Makey Awards 2012 Nominee 04: Harbor Freight, Documentation

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.


74 thoughts on “Makey Awards 2012 Nominee 04: Harbor Freight, Documentation

  1. I feel the same way. Sometimes they’re a gamble, but even if you get a dud you probably didn’t pay much for it. I always check the reviews on their website before buying pricier items. I’ve had reviews talk me both out of AND into buying stuff.

  2. Harbor Freight makes me happy more than they make me mad, which is more than I can say for Home Depot. Their pneumatics are awesome. I have several of their paint guns, an airbrush, a die grinder, and a few other things. If it hooks up to a compressor you’re pretty safe.
    For disposables like abrasive and cut off discs, sand paper, etc. they can’t be beat. They are also a great source of occaisional tools. If you are not making it earn a living that cheap Chicago Electric angle grinder will do just fine. Buy the warranty! They are usually really cool about taking warranty exchanges.
    Their batteries rock! I switched to NiMH rechargables a few years ago and bought a lot of them from HF. I’ve only had a few go bad versus some name brand batteries that all stopped charging within a year.
    The best thing about Harbor Freight is that every time I go I come home with a surprise. There’s always something that sparks my imagination and inspires some mad science. HF embodies the kind of DIY American spirit that Radio Shack and Home Depot lost sight of.

  3. For the longest time I wouldn’t even go into a Harbor Freight because it irritated me to no end that the prices on their website NEVER matched the prices in store. Nothing can sour your day faster than figuring you can swing by HF on your way home and pick up (insert macguffin) only to find its $10 more than the price on the website.

    That seems to have changed as of late. Last three items I looked up online, called on to see if they were in stock and to check the price and they matched the site which made me happy.

    1. My local store’s employees have always said that the website price trumps the store price, but a person needs to bring in the ad or a printout of the lower price.

  4. Do the politics of HF not bother us? Spending 1/3 the money loses some of its lustre when you think of the slave labor it is supporting. Which is not to say I don’t do it sometimes. But when I need to save money AND have a good tool AND I can’t force myself to buy from HF, I find the tool used at a flea market or a good used tool store.

    1. Politics solves nothing. Why did labor conditions in America improve? Courage, unity, and the blood of heroes! (And recent setbacks are due to a waning of this spirit) Until the workers of other lands stand together they are no better than lap dogs for their bosses. Let’s clean our own house and let them clean their house. If the yoke gets too heavy they’ll figure out what to do. You can’t give a man freedom- you can only draw him a map.

  5. I’m glad you recognized this, I’ve always been excited that HF tools have a manual and it almost always includes a parts diagram and specs.

    I’ve been going to HF for years and the quality of the tools has really gone up in the last year or so. At first it was only safe to buy consumables and things with few moving parts, but that is no longer the case. The oscillating multitools, digital inspection camera, and precharged rechargeable batteries (just 3 examples) are just amazing deals for a DIYer. You get a lot of tool for the dollar at HF, and there is almost always a freely available 20% off coupon in a magazine or newspaper that will further reduce your bill.

    As for the politics of HF, from my observations it isn’t much different than buying tools from Lowes, Home Depot or Sears. Nearly everything in those stores is made in similar factories, obviously to higher specs in a number of cases, but the same factories. In some ways, I think buying from HF is a more honest experience because they don’t try conceal where the tools are made and why they are lower priced. I can recall looking at a craftsman power tool and the included manual and realizing it was exactly the same as the HF model, but with different plastic cover. Why not just go to HF first and cut out the the middleman? It’s not that way in every situation, but the trend seems to be going in that direction.

  6. All right, I’ll admit it, I’m a Harbor Freight Junky. I’ve got a huge collection of tools, and a considerable portion are from HF(looks like a fricken HF store in my garage…).

    I’ve got the same air compressor (1 of 5) in the pic. Needed a mid sized compressor, so I went up to HF & purchased the pancake compressor for $79.99. The first one blew off the air switch at about 60 psi. The second one didn’t shut down, yanked the cord out when it buried the pressure gauge. The third one started smoking when I plugged it in. This time I asked them if I could “trade up” to the 2hp / 8 gallon model & pay the difference. Manager said OK. Took it to the register, the cashier Says the pancake compressor is now $149, the 67501 is on sale for $109, here’s your $40 difference. Love it… That was 11 years ago, still workin, busted the plastic shroud falling off a roof, though…

    The only real complaint I’ve had over the years is the grease in their electric hand tools. What is that, Bacon Grease? Every one I’ve cleaned the grease out & relubed has lasted years. The others all died in a puff of smoke…

    Couple tools that weren’t quite up to snuff:
    The auto darkening welding helmet is WAY to dark. Had to light up the welding area with a couple 500w lights so I could see to weld.
    The wheel barrow kit. The bolt holes in the pan do not line up with the holes in the handles. Exchanged twice, finally just redrilled.
    The carpet kicker, the teeth are way to soft, have to restraighten them after about every third kick.

    Tools that I think are an exceptional deal:
    Meters! $20 for a meter with transistor test, temp AND frequency! Oh yeah!
    Go thru socket sets, I love these…
    Ac gauges, heck of a deal.
    Abrasives/ cut off discs/ saw blades.Disposable/ consumable stuff SHOULD be cheap.
    The SDS “rotohammer” kicks some serious butt for the price.
    Their air tools. I think I own just about every one they sell. Never had a problem. Keep them clean & well lubed.

    My philosopy on tools is if you have to rent it more than 2-3 times, you should own it. And a new job is just an excuse to buy some more tools…

  7. Got an air nailer from them a few months back, had a nasty feature. It auto-fired nails as soon as the air line was attached with nothing even close to the trigger or safety plunger.

    First time I didn’t even believe it happened and luckily the gun was facing away from everything and everyone. After reconnecting the hose it fired off again!

    I would seriously have to think twice before buying anything else from Harboir Freight again.

  8. HF can be great, IF you’re willing to do the research to see what’s worth buying, and preprared to return stuff if it doesn’t work out. I find that 2-3% of stuff at HF is a great buy: Every bit as good a quality as stuff you’d pay 3-10X for elsewhere. About 50% is “you get what you pay for” – low price, but also low quality. This can be a good deal if you only expect to use a tool a few times and don’t want to pay ‘full price’ for quality. The rest is absolute junk that will break that the first or second time that you use it, and wouldn’t be a good deal even if it was free. Figuring out which category any particular item is in, is where the challenge lies :) I would never buy HF for things where safety is an issue: Heard too many horror stories about fuses that didn’t blow when they should have, or nail guns that fired whenever they wanted to…

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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