Bright red tool chests. There’s just something about them that makes me all warm inside. Maybe it’s the capability to be organized. Maybe it’s the smell of new rubber or the feel of powder-coated sheet metal. Maybe it’s the deep thunk the casters make when they roll over cracks in the concrete. Maybe it’s because it reminds me of a hard candy shell you bite through to get to the delicious tools inside. I mean really, is there anything better than opening a bright red drawer and feeling it glide along a buttery-smooth ball bearing slider, only to be greeted by Ingersoll Rand or Ballistol in the morning? No. There is nothing better. That is the correct answer.
Whether you are a handyman, budding mechanic, or weekend do-it-yourselfer, tool chests are an indispensable item. If you have a collection of tools, you’re going to need a place to store them. If you don’t have a collection of tools, and you still consider yourself a man, then I suggest you get a tool chest anyways, so you can at least appear to have inherited a trace of your genetic disposition to build, break, and fix stuff.
Ok, not every guy needs a huge rolling tool chest. I survived for years off of garage shelving, nylon bags, and a small portable toolbox. But as your collection grows, you will either have to buy more small organizational items or commit and get a tool chest. I hit that breaking point in early 2011. It was time to get the infamous red tool chest.
BMS exists at a visible extreme within the tool chest market, and you will be faced with a decision: the practical chest or the hypnotic chest. The practical chest will perform as it is supposed to, fulfill its purpose, and provide reliable trouble-free experiences. The hypnotic chest will do all that too but at a much higher price tag. The hypnotic chest will be of higher quality, built to higher standards, and will have greater longevity, but at 200%-3500% the price of the practical chest. We’re talking $500 compared to $5k here, folks. In addition, the average consumer will not get enough use out of either chest to be able to actually tell the difference. With the hypnotic chest, the majority of the extra cost is due to the name written on the side of it.
Hypnotic Brand Examples: Snap-On, Mac Tools, and Matco
Practical Brand Examples: Craftsman, Kobalt, Husky, and US General
Let me make something very clear, I have nothing against the hypnotic brands. In fact, I admire them, and if I could afford them I would use them. Also, I’m talking about tool chests here, not the tools that these brands make, which makes a difference. When it comes to hand tools, the hypnotic brands make the finest tools in the world, and their quality standards are extremely important in that regard. But, being a rational human being, I cannot rationalize spending $2,500-$8,000 on a chest that will get moderate use when there are comparable equivalents that cost less than $400. In addition, be clear that when I say “practical chest,” I do not mean “cheap chest.” I am not recommending you go out and get the cheapest tool chest you can find. Those will definitely fail on you, so don’t come blaming RC when your knock-off “Stack On” chest that you got from Amazon falls apart and eats your children. In fact, because the line between good value and cheap is so fine, there are very few practical chests that I would recommend.
So what’s going to be the difference between a $2500+ chest and a ~$400 chest? The more expensive chest will typically:
- Employ heavy duty ball bearings in order to perform reliably for the user who opens drawers hundreds of times a day, for years on end. The average consumer won’t be opening the drawers on a tool chest hundreds of times a day, so heavy-duty ball bearings aren’t necessary. Well-greased, ‘regular‘ ball bearings will do just fine.
- Employ stronger slides in order to support more weight. The slides on the practical chest will be able to hold 90-150 lbs of weight, while the expensive boxes can hold closer to ~250 lbs per drawer. Looking at the size of the drawers, I can’t ever imagine cramming enough dense mass in there to exceed 100 lbs per drawer. I’m not sleeping in the thing, ~100 lb limits will work fine.
- Employ thicker metal in order to hold more weight and be more durable. Unless you have an uncontrollable habit of piercing sheet metal at random, the thinner metal will hold up just fine.
What difference will this make to the average consumer? Zero. If you are a professional mechanic, you might have a good argument to purchase the higher-end tool chests, but beyond that, I can’t see why any home user would want to pay so much more for so little.
While taking all this in, it is important to remember the rule that governs this entire discussion:
The name on the side of the chest doesn’t matter. It’s the contents inside the chest that make all the difference.
