Tools: Price vs Quality

Motorcycling is an amazing pastime. If you’re reading this article, then you like to (or want to) wrench on your own motorcycle.  If thats the case, you need tools!

Hand tools are the basis for any maintenance and customising tasks, and we’ll talk about them in detail in later articles, but first I just wanted to talk quickly about price and quality.

This sounds expensive….!

Prices for hand tools can vary dramatically.  There are premium brands used by professional technicians, and some very cheap imported tools that you can find in your local discount store.

Most people understand that the cost to manufacture a tool (or anything for that matter) has little resemblance to its sticker price. Companies price their items at a point they think their target market will see value.

The most premium tool brands (such as Snap-on) provide beautiful tools, with a lifetime warranty. A lifetime warranty certainly suggests Snap-on believe their tools are very high quality.  If they weren’t, then they’d go broke replacing tools under warranty.

Snap-on tools
Snap-on box wrench

Additionally, their pricing is aimed at professional technicians.  I worked in mining for a number of years, and the technicians who proudly bought Snap-on took their work very seriously.  However, their pricing generally puts them out of reach of the average person, but the average person is not Snap-on’s target customer.

If you do a quick Google search, you will find plenty of conversation regarding where Snap-on tools are now manufactured.  I don’t know for sure, but if they were made in the USA I’m pretty sure they’d be advertising that by stamping it on the tools.

Similarly, here in Australia, we had a local manufacturer called Sidchrome.  They manufactured in Australia, produced very high quality tools, but were eventually bought out by Stanley Black & Decker and the manufacturing was sent to China.  I have a mix of old Australian-made and newer import Sidchrome tools, and I haven’t had a problem with either.

Sidchrome tools
Sidchrome ring spanner (box wrench)

I don’t want to start an internet war about manufacturing in China, however anyone with a manufacturing background will tell you the quality processes and systems make the product, not the location of the plant. After all (at the time of writing this article), Apple manufactures iPhones in China, and the last three iPhones I have owned have been perfectly acceptable.

I’m definitely suggesting high quality tools can come from China, and by doing so, the company can lower their manufacturing costs.  The cynical will say they keep the extra profits, and the optimist will say they pass on the savings to their customers.  I think the truth is somewhere in the middle.

When it comes to purchasing tools, I look at them as an investment, and I ask myself what “duty cycle” the tool will experience.  Let me explain.

Cheaper in the long run

Ever since I was a young boy, I pulled things apart.  My father and grandfathers encouraged this and I started building model aircraft and woodworking when I was in my teens.  When I started studying mechanical engineering at university I had bought an older car, and I worked part-time at a hardware store. No co-incidence.  The staff discount was great and I spent most of my salary on tools, which were used for tinkering on my car. The hardware store was not a “discount”-outlet, but a mid-range store.  So I didn’t even have a choice of really cheap and nasty import tools. Just the mid-range equipment.  So I started stocking up.

This has proven to be a (lucky) investment.  I still have all those older tools, and they will last me a lifetime. But now, when adding to my collection, I look at what use the tool will get.

If I am likely to use it regularly (define that however you want), then I aim to purchase “higher” quality. My logic suggests that having to buy the tool a second time (if I purchase “cheap” and it breaks or lets me down) is false economy.

Tools in this category are wrenches, screwdrivers, pliers, cordless drills, angle grinders and any cutting tools (drill bits, saws, lathe tools, milling cutters).

Tools that see far less use (but are super handy, or save lots of time) might not need to be “first class”.  This might include a tool like a super-long phillips head screwdriver, only used to adjust a carburettor screw buried under the seat on a particular bike. Most of my cordless tools fall into this category.  Remember, power tools only exist to save the user time.  You can do anything with hand tools.  Power tools just speed things up.  All my current cordless tools are from the Ryobi One+ range.  Mid pricing.  Common battery.  I can build the kit as I go. Yes, I would love to purchase something exotic, like Panasonic or Festool, but for the amount I use cordless power tools, I can’t justify it.

Technical considerations

For the casual motorcycle mechanic, I would suggest you aim somewhere in the middle, for the following reasons:

Quality  – obviously better quality steel is more expensive.  “Better” steel comes from the mix of metals used in the steel (the “alloy”) and means a couple of things.  “Better” means “stronger”, so you might be able to use more force on the tool without it bending or breaking. And a “better” alloy will also mean the surface can be heat treated to make it harder. This means you won’t damage the tool when using them on high strength nuts and bolts and screws. Do you think the global motorcycle companies use cheap nuts and bolts on their bikes? No way! They rely on quality nuts and bolts to hold their bikes together. So they use high quality parts, and you should consider respecting their motorcycles with quality hand tools.

Durability – if the quality is better, then these tools are likely to last longer.  Quality hand tools will last a lifetime. So you are making an investment for life when you purchase quality tools. Lets face it – if you are crazy about motorcycles, you’re not going to quit this passion any time soon.

Reliability – Once you are familiar with your tools, you start to rely on them.  Eventually you learn how much you can push your tools in certain situations. Higher quality tools can be pushed much harder.  Its very reassuring to know your hand tools are up to the job.

You can buy your tools at a hardware store, or an auto supplier, or online.  You will probably find a better quality range at an auto supplier who sells to professional technicians.  Ask around, and look at the tools professional technicians use.

Of course, you might be able to buy higher quality tools second-hand online. Remember, these tools last a lifetime.  If you find them at a reasonable price (compared to new prices), then buy them!  I purchase lots of tools on eBay with saved searches alerting me when new items are listed.

We’ll look at individual tools in upcoming articles, but for now I’m happy to have you consider how much money you’d be prepared to spend on tools.  As with any decision, there are compromises to be made.  I’m simply advocating “lowest cost in the long run”, which often means higher costs up-front.

Matt McLeod

About the Author

I teach people how to build custom motorcycles by helping them build skills and confidence with my coaching, articles and training videos. I provide better technical information for custom motorcycle builders. And I shorten the learning curve getting you there.


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