Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Are "Budget" Tools a False Economy?

Humans are tool-using animals; it's kind of our superpower, and what keeps us at the top of the food chain. Sadly, as tools become more important and more complex, they also become more and more expensive. Couple this with needing an increasingly large number of tools and becoming a tool-using animal gets hard on the budget.

One of the ways folks try and get around this cost is by buying off-brand "budget" tools, either on Amazon or locally at stores like Harbor Freight. High-end, high-dollar folks will tell you these people are fools, throwing their money away on a false economy. The claim is that while the cost outlay is lower, the tools are of low quality and will not perform or will break prematurely. The question I'd like to answer today is whether this is true or if these people are just snobs.

As a professional tool-user, I've pondered this question for years. The short answer is "It depends." Some bargain tools are just that; others can honestly be called false economy. The answer for any particular purchase depends on a couple criteria.

Complexity of the Tool
Simple hand tools are pretty hard to screw up. Heat treating and metallurgy in mass production environments are established science, and basic tool design is well-known the world over. Screwdrivers, pliers, hammers, and the like are pretty safe purchases; tools that are a bit more complex can still be a safe buy, especially if they can be calibrated or adjusted. I actually reload with a set of calipers from Harbor Freight that are accurate to the task and completely repeatable.

Intended Use
For tools that will see constant use, or use at a professional level, the upgrade to major brands is often worth it as the build quality of national brands is definitely better when subjected to heavy use. For homeowner or hobby use, though, the lifespan of these tools is often good enough that the difference will never be noticed.

Another place where budget tools are worth purchasing is when they're going to be used in a manner outside the norm. Modifying a $5 wrench is less painful than modifying a $20 wrench, and beating and prying on a $2 screwdriver is way better than on a $15 one.

Cheap drill bits and saw blades wear out faster than more expensive ones, but not dramatically so. For hobby and homeowner uses, they work just fine; many of them will even function reasonably in a professional setting. In almost all circumstances, the extended life of the more expensive blades or bits doesn't cover the difference in cost. For example, with certain drill bits I can buy five of the cheap ones for the same money as a single expensive drill bit, and that more expensive bit won't give me 5x the life.

Apply these criteria (and a bit of logic) to any budget tool purchases you're considering. You can find some great deals and get tooled up for far less money than you'd think.


1 comment:

  1. Harbor Freight tools are okay as long as you pay attention to what you are getting. I have had brand new tools break right out of the box, and others from harbor freight have lasted 10 years or more. A great place to get good quality tools is yard sales.


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