Years ago, mentioning the name Harbor Freight would earn you plenty of laughs and almost discredit your mechanical prowess, but those days are long gone. Today, Harbor Freight has lasted the test of time, and most of their products have impressed even the harshest of critics.
Considered by many elitists to be “throwaway tools”, that perception has quickly changed over the past decade. We’ve seen our fair share of shops use many of the products from the Harbor Freight catalog and their results have been stellar. Especially when one considers building a home-based DIY shop—or for the extreme hobbyists—these tools will last the test of time so long as you clean and maintain them properly.
To be honest, the tool game has a lot of ego involved in it. We’ve seen guys with full Snap On tool sets that couldn’t build a car if Boyd Coddington was by their side, and on the flipside we’ve seen guys build incredible cars with the most obscure and inexpensive tools. In short, the tools don’t make the car, the person using them does.
That said, Harbor Freight really does make some great tools. In the cost versus quality comparison, they are perhaps the best tools on the market in many segments. Especially when you consider building a car at home, these tools are incredible and will definitely last a lifetime. To be honest, you also have to consider how much you’ll be using the tools. If you’re running an industrial or commercial operation where heavy tool use is required on the daily, some of their products may not be as stellar as some commercial-duty brands, but we wouldn’t sign off on them right away.
Do your homework, give them a try, and you’ll see that the stereotypes and rumors are mostly false. In this section we’ll be doing a review on some of their tools and we were more than satisfied with over 95 percent of the products we tested. Now when you consider the price we paid, the savings are incredible, and the jobs still got done while also leaving behind plenty of money saved—only to be put back into some good food and beer for the friends who dropped by to help.
Air Needle Scaler
Compact and easy to use, this air needle scaler comes with 19 hardened steel needles, which offers a 1/2-inch stroke with a maximum speed of 4,600 bpm. With an average air consumption of 10 CRM at 90 psi, this tool is perfect for removing welding flux, rust, paint, and cement on just about any surface that needs heavy scouring. For us, we tested their air needle scaler to remove layers of paint from the control arms on a 1963 Impala, and we even used it to remove some old chrome off bumpers. It did the job, and it did it well.
7-Piece Body and Fender Set
We put this 7-piece set to work and it worked wonders. Again, at the hands of an expert, the job was done and there were no complaints about the build quality of the tools. Ideal for autobody repair and fabrication, this 7-piece set comes in a handy container for safekeeping. Designed to handle most fabrication and repairs, use the hammers and dollies in this body and fender set to remove dings and dents, flatten metal panels, create curves, and shrink metal. Constructed from heat-treated, dropforged carbon steel, they are sturdy enough to take a beating and come with fiberglass handles with nonslip-rubberized grips.
Gravity Feed Spray Gun Stand
The perfect support stand for your spray gun, this nifty device is made of durable steel and comes predrilled so you can mount in on your workbench or your wall. You’ve spent more money buying a burrito at your favorite Mexican restaurant, so why not invest less into a stand that makes you the money that affords you those good meals.
200Z Pro HVLP Gravity Gun
This HVLP (High Volume, Low Pressure) spray gun is gravity fed and not only is it better for the environment, but also a great savings when it comes to material costs. With a 20-ounce capacity, we used this gun to lay down a few fine coats of paint and the quality is definitely there.
3/8-Inch—50-Foot PVC/ Rubber Air Hose
Made of rubber/ PVC, this hose from Central Pneumatic, is lighter than rubber, more flexible than PVC, and after a few weeks of use it still held up. This hose, as with any hose, needs a longterm test plan, but for the price, we were definitely impressed by the build quality. With brass fittings and bend restrictors, the hose is well built at an affordable price point, so it won’t hurt your pockets to throw it away and buy another should it happen to fail.
P95 Maintenance Free Dual Cartridge Respirator
For the price, these respirators work. We’ve definitely seen better quality respirators in terms of build quality, so we’d have to pass on using this in the paint booth and use it for lighter projects such as sanding and light primer work. They’re definitely throw-away respirators because there is no way to replace the cartridge, but in all they’re a great general purpose respirator for the DIY guy.
6-inch 320-Grit PSA Sanding Disco (50 piece)
These sanding discs with PSA (Pressure Sensitive Adhesive) are easy to use and attach and they come with an anti-clog zinc stearate coating to resist dust buildup and a “hole-free” design, which reduces tearing. Crafted with durable carbide abrasive, the heavy-duty C-weight paper backing works great. While we have seen other sanding discs with better bite and action, the price point of these discs makes them still our top pick, and the difference in performance between leading brands doesn’t make the squeeze worth the juice, so in the end it’s our top choice for a DIY build.
