What's a good buy at the Harbor Freight?
March 5, 2015 9:56 AM   Subscribe

There's a Harbor Freight near me, and it's filled with bargains! But I expect that a lot of the stuff is junk. What are the good values at HF, and what should I avoid? I don't like buying disposable tools (or anything, if I can help it), even if it's cheap; I'd rather pay for quality than just buy garbage, but I'm sure some of their stuff is a good deal. I've heard good things about their pneumatic brad nailer ($20 or so), for example.
posted by Admiral Haddock to Home & Garden (39 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Their 8 1/2" Professional Bypass Pruner is as good as the Felco 2 pruner for 1/3 the cost.
posted by Floydd at 10:00 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I just sheared the head off of a torque wrench from HF last week, so not torque wrenches.

They're good for handy-but-not-mission-critical sorts of things like an assortment of zip ties or LED flashlights to tuck into your car and junk drawer.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:04 AM on March 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you don't mind putting stuff together, get this revolving storage bin for $19.99.

You could also spring for a can of spray paint, red ones go for as much as $300 elsewhere.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 10:07 AM on March 5, 2015 [7 favorites]

I have had a good experience with their floor jack and jack stand set and the various tie down straps they carry. Not so much with the screw tap/thread cutter kit, it really was single use.

That's the thing about Harbor Freight; they are best thought of as an alternative to rental for things you really will only be using once or twice and where there isn't an ease-of-use issue to contend with. There is no sense in paying for quality (unless you can resell) if it's only going to be used once.
posted by wierdo at 10:07 AM on March 5, 2015 [5 favorites]

Their build-it-yourself trailer is the base for about a million different DIY boat trailers. I've heard it described by freshwater boaters as an unthinkably good deal.

(Saltwater boaters are not so uniform in their praise; it's just the kind of disposable cr@p you want to avoid. It's a trailer cheap enough to throw away, in their eyes.)
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 10:08 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I own the 5 speed mini lathe and it is good value for the money. I've made dozens of things with it, including bowls much larger than you might expect (as in 9.5" diameter and 6" high) with a lathe that size. The only issue I've had with it is the banjo and tailstock knobs are too long and get in the way. You can use them in a removable fashion though and it works fine.

I do not own one, but I have heard that this dust collector is also a good value.
posted by Poldo at 10:31 AM on March 5, 2015

Their greenhouse is great, just don't expect to ever be able to disassemble/move it/reassemble in the future.

I also like their furniture dollies, they are often available as coupon sale items, I got a few for under $5 ea and they've saved 1000x that in wear and tear on my back.
posted by jamaro at 10:33 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

The little flashlights are great to have.
posted by Cranberry at 10:44 AM on March 5, 2015

Do not buy this workbench. No amount of IKEA assembly experience can prepare you for this nightmare.

I am rarely let down if I stick to cheap consumables (rags, paint brushes, tarps, masks, etc.).
posted by ndg at 10:45 AM on March 5, 2015

I use their propane torch for lighting the grill and outdoor fireplace. Works great. Oh, also burning weeds, which is the intended purpose I think.
posted by Runes at 10:57 AM on March 5, 2015

Sometimes having a poor quality but correct tool is better than having the best wrong tool, so the one time I need a 14mm deep socket, I have one on-hand instead of having to go out and buy one or making do with a wrench at a bad angle that strips the nut.

I like their clamps with a coupon.

Their straight edges aren't always straight.
posted by flimflam at 11:02 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

This forum thread has been a very useful guide for me.

Clamps. Storage trays. Digital calipers. On the consumables side: disposable nitrite/latex gloves.
posted by holgate at 11:08 AM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

They sell a lot of stuff that is borderline crap, as well as some stuff that is outright crap. But they also sell some tools that are good enough for most home projects -- you could't use them professionally as they'd never hold up to repeated use, but they'll be fine the few times you'll actually use them.

Their low profile transmission jack was a miracle tool when I swapped transmissions and added 4wd to my pickup truck, but that's a pretty special use-case. Still, I'd never have been able to complete my transmission swap + conversion without it.

As others have said, their best bargains are either on stuff that is heavy-but-cheap (jack stands, anvils, large vises), or on consumables, like zip ties.
posted by mosk at 11:16 AM on March 5, 2015

Unlike holgate, I've had mixed luck with clamps.

Their flooring nailer is surprisingly good.

