14 December, 2014


Mechanics are always discussing tools amongst themselves.  The usual conversations are between the "old guys" the "new guys".  New mechanics start with, mostly, the same kit of tools.  Wrenches, sockets, ratchets, screw drivers, hammer etc.  Basically, the tool kits from Sears.  Those tool kits are a good place to start from because they will be the core set of tools that will be used frequently.  It doesn't take an apprentice long to start seeing the limitations of the "mechanic's" tool kits.  The wrench sets may not go big enough (or small enough), the screwdriver bit sets may not fit into holes due to the driver being too big, they lack a lot of necessary, but simple, diagnostic tools.  Most kits also don't include some necessary air tools.  As an apprentice works, they start to see that they're going to be spending a lot of money in the coming years.  It's inevitable.  But, there are ways of building tool kits without going overboard.

One of the things I like to do with new mechanics is to have them look through my boxes, a two bay work station with a drop front chest sitting on top, a full sized locker, a four drawer cart and my homemade "under box" which fits snugly under my work station.  I point out things that should be moved to the top of their "to buy" list and also discuss the merits of certain tools as well as foolish purchases I've made.  The things I have them put on their lists are the things specific to our shop.  I also hang out in the background while on the tool truck.  A new guy might be checking out some fine tooth, flex head gear wrenches and I'll say something like "Don't waste your money on those.  You'll get more use out of a battery tester around here."  or "You won't use that thing much.  What about a 20 ton air over hydraulic jack or maybe a cooling system pressure tester?"  I also teach them how to figure out what they need without wasting their money on frivolous "bling."  I ask them to think about the tools they borrow frequently from others or the shop tools they use often.  "How much time do you waste trying to find a jack, especially one that works? You've also borrowed that wobble socket from me quite a bit."  I also suggest they purchase used tools whenever possible.  Most tool trucks have trade in boxes that might contain the tool you've been wanting.  One little tool that's a hot commodity at our shop is die grinders.  Most mechanics will start out with one, usually purchased in a kit, and will become frustrated when they have to keep changing bits.  Simple solution is to buy a bunch of used die grinders, put a tool into and leave it.  I currently have four or five (a mix of straight and angle heads) and am still changing bits frequently. I suggest they haunt rummage sales, Craigslist and E-Bay.  Good tools can be had for very little money when you see "Old tool lot" pop up.  You may get a bunch of wrenches you don't need along with that micrometer you have been looking for, but if the price is right just get it.  "Throw those extra wrenches in a cardboard box and take 'em home.  You may find a cheap tool box somewhere down the road and can start building a tool kit for home use."  Or they could resell the tools they don't need.  A lot of good, quality tools and tool boxes can be had from the used market.  "New" doesn't necessarily mean "better" when it comes to tools.

