Thinking back to my first tool set, I saved up a couple hundred bucks and went down to the local shopping mall. After perusing the aisles of high-dollar tools, I settled on what I could afford and left with the best deal I could find. That kit got me started wrenching on my truck, and if you don't mind some dirt under your fingernails, we're sure your story is pretty similar. For around $200, most tool companies offer a comprehensive, albeit basic tool set that is perfect for the beginner knuckle-buster, home do-it-yourselfer, and shadetree mechanic alike. A mechanic tool set needs to be several important things. First, it needs to have a wide array of tools, sizes, and yet still needs to be portable. Also, it needs to be well built, with a carrying case that won't break when bouncing around in the back of a truck bed. Lastly, you need to feel confident using the included tools with a lifetime warranty.
We went out and picked up four mechanic tool sets from local tool retailers and went online to pick up the last set in our test. The players are whom you would expect: Craftsman, Harbor Freight, Husky, Kobalt, and Stanley. Our criteria was simple—we could only spend $200, the set had to have a lifetime warranty, and it had to be readily available nationwide. We compared socket and wrench sizes, number of total tools, number of irrelevant/duplicated tools, toolbox construction, tool retention, and if the box was lockable. In addition to the objective data, we also created a few subjective comparisons including: total tools for the buck, and the "can this tool set help you swap a flat tire" test. Take a look at our rankings and prepare to change the way you look at the tool world.
1. Pittsburgh Professional 301-piece Mechanic's Tool Kit
PN: 45951 $189.99
Harbor Freight calls the Pittsburgh 301-piece tool kit a "comprehensive professional mechanic's tool set," and we find no fault in that claim. We'll start with the impressive data: full socket sets (shallow and deep) for ¼-, ⅜-, and ½-inch drive that go all the way up to 1¼ and 32 mm, full screwdriver set, plier set, full array of U-joints for each drive size, as well as extensions, adapters, and 10 combo wrenches. In addition to the commonly used tools, the Pittsburgh set also includes SAE and metric hex bit sockets, Torx sockets, external Torx bits, a precision screwdriver set, and long-arm hex key set. That's 50 pounds worth of tools, and the cost was $189.99. After factoring in duplicated tools, our "tool per buck" came in at an amazing 72 cents per tool. Those tools are covered by a lifetime replacement warranty (with receipt), and the toolbox itself is well made with metal clasps and individual storage trays. Working on a project truck using only this tool set, we never needed to search anywhere else for the required tools. From the get-go, there was no doubt this was the best tool set under $200. The real test was to see who would finish in Second Place.
2. Kobalt 227-piece Mechanic's Tool Set with Case
PN: 338518 $199.98
Second Place was awarded to the set with the second-most tools included—the Kobalt 227-piece set. However, it was more than quantity that impressed us, as the Kobalt set included the highest quality tools with precision ratchet movement, laser-etching and color-coded sockets for instant visibility. Metric and SAE wrenches are included, though they top out at ⅝-inch and 13 mm respectively, however, the sockets range from 4mm ¼-inch drive to 22mm ½-inch drive. That versatility was greatly appreciated when we had a flat tire and needed to remove the wheel. The Kobalt set had the right extension, socket, and ½-inch ratchet to get the job done. Tool storage was also a big perk thanks to the blow-molded case with organized tool trays and an empty tray for gloves or future tool purchases. Ideal for do-it-yourselfers, the Kobalt trays can be removed, saving time when trying to find the right size sockets, and a comfortable nut driver and bit driver are included. Also, the case can be sat on while doing a brake job, which is extremely convenient in one package. When we contacted Kobalt for warranty issues, they told us to come in and they would happily replace it. This type of quality, diversity, and customer service made the Kobalt a solid Second Place choice.
3. Husky 149-piece Chrome Mechanic's Tool Set
PN: 69027 $149.99
Using black powdercoat with laser etching for quick size identification, the Husky 149-piece tool set is a great-looking, well-rounded tool set that doesn't break the bank. With socket sizes ranging from SAE 3⁄16-inch to 1-inch and metric 4 mm to 27 mm, the Husky includes several large sockets that really come in handy. A good mix of adapters, extensions, and U-joints make this a good automotive set, though we did break one of the U-joints during our testing. A highlight for the Husky 149-piece tool set is the included SAE ratcheting wrenches, making this set ideal for classic truck owners using mostly SAE fasteners. You'll notice we didn't mention metric wrenches, that's because there aren't any, but the Husky did provide a bit driver with 10 popular bits. Taking apart an F-150's front suspension with only this tool set, the black finish held up pretty well, though on the ⅜-drive ratchet the coating was wearing thin. We also got our fingers pinched quite often when trying to pry up and insert tools into their secured position. It may sound trivial, but it was annoying. For $150, the Husky is a nice set, however, it couldn't match the quality, quantity, and included case that Kobalt delivered.
4. Craftsman 182-piece Mechanic's Tool Set with Three-Drawer Chest
PN: 33182 $199.99
A quick poll was taken around the office and the majority of us all agreed we started our knuckle-busting with a Craftsman tool set. Whereas this kit is often on sale for $149.99, the everyday price varied from $199.99 to $219.99, so we felt confident this would be the most appropriate kit to evaluate. Right off the bat, we liked the included three-drawer chest, though it is plastic, it's made well and the drawers themselves are metal. Also included in the kit, plastic drawer liners organize the tools and help keep them from sliding around the box. The classic Craftsman ¼-, ⅜-, and ½-inch ratchets included in the kit were equipped with 36-gear teeth and proved to be the least desirable in the test. We also weren't big fans of the large number of ¼-drive sockets, yet small number of ½-inch-drive sockets. For instance, when we attempted to use the Craftsman set to remove our wheel with a flat tire, the ½-inch-drive sockets maxed out at ¾-inch, but there was a ⅜-inch-drive ⅞-inch socket. Have you ever tried to remove a lugnut with a small ⅜ ratchet? It's darn near impossible. If this toolkit were the only thing you had in your truck, you would have to call AAA. The absence of socket adapters and U-joints was also a big letdown for the Craftsman kit. At $1.15 per tool (after factoring in duplicated tools), the Craftsman set had the highest cost per tool. We know Craftsman makes some of the best tool sets on the market, but for under $200, this wasn't one of them.
5. Stanley 201-piece Mechanic's Tool Set
PN: 91-988 $102.30
(at www.amazon.com) www.stanleytools.com
We had high hopes for the Stanley kit. At first glance, the Stanley tool set seems to pack a big punch. With 201 pieces for around $100, the bang for the buck is out of this world, but once you realize that 67 pieces are either duplicated or tiny driver bits and Allen wrenches, the feeling of joy quickly turns to frustration. Doing the math, that takes the Stanley set down to 134 valuable pieces. Add to that Stanley doesn't include a bit driver for the aforementioned bits, and things start going downhill. Overall, the ratchets are nice, the wrench sizes are common, and the sockets have decent coverage (though the ½-inch-drive sockets max out at ¾-inch and 19 mm), but Stanley left out a ½-inch-drive extension and U-joints for any drive. For the average home mechanic who isn't doing anything too serious, this kit may work just fine, but for the genuine enthusiast, there are too many gaps. Looking at the steep competition, it's no wonder this kit ended up in last place.