As a longtime homeowner, a landlord, and a train hobbyist, I’ve collected a fair number of tools. Enough tools that I recently had to buy another tool cabinet because I was out of room. A fair number of my tools came from Harbor Freight. So are Harbor Freight tools any good? Sometimes. But definitely not always. They aren’t all junk, but they aren’t all good either.
It’s hard to generalize with Harbor Freight because some of their tools are a good value for the money, or even an excellent value for their money. Others are a poor value. Harbor Freight has a reputation and has started offering better quality in recent years, but many of their cheap tools also remain on the shelves. But if you’re careful, you can do very well at Harbor Freight.
Harbor Freight and its philosophy
Harbor Freight is one of the fastest growing retailers in the United States right now. In retail, it’s the downmarket and upmarket stores that are doing well while midprice stores struggle. Harbor Freight is perhaps the most successful example of a downmarket tool store.
Harbor Freight’s philosophy is that tools are overpriced, mostly because of middlemen. So Harbor Freight contracts with Chinese manufacturers to produce tools for them, and brand them with Harbor Freight’s own private labels. In some cases, the result is the cheapest whatever you can find. In other cases, the result isn’t pro grade by any stretch, but it’s good enough for home use. Sometimes it’s a rather close clone of someone else’s reasonable quality tool. Their tools are almost never as good as the expensive upmarket tools. They’re more likely to be comparable to Wal-Mart’s house brand. But Harbor Freight will have a larger selection and they may even beat Wal-Mart’s price, let alone Home Depot or Lowe’s.
Harbor Freight Coupons
While Harbor Freight’s everyday prices tend to be pretty good, the store is really known for its sales. Harbor Freight almost always has a 20% off coupon, and a few times per year they’ll juice it to 25 or even 30 percent off. There are limits on what you can use it on, but most of the cheap stuff tends to be fair game. They also almost always have coupons for free items. So you can go in and get a $10 set of wrenches with the 20% off coupon, pay $8, and get a 4-in-1 screwdriver or sometimes even a set of five screwdrivers for free.
Bigger-ticket items frequently aren’t eligible for the 20% off coupons anymore, but there will frequently be coupons offering discounts on those too.
Harbor Freight has a locking pliers meant to compete with Vise Grips. They aren’t as good and the locking mechanism works the opposite way of the name brand and that’s less convenient. They’re good for the money.
Harbor Freight’s hand tools come with a lifetime warranty, so if one breaks, you can take it back and they’ll replace it for you. I don’t think their Pittsburgh tools are as good as Stanley hand tools or the old Craftsman hand tools, but they’re reasonable and there’s nothing confusing about how to get a broken one replaced.
Harbor Freight has recently introduced a new house brand, Doyle, that’s higher quality than Pittsburgh. I don’t have a lot of Doyle tools, but the ones I’ve used do give Craftsman a run for the money. The regular price isn’t much better than tools of comparable quality, but you can use a coupon on them. At 20 percent off, they’re a nice deal.
You can never have enough clamps. Harbor Freight’s quick-release bar clamps are good clamps for the money, especially when you use a coupon. Are they as good as a top-tier clamp that costs several times as much? Probably not. But when the bar clamp is $5 and it’s 90% as good as a $25 clamp from somewhere else, why not buy several Harbor Freight cheapies?
The same goes for their spring clamps and c clamps. They get the job done and they’re really cheap.
Harbor Freight’s ratcheting clamps and corner clamps are less good. The ratcheting clamps tend to mar the work and the corner clamps can be sloppy. On these, read the reviews and check them out in the store carefully before you buy them. If they’ll do the job for you, buy them. If they don’t inspire confidence, buy a name-brand tool.
In some cases, it’s cheaper to buy a tool from Harbor Freight than it is to rent the same kind of tool from a home center. If you need a tool for more than a weekend, and the Chicago Electric tool can do the job, it’s probably worth it.
The other time when Chicago Electric power tools make sense is when you’re not sure how much you’ll use it. You can buy the tool with a coupon, keep the packaging, keep the tool in good condition, and if you outgrow it quickly or you find you just don’t use it much, box it up and resell it for $10 or $20 less than you paid. Someone will buy it, and then in effect you’ve rented the tool for 20 bucks. Put the proceeds from the sale toward a better tool.
Chicago Electric power tools are like Black Friday consumer electronics. They aren’t for enthusiasts, but if the price is right, they have their uses.
My Harbor Freight miter saw experience
I have a miter saw I bought there, because I didn’t have one and I needed one for a home renovation I did. It cuts. It doesn’t always cut perfectly square. It’s a little bit sloppy. To its credit, I’ve owned the tool four years and bought it with a coupon so I paid well under $100 for it. It’s a mediocre saw. It’s better than not having a miter saw at all. But if I used it every weekend, I would want something better. I bought it knowing I wouldn’t use it every weekend. If that sounds like you, then sure, buy their $99 saw with a coupon and go for it.
My Harbor Freight oscillating tool experience
I also have a Chicago Electric oscillating multifunction tool I bought there. It’s nowhere near as good as the name-brand oscillating tools. It’s loud and heavy. But it cost $15, it’s eligible for the coupon, and the expensive name-brand blades bolt onto it. If you need to cut a quarter-inch off the bottom of some woodwork to put down a floor, this is the easiest tool for that job. If you need to cut an opening in the wall to put in a network cable or coax, this tool will do it in seconds. It’s a piece of junk, but it’s a useful piece of junk and if mine broke, I’d print out a coupon and go buy another one. I don’t know when I’m going to need it next but I know I’m going to need it badly when the time comes. If I used it every weekend, I’d buy a Fein or Bosch.
