In The Shop: The Truth About Hand Tools

I recently had reason to spend time talking with several representatives of major tool companies about hand tools. Here are some facts they may or may not want you to know:

-There is no difference in the strength of a polished chrome wrench handle compared to the handle of a wrench with a satin-finish or raised-panel handle. For the most part, mid-price wrenches meet the same ANSI standards as expensive, high-end wrenches. There may be some advantage to fancy multi-grip edges in the open end and box end of high-end wrenches, but those are more about user-preference than actual performance.

-“Chrome Vanadium” doesn’t mean anything when it comes to wrenches. That term used to indicate a higher quality tool, but now, as long as a wrench has 1 percent chrome vanadium in its metal, it can brag about that fact. “Chrome Vanadium” socket sets that sell for $15 at the checkout counter at the local hardware store can shatter like glass if dropped on a concrete floor.

-Blunt-tip Phillips screwdrivers work better than pointy-tip Phillips screwdrivers, especially in smaller sizes. If a screwdriver’s tip comes to a point, that tip can bottom-out in a screw’s head before the ‘edges’ of the Phillips tip fully engage the screw’s slots. Blunt all your Phillips screwdrivers on a grinding wheel and you’ll strip-out fewer screws.

-For optimum performance from drill bits, find “industrial” drill bits through an industrial tool jobber. Not a professional tool retailer who sells from a tool truck–an INDUSTRIAL tool retailer. Industrial bits are difficult to find and expensive, but are better than all the HSS, titanium-coated, cobalt and other “trick” drill bits on the market.

-Fine-tooth ratchet wrenches used to be notorious for being weaker than coarse-tooth ratchet wrenches. Times have changed. Newer 90-tooth ratchets are as strong as older 36-tooth ratchets because manufacturers now use multi-tooth pawls rather than single or double-tooth pawls. However, there ARE durability issues with ratchet wrenches that have more than 100-tooth mechanisms. Buyer beware.

-I was able to get reluctant or hearty endorsement (depending on if the tool company representative was from a high-end manufacturer or a mid-range importer) of the following statement: For the most part, mid-price tools from Craftsman, Titan, NAPA and other manufacturers who offer life-time warranties perform as well as high-status, higher-priced hand tools.

There are benefits to choosing those high-status brands when buying torque wrenches, pneumatic tools and precision tools, but when it comes to plain old hand tools, mid-price tools are high value.