I have started to build a collection of tools for working around the house, and fixing my car. Having the best quality tool for the job is always the best option, but not always the most affordable one. As a handyman, DIYer, and total cheapskate, I could not justify to myself the astronomical prices that are demanded by the best tool companies (e.g. Snap-On). I also didn’t want to settle for the cheapest Walmart or dollar store tools I could find. I found a balance in the mid-low budget tool market that is dominated by Pittsburgh (Harbor Freight), Kobalt (Lowe’s), Craftsman (Sears), and Husky (Home Depot). There are also a smattering of online only tools brands that I won’t talk about. The tools these companies sell are affordable, decent enough quality, and come with a lifetime guarantee. After much hemming and hawing over which tool brand I should start my collection with, I decided on a Kobalt 300 piece set. This was my experience.
The tool set included ratchets in the three most common drive sizes: 1/2″, 3/8″, and 1/4″. The fit an finish of the ratchets is very nice, which is one of the reasons I went with Kobalt over Craftsman. Kobalt ratchets are 90-tooth, which is not the highest tooth count on the market, but it is pretty good for a budget tool. It certainly beats the Craftsman standard issue 36-tooth count ratchets.
The design of the ratchet is the standard tear drop shape that is nearly identical across import tools. I’ve heard that this design is a clone of an old Snap-On ratchet. The quality of the chrome is very good.
The only issue I’ve had with the Kobalt ratchets is that the snap action of the direction toggle switch is pretty weak. The toggle does not snap from forward to reverse, which means it’s easy to accidentally set the toggle into a neutral position.
I’ve also heard complaints that the toggle switch is reversed compared to other ratchets. This doesn’t bother me much because I don’t own any other ratchets.
The tool set included something like 200 different sockets. In general, the sockets seem well made. I haven’t broken any and, like the ratchets, the chrome finish is nice. The internal edges of the socket where it engages the fastener are scalloped to help it grip more effectively. This feature, invented by Snap-On, has seen it’s patent expire and now appears on all but the very cheapest sockets. The sockets also include blue and red stripes to denote metric and SAE sizes, respectively.
One socket in my tool set was made upside down. The square and hexagonal opening were on the wrong side of the socket, and the detents in the square drive opening where missing. Lowe’s replaced the socket with no questions asked.
The selection of sizes included in the tool set was poor, given the total number of sockets. In each socket set (a socket set being defined by the drive size, depth, number of points, and sae/metric), there weren’t many missing sizes, although there were a few. The sizes that were missing were included in other socket sets.
There was a definite bias towards including shallow sockets, 12-point sockets, and smaller drive sizes. This is almost certainly because these sockets are cheaper to manufacture. The set included an equal number of 6-point and 12-point sockets. I don’t use 12-point sockets unless I encounter a 12-point bolt, because of the added risk of rounding a fastener. That means roughly half the included sockets were not useful to me. Also included were puzzling selections, like a 6-point 5mm deep socket in 1/4″ drive, and three 8-point sockets.
There was a complete lack of 6-point deep sockets in 3/8″ and 1/2″ drive. As it turns out, this is because Kobalt doesn’t even make these sockets! This is totally unacceptable as these are important sockets for anyone that does automotive work. Husky makes 6-point deep 3/8″ drive sockets, but not 1/2″ sockets. Only Pittsburgh and Craftsman make sockets in these sizes.
Kobalt decided to go with laser engraving instead of stamping sizes into the sockets. This is marketed as “easy-read laser engraving”. In practice, the sockets are very hard to read. The laser engraved markings on the sockets are white, which is difficult to see against the chrome, and nearly impossible to see if there are overhead lights reflected in the chrome surface. The laser engravings are also not aligned with the square drive opening, so they don’t line up if you put the sockets on a socket rail. I would have preferred to see stamped sizes like the Husky or Pittsburgh sockets.
Like the ratchets and sockets, the chrome on the combination wrenches was nice. The wrenches have stamped sizes on both ends, and color bands to indicate metric or SAE.
The selection of included wrenches was pitiful. There were many metric sizes, but only a handful of SAE sizes. There are also a ton of tiny ignition wrenches included to inflate the piece count.
The performance of the wrenches is just terrible. The jaws of the open end are weak and slip off of fasteners easily. The jaws spread if you put any kind of torque on the wrench. I have to use the box end to break fasteners loose.
Two screwdrivers were included in the tool set. One was a bit driver that accepts a standard 1/4″ hex bit, the other was a 1/4″ square drive socket driver. I liked these screwdrivers a lot. They are constructed of black plastic with a blue rubber overmold. They are very comfortable in the hand.
I purchased a full set of the same style of screwdrivers. One feature I especially liked is the hex shank on the shaft of the screwdriver. This lets you slip the box end of a wrench over the screwdriver and get more torque to turn the screwdriver.
The only thing I didn’t like about the Kobalt screwdrivers is that the black tip coating wears away pretty quickly.
There were, of course, lots of little tools included to inflate the piece count of the set. The two included bit sets are not that useful. The two included allen wrench sets will be useful. There were two spark plug sockets, although they look different from all of the other sockets.
One of my favorite tools in the whole set was actually a small set of nut driver hex bits. They fit in my Makita impact driver and are great for taking small bolts off of my car. Unfortunately, it seems like these are not sold separately by Kobalt. One set of tools that were suspiciously absent were any universal joints.
- Chrome quality consistently good across all tools
- Ratchets are very good quality for imports
- Screwdrivers are nice and the hex shank is a nice feature
- Nut driver hex bits are super useful
- Laser etching is hard to read on sockets
- Complete lack of 6-point deep sockets in 3/8″ and 1/2″ drive is unacceptable
- Open end of combination wrenches spread easily
- Nut driver hex bits are not sold separately by Kobalt
- No universal joints included
- Lots of useless tools included to inflate the piece count of the set
Although the tools look nice, I would not recommend buying the tool set. The ratchets are nice, the screwdrivers are nice, the sockets are okay but have a limited selection, and the wrenches are terrible. The price for the set is lower now than when I bought it but still isn’t worth the money. I had this set for a few month before I really got a chance to use it, and by that point it was too late to return to the store.
In hindsight I should have chosen to go with a different set of tools. I’m not sure which, because each brand has their problems. Husky doesn’t have 6-point deep 1/2″ drive sockets. Craftsman is questionable quality since moving overseas, and Sears could go bankrupt at any moment. It’s a real shame because Craftsman tools have been around forever and used to be quality USA made tools. My dad has a pile of vintage Craftsman USA made tools and they’re great. That just isn’t the case anymore. Pittsburgh is known to be poor quality, although they have a full selection of sockets.
I suspect that many of these tools are made by the same manufacturers since the designs are nearly identical. One can only wonder if the quality is identical as well. I’ve heard good things about Tekton, a new company who’s claim to fame is that they include every size in their tool sets. They are still made in China. I may give them a try anyway. I guess the lesson here is that you get what you pay for and you must be prepared to accept compromise if you can only afford budget brand tools.