Their drill press table is about as screwed up as you can make some T-track and particle board, the T-track is slightly narrow for non HF fittings.

So far having decent luck with a couple of their sandblasting tools...
posted by straw at 11:16 AM on March 5, 2015

I got a little 12v pump that's been great, pumped a guys boat out with it. But, yea, occasional use.
posted by sammyo at 11:37 AM on March 5, 2015

In my experience, their hand tools (wrenches, screwdrivers, etc.) are crap.

I am, however, perfectly happy with my pneumatic brad & finish nailers, which were incredibly cheap. The air compressor I bought with them is so-so - it works, but cuts out occasionally & I have to power cycle it. The hoses & air fittings - total garbage.
posted by mr vino at 11:53 AM on March 5, 2015

Sometimes having a poor quality but correct tool is better than having the best wrong tool

This is true, but I'd really like to add the caveat of; if you're going to use it more than twice a year, don't buy it at Harbor Freight.

Their stuff is sooooo hit and miss; and they change their suppliers/manufacturers frequently so the quality waxes and wanes depending on when you buy it. Flywheeel puller for that one time I had to pull a flywheel? Totally worth it. But If I was pulling flywheels all the time, I'd get a better one.

Their tarps are great. So are their disposable rubber gloves. Their flashlights are bright, but built poorly…but also so cheap you can afford to throw them in every backpack, camping box, toolbox, diaper bag and glovebox you own. So that's pretty great.
posted by furnace.heart at 11:59 AM on March 5, 2015

My best HF purchase was actually a power tool. A rotohammer that cost 35 dollars and is still drilling holes today. Their crappy little grinders are so surreally cheap that you can burn them up and get a new one.

Realize that there are emotional costs to buying fro HF. You'd have to be pretty unrealistic to think that there is not a direct connection between their cheap crap and the despoiling of the earth. It is the banality of evil and I am ashamed of my participation.
posted by Pembquist at 12:02 PM on March 5, 2015 [6 favorites]

A jeweler insisted it would cost $150 to replace the battery in a TAG Heuer watch, because only the factory can do it. I bought a $15 watch wrench kit at Harbor Freight and did it myself in 5 minutes. Granted, my watch is no longer guaranteed waterproof to 200 meters, but I wasn't going deep sea diving anyway, so...
posted by COD at 12:14 PM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I did buy their dust collector there, similar to as linked above, and it works great on my tools (jointer, planer, various saws). Can't remember if the adaptor kit came with it or not.
posted by k5.user at 12:37 PM on March 5, 2015

Some of their machine tools are actually worth it IF you know how to tear down and rebuild that type of machine yourself. They usually need a fairly complete rebuild; cleaning, degreasing/re-greasing (they have casting sand in bad places, so don't trust their lubrication), realignment, sometimes scraping lathe ways, replacing belts, and the like, but when all that's done they can be pretty alright units.

...all of which sounds terrible, I admit, but some folks enjoy the process, and thereby end up with cheap & cheerful machine tools.

Their carbide lathe bits are adequate for casual usage (sometimes the carbide is brazed on at a weird angle, or chipped, so inspect the package). I've also found their drill sets useful for occasions when I'm drilling something abrasive and don't want to ruin a good drill (eg: drywall). Their machinists parallel sets are alright if you don't need precision. Needle files are adequate, some of the clamps are adequate, and they've had machinist clamp sets that were alright if in need of touch-up (deburring etc.).
posted by aramaic at 1:23 PM on March 5, 2015

Sandpaper, the aluminum tool cases, and their gloves.
posted by drezdn at 1:31 PM on March 5, 2015

The Japanese style saw they sell is awesome - super sharp and useful for so many different things.
posted by _DB_ at 1:38 PM on March 5, 2015 [2 favorites]

I've had good luck with their vises.
posted by drezdn at 1:41 PM on March 5, 2015

This website might help: hfreviews

Also, find a hobby-specific forum for something you're interested in. Chances are good there's already a thread on there asking this question. I know there's one on homebrewtalk and ADVrider.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 2:16 PM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

On the clamps I have had good luck with the screw type bar clamps, but have broken every ratcheting bar clamp I have bought there.
posted by Broken Ankle at 2:33 PM on March 5, 2015 [1 favorite]

I bought a massive pipe wrench from them that has not failed me yet.
posted by jeffamaphone at 2:37 PM on March 5, 2015

There is an electric torque adapter/wrench thing they sell that looks like it's pretty good. I read a good review of it, but can't find it at the moment. Basically, the idea is that you put a regular wrench into the top end of it, probably through an extension, then there is the electronic box that measures the torque, and on the other end goes out to a stud where an extension or socket can be placed.