So in review, just be sure to keep yourself grounded. After all, a tool chests’ main job is to simply counteract the forces of gravity applied to your tools. A place for you to store your tools, and that’s it. Keep that in mind and don’t get wrapped up in all the technology or branding of a simple box with drawers.
Cutting to the chase, I found the best values were the practical chests made by Craftsman, Husky, Kobalt, and US General. Realistically, any basic rollaway tool chest from those brands will be a reliable tool storage option that will outlast you. I emphasize the word basic because I don’t recommend some of the higher-end models with gimmicky bells and whistles. Casters, ball-bearing cabinets, and solid construction should be all you need in a tool chest, so stay away from the ones with speakers, fridges, and flux capacitors.
I decided to look at a US General #90320 chest in person, mainly because of the value. US General is a brand sold at Harbor Freight, similarly to Husky at Home Depot and Kobalt at Lowes. I like Lowes and the Depot plenty, but I was able to get a better deal on the US General, and upon personal inspection, the quality seemed equivalent. For the record, inspecting this US General tool chest was my first time visiting a Harbor Freight ever, so I don’t necessarily vouch for any of the other items in their showroom. But as I said before, it’s about the tools in the box, not the box itself.
The US General roll cabinet I was looking at surprised me. Besides the powder coat finish, it seemed extremely durable, and I was very impressed with the drawers, casters, and overall construction. It includes a rubber mat on the flat top, a lightweight mat in each drawer, heavy-duty rubberized casters, a key lock to lock all cabinets, dual sliders on the larger cabinets, and ball bearings providing smooth operation throughout. Beyond the quality, it was the price that sealed the deal.
The bad news is that US General is exclusive to Harbor Freight, so you won’t be able to shop around much. The good news is that Harbor Freight is the WalMart of tools, so it’s going to be competitively priced regardless. I was able to purchase this cabinet during a Memorial Day weekend sale, which got the price down to around $300.
Currently, on their website, it is listed at a discounted $389.99 down from $600, probably for Thanksgiving. There are a bunch of discount coupons out there for Harbor Freight, but none of them work on this item because it is already on sale. If you missed the discounted price, you might want to watch for HF coupons online, as they typically discount 20% off of one item. Also, buy in-store to save on shipping.
Getting to the point, I have been loving my US General! Granted, there isn’t much to go wrong on a simple metal box with sliding drawers, but it has been a very reliable piece of equipment in my garage. Since the purchase in May 2011, it has seen intermittent use for work on trucks, motorcycles, lawnmowers, and homes. I wouldn’t consider myself a professional user, but it sees its fair share of use.
The cabinets are as smooth as the day I bought it, and the lightweight mats are great for protecting the powder-coat finish inside the cabinets. The cabinets seat easily, extend effortlessly and are very durable. There is a handle on one side of the chest which makes it easy to cart around, but the chest is so big that I typically just leave it where it is. The key lock feature is a lot more robust than I thought it would be, but I’m sure a simple crowbar could gain access to a locked drawer if attempted. The heavy-duty rubber mat on the desktop is a nice addition.
The casters are solid, and two of them lock which keeps it in place nicely. The two locking casters are adjacent to one another, which allows the cabinet to swivel, even when locked. I would recommend that US General put one locking caster on each side of the chest, both cabinet-side.
To be honest, I can’t find much to dislike. One issue is that the powder-coat finish is a bit fragile, but that’s powder coats for you. Banging your tools on the chest, or sliding it against the wall will rub off the finish, and perhaps even expose metal if it is repeated often. However, the finish is durable enough to use with magnets, as I have used the exterior to store my portable garage lights, and they haven’t damaged the finish at all. My chest has gained some scratches, but mostly unnoticeable, and nothing compromising.
My other issue is that the label system is too loose. The chest includes these long strips of paper and plastic to use for labeling the handles of each drawer. I have found them more of a nuisance than anything because they sit in the cabinet handle loosely and displace themselves often.
Those are my only two gripes with the entire chest, so props to US General!
I would highly recommend this chest to the average user. I believe it would stand up for weekend mechanics reliably as well. Is it for a professional garage? Maybe, but I can’t say how the slides and bearings would hold up with hundreds of operations each day. This is a durable and reliable tool chest, at a value. Enough said.