Marketing has taken over the world. Over the years companies have found a way to squeeze advertising into virtually every aspect of our lives. In the United States alone there is something like $120 Billion dollars spent each year just on TV and Internet advertising. That's a staggering number, one that it's hard to believe exists outside the National Debt, and at this point you're probably trying to wrap your head around just how much that really is. Let me help you out. Of the 186 Countries who's GDP's (Gross Domestic Product's) the International Monetary Fund tracks, that's more than 121 of them and more than the bottom 40 COMBINED! At $4,000,000 for a :30 ad, the Super Bowl alone probably boast close to $100 million in ads by itself. Needless to say, marketing is big business. Companies spend enough on ads every year to cure all or most of the worlds problems, but instead they spend it just to get you to notice them for a few seconds between the Evening News and American Idol….crazy isn't it?
These companies (or the agencies they hire) are good at what they do. The key to effectiveness is getting the product in front of people who are apt to buy the product. It's the reason you see Mac Tools logos at car races, bail bondsman signs across the street from the jailhouse, and the reason Army recruiters hang out at high schools.
But despite today's trend of high dollar ads and awkward celebrity endorsements, there are some companies who, despite having awesome products to sell, just don't spend a Rockefeller sized fortune to tell you about them. There are a number of reasons for this. Sometimes it's because they aren't relying on the customer base these type of ads generate, sometimes it's because they simply don't have the budget for it, and sometimes it's undoubtedly because their products speak for themselves.
That's why today's focus is on some of those oft forgotten companies that exist solely on their reputation without regard clicks, likes, and shares, the companies who's products sell themselves, regardless of who's hands they are pictured in, the companies who's tools just don't get the love and attention they deserve.
In this list I tried to focus on companies have significant product lines, and sell a good portion of items unique to their line. The is no scientific formula behind the rankings, it's simply a reflection of my own personal observations both in the internet tool community and in my real life. Some of these are very famous brands, others not so much, but this list isn't about brand recognition, it's about the attention they get, versus the attention I feel they deserve. If you have any of your own picks (or you have a problem with mine) feel free to come over to our forum and talk about it.
10. J.H. Williams
Williams has been around since 1884. That's a long time ago. To put it into perspective, Chester A. Arthur was in the White House, there were only 38 U.S. States, and Coca-Cola wouldn't be invented for 2 more years. Acquired by Snap-On a few years back and now technically just Williams Tool Group, it now operates as SO's industrial tool division. As you'll see with several companies on our list, industrial brands are not typically marketed at the consumer level and their primary focus is on industrial sites, government, and military contracts etc. In all cases, this bodes well for the consumer as marketing costs only drive the cost of the tools up. Williams has a lot of good stuff and they're certainly worth checking out. Be aware however, there are 2 Williams lines. One is USA made, while the other is Taiwan sourced, so be mindful before clicking buy if that's an issue for you.
Carlyle is the premium house brand for NAPA. They have a budget Evercraft line, but Carlyle is a step up. In the city and county garages of America, as well as many other places where tools are provided, Carlyle is a regular fixture. They are mostly imported tools, but the quality is good and prices are reasonable. Carlyle does have a lifetime warranty on all but torque wrenches, but last time I checked it did require a receipt. That's a bummer, but I don't typically shop for warranty. I hope to see some Carlyle tools for review in the future. I'm really digging their Power 90 ratchets and I'm not sure theres a more comprehensive hex bit socket set on the market than their 42 piece BSH42 set. Online availability is poor and you'll probably have to go to NAPA, but you can check out their products HERE.
Channellock is another company thats been around since the beginning of measured time. Founded in 1886 as the Champion Bolt and Clipper Company by George B. DeArment, it is still owned by the DeArment family to this day. I know what you're thinking, “everybody knows who Channellock is”. True, but this article isn't about companies you've never heard of. In todays society where the big box stores drive the market, house brands are pushed beyond others, and fancy new multi-purpose pliers gain all the attention, it's easy to forget about a true to their roots company like Channellock. Through the years Channellock pliers have maintained their true colors. Simple, high quality, American made, pliers. They aren't flashy chrome, and they don't have self adjusting capabilities or built in voltage detectors, but they work hard and last forever. I have 20 different pairs of them and wish I had more. Check them out HERE
I routinely profess my unconditional love for Proto. I can't help it. I got my first Proto ratchet from my dad when I was 15 and it was old then. It's a long handled, 1/2″, J5450 I call “Big Bad John”. For my entire adult life it has gotten all the big, nasty, jobs that leave other ratchets cowering with fear, and it's never failed. If you can't bust a fastener with a 5450, you'd better have an impact.
The other day my wife's grandfather, who retired as a mechanic in the late 80's, came into my garage for the first time. He immediately picked up one of my numerous Proto ratchets and commented that Proto made great tools, but you just never see them anymore. He asked me how old it was and when I told him I bought it new last year, he looked at me like I was crazy. Being 82 and out of the business for 20 years, he really doesn't keep up on things, but his reaction isn't all that uncommon from people who don't work in heavy industry where Proto is still King. For the majority of the 20th century Proto (Known as Plomb until 1948) was a widely known and trusted brand in the auto shops of America, but in 1970 they turned their focus almost entirely on the industrial market and never looked back.
