Today, we’ll dig into what these stores keep in stock and why you’d want to wander around inside, a bit. While you won’t find aluminum heads, carb parts, or differential lockers, you’ll usually be able to pick up that last critical nut, wrench, and that little piece of angle-iron and something to weld it with, on your insane Saturday afternoon sprint to the racetrack or rod run.
Home Depot and Lowes
These stores are very strong in the fastener and power tool department. Every kind of common nut, bolt, screw, nail, staple, hook, or similar part is available. Materials include nickel-plated, stainless steel, brass, galvanized, and plastic.
Home Depot carries Milwaulkee, Port Cable, and DeWalt power tools. You can also find a modest selection of welding rods and flux-cored wire, as well as torches and a Lincoln buzz box.
Lowes has a complete line of Cobalt wrenches, sockets, and huge roll-away tool boxes. The quality is great and the stores are exceedingly clean.
I think Sears should simply stop selling everything else and just concentrate on hand tools. The quality of their Craftsman brand wrenches, sockets, screwdrivers, and various other small hand tools is outstanding. And, while big name tool brands like SK and and Snap-On clearly make excellent tools, they tend to be a little (or a lot) more expensive for roughly the same quality. Every time I’ve had an issue with a Craftsman tool, I’ve simply returned it to the store for repair or replacement. Some customers were having troubles, a few years back, and the VP of the company clarified how warranties [http://consumerist.com/2009/03/25/sears-clarifies-craftsman-tools-warranty/] should be handled. That’s why I think they should concentrate on hand tools.
Sears also has a pretty good selection of power tools, including name-brand cut-off saws, grinders, and electric drills.
Northern Tool and Harbor Freight
These stores excel in the areas of specialty parts and single purpose tools. Both generally have a great selection of welding machines and equipment. I’d give the edge to Northern Tool. Not only do they have plug-in buzz boxes, MIG, and plasma cutters by Lincoln and Hobart, they also have medium sized (200-250 amp) gas powered machines. You’ll find smaller MIG machines and spot welders, primarily from Chicago Electric at Harbor Freight.
Both companies also stock air tools and all manner of air-related accessories. Need to buy a big compressor, today, right now. You’ll certainly find them available in either store.
Presses, benders, English Wheels, and metal working machines are another specialty area of these two stores. You should keep in mind that they keep costs reasonable by offering a lot of Chinese products. The fit and finish might be a little lower quality, than European or American made components. For heavy-duty tools, the quality can vary widely, although using more iron and generally heavier construction makes up for less precise parts.
Northern Tool has an awesome selection of vertical and horizontal shaft under 25 horse gas engines sitting on their shelves. I just ran through a store, this afternoon and spotted a very large, cast-iron, rotating vise for a killer, on sale price of $95. Get ’em while they last.
You really should take an hour or so and walk through all these stores, to get a feeling for the products they sell. Then, the next time you need something, you’ll know exactly where to go.