This won't always work that well due to it's form factor not always being the best, but for straight on jobs it is great. It should be very reliable, and it costs something like $20-30 I believe. A MAC or Snap-on electronic torque wrench costs 20-30 times that amount, used. One of these Harbor Freight units and an old school torque wrench with the steel rod/beam just to see if the electronic box falls out of calibration would be a great combo, and it will cost less than a good click wrench (not that there are really any good click wrenches – just ones that cost a lot more and are slightly less shitty).
posted by Salvatierra at 2:40 PM on March 5, 2015

Tools that you're only going to need once or twice are usually a good bet.
posted by Ferreous at 3:04 PM on March 5, 2015

Their bike headlight and taillights have been sturdy for me. An electric drill--that gets maybe 10 minutes of runtime a year, mind you--has held up for about a decade. An electric flyswatter is also still going strong after nearly a decade. Same story with their base level multimeter.

They sell cyanoacrylate glue very cheap, works as well as anyone else's.

Their electrical tape sucks though.
posted by aerotive at 4:07 PM on March 5, 2015

Always use a % off coupon. Always use a coupon to get a free thing, though I have enough multimeters, and could use a different option. You'll get the coupons in the paper, or sign up to get them in the mail.

I got a set of magnetic trailer lights that work well, and a magnetic bar to stick tools up with, that I use to put knives on.
posted by theora55 at 4:25 PM on March 5, 2015

While their air tools are hit or miss, the basic air hose, brass fittings and accessories they carry are a a really good deal.
posted by klarck at 5:31 PM on March 5, 2015

I had an ex who worked at HF and he said their tools were such crap that the store DIDN'T use their own products behind the scenes--they'd get better tools elsewhere. I would probably not buy anything there if I were you.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:19 PM on March 5, 2015

I bought a $10 angle grinder there several years ago thinking I'd use it once at my moms house. It ended up lasting years of fairly hard use at the home shop. The only reason it's unusable now is that the brushes wore out and the replacement brushes that were included were long gone.

But I think the most useful thing I ever bought there is a small pocket sized tape measure. It's a cheap plastic affair with a carabiner. What makes it so handy? As tiny as it is, it measures out to 10 feet, has metric scale too, and costs a buck. I have a dozen scattered about the house as they alays seem to he used.
posted by 2N2222 at 7:07 PM on March 5, 2015

Their hand tools used to be crap, but have greatly improved in recent years, according to people who've given them a second chance. A LOT of negging on Harbor Freight comes from people who used one bad tool years ago, and haven't been back.

As proof of the improvement: HF has a lifetime guarantee on all handtools they sell. Just like with Sears, "hand tools" does not mean "power tools", but it does mean wrenches (torque, box-end, pipe...), planes (but obviously not the blades/steels, which are consumables), hammers, etc.

I find their power tools to be of a decent, middle-quality - not top-notch, but worthy of most non-pros, and at rock-bottom prices.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:34 AM on March 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Lots of their stuff is, as had been said, junky. The set of small metal letter stamps, for example, have so little relief to the letters that they scarcely make a legible mark on thin copper no matter how hard or gently I strike them.

Yet their low-end electrical inverter for the car got us halfway across America and back, which surprised me.

The furniture dolly feels decent, and my younger son wants several for his birthday (to make some kind of one-boy Pinewood Derby cruiser).

But their electrical tape is just as bad as the Ocean State Job Lot stuff, which is poor indeed.

Now I want to pick up one of those Japanese saws this weekend!
posted by wenestvedt at 9:19 AM on March 6, 2015

The set of small metal letter stamps, for example, have so little relief to the letters that they scarcely make a legible mark on thin copper no matter how hard or gently I strike them.

My experience has been the opposite, at least with aluminum/steel, and as long as I have an anvil (or the flat portion of a vice) underneath.
posted by drezdn at 11:48 AM on March 6, 2015

Hmmm. I have even tried against cement with no luck. But maybe I got a lemon...
posted by wenestvedt at 5:28 PM on March 6, 2015

The teeny-weeny refillable pencil propane torch: NFG ... just don't.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:31 PM on March 6, 2015

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