Today's Proto is still the high quality stuff it always was, but they just don't market themselves to consumer level markets much. Owned by Stanley/B&D since 1984, Proto is their top shelf industrial line opposite the Mac line of premium mechanics tools (that's where the marketing $'s go). They are predominantly USA made and import items are very few and far between. In some cases a Proto item will be near or completely identical to a Mac item in all but color, for half the price. You can view their lineup HERE
Armstrong is another old brand thats still thriving. Founded in Chicago in 1890 as Armstrong Bros. Tool Company, it operated in recent history as Danaher's industrial line opposite their Matco mechanics tool division. Armstrong was rolled into Apex Tool Group in 2010 while Matco was retained as sole property of Danaher, but the 2 lines still share many traits. As with Proto/Mac and Williams/Snap-On, Armstrong offers predominately USA made quality on par with the tool trucks in many cases, at a significantly more affordable price. Armstrong is known for their very unique looking ratchets which are excellent quality, but when you mention Armstrong, a lot of times you realize many people have forgotten they exist.
I'd love to see some armstrong reviews here at TIA, but in the mean time you'll have to check them out HERE.
5. Martin Tools
When's the last time you were on a tool forum or talking shop in your buddy's garage and someone recommended a Martin tool? Exactly. Founded in 1951 and based in Arlington, TX, Martin is a family owned, multi-national, manufacturer who in addition to industrial hand tools, also manufactures Sprockets, Pulley/Conveyer parts, material handling, and power transmission products. I knew of none of this beyond their tools prior to this article, but all the Martin tools I've ever used were nice quality and USA made. Check them out HERE
If you read my article about Blackhawk a couple weeks back (If not you can read it HERE) then you know a lot of what I'm going to say here. Blackhawk has a rich history and their mid-century stuff is some of the most sought after collector tools out there. But while they days of being a mainstay in the auto part stores of the country may be gone, Blackhawk is still around and still making some great tools. Today they exist as Proto's “budget” industrial line and offer many American made tools. Pretty much anything with a ratcheting mechanism is Taiwan sourced, but regardless of Country of Origin, it's all good stuff. I've said it at least 100 times and I'll say it once more, Blackhawk sockets and combo wrenches are the best value in their respective categories, bar none. You can get a 17 piece, USA made, set of Blackhawk combos, with ASD open ends like their Proto cousins at Zoro Tools right now for under $120 shipped. You can't beat that anywhere for a new set. I've recommended them I couldn't tell you how many times, and at least half a dozen times I've received follow up communications from people who are tickled to death with what the got for the price.
3. Wright Tools
Founded in 1927, Barberton, OH based Wright Tool is a privately owned company that focuses on the industrial market. They produce very high quality tools on par with other high end industrial brands, but unlike most of the other industrial brands which operate as an arm of the big boys, Wright is a smaller, stand alone company. In 2010 Wright introduced their now popular WrightGrip wrench design which offers the benefits of Snap-On's FlankDrive+ design, for a fraction of the price. They produce 100% American made tools, and in this day and time, thats something worth supporting. Wright is another company I'd love to see here at TIA, but for now you'll have to check out their lineup HERE
2. Wilde Tool
It wouldn't surprise me in the least if you've never heard of Wilde Tool at all. Founded in 1922, Hiawatha, KS based Wilde Tool is a manufacturer of high quality, American made, tools. While their name may not ring a bell, if you, your father, or even your grandfather, bought tools from Sears, Montgomery Ward's, JC Penny's, or even Western Auto, theres a real good chance you've had a Wilde made tool in your hands. You see, Wilde has been the OEM for many house brand products over the years, in fact, it's been a majority of their business. Known primarily for their quality pliers, chisels, and pry bars, Wilde offers a wide range of items. They sell products they make in house, as well as rebranded items made by others, but all are USA made quality. Affordable too. Their online catalog is worth a look.
1. Lang Tools
The most unloved, yet deserving of love, company on our list is Lang Tools. Founded in 1932, Racine, Wisconsin based Lang is currently under it's 4th generation of family ownership. They owe a little of their obscure nature to themselves though. They previously operated 4 brands, a lot of branding for a small company to handle. The best known of these was Kastar, while the other 2….well, I've never even heard of them. Last year they wised up and consolidated all 4 brands under the Lang banner which I feel will help boast their brand recognition. Like Wilde, even if you've never heard of them, you've used their tools. Remember those old school ratcheting box end wrenches everyone had before the ratcheting combos came out? Lang invented them, and while they seem a little antiquated now, they were hot sellers at one time. Lang also manufacturers virtually every thread restorer or “chaser” made in America. Whether you buy the 48 piece set from Sears for $65, or the 48 piece set from Mac for $125, or the 48 piece set from Snap-On for $129, they all came from the same production line and they're all made by Lang. Don't send me any strongly worded messages about how the Snap-On version is forged at a secret foundry in an undisclosed location near the earth's core by holocaust surviving leprechauns and christened in unicorn tears either, because (to quote Jules Winfield) “we both know that shit ain't the truth”. Check out Lang's catalog HERE.