There are a few adages with which I can start this post. "You get what you pay for." "Some things are too good to be true." Yes, it would be awesome if there were a store in every town that sold solid, dependable tools at bargain prices. When you're just getting started, a place to fully outfit your shop on the cheap would be an amazing gift. I get it. I've been there.
But anyone who knows about Harbor Freight also knows about the reputation of the products it stocks: namely, that the quality is rather unreliable. Today, as I was discussing this post with my friend and colleague, M.E., her immediate response was, "There was one in the same plaza as my old job, so whenever we needed anything, we got it there. And ultimately whatever we bought, broke five days later. That place is the Dollar Store of the home improvement world."
And that's the trick: Harbor Freight stocks items that are designed to be sold, not to be used. I'm not saying their business model is dishonest or nefarious. Nor am I a tool snob with an unlimited budget. I'm only interested in spending as much money as necessary to get the job done. I know what its like to have your aspirations be bigger than your budget. But buying things that don't work, no matter how much they cost, is not saving money. The majority of products there simply will not stand up to repeated use, nor give the you the results you're after. When it comes to their sell-line of "Quality Tools, Lowest Prices"... well, one of them is true.
Over the years, with nearly a decade of working and hanging out in the DIY and woodworking blogosphere, I've heard through a series of grapevines and personal testimonies that there are few items in Harbor Freight that are made in the exact same factories as name brand tools, and produced to the same standards. They aren't many, but I even own several items purchased at Harbor Freight that I use all the time.
So, here's my list of surprisingly good finds from Harbor Freight, in contrast to products I think you should never, ever buy there. As for the rest of the items, I'll leave it up to you, your budget, and whether or not you can test things out in person.
1. YES: Toggle Hold-Down Clamps
In my opinion, this is the best value in the store. From what I can tell, the steel used here is harder thicker than any other object in the whole joint.
These clamps cost only 25%-35% of comparable items sold in woodworking shops and catalogs, making them a great deal. Before discovering these, I only owned two clamps that I'd unscrew and reattach to each jig and fixture in my shop.
The part number stamped on the side is identical to that on my (much more expensive) Destaco toggles. Not sure if that means its a total ripoff, or they're literally the exact same product sold under two different names with two different prices, but when it comes to keeping things in place, these things do the job.
2. NEVER: Every Other Clamp in the Store
They bend. They flex. They slip. They break. I was able to move the secured jaws with hand strength alone. Imagine what would happen with an actual project.
3. YES: Acid Shop Brushes
Also called flux brushes, these are a great way to get wood glue into joinery, holes, and small parts, or to apply CA glue and other strong adhesives without getting it on your skin. They're a one-time use product, and the Harbor Freight ones are good enough. Trim the bristles to 1/4 - 1/2" with scissors or a sharp chisel. Use 'em, and toss 'em.
4. NEVER: Foam and Bristle Brushes
Sure, these are designed to be disposable. But there's a reason high-quality foam brushes cost around $1 elsewhere, and 30¢ here. Not worth the savings.
5. NEVER: Major Handheld Power Tools
By "major" we mean go-to tools you'll use over and over again: circular saws, drills, jig saws, angle grinders. Tools you hope to buy once and have around for at least a decade or two, ready to go.
The reality here is that you don't even save that much money over comparable tools from the home improvement store. Maybe $10-20, but not huge percentages. The issue with all these guys is safety and accuracy, the most important components of any power tool. These are not tools to learn on, and they vibrate like crazy, producing mediocre results at best, and possibly quite dangerous ones.
6. YES: 2 HP Dust Collector
Internet forums are loaded with success stories with the Harbor Freight 2 HP collector. Rumor has it that it's identical to several other models sold by name brand companies for less than half the cost. There are a couple standard hacks and upgrades that help you turn this thing into a proper mess-preventer. (Just search YouTube.)
More than anything, this is the one the cases where having a Harbor Freight model is better than not having a dust collector at all. So, spend the $200, protect your lungs and keep your shop clean, and make the improvements. Then, decide if you need to upgrade in a few years.
