The Craftsman warranty is where things get a little weird. In the old days, you brought your broken tool to the store, handed it and a new tool to the guy behind the counter and walked out. Simple. Today’s Craftsman warranty isn’t so cut and dried. The tools have to be exactly the same, first of all, which makes the multiple variations of Craftsman tools a little difficult to negotiate. You can’t swap out a “Universal” wrench for a polished one, for example.

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The warranty has some red flags. For Craftsman and Craftsman Industrial hand tools, the language in the warranty reads: “If this Craftsman (or Craftsman Industrial) hand tool ever fails to provide complete satisfaction, it will be repaired or replaced free of charge.”

The “repaired” part is the concern, especially for ratchets. Instead of just swapping out the ratchet for another one on the shelf, the Sears store provides a “ratchet repair kit.” Most of the ratchets in this price range are globally sourced 84-tooth ratchets that can take one of three different rebuild kits. When the water pump is off your Camry in the driveway, adding a ratchet rebuild to your list of chores isn’t ideal.

The other considerable concern is the warranty on the torque wrench. First off, you need a receipt, which differs significantly from Craftsman’s ordinary hand tool warranty. Second, the warranty is good “For one year from the date of sale.” That’s a long ways from the lifetime warranty most people expect on anything with the Craftsman name.

Kobalt (Lowe’s Brand)

kobalt-432-piece-tool-set432-Piece Mechanic’s Tool Set (MSRP: $159.20)

Contents (From Kobalt’s website):

3 quick-release ratchets
73 wrenches
229 sockets
5 drive tools
10 extension bars
112 other additional tools like nut drivers, assorted bits, hex keys and bit sockets

kobalt-torque-wrench

3/8-Inch Drive Click Torque Wrench (MSRP: $59.95)

At first glance, the Kobalt set sold at Lowe’s seems like a much better deal. For a couple of bucks less, you get 180 more pieces. That’s partly a marketing ploy to inflate the perceived size of the kit. Lowe’s considers each hex key and screwdriver bit an additional “piece” rather than grouping them together the way Craftsman does.

But the Kobalt kit includes a lot more real value for the money. With the Kobalt kit, along with the ratchets inĀ  1/4-inch, 3/8-inch and 1/2-inch drive, you get a breaker bar in both 3/8-inch and 1/2-inch drive.

There are also more sockets. Way more. The Craftsman set offers 59 in total. With the Kobalt set, you get 229 sockets, and the variety is much greater. Along with a couple of spark plug sockets, the Kobalt set includes 68 deep sockets, as opposed to just 24 in the Craftsman set. The Kobalt set also includes two universal joints for getting into tight places (Craftsman offers none), and Torx sockets in larger sizes than the Craftsman set.

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Along with the complement of combination wrenches, the Kobalt kit comes with 14 additional combination wrenches with ratcheting box ends. Regular box end wrenches are better suited to heavy duty, but the ratcheting option in these seven wrenches is a nice feature, essentially for free. However, as reader Jeffrey Lefebvre points out, they’re of limited use without a hinge. Hinged ratcheting wrenches are available, but at $89 for a set of eight, they’re not cheap.

Finally, the metric and SAE tools are color coded for easy location. You lose the carrying case with the Kobalt set, but for the money, there are a lot more tools in this one. Kobalt’s set is completely chrome polished, too.

The warranty on Kobalt tools is the company’s “Lifetime Hassle Free Guarantee” which is spelled out on the website. “You should never have a problem with your Kobalt Tool. However, if you do, return the item to the place of purchase for a free replacement. No questions asked. This warranty gives you specific legal rights, and you may also have other rights that vary from state to state.”

Unlike Craftsman, it’s not a “repaired or replaced” warranty. You just walk in, swap the tool and you’re on your way.

The torque wrench, unfortunately, has a similar warranty to the Craftsman: One year, and it does require a receipt. Interestingly, the Craftsman torque wrench warranty does not allow commercial use. The Kobalt warranty doesn’t make that distinction.

UPDATE: A quick note on prices. We heard from reader and colleague Greg Jarem last night that when he tried to purchase the Kobalt set referenced in the link, he was presented with a price of $199 (See image below):

screenshot

However, when we double-checked the link from two different devices (desktop and iPhone), the $159.20 price was in effect:

lowes-screenshot

 

If you want the Kobalt set, you might want to print this out and bring it into the store and talk to a manager to get the $159.20 price. Be aware that we were checking prices on and around Cyber Monday, so these prices could change at any time.

