Started by LA businessman Allan Smidt in 1968, Harbor Freight Salvage Company originally traded in goods damaged during shipping. Smidt started out selling tools directly to contractors from the back of a truck, and through the decades Harbor Freight has steadily expanded its business with telephone sales, late-night TV ads, mail order, chain retail, and online shopping. As of 2010, Harbor Freight Tools boasted more than 330 brick-and-mortar stores around the USA, and annual revenues north of $1.5 billion.
Lots of makers I know have a love/hate relationship with Harbor Freight. I was on the fence, myself, for a long time, but their deals keep luring me back, and by now I’ve probably spent a couple thousand dollars between their Austin retail locations and their website. And overall, I have to say, my experience of their products and their stores has been so much more good, than bad, that I’m a complete convert at this point. No, I wouldn’t buy those cheap plastic one-handed clamps again, but I couldn’t be much happier with my sheet metal brake, drill press, and metal-cutting chop saw, especially considering how little I paid, how well those tools have performed for me, and how easy their stuff usually is to fix if something goes wrong.
We at MAKE especially like the way Harbor Freight handles product documentation. Like the tools themselves, Harbor Freight manuals are generally no-frills affairs: just a few sheets of plain white paper with plain black printing, folded or stapled together and slipped into the box. But those few pages are usually chock full of the kinds of information we as makers really want—detailed parts lists, troubleshooting charts, technical specifications, electrical schematics, mounting templates, and exploded diagrams.
Moreover, anyone can access and freely download the exact same manuals that come in the boxes from the Harbor Freight website, which is great because A) you can check out all the fine print before you buy and B) you don’t have to worry so much about keeping track of the original paper manual. HF’s simple serial product numbering system makes it easy to find exactly the manual you need, and even discontinued products (though no longer searchable from the HF site itself) have their manuals archived on its servers using a natural human-readable directory structure. For example, the manual for their discontinued 130 AMP TIG / 90 AMP ARC WELDER, product number 91811, is archived at:
Clear, technically detailed, and freely accessible documentation is a key ingredient in creating an open, hackable, repair-friendly maker culture. For their commitment to those principles, we’re pleased to nominate Harbor Freight Tools for the 2012 Makey awards.