7. NEVER: Standard Benchtop Tools
These are the staples of any workshop, the tools you count on to cut and shape things to size, again and again. Table saws do not cost $139. It's just too good to be true. You'll get better, straighter, and safer results with a $80 circular saw and a homemade guide than with one of these. And it will last ten times as long.
8. YES: Just-to-Try-It-Out Tools...Or, Really, Just This Specific Belt Sander
Let's say you'd like to try making a knife, but not sure if you want to invest in a whole setup. This is the ideal occasion (and perhaps the only occasion) where you might buy Central Machinery tool. Or, perhaps you could just buy this 1" belt sander, which gets regular "good enough reviews" from knifesmith forums everywhere. When its just sandpaper that spins, and not a saw blade that could cut off your fingers, it might be worth the risk.
9. YES: Dial Indicator and a Magnetic Base
If you are a machinist, you will need a better setup than this. But if you're a woodworker who wants to make the tools you already own as accurate as possible, you will get decent results with this guy for less than 50% of a comparable model. Think of it this way: there's no way that Harbor Freight would have its own factory setup to make such a specific, small-run tool. Whoever is making these is also doing it for someone else; this is a way to save a little $$$ over whoever that one is.
10. NEVER: Measuring and Marking Tools
Precise layout and properly sized parts are the key to quality work. Just picking up a Harbor Freight marking gauge or combination square will let you know that you won't get there with this level of tool. You'll get better results with a Swanson Speed Square and a ruler from the office supply store. Save up until you can get a combo square you can rely on.
11. YES: Digital Calipers
Another case of "having this one is better than none at all." Here's what one reviewer had to say:
I did several test measurements using a set of known quality feeler gauges, and the micrometer was spot on each and every time. Much better than I had expected. While this unit may not stand up to industrial use, if handled with care (as all fine measuring tools should be) it should last for years with normal home/hobbyist use. Highly recommended. You won't be disappointed.
Seems like $20 well spent to me.
12. NEVER: Screwdrivers
Do you know how you get all frustrated with the poorly ground screwdriver tips from the home center? These are even worse. A screwdriver should be a thing you buy once. There are literally no parts that should wear out. Do you want to be frustrated with these for the rest of your life?
13. YES: Black Nitrile Gloves
I've been using the same box of these gloves for the last three years. They work, and it's nice to get Nitrile protection for latex prices. When I run out, will I go to Harbor Freight just to replace them? No. But if I happen to be there, I'll gladly buy them again.
14. NEVER: Woodworking Edge Tools (Chisels, hand planes, carving and lathe tools, etc)
The reason here it simple: these will frustrate you like crazy. When these tools work, they do so because they are sharp. Getting sharp is the product of the quality of steel, which allows them to be honed finely enough to actually slice the wood fibers. Unfortunately, you can't get that in a $13 hand plane. Instead, buy a used Stanley at a flea market and fix it up. Those things were sold by the millions, and can be found for less than $30.
15. YES: Bulk Safety Glasses
I regularly work with groups on volunteer projects where you need to outfit a bunch of people at once. I happily buy whole boxes of safety glasses for $1-2 each. Unfortunately, that basically turns them into disposables and increases plastic waste, but it's how to make it happen on a not-for-profit budget.
16. YES: Bulk Work Gloves
Same as above.
17. NEVER: Drill bits
Drill bits only produce properly sized holes with they're sharp and round. The bits sold at Harbor Freight are neither.
18. YES: Tool carts
Here's where the import store design works in your favor. Because these are so large, they don't come boxed, and you can actually get your hands on the specific model you'll buy, overcoming the quality control problem that plagues this place. So, take them down, try them out, add some weight. If it feels good, buy it. If not, wait for one that does.
19. YES: Indoor Multi-Outlet Strips
Sure, why not? They're actually more-or-less the same prices as similar items from the discount store. So, you probably won't be getting a better quality one at Target either. Don't seek them out, but if you happen to be in the area, you can pick up a few general indoor power strips with confidence. But be sure to double-check any outdoor and surge-protector models, where it really matters.
So, that's my experience. I obviously haven't tried everything in the store, but just walking around will give you a feel for the place. There are companies who are much more concerned with your trust and repeat business, and I buy anything where safety and accuracy is a concern from them. But there are deals to be had, and we say snag 'em if you can. Good luck.