In the early days of my career I bought a lot of Mac tools.  Not for any specific reason, but in the early days it just happened that the Mac truck showed up most often.  The Mac guy I dealt with while at the courier company was also an outstanding guy.  He showed up regularly, would help me find the things I needed regardless of brand and was, overall, just a good guy.  He would also remember the things I was looking for and if he took if he took one in on trade, he would set it aside for me.  He would also go above and beyond the call of duty to help mechanics in need.  In my early days at the courier company I got rid of my old Craftsman 1/2" impact and purchased a brand new Ingersoll impact from a local business.  It lasted less than a month before it blew up.  I called the Mac guy and asked if he had any used 1/2" impacts in stock.  I didn't care what it was as long as it worked.  He told me that he had just got one back from being rebuilt and only wanted what it cost him to have it sent out.  About $250 from what I recall.  Two days after I called him, he came walking into the shop (and not on his normal day, he made a side trip) with a big smile on his face and a box under his arm.  He pulled out an Ingersoll impact in... Kawasaki green.  It was loud as fuck but it had some serious power to it.  I used that for a few years until I got my first composite impact.  He won my loyalty with that deal.  I also started dealing with the best tool jobber ever, Mick.  Mick was an old school Snap-On guy.  He was an independent dealer, not one of those corporate puppets you see these days.  He had been selling Snap-On tools since 1976 and his truck reflected that experience.  He didn't have a lot of fluff (t-shirts, coolers, grills etc.), he would stock the things mechanics on his route needed.  He listened to his customers and he tailored his truck to suit them.  He was amazing.  He would even talk me out of some purchases.  "Tim, you don't want that.  It's poorly made."  and he was always right.  As I was growing out of my current tool box (there was a flurry of trade-ins at the courier company that never left the shop) he listened to me as I explained what I didn't like about my current set up (I had a Snap-on bottom chest with a flimsy Craftsman sitting on top).  That 'ol guy, knowing my budgetary restrictions, went out and found me a drop front Snap-On top that matched my bottom chest.  It was considerably older (and looked it) but it was what I needed, and within my price range.  It was damaged to the point where the drawers didn't open well but I stuck it under the drive-on hoist (with a van sitting on top) and used it as a press to straighten the thing out.  Mick also got me a new trim kit for it to match the bottom chest.  When I mentioned wanting a side cabinet, Mick talked another guy into trading his side box in for something new.  Mick then brought that side box to me.  Mick got me a set of locks for everything so I would have one key for all three boxes.  Now that I think of it, I really miss that set up.  Damned shame I don't have any pictures of it.  Then I pissed him off.  Rob, my Mac dealer, had a two bay work station on his truck that he couldn't get rid of.  It was a "millenium edition" and it was just plastered with some of the cheesiest graphics I've ever seen.  Nobody wanted it.  He offered it to me for $3,000 and was willing to give me a decent price for my Snap-On set up.  I already had a considerable tool debt.  We had three tool trucks coming by the shop at that time:  Snap-On, Mac and Matco (I'll get to Matco later).  I had, depending on the truck, $450 - $600 of debt on each truck.  The last thing I needed to do was get a brand new tool box.  I called Mom.  A work station would solve my current storage issues and leave me a lot of room to grow, but I could also get by without it.  Just took some creative solutions.  I got the box.  When Mick came in and saw it, he was seriously pissed.  Rightly so.  He had bent over backwards for me and then I went and got a box from his competition.  He actually turned and walked out on me.  There was a reason for me not buying a Snap-on work station.  My shop foreman at the time traded in his two bay Matco (it never left, it just moved down the shop to Rob's spot) for a two bay Snap-On in "cranberry".  My foreman had all of his socket rails screwed to a piece of plywood which kept them upright.  He transferred this massive "board 'o sockets" from the Matco's top drawer to the Snap-On's top drawer.  The drawer wouldn't shut because it was too shallow.  I watched it happen and learned a lesson from it.  Snap-on also isn't shy about pricing their tools and tool boxes.  You're going to pay a lot of money for that name.  When Mick came around again (he skipped a week and I don't blame him for doing it), I explained to him, citing my foreman's experience, why  I didn't choose a Snap-On box.  I told Mick that I loved my previous Snap-On boxes, but if that top drawer wasn't going to be deep enough, it was simply not going to fulfill my needs.  I also told him that I couldn't afford it.  It was like buying a Cadillac when I could barely afford a Chevrolet.  Mick had cooled off and understood the points I was making.  I had a box from the competition, but continued to fill it with more and more Snap-On tools.  Then Mick had a heart attack and was, essentially, out of the business.  A sad day for his customers.

Then we have Kevin, the first Matco guy I dealt with.  He showed up out of the blue one day.  Kevin used to work in the body shop of a local Peterbilt dealership.  He was ho-hum as a tool dealer.  The quality of the tools was good and they were affordable but what really ticked me off was the guy himself.  He wasn't a jerk or anything, we got along quite well.  It was his reliability that I had issues with.  Like other tool guys, he had a regular day.  You see, the tool guys don't impede on other tool guys.  They prefer to stop by on a different day or, if it comes to it, a completely different time of day.  At the courier company we had a tool guy showing up Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for about a year.  In a typical Monday-Friday work week, that's a good thing.  If you broke a Snap-on tool on Monday, you knew the Mac guy would be stopping by on Tuesday so you could get something to work with until Thursday when the Snap-on guy came buy.  As an aside, if I broke a Snap-on tool I was almost assured that Mick would have a replacement on his truck.  He knew his customers very well.  Not so with the other guys.  Sure, having a Mac socket poking out of a rack of Snap-on sockets was annoying, but at least you would have something.  If a good tool guy doesn't have what you need on the truck you'll wait, at most if he's good, one week before a replacement tool is in your hands.  If you need it faster, a good tool guy will make a special trip and get you what you need ASAP.  But, they have to show up first.  Kevin, the Matco guy at that time, wasn't too good with regularly scheduled visits.  "Shit!  This Matco puller broke.  Oh well, tomorrow is Matco day."  Then Matco doesn't show up.  If you can't go to Sears and get a "fill in" tool, you're fucked.  You have to wait for the dealer to come by.  It's even more frustrating when that dealer won't answer their phone or return your calls.  When that happens, mechanics stop buying tools from that person.  As sales dry up, that tool dealer disappears.  Some tool dealers, if they think they're not selling enough at a particular shop, will simply stop coming by.  Not a good way to do business.  Kevin, despite being a nice person, got to the point where he didn't have anything decent on his truck.  There was a lot of fluff, but not many tools.  Kevin was the complete opposite of Mick.  "Hey Kevin, I need a 15mm deep impact socket in 3/8" drive.  Have one on the truck?"  "I can order one...."  "Fuck you, Kevin."  I can understand a dealer's reasons for not wanting to make a weekly visit to a shop that isn't buying many tools.  That's fine.  If a monthly visit works better, let's go for that.  Just as long as you show up when we expect you to show up.  If we need something specific, we'll call and have you order what we need in time for your next visit.  Simple, isn't it?

