For several years I’ve stored my “in-town” automotive tools in a modest older Snap-on rolling chest combination (which I bought used). But it’s been getting really crowded recently, and I’ve been thinking about augmenting or replacing it. The decade-old Craftsman chest out at our desert place is larger, but I didn’t want to just swap the two as I still need a full complement of tools out there as well.
By sheer coincidence I was at an acquaintance’s house last week to deliver a gate opener I’d sold him, and it turned out he had recently bought the entire remnant stock of Kobalt tool chests from the local Lowe’s home improvement stores. Kobalt had been the chain’s store brand for years, but recently they switched to Craftsman—which, as you might know, is now owned by Stanley Black and Decker rather than Sears. In my mind this switch is actually a step down: Recent made-in-China Craftsman tools that I’ve examined in their packaging show noticeably poorer finish than the older made-in-America products, poorer in fact than the few Kobalt tools I’ve purchased to review.
Anyway, my friend had scored several dozen of Kobalt’s top-of-the-line stainless-steel-clad tool chests, and quickly unloaded all of them at fire sale prices. He had exactly one left, and it happened to be a tall, narrow, 27-inch-wide model, which is the only configuration that will fit in the in-town garage. So I bought it for a song.
Back at home I had to pull the drawers to unload it and get it into position. And that gave me the opportunity to look past the beautiful stainless exterior and the nifty soft-close drawers. What I noticed made me pull apart that plain old red Snap-on chest to examine it as well. And that’s where significant differences showed up. Drawers out, the Snap-on cabinet was noticeably heavier and more torsionally rigid than the top box on the Kobalt. Where Snap-on used nuts and bolts and spot welds to assemble pieces, the Kobalt had been assembled almost exclusively with pop rivets—in fact I found several stems from those rivets still inside the cabinet. Both brands incorporate smooth roller-bearing drawers, but when I re-installed the Snap-on drawers they each slotted perfectly into their slides and snicked home effortlessly, while the Kobalt’s drawers proved to be a real pain to get properly lined up. I had to carefully fit each side in each slide to prevent it simply falling out, then guide the assembly in until it clicked back together—after which, I should note, each worked perfectly, including the soft-close function.
Don’t get me wrong: The Kobalt chest is a very nice item and I’m glad I bought it, especially at the price. I’m sure it will serve my amateur mechanic needs adequately, as I’m only in those drawers a dozen times per month, rather than dozens of times per day as a pro would be. But it was clear that the Snap-on chest would hold up to that kind of use far better than the Kobalt would. (And I managed to squeeze the Snap-on chest into another corner of the garage.) Snap-on certainly puts a hefty price premium on its products, and it is inarguable that a good part of that premium is strictly due to the name and cachet, but at least you get the excess you pay for.
In a larger context, it points out the obvious fact that external looks aren’t everything. It’s the engineering underneath that determines quality.