There’s nothing quite as effective or satisfying as using the right tool for the job, but all too often, building out one’s automotive toolbox can be a project unto itself. With so many brands to choose from and new specialty manufacturers popping up all the time, it can be hard to tell the best tool brands from those lower-quality options that will have would-be DIYers flummoxed before they even pop the hood. Stocking your toolbox with a selection of the cheapest wares from your local discount hardware store might be fine for some beginners but can actually cost more in the long run as cheaply made tools fall apart and require replacement.
That’s not to say there aren’t some diamonds in the rough out there when it comes to affordable tools, but the best approach is usually settling on a quality manufacturer and making the investment. So how is an aspiring mechanic to tell a wrench set they’ll be able to hand down to their grandkids from the mass-produced junk that’ll fall apart at the first hint of corrosion? Here are a few tried-and-true brands that have risen to the top over the years and gained a reputation for performance and longevity.
Generally speaking, automotive tool brands can be broken down into three categories: premium brands like Snap-On and Mac Tools, mid-tier consumer brands like Proto Tools and SK, and those that can be found in big box retailers like Husky, Kobalt, and Craftsman. Of the names listed above, Snap-On and Mac Tools are bound to stick out, with those two manufacturers earning their reputations as the automotive professional’s tool brands of choice. But where does that reputation come from? In short: customer service.
While tools from most brands can be purchased simply by walking into your neighborhood hardware store, “tool truck” brands like Snap-On, Mac, and Matco take a different route, with franchisees delivering tools directly to mechanic’s shops on a regular basis, usually weekly. When it comes to these tool truck brands, mechanics aren’t just paying for individual tools; they’re paying for the convenience of the brands’ legendary customer service. This approach has worked well for the likes of Snap-On over the years, allowing the company to establish close ties with the auto repair industry and saving mechanics a lot of valuable time that would otherwise be spent shopping for replacement tools. Still, it offers less value for the everyday consumer who won’t get to experience the same benefits.
Sure, these premium brands will still replace any tools covered under the brand’s lifetime warranty, but it takes a little more leg work in order to actually meet up with a supplier. Retail consumers will either have to schedule an appointment with their local dealer or order directly from the company’s website, making the whole experience a lot less convenient and losing out on what makes them such premium brands in the first place: the service. That said, there are few brands more reliable than Snap-On, Mac, and the like. These companies are often the go-to source for some of the most hard-working tools in any mechanic’s toolbox, from torque wrenches and ratchets to sockets, pry bars, and more.
Tool Truck Brands
Opinions on tool brands might vary, but no matter who you ask, some names come up time and time again. Snap-On is the undoubted leader in this category, earning rave reviews from professionals and amateurs alike. There’s no denying the quality of Snap-On tools––there is a reason they’re so often seen in racing paddocks and mechanic’s shops the world over––but that reputation comes at a premium. Snap-On produces some of the most expensive tools on the market, largely due to its unique tool truck sales approach.
Like all the high-end brands, Snap-On offers a robust lifetime warranty on all hand tools, but it’s the ease with which that warranty can be taken advantage of that sets the brand apart. Instead of requiring hard-working mechanics to take time out of their day to argue with customer service representatives, Snap-On and other tool truck brands warranty and replace defective tools during their regular visits. It might not seem like a big deal to the average DIYer, but in a world where labor is paid by the hour, these brands provide a valuable service.
Mac Tools is another frontrunner in the American tool industry, producing high-quality tools for professional mechanics since 1938. Founded in Sabina, Ohio, Mac Tools was purchased by Stanley Black & Decker in 1980, which now produces Mac-branded tools at its facilities across the globe. Unlike some brands with a narrower focus, Mac produces over 40,000 distinct tools making the company a one-stop shop for almost all your automotive tool needs.
Mac currently has over 1,500 distributors in North America, which makes it fairly easy for mechanics to get their hands on new tools, but that’s not always the case for the average consumer. Mac is another tool truck brand, so the value proposition is similar to that of Snap-On. Sure, you’re going to receive some of the highest-quality tools available on the professional market, but you’ll be subsidizing a service that you won’t really get the chance to take advantage of as an average consumer.
Matco Tools rounds out the list of the three major tool truck brands. Originally envisioned as the toolbox manufacturing division of Mac Tools, Matco struck out on its own in 1946 and has offered direct-to-consumer tool truck service since 1979. With over 13,000 different tools in stock, Matco’s inventory holds up well against the likes of Snap-On and Mac. Matco’s value proposition is similar to the other two tool truck brands: quality tools and excellent customer service but at a price.
