(Read part 1 HERE.)
By their nature, field repairs lend themselves to chaos: Something unexpected has happened in an unexpected place—often, given the capriciousness of the overlanding gods, at an inconvenient time in inconvenient conditions. Thus, organization is nearly as vital to a traveling tool kit as comprehensiveness and quality.
Since I’m disorganized and absent-minded to begin with this takes on triple importance. If I don’t have a specific spot for every single item in my tool kit so that the hole is obvious as I’m packing up, I won’t just leave a socket in the dirt—I’m also likely to forget a wrench on a chassis rail, an extension balanced on top of a tire, and a screwdriver or two on the inside fender. I need my tools laid out like a surgeon doing a kidney transplant just to change a windshield wiper.
I started thinking seriously about tool organization when we had three four-wheel-drive vehicles in use at the same time—two of our own and a Jeep on loan from Chrysler. Despite my best efforts, tools wound up scattered among all three trucks, so when I needed the wrench set in the FJ40, it was in the FJ60. Socket to tighten the perpetually loosening battery hold-down on the Jeep? Sorry, the sockets are in the 40. Eventually I was able to equip each vehicle with basic stuff, but I decided I wanted a comprehensive kit that would fit in one case, never be separated, and could be tossed (or, um, as it turned out, heaved) into whichever vehicle was leaving on a major trip.
Rather arbitrarily I decided on a Pelican 1550 case. It’s 18 by 14 by 7.6-inch interior dimensions seemed to be about right to accommodate the selection of tools I hoped to fit inside—which, as detailed in the previous article, I wanted to make comprehensive enough to handle virtually any field repair up to and including transmission removal, differential or axle replacement, and major suspension work.
The first thing in was a 3/8ths-inch-drive socket and ratchet set—the most commonly needed tool set for most minor repairs. I looked everywhere for one that had the quality I wanted, the compactness I needed, and the selection of sockets I felt was essential, without blowing the budget. I could have gained the compactness by simply dumping a bunch of sockets in a pouch or fitting them to socket rails and storing the ratchets and extensions separately, but I’ve come to appreciate the organization intrinsic to socket sets that come in lidded, compartmented cases. Not only is everything in the set always together, neatly laid out, and instantly accessible; any missing piece is easily noticed when packing up.
Everything—quality, selection, and compactness—came together in a set from Britool, the venerable British manufacturer that supplied tools to Spitfire mechanics in 1940. The Britool 748267 set is a miraculously packaged assortment that includes SAE sockets from 1/4 to 1-inch, metric sockets from 6 to 24mm (not skipping any, like many sets do maddeningly), deep sockets from 5/16 to 3/4-inch and 6 to 19mm, a nice 72-tooth ratchet handle, a sliding T-handle (good backup if the ratchet fails), three different extensions, each with knurled finger grip and a hex fitting on top so one can apply a wrench if needed, a universal joint, and two adapters—plus several spline-drive sockets and a complete selection of slotted, Phillips, Torx, and hex bits with bit adapter. The lot is laid out cunningly in a plastic case just 10 by 15 by 3 inches. Amazing, and the quality is first-rate: All the tools have an even satin finish, the sockets employ the “Flank Drive” system, the short extension has a wobble end if you need to access a slightly off-center nut, and the ratchet head is user-serviceable. (Incidentally, the sockets are all 6-point rather than 12. At home I prefer the ease of use of 12-point sockets—which you don’t have to turn as far to fit over a nut or bolt—but for ultimate strength in a field kit the 6-point design makes sense.)
Before you stop reading and Google “Britool 748267,” I have to tell you that, apparently about 15 minutes after I bought my set, the company not only stopped production, but re-designed their entire tool line into something called Britool Expert, which, if my evaluation of a sample 1/2-inch socket set is any indication, is a step down in quality. If I’d known it at the time I would have taken out a loan, bought 50 of the 748267 sets, and would now be offering them at some usurious markup.
In the last two years, I’ve tried and failed to find a 3/8ths-inch socket set that comes close to the Britool 748267 paradigm. I discovered plenty of compact pot-metal sets from Far-East importers, and high-quality sets that took up too much room—never the right combination. A set from Sears came close, but the metric sockets ended infuriatingly at the relatively useless 18mm without including the frequently-required 19mm.
