Monday, October 15, 2012

My Thoughts on Harbor Freight

I was browsing the Toolmonger blog and found a post they had done on a Harbor Freight tent sale. If you aren't familiar, Harbor Freight is a tool store chain that focuses on... ahem, low-cost tools. Well, I had happened to have also gone to a Harbor Freight tent sale this past weekend. My friend and I were looking for a heat gun to be used for stripping paint on his kitchen cabinets. Harbor Freight recently had one for about $8 in their ad, so I thought we'd check it out.

As I was browsing the miscellaneous collection of low-cost tools in the parking lot tent, low and behold, I came across a lonely heat gun in a pile of other tools! This one was obviously a return, but it had a very appealing price of just $3.00. As I was about to walk into the store to purchase it, a Harbor Freight employee asked how much it was, took a look at it, and said I could have it for just a buck as he printed off a new price sticker. Score!

Now, at this point I should have had one of those buyer beware moments, but hey, for a buck, where could I go wrong? I took it home and fired it up, literally. As soon as I plugged it in, twin jets of flame and smoke shot out the side vents like a hot rod. I promptly unplugged it and tossed it in the driveway where it couldn't do any harm. Needless to say, I got a lemon.

Sadly, I wasn't shocked to find myself disappointed with a power tool bought at Harbor Freight; however, I was a bit surprised to think that they hadn't even tested this returned item to see if it even worked (or would self destruct for that matter).

My point of this post isn't to bash Harbor Freight and their low cost tools. On the contrary, they can fill a very specific purpose for the DIYer and professional alike, if you keep a few things in mind. In retrospect, I realize I broke one of my three cardinal rules of shopping at Harbor Freight, specifically the third one:

1. If thou can get a power tool at Harbor Freight for less than the cost of renting it , get it at Harbor Freight. It might not last very long, but if it survives your project and you never need it again, then you came out ahead.

2. If, despite cheap designs and low-cost construction, it's something that they can't possibly mess up, get it at Harbor Freight. Generally good examples: peg board hooks (how can you mess up bent pieces of wire?), demolition tools (sledge hammers, crow bars, etc.), and bungee cords (NOT the kind for bungee jumping!). Generally bad examples: measuring tools, safety equipment, and power tools you expect to use frequently.

3. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is. I think this one is self-explanatory.

In my experience, Harbor Freight has a pretty lenient return policy (although I think I was on the wrong end of that policy this weekend), and they do say their hand tools have a limited lifetime warranty. That being said, I'm generally not a fan of the store. My mantra is more of "buy a quality tool that will last a lifetime," not buy it once, replace it over and over.

Oh, and back to the cabinet paint stripping project. After the first heat gun went up in flames, we got a new one from Ace Hardware for about $20. It worked fine through about half the project, then it died as well (less dramatically, thankfully). Ace replaced it no questions asked, and the third try was the charm.

In closing, remember these much quoted and very wise words, "you get what you pay for."

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