I learned something today that I have to let you in on. Harbor Freight Tools isn’t “just” an importer of cheap, off-shore tools for guys down on bucks. While Harbor Freight Tools could certainly motor on through life as the leader in Chinese-built tools, this California-based company has a surprising mission statement: they want to be a quality leader while maintaining the really low prices they’ve become famous for. Yeah, that’s a statement you might expect, and we’d brush it off as pure hype if we hadn’t visited Harbor Freight’s Quality Assurance Lab in Calabasas, CA for a few hours today. Harbor Freight has built a state-of-the-art testing facility where they test both their own products (future and current) side-by-side with competitive products. And by competitive, I mean segment-leading products by name-brand manufacturers, not discount store private-label products.
As I toured Harbor Freight’s modern and spacious facility and watched various products being torqued, hammered, pounded, sprayed, immersed, squashed, smashed, radiated, and generally tortured, it dawned on me that Harbor Freight Tools were not only “adequate,” but even preferable. A perfect example is the US General 5-drawer portable tool cart (part number 95272) shown here on the left, which sells for $199. If you look at the picture and the price at the same time, it doesn’t compute. You really have to put your hands on this cart, open the drawers, slam the lid, and roll it around to believe it. With severe-duty ball bearing roller tracks, thick gauge steel cabinet, chunky ball bearing casters, smooth pneumatic lid struts, locking drawer tabs, grippy drawer liners, durable powdercoat red paint, and beefy frame, the HTF cart would be a welcome addition to any garage at twice the price. I also got the chance to man-handle the Snap-On cart shown here (part number KRSC31A, $845). The Snap-On cart was absolutely solid, and above reproach—as it should be for $646 more. But what really blew me away was how incredibly close Harbor Freight comes. I even prefer the feel of the Harbor Freight lid, hinges, and gas-filled struts to the Snap-On’s.
All the testing at Harbor Freight’s Quality Assurance Lab is done for a reason. As a global-sourcing importer, the only way HFT can maintain and improve quality is to make the off-shore factories accountable for quality. The constant barrage of testing at HFT’s Calabasas lab gives their inventory buyers and executives the ammunition they need to enforce and improve quality on an on-going basis, while at the same time conducting comparative testing on benchmark products by makers like Snap-On, Bosch, Chicago Pneumatic, Honda, Warn, Binks, Ingersol Rand, Milwaukee, and Craftsman. The US General tool cart was only one of dozens of products I got to sample side-by-side with benchmark brand-name products, and the quality/price comparisons on those were equally astounding.
Right now, Harbor Freight Tools is rolling out or revamping hundreds of their tools with this same design/engineering philosophy. If you haven’t been in a Harbor Freight store in a while, you’re gonna want to check it out. I know I’ll be headed there soon!