Jump forward to my current job.  I showed up at the truck shop with my two bay Mac and a one drawer service cart.  I had gone a few years without any regular tool support so I was happy to find that a Mac Tools dealer came by the shop weekly.  Jeff was an outstanding guy at the start.  Though I found that the quality of Mac Tools had gone down the shitter.  I bought a lot of tools from Jeff as well as a small end cabinet to hang off the work station.  Then came the day when Jeff came down with "Kevin" disease.  It was hit or miss every week.  Jeff might show up, he might not.  It pissed me off to no end and I stopped buying from him except when absolutely necessary.  We also acquired a Matco dealer who came and went before anyone really got to know him.  We also have had a gross of Snap-on guys come through.  They were all "catalog" trucks.  For you non-mechanics, a "Catalog truck" is a tool truck that, usually, has everything in stock that is in the current flyer, common tools (shit that you could get at any Sears or Home Depot) and not much else.  Catalog trucks are just fine for the newer mechanics, but for old guys like me, they're almost useless.  "You have a 15/16 wobble socket, 3/4 drive on the truck?"  "I can order it for...."  "Fuck you."  Tool companies sucker people into running a tool truck and then don't offer enough support.  The mechanics get pissed and stop buying.  The budding tool dealer disappears into the fog.  Too often those unwitting dealers are franchisees.  They are, essentially, at the beck and call of the parent company.  It just doesn't work.  It doesn't work for the customers, it doesn't work for the guys driving the trucks.  It's very rare these days to find a dealer who knows his products, is willing to provide for his customers and shows up regularly.  If a dealer can meet those three requirements, he (or she, haven't run into any female tool dealers in the 23 years of my career) will win the loyalty of their customers.

After our Mac guy flaked out and after realizing Mac tools suck balls, I was blessed with Steve.  Steve, as I knew him, drove a Matco truck.  He had previously worked for Snap-on.  Steve has a knack for figuring out his customers on an individual basis.  He is Mick reincarnated.  Steve would show up with things he knew I would buy.  After mentioning that I was trying to create a "road box" of my own for the service truck, Steve showed up (on his regular day as always) and said "I have some stuff you would be interested in.  $25, yes or no?"  I asked "What is it?"  and he replied "$25 yes or no, that's the deal."  "Could you give me a hint?" I replied.  "Yes or no?"  "Oh hell.  Yes!!"  I acquired a bunch of trade-ins that, pretty much, filled out my road box.  A flimsy modern Craftsman box that he also provided.  Steve has an uncanny knack for finding his customers' weak spots.  He also was graceful with receiving criticism.  Back at the courier company I purchased a set of  3/8" drive deep impact sockets.  The little chamfer that was on the end of each socket prevented them from being used on any fastener that was less than standard depth.  I hated them with a passion and I let Steve know it.  I showed him how I had ground the sockets down so they would not suck so bad.  The next week, he gave me a knew set of sockets (which had been redesigned over the years), gave me credit for a trade in and told me to keep the original sockets.  He was fucking outstanding.  Steve, sadly, moved on to a regional position within Matco's system.  Jeff, the Mac guy, had returned briefly.  Jeff, as had everyone else, had been hit hard during the 2009-2010 economy crash.  I gave him the benefit of the doubt and welcomed him back.  It lasted less than three months before he stopped showing up.  Again.  When I did see him again I layed into him without remorse.  "The quality of tools is shit.  If I look at these Mac drill bits wrong, they break.  Your screwdrivers seem to be made from aluminum.  You don't fucking show up regularly.  If you don't give a fuck, get the hell out of the business and make room for someone who just might give a damn!"  I absolutely refuse to purchase any Mac tools to this day.  If I see some of the older stuff show up in the "used" box, I'll buy it.  New stuff?  No thanks.  You're a damned fool if you waste your money and Mac Tools these days.  You're better off going to Sears or Home Depot.  As for the many Snap-On guys...  The tools are still excellent (and expensive), but apparently Snap-On doesn't allow independent dealers anymore.  They're are company pawns under the illusion that they're running their own business.  They never seem to last long.  So, I'm hesitant to buy from them.  With Matco, even though Steve is on to bigger things, our current dealer, Kyle, shows up regularly.  His truck is a catalog truck, and I know that, but at least he's reliable if something needs to be ordered.  Steve, as regional manager, rides along with Kyle about once a year and still finds my weak spots.  Steve, through suggestions to Kyle, caused me to have a nice Snap-on top/bottom combo in my garage.  I also ended up with an old Snap-on bottom in my basement.  Hi, I'm Tim.  I'm a tool whore.

