Today: Are professional-quality tools really worth the extra money?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Mar 01, 2010

Dear Tom and Ray:

I have a question that doesn't involve a car problem. I am currently going to school to earn an associate of applied science in the automotive field. Ever since high-school auto class, I have heard the names Snap-on, Matco and Mac as the only options for tools. However, I find it hard to believe that mechanics pay $1,400 for a toolbox and $100 for a ratchet. So my question is, is it REALLY worth the money? Or is it smarter to just get Craftsman or other cheaper tools, and just replace them when they break? I'd rather not owe my life to a guy on a tool truck if I can help it. Thanks.

-- Ryan

TOM: It's a good question, Ryan. When we first started out, we did exactly what you suggest. We went to Sears, and we bought one of everything they had.

RAY: Including a five-piece dinette set and a fishing boat with a 7.5-hp outboard motor. You know, they have very good salesmen at Sears.

TOM: Why did we buy our tools at Sears? Because we'd used them as amateurs, and it was the only way we could afford to equip the garage.

RAY: Sears Craftsman does make good tools. But over time, as those tools broke or wore out, and as our success allowed us to wean ourselves off our dog-food diets, we gradually switched over to Snap-on and Matco tools. Because when you use the tools every day, the professional tools do seem better.

TOM: They tend to fit a little tighter, they hold up better and if they ever do fail, you know that the guy in the Snap-on truck is going to be stopping by next week, and he'll give you a new one. He has a vested interest in keeping you working, since he has the second mortgage on your house.

RAY: The professional tools are expensive. And the guys on the truck do suck you into an expensive credit program where you pay a little bit every week. But once you pay them off, you have tools that'll last a lifetime.

TOM: And you'll find that there are some jobs you simply can't do without the professional tools. There are a lot of specialized tools that a company like Sears does not make. It doesn't make the tool you need, for example, to hold the camshafts in place on a Subaru when you're replacing a timing belt.

RAY: Or tools for installing engine seals on Volvos and Saabs. The pro companies also stay up to date on new equipment, so in order to work on newer cars, you may have no choice but to buy from them instead of waiting for a new tool to trickle down to the do-it-yourself market.

TOM: So unless you're planning on sticking to pretty basic repairs -- oil changes, tire rotations, fuel filters and brakes, for example -- I think you'll find that eventually, you'll need to deal with the Matco and Snap-on guys.

RAY: But you certainly don't have to start with them. You can start with the Sears Craftsman stuff. And when you're ready to owe the big bucks, you can switch over gradually, one painfully expensive tool at a time.

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