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.

The other issue should be obvious if you’re read any of our reporting on Sears in the last couple of years. Namely, the Sears store that used to be relatively convenient is probably now an empty shell in a rapidly decaying mall, and the closest one may be dozens or even hundreds of miles away now.

THIS IS IMPORTANT, SO READ IT: If you’re in a place that used to have a Sears store, but aren’t close to a place that offers replacement, there’s a possible solution for you in the Craftsman section below!

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: $189.96)

Contents (from Craftsman’s Website):

Includes quick-release ratchets in 1/4″, 3/8″ and 1/2″ drives
152 sockets (6-point, 8-point and 12-point) in both inch and metric sizes
4 extension bars help extend your reach
8 combination wrenches let you slip in where the ratchet won’t go
Comes with a magnetic handle with 12 nut drivers in inch and metric sizes
96 screwdriver bits give you quick power and versatility
Comes with 40 hex keys and 4 adapters
Includes a 3-drawer case

craftsman-micro-clicker-torque-wrench

Micro Clicker 3/8-Drive Torque Wrench (MSRP: $39.99)

Things have gone bananas with Craftsman tools in the last year. First of all, you can’t just shop at Sears to find the best tool kit, because you can not only buy these tools at Ace Hardware, but you can also get them at Lowe’s, in completely different configurations and prices. When you check the Craftsman website, you’re often funneled to a Lowe’s store, and it’s hard to research the prices online.

The other thing to note is that the price has increased astronomically in a year. Last year, we recommended a great 153-piece set for $129.99. This year, the retail price skyrocketed to almost $190, although you get $31 worth of Sears’s “Shrute Bucks” if you participate in it’s bogus loyalty program.

That’s offset a bit by a $5 price reduction in the torque wrench, but, it puts the combination over our $200 price cap, so we can’t recommend it.

This year, it’s a 320-piece set for $139.99. That sounds better than a 153-piece set, but there’s some fuzzy math going on.

For starters, I can’t really tell you exactly what’s in it. Last year, Sears provided a complete inventory of each individual tool in the set. This year, it lumps them into categories, so it’s harder to figure out what you’re getting.

What we do know is that there are only eight wrenches, versus last year’s 10.  You do get more sockets: 152 to last year’s 59. You also get a chrome finish, which is — in our opinion anyway — better than the matte finish of last year’s set when cleanup time comes.

You don’t get actual screwdrivers with the set, but  96 screwdriver bits which will get you a long way toward loosening a bunch of the fasteners on your car. That’s how Sears advertises this as a “320-piece set.” 96 of those tools are actually one tool, with a bunch of bits you’ll probably never use in a million years. Who has square drive screws at home?

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.

The monkey wrench (see what we did there) we’re throwing in this is that a Sears store might not be in your neighborhood any longer. However, we came across a guy that’s been able to successfully negotiate this issue. We ran into Josh Godwin on the Facebook group The Humble Mechanic Club. “My local Sears is liquidating so no more tool warranty through them,” he wrote. The local Ace Hardware only does Craftsman warranty swaps on items they stock, which wasn’t helpful.

Josh called the Craftsman warranty help line and they couldn’t locate the tools locally, but the help line operator did locate the tools online and escalated the issue to Sears customer support. “They ended up giving me enough Shop Your Way points to purchase the tools online and processed the transaction over the phone.”

Now this won’t help if your water pump is laying in the driveway and you need a ratchet that minute, but within a week, Josh had his replacement tools. “They did a good job on this one even with the complications,” he says. Thanks, Josh, for allowing us to relay this to potential Craftsman shoppers.

Kobalt (Lowe’s Brand)

227-Piece Mechanic’s Tool Set (MSRP: $99.00)

Contents (From Kobalt’s website):

 

  • 117 commonly used 6- and 12-point sockets, 3 ratchets, 4 extensions, 30 combination wrenches, 40 hex keys and 33 other assorted tools
  • Precise Pro90 Ratchet 90-tooth gear delivers a 4° precision swing that offers improved mobility in tight work spaces
  • Includes 1/4-in, 3/8-in and 1/2-in drive sockets, ratchets and other accessories
  • Magnetic bit driver, 1 spinner handle, a 12-piece nut driver set and a 19-piece insert bit set
  • 3-drawer blow-molded tool chest

 

 

kobalt-torque-wrench

3/8-Inch Drive Click Torque Wrench (MSRP: $59.97)

The big news in tools in 2017 was that Lowe’s obtained the rights to sell the Craftsman brand at its stores. We won’t compare Craftsman to Craftsman, so we’ll focus on Lowe’s Kobalt house brand.

