The Prolonged Payoff of the Humble Hand Tool

When it comes to value for your home-improvement dollar, few items pay off bigger than hand tools.

I learned the value of hand tools from my stepfather, who had a two-car garage filled with them, but wasn’t about to let me mangle any of them. In junior high, he gave me a claw hammer that once belonged to his father. The handle was an unshaped, varnished, round piece of wood with no grip. The head was attached to that handle through sheer force of will and would slide up and down the top of it in mid swing.

I always thought the head of that hammer would end up flying through a window or drywall. Instead, it lasted me nearly 13 years — until my stepfather took it back and gave me an $18 steel rip claw hammer from Lowe’s. I’ve used that hammer to build stairs, lay cement board, frame out walls (a nail gun came later), lay courses of cedar roof shingles, and bust up the occasional scrap wood for the burn pile.

Contractors will swear by a $45 Estwing (though you can get a decent one for $23) and the finance guys like themselves a $9 Stanley. But if you have the right balance, the right materials, the right feel, and treat it right, a mid-range tool will last forever.

I received that lesson again about 16 years ago when my father, at Home Depot for Black Friday, picked up 100-piece tool kits for me and my brother-in-law. The Home Depot house-brand Husky kits came with a wood-handled claw hammer, vise grips, multiple pliers, a ratcheting screwdriver with interchangeable heads, multiple other screwdrivers, a tape measure, hex wrenches, a small crescent wrench, other wrenches and a full socket set and ratchets. Altogether, it was likely around $150, and some tools in the set aged better than others.

Nothing has outright broken, but the wooden hammer feels every strike, the ratcheting screwdriver’s heads have either stripped or vanished entirely and the crescent wrench is useless for all but the most minor tasks. Yet the pliers, vise grips, and channel locks have bailed me out of more household jams than I care to mention, while the socket set sees use on a regular basis: Changing car and mower batteries, rotating mower wheels and tires, starting up and shutting down the well pump, and addressing the occasional emergency with the car, hot-water heater, or sump pump.

While not every generic, slightly discounted tool is perfect for the job, the well-made ones that get scoffed at for their plastic cases and “fit and finish” have generally stood up to the task.

This isn’t to say I’ve avoided pricier, name-brand tools: I just don’t pay name-brand prices for them. Thanks to mixed lots and the tool shelves at estate auctions, I’ve managed to come away with some sturdy, vintage Craftsman tools, Channellock groove-joint pliers, Stanley hacksaws, and a small Bostitch compressor with a Hitachi nail gun and Stanley staple gun. The compressor cost around $50 (a similar one sells for twice as much at Walmart), the hacksaws were $5 a pop (versus $16 at Home Depot), and the Craftsman and Channellock tools would run about $80, but came in a box that sold for $20.

Unfortunately, those tools alone didn’t teach me every lesson I needed about durability and frugality. A discount shop like Harbor Freight can help you out in a pinch and give you an inexpensive tool for tasks you’ll only need to perform a handful of times. But their rating from the Better Business Bureau coupled with some bad experiences with their drill bits (seemingly made of balsa wood) and wrenches (really shouldn’t be that thin) has left me wary of buying tools there for everyday use.

I’ve also had repeated battles with multi-head screwdrivers that find their way into my Christmas stocking every other year or so — they aren’t built to last. Instead, they’re made with the knowledge that you’re going to lose interchangeable heads, and basically turn themselves into thick-handled magnets once they’ve outlived their usefulness.

That said, I’ve built a solid tool collection by following my father and stepfather’s lead: Focus on the tools you’ll need every day, don’t grab for the cheapest or most costly model available and look for deals where you can find them. If you trust that you either won’t wear those tools into oblivion with commercial-grade use or won’t be paying a premium for a tool you’ll use a handful of times, the right hand tools can last a lifetime for less money than you’d imagine.

Just assess your tasks, look at your budget and build the best toolbox your well-stretched dollars can buy.

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