I Love You Harbor Freight, But You Smell Like Plastic Hell

As I'm typing this, somewhere nearby is a transmission jack that I own. There's also a mini tire changer and a portable wheel balancer and a five-ton gear puller. Five tons! That's a frigload of tons!

Someday I may use these tools for the purposes intended, but if I don't, so what? I bought them at Harbor Freight, which means no one would care if I used them at all. Least of all, perhaps, me. And it's probably safer that way.


Harbor Freight is a national chain of discount tool stores that's become an obsession among the tool-crazed of every mechanical ilk. It's both Greek Agora and Santa Claus of hardware, a giant, bottomless toybox to satisfy any impulsive DIY fantasy for alarmingly few dollars. Did I mention I have a 24" Pittsburgh-brand crescent wrench with a head the size of Ron Perlman's fist? Goddamn straight I do. I think it was 20 bucks. Anyone have a drawbridge that needs dismantling, I'm your guy.

Our brains are hard-wired to love tools. We love them for what we can do with them, and for what we wish we were doing with them right now. Sure we can slap on a set of brake pads, but sometimes we just want to sit Indian-style among a crapload of cheap tools dreaming of Keith Duckworth coaxing 10 extra horses out of a Double Four Valve. Harbor Freight is where this kind of wishful thinking meets actual utility.

Harbor Freight's tools are so cheap, they've changed the whole dynamic of tool ownership. In the old days, if you needed a tool you didn't have, you'd call a friend and say something like, "Hey man, can I borrow your impact wrench?" And he'd say, "Asshole, you still have my impact wrench from the last time you borrowed it." Now, you'd just go to Harbor Freight and buy six or seven impact wrenches, then go home and build an impact-wrench-powered go-kart.

Indeed, Harbor Freight's killer app is access to the kind and quantity of tools a part-time mechanic might never have considered buying. Pre-Harbor Freight, you'd say things like, "Buy an engine hoist? Do I look like Mister Fucking Goodwrench?" Now you'll pick up a couple, plus a rolling engine stand — for the price of screwdriver set from Snap On — so you could pull the F22B out of your wife's old Honda Accord and smash it through the wall of the sun porch while drunk.


Here's a perfect example: Harbor Freight sells a portable scissor lift that can hoist a 6,000-pound car — all four wheels off the ground. It costs $1,200, which is a lot for a tool, but not a lot for a lift. Think of the convenience: You set up the lift in the morning, drop your car's subframe by noon, and be released from the hospital six weeks later, minus a foot.


You see, Harbor Freight's tools, while cheap and often flimsy, are reasonably useful. They're robust enough for at least one serious use before breaking. Sometimes, Harbor Freight tools don't work at all, and that provides a tantalizing bit of dramatic tension. Will this $5 brake bleeder douse me in fluid? Who cares? It's five bucks, and I just bought 38 of them. Know what you're getting for your birthday this year? Maybe a bath in brake fluid, maybe a workable one-man brake bleeder. Cross your fingers. Or at least, count them.

Although Harbor Freight's mission is purportedly to stretch your tool-buying dollar, the best thing about it is the sheer acquisitive joy. Imagine you're a kid on a museum field trip with a $50 bill your dad that morning stuffed into your hand on the way out the door. (Shhh. He thought it was a five). After a gift-shop orgy, you run home with a bag of cheap, amazing crap. Now, if you compared the cost of those keychains, polished rocks and rubber-band-powered grist mills to the value of love bursting from your heart, it would have microwaved Milton Friedman's skull. Harbor Freight's value proposition is exactly the same, only for grown-ups with credit cards.


The reason they're so cheap is that Harbor Freight tools are made — mostly in China — of a kind of bargain plastic that sublimates directly from solid to a gas, like dry ice, losing their mass year after year in a pungent waft of formaldehyde and pickled sea cucumber. I'll bet if you put a Harbor Freight 12V grease gun in a time capsule, 50 years later you'd find just a pile of lithium and an on-off switch.

One day we may find out the Chinese have been intentionally fouling the sperm of American males with something sinister in those outgases, making our offsprings' heads get all misshapen like that Forever Alone guy from the Internet. It wouldn't matter. That smell of plastics laden with phthalic acid — which chemists use as "plasticizers," softening agents added to make plastic tools more flexible and durable — is like bath salts to Harbor Freight toolheads. To them, that pungent, plasticky scent is like freshly cut grass or the yeasty aroma from a pub doorway on a Saturday evening. When it comes to aromatic hydrocarbons, teenaged glue sniffers in the '70s had nothing on Harbor Freight denizens.


As the quality of consumer products go, Harbor Freight tools fit somewhere between the junk you buy absent-mindedly while waiting at the car wash and Sears's Craftsman line. But if you're only going to use your drill press in anger, say, twice a year, the cost-benefit works out. And many, many people do get good use out of the stuff they buy at Harbor Freight, even when they actually use it. Maybe they couldn't run a commercial shop on Harbor Freight merch, but that's what the higher-priced stuff is for.

When I bought the jack, the balancer, the wrench, and the other stuff I've accumulated from Harbor Freight I swear I had the best of intentions. Perhaps I was lured by the promise of a particularly sexy kind of extreme automotive utility, which sounds kinky enough to be an actual thing. Call it temporary chemical psychosis, brought on by delusions of grandeur and mild asphyxiation. Keith Duckworth would be appalled.

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