This is a nicely organized Kobalt set. This $99 set is a now $90 cheaper than the comparable Craftsman set. The price of the torque wrench has gone up quite a bit to $60, but that’s far outpaced by the increase in the Craftsman tool set. Any you don’t have to join any flim-flam loyalty club, either.

When we reviewed tool sets previously, Kobalt had a comparably priced set that included a lot more sockets, universal joints and breaker bars. That set no longer exists, and you get one that’s much more in line with the Craftsman set at a considerably cheaper price.

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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.

Husky (Home Depot Brand)

husky-268-piece-tool-set

Husky Mechanic’s Tool Set (268 Piece) (MSRP: $129.00)

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: $79.97)

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 or Kobalt. In the similarly priced set, Craftsman provides just nine 1/2-inch drive sockets. The Husky set provides 22.

This set used to feature the fewest wrenches, but now it’s near the top as other brands have cut the wrenches to eight or ten. This one stays at 20, which is a pretty solid value for $129.

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Is right up there in deep sockets, too, providing 45. The Husky set features a polished, chrome vanadium finish. That’s a heck of a lot more valuable than screwdriver bits.

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 still more expensive than either of the wrenches from Craftsman or Kobalt, but there’s a reason for that and it’s important: 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.

Note that Home Depot has a cheaper Tekton torque wrench for a lot less. It has what Tekton notes is protected by an “Always Guaranteed” warranty. The good news is that the warranty has no limitations on time or use. If it breaks, they’ll replace it. The catch is that Home Depot won’t replace it, so if you bust it on a Sunday, it’s not a simple run to the store for a new one. You have to send an email with a photo to Tekton and they’ll send you a new one.

Still, for the budget-conscious, it’s a better warranty that either Sears or Lowe’s offers.

Pittsburgh (Harbor Freight Brand)

301-Piece Professional Mechanic’s Tool Set (MSRP: $129.99)

Contents (From Harbor Freight’s Website)

  • Fully polished chrome vanadium steel socket and ratchet set with 115 sockets, 4 extension bars, and 5 socket adapters and 1/4 in., 3/8 in., and 1/2 in. drive 72 tooth ratchets with TPR grips
  • 10 chrome vanadium fully polished combination wrenches and 1 adjustable wrench
  • 2 chrome vanadium pliers
  • 1030
  • 24 short arm hex keys and 18 long reach hex keys
  • Blow mold case

pittsburgh-torque-wrench

3/8-Drive Torque Wrench (MSRP: $19.99)

Like Sears in 2016 and 2017, Harbor Freight increased the price of its 301-piece tool set to $200, which put it above our $200 price cap if you wanted to buy a torque wrench. This year, you’re down to a 225-piece set at $129. The big difference between this and the 301-piece set we recommended last year is in screwdrivers, and it was the entire reason to buy it over any other competitor. Last year, you got 16 beautifully chromed actual screwdrivers. This year, you get a crappy bit driver like every other set. You also get about 85 fewer sockets. BOOOOOOO!!!

Even the carrying case, which we mentioned in last year’s review, is a downgrade from the prior set.

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The torque wrench is still under $20, which is a pretty good deal, but a far cry from the $10 it used to cost in 2016. It’s still cheaper than the competition, but there’s much less of a compelling reason to shop at Harbor Freight in 2018 than there was in 2016.

All of the Pittsburgh-brand tools from Harbor Freight are 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, but that might be negated by the fact that Sears Customer Service can help you out. Either solution can be a bit of frustration when you’re actively working on something in the driveway.

Last year, the clear winner on content was Lowe’s and the clear winner on price was Harbor Freight. None of that is true this year. These are much more competitive sets 12 months later.

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? It’s getting harder by the day with Sears. In 2014, Sears had 731 locations. As of Q2 in 2018, the official number was down to 506, and that got even lower after the announcement of store closings this fall. Harbor Freight is up to 800 stores 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 (1,857 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.