When a Northern Tool opened up near me, I assumed it was something like Harbor Freight. So did everyone else, it seemed. But there are significant differences between the two stores. Both have a reputation for being stores that sell cheap Chinese tools. When it comes to Northern Tool, that’s an oversimplification. Northern Tool vs Harbor Freight isn’t necessarily an obvious comparison, it turns out.
Both Northern Tool and Harbor Freight sell things you won’t find at your local home center. But while Harbor Freight devotes most of its store to cheap Chinese tools, Northern Tool also sells costlier brand-name tools. Each store also sells things the other doesn’t. If you want a big tool chest, go to Harbor Freight. If you want a lawn mower, go to Northern Tool.
Cheap Chinese tools
Harbor Freight made a name for itself selling cheaply made tools imported from China at rock bottom prices. In recent years the store has tried to move upmarket by selling various grades of tools, not just the cheapest it can find. Many people call Harbor Freight a “Chinese tool store,” and that’s certainly the majority of what Harbor Freight sells. But you can get Meguiar’s auto detailing products there. And I bought a $3 parts sorting tray there one weekend that proudly says “Made in the USA” on the label.
But calling Northern Tool a “Chinese tool store” is a gross oversimplification. Northern Tool does import some tools directly from China and sell them under its own brand names. Some of those products are similar, if not identical to their counterparts at Harbor Freight.
But not always. For example, Northern Tool sells a combination 7-piece drill/tap/deburr bit set for $40. Harbor Freight sells a 13-piece set for $13. So Harbor Freight undercuts Northern Tool’s price considerably.
But sometimes Northern Tool will undercut Harbor Freight as well, especially on the sub-$10 items.
The middle of the store has a selection of inexpensive tools that will remind you of things you see at Harbor Freight, although the layout is completely different. But the majority of Northern Tool’s private label products are interspersed with their name-brand counterparts in the aisles.
Both stores carry items you won’t find at a home center, but the selection at both stores goes in completely different directions once you get outside of hand tools and power tools. If you want metalworking tools, Harbor Freight has a lot more of them than Northern Tool does. But Harbor Freight doesn’t sell lawn mowers. Northern Tool does sell lawn mowers. And I noticed an interesting thing about Northern Tool’s selection of lawn mowers. If you want a cheap MTD-manufactured lawn mower, Northern Tool carries one model, priced at $179. I didn’t see a bare-bones plastic deck fixed-wheel $99 lawn mower you would expect to find at a store that people associate with cheap tools. Northern Tool carried one cheap lawn mower and twice as many Honda lawn mowers as a typical home center carries.
I found the mix a bit jarring. Here’s a place that sells both cheap Harbor Freight-style tools and high-end stuff like Honda lawnmowers and power washers and generators. They also sell DeWalt and Milwaukee power tools. Walking into what I’d always been led to believe was a cheap Chinese tool store, I didn’t expect to see DeWalt and Milwaukee power tools. If you’re not familiar with those brands, they’re what you buy if Craftsman isn’t good enough for you.
Two different directions for DIY
Even though people think of the stores as competitors, they’re complementary as much as competitive. The two stores probably could operate across the street from one another and help each other more than they hurt each other. Harbor Freight sells more tools for doing body work and things like that. If you have a broken fiberglass bumper on your car and want to fix it yourself instead of replacing it, you can buy a $40 plastic welder there along with some supplies, and probably fix the bumper for less than your insurance deductible.
Northern Tool sells a plastic welder, but charges $280 for it. It’s a half-hearted attempt to compete. But if you want to buy a lawnmower engine, Northern Tool has the brand-name engines instead of Harbor Freight’s private label engines. For a one-off project, some will be glad to buy cheap tools at Harbor Freight, then go to Northern Tool to buy a brand-name engine.
Perhaps the biggest difference when it comes to Northern Tool vs Harbor Freight is the discounting. Harbor Freight floods the market with coupons, which can lead to some opportunities for coupon strategizing. And while Harbor Freight will run sales on Super Bowl weekend and President’s Day weekend, they don’t need that excuse. They had sales the other two weekends in February too.
Both Harbor Freight and Northern Tool sell memberships that entitle you to better discounts than non-members get.
But Northern Tool doesn’t advertise as much as Harbor Freight and their discounts tend to be off your entire order. At Harbor Freight, you can play the grocery store game where you go in, fill your cart with 17 items, and have a coupon for each item. One time I went into Harbor Freight, spent $40, and the cashier actually congratulated me, saying he couldn’t believe I got what I did for 40 bucks. You can’t do that at Northern Tool.
At Northern Tool the sales are much less frequent, but you can’t get 20% off on Milwaukee or DeWalt tools at Harbor Freight. It’s up to you to figure out if you’re better off waiting for a sale at Northern Tool, or buying your Milwakee and DeWalt at a different store.
Northern Tool vs Harbor Freight: In conclusion
I’m admittedly not a connoisseur of high-end power tools. Sometimes if I buy a cheap tool I’ll run up against its limits, but I’m the kind of guy who can the buy middle-of-the-road tools that neither of these stores sell and never know what I’m missing.
I shop at Harbor Freight and if you do the kind of stuff I do, I recommend it. I mostly buy hand tools, and I tend to use hand tools for fairly light-duty work like working on computers and model trains, and Harbor Freight’s Pittsburgh-brand hand tools are just fine for that. I’ll also buy power tools there that I don’t expect to use a lot. I use a miter saw about five times a year, so buying a Chicago Electric model from Harbor Freight is cheaper than renting a saw when I need one.
I can see two reasons I might start shopping at Northern Tool. If I become a full-time landlord, I’ll need better tools than what I have now. The other scenario is if I ever take up woodworking as a serious hobby, rather than something I do because something broke. Until either of those things happen, it may be a while before I head back there. I’m just not quite their target audience. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t.