One of the mistakes tool buyers make when it comes to a tool they need for their garage, is getting too fixated on price and brand when it comes to buying tools that come in a set.
Essentially, the number of pieces in a set when making a cost comparison can sometimes weigh wrongly in the minds of shoppers. And especially when the tool the buyer really needs is just one tool within a set.
Harbor Freight Tool Pricing Question
This thought came to mind after reading an interesting and informative ToolGuyd website article asking if Harbor Freight’s $99.99 10-piece ICON punch and chisel set is overpriced; Despite HF’s selling point that it is $200 cheaper than a similar $300 10-piece Snap-on PPC710BK punch and chisel set.
The writer of the article points out correctly that there are other familiar brands with more pieces-per-set that cost less than Harbor Freight’s advertised $99.99. Plus, they also offer “Lifetime” warranties with exchange promises and appear to be “Made in America.”
Call me a “skeptic,” but “lifetime” of anything and “made in” whatever country labels are just marketing hype and/or misrepresentations on what exactly constitutes a lifetime and what portion of the product is made in America. Is it the tool, the pouch, or the box made in America? Or, was the tool made somewhere else and then “Packaged in America”?
You can call me “jaded” as well. I will deny neither.
Harbor Freight Tool Performance
The crux of the matter, however, is not whether Harbor Freight overcharges with their ICON line of tools, but it’s about what you are actually getting for your money when it comes to the performance of a tool.
One thing I have noticed when it comes to tool reviews is that often we will see a HF tool and a Snap-on tool mixed in with a range of other brands. And, that HF often comes out in these tests as being either good enough or nearly-as-good as an equivalent Snap-on, but for just one-third of the cost of a Snap-on tool.
This is my anecdotal and gut-feeling impression; Not a scientific study, so take it for what it is. However, back tracking through some past tool reviews I confirmed that my gut feeling is mostly true as long as you stick to what I call “non-complex” tools. That is, tools that are mechanically simple with fewer and larger components as opposed to tools that are more complex with smaller components critical for fine measurements and will stay within a narrow window of repeatable readings.
For example, you are better off spending $280 for a large purely mechanical Daytona floor jack as opposed to buying a $1,000 Snap-on floor jack. But for precision tools such as torque wrenches (which are critical to engine rebuilds) you are better off with a $450 Snap-on over a $125 Icon.
To be honest, I use Icon torque wrenches and have found you have to test them immediately and may have to exchange a few times for a “better working one” until you find the “best of the shelf” in this form of a boxed-tool roulette game. However, I have had pretty good luck with Harbor Freight’s digital calipers. So, go figure.
Sets versus Individual Pieces
Back to the ToolGuyd website article asking if Harbor Freight’s $99.99 10-piece punch and chisel set is overpriced: the point I would like to make is that of performance. In particular, the performance of the center punch within the 10-piece set.
The importance of a center punch cannot be overstated as it is one of those tools you depend on to rescue yourself from a repair or rebuild that has gone wrong with a broken bolt. In most cases, the best repair for a broken bolt is to drill it out. To do this, you need a center punch to put a perfectly centered divot into a hardened metal bolt to start the process of drilling out the broken bolt. If the center punch is poor quality, then you are either doomed to failure and/or will wind up doing even more damage to your repair.
The argument of tool shoppers getting too fixated on price and brand with tool set packages is reasoned with the suspicion that not all tools within a set are of equal performance value. The HF ICON 10-tool pack consists of 3 chisels, 3 solid punches, 3 pin punches and 1 center punch. What are the chances that each perform equally well?!
Put it another way, think about the 80’s when you spent $20 for a CD that really only had only one or two songs on it that you really wanted and the rest you did not listen to more than once. It’s the same for tools that come in sets.
For tools like a center punch, ofttimes it’s better to buy some tools singularly that have a good review supporting them (at a little higher cost per piece) than it is to buy an entire set that lacks a thorough review of each tool.
Another example is that of large Philips head bits used with an impact wrench. I’ll buy a $20 single bit that I know is reviewed and performs well rather than take a chance on the bits provided with an impact wrench as part of the kit. The reason is because if that large Philips head bolt (such as in the camshaft torque plate of an old Ford) gets mangled by a poor quality bit, the repair/rebuild just got worse. In many situations, you really only get one shot at removing a stubborn bolt.
One last example is if you have ever bought a $400 micrometer set and a $1200 micrometer set each with 6 mics per set, and compare within each set and against each other, you will discover that there is a wide variation within and between sets with the $1200 set being overall better. What I found works best is to read reviews and buy each micrometer separately and test it against the best standards you can afford.
The overriding point is that you cannot accurately base a tool buying decision on the number of items of one tool set over another tool set. The reality of what you get is that not all tools are equal in a set, and the better decision is to base your purchase on researching tool reviews one…tool…at…a…time.
A Center Punch Review
That said and done, here is a timely Project Farm YouTube channel episode that tests several brands of center punches against each other that includes Snap-on, but not Harbor Freight. If I were to make an educated guess, I would bet that a Harbor Freight ICON punch would perform close to the Snap-on, but not well enough for me to skimp on tool cost for a tool that has an important function.
The punch line to this review is that another brand of center punch---a $14 Stahwille 105/120—came out on top as the best and it is only about half the cost of the #2 review rated Snap-on center punch.
That’s the one I will be buying next…even if it is underpriced.
Best Center Punch? Let’s Settle This!
For additional articles related to Harbor Freight tools, here are a few for your consideration:
- The Harbor Freight Gift Every Car Owner Needs
- New Harbor Freight Impact Wrench Torque Test Will Change Your Mind About Harbor Freight Tools
- The Harbor Freight Tool Buyers are Reselling at a Profit
Timothy Boyer is an automotive reporter based in Cincinnati. Experienced with early car restorations, he regularly restores older vehicles with engine modifications for improved performance. Follow Tim on “Zen and the Art of DIY Car Repair” website, the Zen Mechanic blog and on Twitter at @TimBoyerWrites and Facebook for daily news and topics related to new and used cars and trucks.
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