With a limited budget, the tools in my shop come from auctions, outlet stores, mark-down aisles, swap meets, mail-order houses and eBay. My shop has bargains like a $150 air compressor, $11 work bench, $35 tool chest and $10 engine stand. Except for a few splurges like a Backyard Buddy 4-post hydraulic lift and a better-quality Eastwood engine leveler, most of my equipment could be described as “cheap tools.” That doesn’t mean they’re of inferior quality – it means they just didn’t cost as much as one might expect.
Estate auctions are usually full of household or woodworking tools. Liquidation auctions are different. Maybe an old service station is becoming a filling station only, so an auction is held with high-quality automotive tools selling for 40 cents on the dollar. Sometimes such auctions are advertised in hobby publications, but local ones are best. Travel expenses can kill you. Buy early. Once auctioneers see you have money, they’ll start working hard for high prices.
Outlet stores carry tools of varying quality. A local charity-run store sells screwdrivers that will put up curtain rods, but bend if used on a car repair. They handle brushes, mirrors and magnet tools that work OK, but look elsewhere for hand tools. Warehouse or liquidator stores usually have lots of tools for sale. Some are of very poor quality and some are quite good. One nearby store offered a 30-ton “bottle-jack” press that a professional restorer purchased. For his own peace of mind, the restorer replaced all fasteners with American made hardware. Now he is very happy with his under-$200 heavy-duty press.
You can find markdowns on very good tools at “big box” stores if you shop wisely. They sell 80-90 percent of their inventory at near full price, and then put drastic markdowns on remainders. This starts normally after New Year’s Day and hits bottom in March when you’ll save over 50 percent, particularly on high-ticket items like air compressors. I have seen stores liquidate remaining inventory at one-fifth the original price, then re-stock the same item a week later at “next year’s” price.
Look for close-outs, too. K-Mart recently merged with Sears and wants to sell only Craftsman tools. Other tools are being marked down 25-40 percent. Call 1-800-682-8691 to join the Craftsman Tool Club to enjoy special Club Saver Days sales, a regular newsletter and a free calendar showing members’ garages.
Automotive swap meets are a great place to buy automotive tools. Most used tools purchased at swap meets sell for about one-third (or less) what they cost new. If you shop carefully, you can buy some handy old tools, in great condition, for very affordable prices. You can also buy large items like floor jacks, engine stands and engine dollies in the $10-$25 range. Be careful when buying electric or air tools. You have no way to test them and they may be defective.
When buying new tools at swap meets, remember that there are no returns. If you see a vendor selling new brand-name tools, you’re probably in for a good bargain. On the other hand, foreign-made, no-name tools come with a risk. You can probably get the same tool at a liquidator store with some type of warranty.
Discount tool suppliers sell tools for lower-than-usual prices by mail order or even through retail stores. Harbor Freight of California and Northern Tool of Minnesota are two of the leaders. Most of the tools carried by discount tool suppliers come from China, but are sold with limited lifetime warranties.
Professional mechanic Vince Sauberlich thinks that these types of tools might not hold up for daily use in a professional shop, but they do a nice job for amateur restorers. A 20-ton bottle-jack press purchased for $179 through a discount tool store flyer has already saved one hobbyist more than it cost. A $139 transmission jack did a great job removing a transaxle as well.
Many tools are for sale on eBay. One trick in searching for tools on eBay is what to call them. If you’re looking for a crankshaft seal installer, do you search under that description or under the manufacturer’s name, such as Kent-Moore #321567 seal installer? As for being satisfied, if the seller has a good feedback rating, you can be sure you’ll be at least relatively happy with it.
If you see tools on eBay listed with brand names like Pittsburgh Tool, Chicago Electric or Central Pneumatic they are Harbor Freight products that someone has probably purchased on sale and marked up for resale on eBay.
Whether you set out to buy cheap tools or decide to go with the best quality money can buy, it pays to comparison shop, to ask about shipping options and to investigate other ways of saving. You may be able to buy a 4-post lift that was used as a display model at a nearby show or find a tool supplier with perfectly good scratch-and-dent merchandise. If you put your thinking cap on, you’ll save enough money to buy more tools. He with the most tools wins!
John "Gunner" Gunnell is the automotive books editor at Krause Publications in Iola, Wis., and former editor of Old Cars Weekly and Old Cars Price Guide.