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: $129.99)

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: $49.99)

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”.

Be aware that Craftsman tools are available Ace Hardware, though you won’t find the 153-piece tool set above, and the Craftsman Torque Wrench is almost $80, negating any reason to shop there.

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.

Finally, there’s a pretty significant reduction in price. Last year, the price for the tool set was $161.99. The torque wrench has gone up five bucks from $44.99.

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: $39.98)

The big news in tools in 2017 was that Lowe’s obtained the rights to sell the Craftsman brand at its stores. That’s not in effect currently, though.

What’s available at Lowe’s is this nicely organized Kobalt set. This $99 set is a $30 cheaper than the comparable Craftsman set, and the price of the torque wrench dropped considerably.

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: $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)

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.

Where the Husky set falls down a bit is in the wrench department. The Husky kit provides combination wrenches in both SAE and metric varieties, but it offers the fewest wrenches of the three at just 20.

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Husky splits the difference in deep sockets, providing 45 deep sockets to the Craftsman set’s 24, and the Kobalt set’s 35. 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 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 ONLINE ONLY, Home Depot has a cheaper Tekton torque wrench at $35.13. 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: $157.99)

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)

It’s a completely new deal for Harbor Freight. Last year, their Pittsburgh brand killed all competitors with a 301-piece tool set for $157.99. This year, purchasing that tool set gets you to just one penny under $200, so you won’t be able to afford a torque wrench under our $200 cap, which is a deal-killer for us. Harbor Freight may seem like the cheap option, but a $40 jump in price in a year is pretty dramatic.

In 2017, you’re down to a 225-piece set. 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 last year.

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Harbor Freight jacked up the price of its torque wrench by 100 percent since last year, too. You could get one in 2016 for $9.99, which seems almost too good to be true. This year, the same wrench will cost you $19.99. It’s still cheaper than the competition, but there’s much less of a compelling reason to shop at Harbor Freight in 2017 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. That 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. This year, we’re down to 594 and falling. 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.