I tell these stories to the new guys in our shop.  I want them to be able to see a good deal and a good dealer when those things are presented.  I want the new guys to be smart with their money.  I want the new guys to not become buried in tool debt.  I tell the new guys they're welcome to borrow my tools but if they violate my rules more than a few times, I will cut them off.  I also tell the new guys that if they're borrowing a tool from me often, it's time for them to get their own.  I've started a "trial offer" thing regarding my tools.  I allow them to borrow a tool up to ten times, then I cut them off.  Except for the really expensive stuff because I remember what it was like to be in their position and I don't want them to become buried in debt.  I also will buy used tools I know they'll need, such as digital battery testers, and hold on to them.  I may give those tools as gifts, or I may allow a new guy to pay me off at regular intervals.  I don't expect new guys to have everything I have.  It's an unrealistic expectation.  But I'm not going to hold their hand and lead them through everything.  I have my own 20 ton jack and my own 1" drive impact because I got tired of trying to track down the shop's tools.  When I did find those shop tools, they usually didn't work because the animals I work with don't take care of them.  I don't loan out my jack or 1" impact.  "The shop has many jacks and impacts.  If you can't find one, or find one that works, it's not my problem."  Those same people who don't take care of the "shop" tools (try and find a freakin' broom, as if anyone would use it) are the same people who caused me to provide my own "road box" for my service truck.  My road box is full of "seconds" that I had laying around and used tools.  I only had to buy a few new tools to round out what I had.  My road box is an used, and flimsy, Craftsman (don't ever buy a new Craftsman box.  Find an old one, pre-1995, and you'll be much happier) top chest and the crappy end cabinet I had before I got my full sized locker.  In the grand scheme of things, the road box was a small investment that has paid off in spades.  I know exactly what tools I have to work with and I know they'll always be there.  Because it's mine and I don't have to share.  If you're a new mechanic, especially a new truck mechanic who runs the road, you'll eventually realize that communal tool boxes are only as good as the weakest link in the system.  It only takes one schmuck not putting a tool back to ruin your entire day.  "Cool, all I have to do is bypass this air dryer.  What the fuck?  There's no 3/4" wrench in here?  Seriously?  Fuck!  Even the 19mm is gone!  NO GODDAMN ADJUSTABLE WRENCH EITHER?!?!"  You'll learn.

I buy tools.  Still.  Do I need more wrenches?  Not really.  If I come across some used tools, quality tools, I'll buy them if the price is right.  Generally speaking, older is better.  I would rather have an old set of S-K Wayne wrenches than the current crap offered by Mac.  In fact, I have a lot of S-K stuff at home and couldn't be happier.

