Harbor Freight: Good values or “Chinese Junk”?

Harbor Freight: Good values or “Chinese Junk”?

By Russ and Tiña De Maris

As RVers, we’re all in favor of saving money. And for RVers that handle whatever maintenance and repair work they can, here’s a possible source of big savings. It’s called Harbor Freight Tools.

harbor freight ad
hotcouponworld.com on flickr.com

We know, there’s apt to be a little backlash from some. We’ve heard the jeers: “Horrible Freight Tools.” “More Chinese Junk!” But after listening to the opinions and experiences of a fair number of RVers, and after some amount of shopping and use of Harbor Freight stuff, we’re here to outline “a humble opinion.”

The old expression, “You get what you pay for,” just doesn’t seem to fit. For years one of our dads was a big “Snap-On Tools” man – he made his living with those tools, and he swore by them. Another father, when he bought hand tools and a lot of power tools would invariably run on into Sears and pick up stuff from the Craftsman line. Said he could always count on them to replace things that broke.

But then again, that was a few years back. Today, plenty of people no longer “swear by” Craftsman, many “swear at” them. Why so? It’s the same sad story. Rather than holding to tools made in the U.S., much of the Craftsman stuff is said to come from – you know where — China. What about the “if it breaks, bring it back,” promise? That depends on which Sears you buy the tool from. The nearest Sears “retailer” from our home base is 25 miles away. They’re happy to sell you any Craftsman tool – but never bring it back. They flatly WILL NOT replace a broken Craftsman tool.

What about Harbor Freight? Countless RVers say that they’ve purchased tools and equipment from that discount retailer, and yes, sometimes those tools break. But when they’ve brought the bad boy back, they’ve never been given a run-around; rather, they’re given a replacement.

The consensus that we’ve seen works out like this: If you need a tool or a piece of equipment that you may only use once in a while, don’t hesitate. You’ll save big dollars, and be happy with the results. If you’re buying things that you may need regularly, it’s a matter of “know what you’re shopping for, and what Harbor Freight offers.” Here are some ‘cases in point.’

Hand tools get rave reviews, save for screwdrivers. Some grumble that the tolerances aren’t as “tight” as the big name retailers. Tools that you expect to “wear out” over time, like drill bits, come in for a mixed review. Drill bits, at least in the lower price range, get a thumbs down, but the higher-end bits are acceptable. Blades for saws? Circular and table saw blades seem to get a good review, but forget about reciprocating blades, like for saber saws or “Sawzall” type cutters. Here, many say they buy the tool itself, but trot around to a Big Box store like Home Depot and by the blades for the equipment there.

Universally agreed – shy away from sandpaper. It seems that while the Colonel got his recipe for “seven secret herbs and spices down” just fine, Harbor Freight hasn’t figured out how to make sand stay on sandpaper.

Over the years we’ve personally bought electrical testers, flashlights, and heavenly days, RV specific equipment with good results. Need to stabilizer jack for your travel trailer? Harbor Freight has ’em, and they work very well, and far less expensive that you can buy them from just about anyone else. And after a nasty experience with a very close “jackknife” situation, we wiped out a “brand name” sway controller. For less than a third (or maybe closer to a half) of the price for a “major label” controller, we picked up one at HF and it’s worked just as well.

An RV area we will advise caution on: Shy away from the solar panel kits, unless you really do want low-output. Shopping around in the solar panel market these days does put Harbor Freight to shame, and the efficiency of panels from other outfits is just so much greater.

And don’t forget the coupons! Some RV magazines, and of course, AARP magazine, carry monthly full-page Harbor Freight advertisements with loads of coupons. Sure enough, some of the stuff you may never buy, but invariably there’s a “20% off the item of your choice” stuck in there too.

##rvt755

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13 thoughts on “Harbor Freight: Good values or “Chinese Junk”?

  1. Dave

    A guaranteed replacement policy is no good when a tool breaks in the middle of a job and the nearest Sears store is an hour away. So I generally stay away from Craftsman. HF tools need to be looked at carefully before buying. I have seen significant differences in quality from two identical tools, same model, side by side on the shelf. I never buy HF tools without physically inspecting the item. Never mail order HF. OTOH the brand name tools can be ordered from the internet.