For those looking for the sweet spot between the tool truck brands and the big box offerings, there are brands like Proto Tools. Owned by Stanley Black & Decker, Proto Tools makes many of its products in the USA, boosting the company’s reputation when it comes to durability. The company is a stalwart in the hand tool industry, dating back to 1907.
Those in the know say that Proto and other premium brands offer tools that are almost identical in quality to those supplied by Snap-On, giving buyers the chance to save some serious money at the cost of that “Snap-On” branding. That said, Proto doesn’t offer quite as robust of a return policy as the tool truck brands, which could be a major factor for some buyers. Aside from hand tools, Proto also produces specialty tools, torque tools, storage tools, and more.
Some premium tool brands have earned a reputation for excelling in one specific area of the tool realm, and SK Tools is a great example. While known for its line of sockets and ratchets, SK also produces a wide variety of hand tools that are all made in the USA with American steel. Forged in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and Sycamore, Illinois, SK’s American roots are one of the brand’s biggest selling points. Although it was recently bought by the Chinese tool company Hangzhou GreatStar, SK products will continue to be produced in America.
SK represents a great mid-level option for buyers who fall somewhere between the amateur and professional categories, allowing aspiring mechanics to upgrade their toolbox without breaking the bank. Like Proto, these tools are offered at a much lower price than the tool truck brands but also lack the same level of customer service. With 3,000 tools in stock, SK also doesn’t have quite the inventory of some of its competitors.
When it comes to hand tools, big box stores are a reliable source for reasonably priced gear. Sure, they’re not typically the highest quality tools on the market, but for many mechanics, the affordability and convenience are worth the trade-off. If a tool breaks, there’s no waiting for the tool truck or mail carrier to show up with a replacement: just head down to the big box store and swap it out for a fresh one.
Kobalt makes a variety of hand tools that will help buyers round out their automotive toolbox and also offers a wide range of power tools with lithium-ion batteries. Kobalt is the in-store brand of Lowe’s, which launched the tool-focused subsidiary in 1998. As we mentioned, quality is not exactly off the charts when it comes to brands like Kobalt, so you’ll probably want to look elsewhere when it comes to some of your most heavily used tools. Still, there’s no beating the price.
Those picking sides in the Blue vs Orange home improvement store conflict wouldn’t forgive us if we didn’t follow up Lowe’s in-store offering with Home Depot’s brand, Husky. This brand traces its roots back to 1924, though its partnership with Home Depot is much more recent, only kicking off in 1992. Manufactured by Stanley Black & Decker, Western Forge, Apex Tool Group, and Iron Bridge Tools, Husky tools aren’t the most reliable on the market, but they make up for it with their competitive pricing and lifetime warranties. As such, don’t expect to see many “Made in the USA” stamps here, as most of the company’s products are produced in China and Taiwan. Offering both hand tools and power tools, Husky is a great option for both experienced mechanics on a budget and those just starting out in the trade.
A subsidiary of Apex Tool Group specializing in ratcheting wrenches and hand tools, Gearwrench is another great budget option that doesn’t skimp on quality, though none of its tools are produced in the US. Again, don’t expect tool truck-level performance, and you won’t be disappointed, especially by how much money is still left in your wallet after you make your purchase. Like SK, Gearwrench has carved out a profitable little niche as one of the industry’s foremost suppliers of ratcheting wrenches, with the brand’s 120XP models earning considerable praise amongst both pros and amateurs. As one of the dozens of subsidiaries of the Apex Tool Group, Gearwrench is able to pour its resources into a very specific sector of the market, so it’s little surprise the brand’s ratcheting wrenches have become so popular.
Still Have Questions?
Do you still have questions about some of the best tool brands? Asking an expert is always a good route when it comes to these sorts of questions, but it can often lead to more confusion as there’s never just one correct answer when you start asking such subjective questions. Every person has their own preferences based not only on personal experience but also on the type of work they might be engaged in.
Those tools that work particularly well for one application might have some deal-breaking flaws when it comes to other uses, so it’s important to know not just what type of tool you’re looking for but how it’ll be employed. Hair-splitting aside, the brands listed above have become leaders in the competitive automotive tool industry thanks to their reputation for quality, lifetime guarantees, and customer service. It’s hard to go wrong when it comes to choosing between these tool brands, and in the end, it all comes down to your budget and how much you value quality over price.