Husky (Home Depot Brand)

husky-268-piece-tool-set

Husky Mechanic’s Tool Set (268 Piece) (MSRP: $149.00)

Contents (From Home Depot’s Website)

(3) 1/4, 3/8 and 1/2 in. drive quick release ratchets
(23) standard length 1/4 drive 6-pt. socket
(10) standard length 1/4 drive 12-pt. socket
(21) deep 1/4 drive 6-pt. socket
(28) standard length 3/8 drive 6-pt. socket
(5) standard length 3/8 drive 8-pt. socket
(22) standard length 3/8 drive 12-pt. socket
(16) deep 3/8 drive 6-pt. socket
(2) 3/8 drive spark plug socket
(19) 3/8 drive bit socket
(22) standard length 1/2 drive 12-pt. socket
(20) combination wrenches
(77) other accessory and drive tools
Plastic Storage Case

husky-torque-wrench

Husky 20-100 ft. lbs. 3/8 in. Drive Torque Wrench (MSRP: $74.97)

Like the set from Lowe’s, the Husky Mechanic’s Tool Set is a lot more comprehensive than the set offered at Sears stores. The range in big 1/2-inch sockets alone is reason enough to consider the Husky set over the set from Craftsman. In the similarly priced set, Craftsman provides just nine 1/2-inch drive sockets. The Husky set provides 22.

Where the Husky set falls down a bit is in the wrench department. Like the Craftsman set, the Husky kit provides combination wrenches in both SAE and metric varieties, but it offers the fewest wrenches of the three at just 20. Craftsman has 21, while the Kobalt set provides a wide-ranging 73.

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Husky splits the difference in deep sockets, providing 45 deep sockets to the Craftsman set’s 24, but you’ll get much more range out of the Kobalt set. The Husky set features a polished, chrome vanadium finish.

The Husky “Guaranteed Forever” warranty is almost exactly the same as the Kobalt warranty: “If your Husky hand tool ever fails, bring it back and we will replace it free.” No receipt, no questions asked. Going one step further than Kobalt, the warranty doesn’t just keep silent on professional use, the product description specifically notes “for professional or DIY mechanics workshop.”

Husky’s torque wrench is $25 more expensive than either of the wrenches from Craftsman or Kobalt, but there’s a reason for that: It’s protected by the Guaranteed Forever warranty which doesn’t require a receipt. For that alone, we’d recommend the Husky torque wrench over either the Kobalt or Craftsman wrenches, with their lousy one-year warranty.

Pittsburgh (Harbor Freight Brand)

pittsburgh-301-piece-tool-set

301-Piece Professional Mechanic’s Tool Set (MSRP: $157.99)

Contents (From Harbor Freight’s Website)

Fully polished chrome vanadium steel socket and ratchet set with 1/4 in, 3/8 in, and 1/2 in. drive ratchets
202 sockets
5 extension bars
breaker bar
adapters
universal joint
10 chrome vanadium raised panel combination wrenches and 1 adjustable wrench
3 chrome vanadium pliers
16 chrome vanadium screwdrivers
8 precision screwdrivers
42 carbon steel hex keys
Blow mold storage case

pittsburgh-torque-wrench

3/8-Drive Torque Wrench (MSRP: $9.99)

It used to be that the Harbor Freight tools were derided as cheap, imported, throwaway tools, but the entire tool landscape has changed. We can have a lengthy, unpleasant, highly politically charged discussion about off-shore manufacturing, but in the case of these four tool sets, you’re not going to solve those problems. At this price point, all four of these tool sets feature tools made outside the United States. Kobalt does manufacture a range of screwdrivers made in the USA, but not in the set above.

Screwdrivers — actual screwdrivers, not a handle with a bunch of bits — is where the Harbor Freight set excels. You get 16 real screwdrivers in this set, in Phillips, slotted and Torx varieties, along with a drive handle for additional bits. You also get three diagonal cutting pliers (needlenose, sidecutter and flat-jaw), and a crescent-style adjustable wrench.

The set also includes a carrying case, which neither the Kobalt nor Husky set includes. But considering the Kobalt set offers 14 additional wrenches, we’d sacrifice and pick up a rolling tool chest at a swap meet further down the road.

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The torque wrench isn’t as fancy-looking as the clickers from the other brands. We also would have to verify how accurate it is. But at an amazing $9.99, it would almost be worth the risk.

Better yet, like the rest of the Pittsburgh-brand tools from Harbor Freight, its protected by a Lifetime Warranty: “We guarantee this Tool to be free from defects in material and workmanship for the life of the product.”

Conclusion

For the sub-$200 price tag, none of these tool sets are going to be manufactured in the United States. You’ll need to spend a lot more to get a USA-made tool, or shop carefully on the used market.

All of the Mechanic’s Tool Sets listed here are protected by some version of lifetime warranty, but only the Craftsman tools have the repair clause, rather than just straight replacement. That can be a bit of frustration when you’re actively working on something in the driveway.

By far, the best range in tools comes in the Kobalt 432-Piece Mechanic’s Tool Set. None of the other sets come close, unless you’re specifically buying a set for screwdrivers and pliers, which is the only real advantage to the Pittsburgh set.

Only two of the torque wrenches (Husky and Pittsburgh) are protected by a lifetime warranty.

The question in any of these tools is the same: If something breaks, how convenient is it to replace? Sears has 731 locations as of 2014, but that number is dwindling. Harbor Freight has expanded significantly to 700 locations across the country, which makes that store more convenient than ever before. But it’s still a shadow of the footprint of retail giants like Lowe’s (1,840 locations), Home Depot (2,274 locations).

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Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at BestRide.com.