  2. Don Kreamer

    This is one of the best articles I have read. I have been going to HF for years, I have learn what to buy and what not to buy

  3. Roger Marble

    I have found that some HF items like the “wet-dry” sand paper and “bi-metalic band saw blades” are as good as regular “name brand” but at significant lower price, while other items may not be good for more than a couple uses.
    I have a few items that I may only use once a year so it makes no sense to spend big bucks. I have never had a problem returning an item as long as I am within the warranty window.

  4. Mike H.

    For occasional use HF tools are the ticket.

  5. Alpenliter

    I’ll buy a specialty tool from HF for a specific job. It always does the job. If I get a second use out of the tool, well that’s just gravy! I usually can’t rent the tool as cheaply as I can buy it.

  6. padgett

    With five HFs within 10 miles, they are hard to avoid. I do not buy specialty tools there but commonplace stuff is as good as any.

    +1 about special battery operated equipment, for those I buy name brands.

    Key is a lot like JCWhitney – read the specs carefully and know exactly what you are buying. Advantage is you can see the item.

    Good example is the electric trailer tongue jack. Study shows it is the same chinese jack you see everywhere (with various options like 1 or 2 lights, compass, Bargman connector) but the gutz are the same and with a price of a tad over a Benjamin with coupon, is the most cost effective.

    Agree they are not the same as what was on a Snap-On or MAC truck but for the amateur or going junking they are fine.

    1. Walt Howard

      I’ve been buying from HF for about 10 years. I couldn’t agree more that for limited use applications HF can’t be beat.

  7. Lee Ensminger

    Most of the comments above are spot on. I used to carry my carefully acquired 1970’s vintage Craftsman tools in my motorhome, until they were stolen. Now, for traveling, I carry a $40 kit from Harbor Freight, plus some add-ons that weren’t in the kit-all from HF. I call them the “toy tools.” But the fact is, for occasional jobs on the RV, they’re fine, and if they are stolen I’m not out that much money and they’re easily replaceable. I want to give a plug for Northern Tools as well. I don’t see as many of them as HF, but they have even more interesting stuff than HF. Bottom line, HF and NT tools have their place.

  8. LMS

    I buy Harbor Freight. Sometimes their stuff is good, sometimes not. Read the reviews. Be a smart consumer. Just like at any other store, with any purchase, you need to do your research before buying. I tend to tell people that when it comes to “loaner” tools, buy from Harbor Freight. It doesn’t upset me too much if the socket or wrench that got left on the side of the road or was borrowed and never returned came from Harbpor Freight. There is a time and place for cheaper. You do not always have to buy a high quality pricey tool.

  9. Tommy Molnar

    We have a Harbor Freight close by. My experience with them has ‘birthed’ a motto. “If it has a cord or wires of any kind, don’t buy it”. One or two use hand tools abound.

  10. Bill Peters

    I agree with the above evaluation of Harbor Freight, but would like to add a comment about power and pneumatic tools from there. If I only plan on using the tool once or twice, then Harbor Freight is a good deal. If it is a tool that I will be using on a regular basis, then I will go for a name brand. Yes, they are all made in China, but quality control and durability is much better for the name brands like DeWalt, Ryobi, etc.

  11. mike

    Nice write up. I’m glad to see you mentioned the once sworn by Craftsman Tools. Thats all that used to be in my tool box. As far as the HF tools go, at home, they are fine for occasional use. I’m an electrician and the only HF tool in my work van is a file. In my garage, I saved a hundred dollars and bought an HF buffer. I use it once or twice a year and it works great. I have a free HF electrical meter in the RV. It calibrated the same as my Fluke thats in my van. The fee flashlights and tape measures, especially, can’t be beat for home use. They have their place. I always read the reviews before purchasing there.

  12. Chuck Shepard

    I buy from HF a lot of expendable stuff, they have fair quality grinding discs and the only place in the area I can get 12″ discs for my plate sander. I refuse to buy their cordless equipt, not because the tool is bad, the battreries are trash, out of the box, you only get 1, and RARELY are there any replacements. which is a big pain in the you know where.. Their corded and air tools do a respectful job, just have to remember, this stuff is designed for the casual user, even their “professional” grade leaves a lot to desire on heavy applications. Overall it’s not a bad place to buy just weigh in what you expect, and do your homework 1st. Just my 2 cents worth.

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