6-Inch Dual Action Sander
A dual motion orbital sander with 10,000 rpm and an adjustable speed regulator is what you get when you open up the box, and it does what it’s supposed to do. It’s really that simple. We used it for most of our projects, and the only problem we faced was user error when we over-lubricated the product. Again, tools don’t make mistakes, people do and we were proof of that.
Stud Welder Dent Repair Kit
Perfect for repairing dings and dents without drilling, this stud welder comes with a high-powered low heat transformer with a resettable breaker. In addition, a 2-pound slide hammer and a 1-second cycle time makes it easy to use, and it’s got a 2 percent duty cycle. Once again, we used this tool to pull 16 dents ranging from small to large, and we had no problems at all. Once again, the perfect tool for a home garage at a fraction of the cost.
Mechanics Gloves Medium
Protect yourself from heat, cold, abrasions, and cuts with these breathable gloves. Created from 50 percent synthetic leather in the palms and fingers, these gloves were good but we’ve definitely seen better. Again, this is a matter of personal preference, but when working with your hands, we like to use better-fitting gloves and we found these just a tad bit sloppy. Just to emphasize the point, this review is coming from a bunch of glove snobs who are extremely picky with what they wear, and it’s a glove that would work perfect for most of the general public.
4-Piece Doorskin Repair Kit
If you need to repair or replace a doorskin, then this is the ultimate kit for you. The 1.45-pound doorskin hammer is made of forged, ground, and polished alloy steel and features a cushion grip to help absorb the impact. Heel and toe dollies are also included in the kit, as well as 12-3/4-inch dinging spoon.
We had one of friends test the kit out, and it’s safe to say that the tools easily outweighed his skill set. That said, after hours of practice—and frustration watching—we had one of our body guys come over to do the job for him and even he was impressed with the quality of the kit in comparison to the price.
Air Inline Sander
This dual piston straight-line sander generates 3,000 strokes per minute and features a 1-inch stroke and tensioned spring clamps for easy paper changes. This tool requires 90 psi of working pressure, and it’s a great tool for garage body shops. When given to body guys that are still new to the game, they had nothing bad at all to say, but when given to professional body guys, they said that it worked well but lacked just a bit of power. Again, a great tool for DIY guys and worthy of its excellent price point.
2-3/4×16 AO Sand Asst 5-Piece
What more can we say? These sanding sheets are incredible. Perfect for wet and dry sanding, you can use these for all types of material. We used it to strip down fenders with rust and patina, used it to sand down our woodwork for the speaker boxes and custom trim panels, and even used it on some furniture projects we were finishing off.
6-Piece Panel/Trim Removal Tool
What can we say? These tools do exactly what they’re supposed to do and they’re a must for any garage builder or professional shop. Seriously, if you need a set of “brand name” panel and trim removal tools, you’re definitely doing it to compensate for something to be discussed with your wife or girlfriend.
60 G 5hp 165-psi Two-Stage Compressor
The priciest item on our list is this two-stage compressor. I’ll admit that I’d probably buy a similar and used Ingersoll Rand compressor at this price, or a smaller-capacity brand name unit, but to be honest, it’s more of a vanity issue than a performance issue. For me personally, I like to see a nice compressor tucked away in my garage, but again that’s just me.
But if you must have a brand-new compressor, then this Harbor Freight unit is definitely a steal. A bit louder than oil-less compressors, this one fires up a bit slower than other dual stages I’ve seen but it works and it fills up quickly. On another note, here’s a free tip: Buying a big compressor is always better because it gives you more time to use tools without the motor firing up and your neighbors and friends won’t be so quick to borrow it.
In closing, all we can say is that the ROI (return on investment) on these tools are epic. Harbor Freight Tools are no different than most mid- to high-level brands in the fact that you have to do your own research and see what works best for you. As with any product line, there will always be the good and bad part of their lineup, and while Harbor Freight may have had a shoddy reputation to begin with, things are slowly changing so don’t sign off on them anytime soon because they’re here to stay.
So in short, worry more about your skill set than your tool set because in the end just remember that pencils don’t make mistakes and great tools don’t make great cars. It’s all about the person or the operator behind the instruments, which help us get where we need to be. It’s all about working with what you have, and what you can afford, and as I type up this story I’m smirking because I’m doing it on a $5 imitation-Mac keyboard that has worked flawlessly for the past six years.