Right now I’m evaluating another Craftsman set that employs the “Max Axess” design, meaning the sockets, ratchet head, and even extensions are all hollow-centered, thus obviating the need for deep sockets—you can slide a ratchet and socket over a nut even if the stud to which it’s attached sticks out ten inches. It combines a large and small ratchet, two short extensions, and metric and SAE sockets from 3.5 to (thank you!) 19mm, and 5/32 to 7/8-inch. (Not sure about the need for the microscopic 3.5mm and 5/32 sockets, but . . .) Sears says the 72-tooth ratchet is 45 percent stronger than their most popular ratchet, and the splined socket/ratchet interface appears to be at least as strong as the standard square drive, although I worry a bit about the strength of the hollow extensions—and the complete lack of longer extensions. The set is very well-organized, and very space-efficient in its case, although it still doesn’t match the tool density of the Britool 748267. (In a moment of helpless tool geekiness I figured out the tool/volume ratios for several cases. The Craftsman case encloses 7.6 cubic inches per item inside; the Britool case only 7.1 cubic inches—and I didn’t count the bit assortment.) The biggest problem I’m having with the Craftsman kit at the moment is that it sometimes feels backwards: The smaller end of the extension fits into the ratchet, and the larger end goes over the back of the socket. If you’re interested, it was here as of this writing, for a bargain $60.*
Next up was the critical 1/2-inch-drive socket set. As I wrote in part one, I always figure that if I break out the 1/2-inch set on the road, it’s because something major needs repair—something quite likely to have stopped the vehicle or at least seriously affected it. So, more than any other component of the entire tool kit, I wanted to insure I had the highest quality 1/2-inch sockets and ratchet . . . yet I still wanted it to be compact, and preferably in its own case that would fit into the 1550. I had just put together a comprehensive eBay-sourced loose set of 1/2-inch-drive Snap-on sockets, but they’d pretty much been integrated into my rolling cabinet at home; plus, they were all 12-point sockets, and I wanted six-point for field use.
I tried a Britool Expert set, in the new blue-case-and-handle color scheme. It was compact and comprehensive—but I just wasn’t comfortable with the looks or feel of it. The chrome was thick, but orange-peeled in spots, and several features of the earlier Britool products had been eliminated. The ratchet mechanism didn’t feel perfectly consistent. Strangely, the word “Britool” appears nowhere—is the company afraid to have those old Spitfire mechanics associate the name with this stuff? It wasn’t really bad, just . . . Anyway, I kept looking.
Sears—nothing. Harbor Freight—just kidding. Then I discovered France.
Say what? Actually I’m referring to Facom ("Fahcomb"), a 90-year-old French tool maker that’s been called “the Snap-on of Europe.” Even though now owned by Stanley, and now basing production of some components in Taiwan, Facom seems to have retained its high standards; in fact I’ve seen a few web comments claiming the finish on the Taiwan pieces is a step up from the later France-sourced products. The Facom 1/2-inch-drive S.200DP metric set nearly matched the Britool Expert case in volume efficiency, had noticeably better finish, and included sockets from 10mm all the way up to a crankshaft-pulley-sized 32mm (the S.6BP is very similar, lacking only the shorter extension). I’m not fond of the palm-control directional switch on the ratchet—I prefer a lever—but it has a smooth and even 72-tooth action and is easily serviceable. Combined with the exquisite Snap-on 18-inch flex ratchet I detailed last time, I now feel I’ve got a nearly perfect 1/2-inch socket array.
Did I go off the deep end just to find good socket sets that happened to come in compact, compartmented cases? I can hear some of you (including Roseann) saying, “Uh, yeah . . .” and perhaps you’re right. Okay, you’re almost certainly right. For me that compartmentalization adds a sense of order that I find incredibly valuable when I’m lying on my back in the dirt under a dangling part of a vehicle that shouldn’t be dangling. The downsides are price—I paid significantly more for these neatly-packaged tools than I would have buying, say, open-stock Craftsman tools and finding my own boxes—and warranty coverage: I’m pretty sure there are more Sears stores in the U.S. than Facom dealers (not to mention the no-longer-made Britool kit)—but then again I have very little fear of these breaking. The cases add some weight to the whole tool kit—and despite my obsession with volumetric efficiency, they take up more space than a socket rail and a small tool roll. However, I’ve been using the evolving core of this kit in the field for two years now, and I’ve yet to regret the trouble it took to put together. Most telling: I have yet to leave a single socket in the dirt.
Next: Screwdrivers you can hammer on, a cheap hacksaw that beats out an expensive one, and a fitting that converts your ratchet into a torque wrench. Read part 3 HERE..
The main U.S. Facom distributor is Ultimate Garage.
*Addendum: The jury is in on the Max Axess kit, and it's thumbs down. The biggest problem is the bulk of the extensions, which as mentioned fit over the socket. Twice in the brief time I was evaluating the set that bulk posed problems getting "axess" to nuts close to other parts. Also, the lack of a longer extension has proven to be a very real drawback. Sorry Sears.