My Harbor Freight ultrasonic cleaner experience
If you want a piece of junk, get the Harbor Freight ultrasonic cleaner. It did a great job, but it broke about the 10th time I used it. I liked it when it worked, but I sure didn’t get much use out of it.
The Chicago Electric table saw and router table
That’s generally how it goes with all of the Chicago Electric tools. They’re cheaply made and they remind you of it every time you use them. I’ve heard awful things about the Chicago Electric table saw and router table.
The biggest problem with the table saw is that work can hang up on it because the parts don’t necessarily line up, and the fence isn’t quick to adjust. Allegedly it has the same motor as the Chicago Electric circular saw, so it’s underpowered. There’s not a lot of reason to bother with it when Home Depot sells a Ryobi table saw for $140 with better build quality and reviews to match.
The knock on the router table is that the router is permanently attached, so you can’t take the router off and use it freehand. You can buy a $109 Ryobi router table and put Harbor Freight’s $55 router on it and have more versatility, if you can afford it.
The key with tools like these is to read the reviews, especially the critical ones. If you can live with the shortcomings, buy it. If you can’t, save your money for something better.
Upmarket power tools
Harbor Freight has introduced some higher-end brands like Warrior, Bauer and Hercules. These are better than Chicago Electric in addition to being more expensive. A Hercules tool isn’t as good as a Dewalt or Milwaukee, even though Harbor Freight wants to pit them against those. Hercules compares better to Porter Cable or Rigid. Bauer isn’t as good as Porter Cable or Rigid, but holds its own with Black and Decker or Ryobi. Warrior, which is supposed to be a Black and Decker killer, is better than Chicago Electric but doesn’t live up to Harbor Freight’s hype.
So the newer upmarket lines are much better than the Chicago Electric tools that made Harbor Freight (in)famous. They’re reasonable tools. But they don’t give you Rigid quality at a price lower than Ryobi.
Drill bits and the like
I’ve bought a fair number of drill bits from Harbor Freight. I’ve broken a fair number of drill bits from Harbor Freight. Are they as good as the ones from any other store? No, unless you’re buying drill bits from Dollar General. Then maybe. But they cost half as much and they last more than half as long, so I’m OK with them. And since I often lose a drill bit before I break it, I’d rather not tie a lot of money up in drill bits.
I use drill spades quite a bit, and I ended up buying a set from Harbor Freight because I needed two different sizes and the set from Harbor Freight cost less than buying the two bits I needed elsewhere. I found the spades weren’t as good as all of the spades I already had, but they were better than some I had. That was a nice surprise. I bought them unsure whether they’d be a single-use item or have some longevity, but I’ve used them for multiple projects now.
Harbor Freight’s rotary tool bits aren’t as good as the name brands, but they’re also in that category of costing half as much and lasting more than half as long. They’re not great, but they’re a reasonable value.
Storage and organization
Harbor Freight has a lot of storage and organization gear, whether it’s little plastic trays with dividers, trays to go in your toolbox drawers, small parts organizers, and the like. For stuff like that, you can’t beat Harbor Freight. One time I brought home a couple of little plastic trays and my wife said she’d never thought to look for those at Harbor Freight. They’re as good as what the craft stores sell, if not better, and they’re cheaper.
Harbor Freight’s toolboxes are fine. They’re usually exempt from the coupon, and they aren’t a lot cheaper than their equivalents elsewhere. Sometimes you can find a cheaper toolbox somewhere else, even. But the cheaper toolbox will be lighter duty, though it may have a better brand name stamped on it.
Harbor Freight has some great magnetic trays you can stick on the sides of your toolbox to hold various things, and those work on anyone’s boxes of course. I’ve been pretty happy with what I got at Harbor Freight to help me organize my tools and supplies. Maybe a costlier organizer will be made of a more durable plastic, but not always.
Getting a great deal on an organizer and sorting your hardware so you can find it can save you a ton of money. Here are some tips for sorting screws, nails, and other random hardware to save you expensive trips to the hardware store.
Glue and adhesives
Harbor Freight is about the only place left where I can get epoxy for less than $5. Their epoxy works fine and the price is much better than the big name brands. Their other glues aren’t the draw for me that the epoxy is, but they’re reasonable.
Harbor Freight coupon tips and tricks
Harbor Freight freebies include worklights or flashlights, tape measures, 4-in-1 screwdrivers, and occasionally really nice items like a screwdriver set, magnetic parts tray, or a 4-outlet surge protector. How many tape measures do you need? In my case the answer seems to be more than three. Unless you go there every week, there’s probably one freebie promotion they’re running that’s useful to you.
You can’t stack coupons but you can use multiple coupons in a single purchase. I have a sales flier in front of me with coupons for 12 items on one side and a 20% off coupon and three freebies on the other. I can go in and buy all 12 of those items, buy something else with the 20% off coupon, and get one of the freebies in a single purchase if I want.
Getting coupons and tracking coupon history
If you don’t have a current flier, or if you do but nothing in it interests you, go to the Harbor Freight Coupon Database. There, you can search for any item that interests you and if there’s a valid coupon floating around, you can print it. The store will honor it. You can also see past coupons. For example, Harbor Freight’s sliding compound miter saw regularly sells for $118. Sometimes they run coupons for $99 and sometimes they run them for $85. If you don’t need it today, wait for a coupon so you can get it for $85.
Are Harbor Freight tools any good: In conclusion
Tools don’t have to be the very best to be a good value. I don’t use wrenches very often, so there’s no reason for me to tie up hundreds of dollars in premium wrenches when $16 worth of wrenches from Harbor Freight gives me every size I’m likely to need for the rest of my life.
If you have a workshop and spend your life in there, Harbor Freight’s appeal to you will be limited to their clamps and storage and organization.
But for someone who uses tools only occasionally, Harbor Freight can offer good value.