As far as dealers go, I've found a new love in the past few years.  Cornwell tools.  My Cornwell dealer, Adam, is Rob (from Mac), Mick (Snap-On) and Steve (Matco) all rolled into one.  I'm not a huge fan of Cornwell's tools (the grips on some of their tools are just horrible) but the quality is excellent.  Cornwell also allows "independent" dealers.  Adam is one of them.  He knows Cornwell's products, as well as many, many other suppliers' products, inside out.  He'll let me know when a certain tool isn't up to par and then steer me in the right direction.  He's quick when it comes to ordering things, he shows up regularly, he has learned the needs of every one of his customers...  Aside from the occasional Matco purchase (quite rare) I only buy from Adam.  We have another Mac guy coming around, but I've never met him.  Nor do I care to.  Yet another broken Mac drill bit the other night added fuel to that fire.  DO NOT BUY MAC TOOLS!!!  Sure, I can sharpen drills by hand, but it doesn't do any good when your 13' off the ground, on a ladder, trying to install a light on a trailer.  Drill, drill.. SNAP.  FUCK!!  Screw, screw... SNAP.  FUCK!!  That has been my experience with Mac tools.  Don't even get me started on their wrenches.  Mac wrenches are akin to grabbing a handful of razor blades.

I could go on, and on, and on, and on....  To you new mechanics, when you find a good tool guy, stick with him.  Buy old tools whenever possible.   See if the old fuckers in your shop will let you look through their box.  They didn't just fall out of the sky with that tool kit, there's a reason they have what they have.  Just make sure you pick the old guy that takes the time to put his tools away after every job instead of piling them up in his service cart and closing the lid at the end of the shift.  And whatever you do, DO NOT have an "open box" policy.  It WILL be abused.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions.  Know every tool you loan out and make sure the person you loaned that tool to puts it back.  If it's not back on your box as soon as they're done with it, pounce on them like a hungry wolf.  "Hey, are you done with that socket?"  If that new guy hasn't learned to respect the tools of another person, YOU MUST MAKE THEM RESPECT YOUR TOOLS!!!!  Even if it makes you seem like an asshole.  And lock your goddamn tool box!  Our morning foreman leaves his box unlocked, and on the rare occasion it is locked, everyone knows where the keys are.  I hear him bitching about missing tools frequently.  "It's your own goddamned fault you know." I'll say.  "I told you right from the time you started working in the shop to lock your tool box.  See where it's got you?  They're your tools.  You're not required to loan them out.  If any of them are missing, it's your own fault and I have no sympathy for you."  That guy is also notorious for not putting things back at the end of a job.  His service cart is almost always piled up with tools at the end of his shift.  "If you don't respect your tools, nobody else will."  Every new guy that comes into the shop gets the same lecture from me.  "Buford (not his real name and the shop owner's brother) will borrow tools from you.  You need to treat him like a puppy.  If he helps himself to your tool box, you need to scold him right away or else you'll never get rid of him."  Buford has been in the business longer than I have and his "tool box" is a joke.  He doesn't take care of his own tools and has no respect for anyone's tools.  He's one of those people who never learned that basic kindergarten lesson of "Pick up your toys when you're done playing with them."  He's a slob, he has hardly any tools of his own and he has no respect for anyone else's tools.  Within the first couple of days at this shop I caught him rummaging through my box.  "What the fuck are you doing in my box!!  If you want to borrow a tool you fucking ASK ME first!!"  And just recently the "moocher" borrowed my 3/4" impact because the one he had wasn't working.  It helps when you put some air tool oil into it every now and again, but he doesn't need to maintain anything right?  He can always bum a tool off someone else.  I let him use my impact and it came back dirtier than when it went out.  Buford, in his defense, did wipe it off.  But it was returned in a condition worse than when he initially received it.  The next time he asked to borrow that 3/4" impact I said "No.  The last time you used it, it came back more dirty than when it went out."  He stumbled off muttering "Whatever..."  I said "What the fuck do you mean 'whatever'?  You've been in the business longer than I have, you shouldn't have to be bumming tools all the time.  You also have no respect for other peoples' tools.  And your a fucking slob on top of that.  You can't even keep track of the three jackets that have been provided for you!"  The jaws of the other guys who were standing around were on the floor.  I told them "You don't owe him anything.  All you have to do is fucking lock your tool box and tell that shithead 'No' when he helps himself.  It's not rocket science.  If Buford loses your tools, breaks your tools, or returns them dirty, it's your own fucking fault."  If everyone at the shop cut Buford off, he wouldn't be able to do his job.  He needs to be taught a lesson but won't learn that lesson unless everyone starts learning how to lock their tool boxes.  Don't be Buford!

Listen to the old guys in your shop.  That is, of course, unless that old guy is Buford.  Fuck him.  Lock that son of a bitch out of YOUR tool box.  Us old fuckers, especially those of us who have been at the same place for years, will be able to steer you in the right direction.  We'll keep you from buying things you don't need.

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