Craftsman Tools In Retrospect – A 50 Year Comparison


Part of growing up is listening to your parents and grandparents gripe about how expensive everything is now. They’ll tell you how in their day, prices were reasonable, people were honest, and the world was a lot better off as a whole. Now, I’ve lived my life up to this point believing this view of yesteryear to be true, but as I started taking a fact based look at it, I discovered that at least part of that utopian recollection may be somewhat debatable.

 

What Once Was

Though it might be hard to believe today, for the 20th century in it’s entirety Sears was a giant. For decades they were America’s largest retailer and a component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In a day long before the internet, their catalog was often called the “Consumer’s Bible” and at one time even included houses and automobiles. Introduced in 1927, Sear’s Craftsman line of tools became arguably the most popular brand of tools in America and you were hard pressed to find a garage anywhere in America that didn’t have at least some Craftsman tools in it. Sear’s never manufactured their own tools. From the very beginning they were made under contract by some of the finer manufacturers of the time including Plomb, New Britain, Moore Drop Forge, Easco, and many others.

Craftsman was never a truly “professional” brand. They were always geared more toward the DIY crowd, but for most of their history their affordable price and great quality ensured they found their way into their fair share of pro boxes as well. They were truly an American icon and were by most accounts, the last affordable, American made, line of tools that a typical homeowner could justify the price of.

 

Craftsman In 1964

In 1964 Craftsman was in the “V” series era. Though using Moore Drop Forge as their primary OEM, tools of this period came from a host of manufacturers including Western Forge, Wilde, Kastar (Lang), J.H. Williams, Empire, Miller’s Falls, and others. This period is widely considered to be one of the better era’s of Craftsman production. Gary Lauver of Belton, TX knows more about vintage Craftsman than any guy I know. In addition to offering some of the information above, he had this to say as well:

“Here’s what I can say about the Craftsman tools of the 1960’s:

1) None have broken
2) None have worn out, though some, like screwdrivers, have been touched up on the grinder 
3) None have been warrantied
4) All have served me well over the last 6 decades
5) Some have been passed on to my son who continues to use them
6) Most still look good in spite of their hard use and age.

In short, they were value priced, well made, tools that have performed flawlessly over the long run. I have no regrets about any of these tools.”

What more can you really ask of your tools?

 

So, What’s This Article About?

This article examines the 1964 Craftsman Hand and Power Tool catalogs. It takes the prices, runs them through the Department Of Labor Inflation Calculator, and compares them to the prices of the same or similar items today. Yes, I know that the level of quality of today’s Craftsman is much different than that of the V series, and that they were American made as opposed to being Chinese today, but I feel the Craftsman of yesterday still appeals to much of the same user base as it does today. The homeowner tool market looks very different than it did 50 years ago. Where once there were endless American made options, there are few that remain. We can debate the differences and contributing factors on the forums for weeks if that’s what you want, but this article is just for fun.

Without further delay, lets take a look.

 

Hand Tools

Craftsman has always been popular for their tool sets. In 64 the biggest set in the catalog was the 195 piece set at a retail cost of $189.95. It included 1/4″, 3/8″, 1/2″, and 3/4″ drive  sizes, as well a nice assortment of wrenches and other essentials.

Craftsman 1964 1

Today’s sets aren’t an exact comparison. Noticeably absent from the 64 sets are metric tools. Metric was around in 64, but for most, they weren’t the everyday items they are today as it would be over a decade before “The Big 3” would begin using metric on automobiles extensively. Differences aside, I feel todays 255 piece set is fairly comparable. It doesn’t feature 3/4″ drive, but it does have many more sockets and not much fluff (insert bits, etc.).

Craftsman 255 set 2014

Today’s 255 piece set is currently online for $254.99. With minimum wage currently at $7.25, a customer earning minimum wage could purchase this set in 35 hours worked. In 1964 minimum wage was $1.15, meaning a customer earning minimum wage would need to work just over 165 hours to purchase the set. Adjusted for inflation, the 195 piece set in 64 was $1,452.64 in 2014 dollars. That’s a pretty staggering difference. Even if you were to add a 16 piece 3/4″ drive set for $169.99 for a total of 271 pieces, you’re still only into the set $424.98. In other words, the larger set today is just over $1000 less to purchase.

For a smaller scale perspective, let’s take a look at a small combination wrench set. In 64 the basic set was 6 pieces (7/16″ – 3/4″) at a cost of $6.29. There was also a 10 piece set (3/8″ – 1″) listed for $11.49

It was hard to crop a decent pic
It was hard to crop a decent pic

In 2014, the smallest set I could find was a 9 piece set (1/4″ – 3/4″) retailing for $15.99.

Craftsman combo set 2014

Adjusted for inflation, the 6 piece set from 64 equates to $48.10, while the 10 piece set comes in at $87.87. Again, the difference is eye opening.

 

Power Tools 

For power tools, I didn’t feel drills were really a good comparison, so the first tool we’ll look at is a circular saw. The top model in 64 was a 7-1/2″ Industrial model priced at $59.99.

 That's 17 pounds of circ saw

That’s 17 pounds of circ saw

Today, Craftsman’s top circ saw is the Craftsman Professional model # 27311 which while often on sale for $78.99, normally retails for $129.99

 A mere 12 lbs.

A mere 12 lbs.

Adjusted for inflation, the top shelf circ saw in 1964 would set you back an almost unbelievable $458.77! Even the lesser model in 64 retailed for $39.99, which translates to $305.82 in todays money. Now you know why your grandpa had all those hand saws hanging in his shop.

How about a table saw? In 64 the top “portable” 10″ model was listed at $129.99.

Craftsman top table 1964

There was a catch though. For that price you didn’t get the motor ($24.96 extra), a stand ($29.99 extra), or the table extension ($17.99 extra). There was also an 8″ model that went for $62.99 without the motor, stand, or extension.

Craftsman Table Saw 1964

Todays top Craftsman portable 10″ saw is the Professional model # 21829 listed at $599.99

Craftsman Pro table saw 2014

Adjusted for inflation, the comparable 10″ saw in 1964 (with the motor, stand, and extension) would set you back $1597.79 ($208.93 in 1964 dollars). The motor alone equates to $190.88, the stand to $229.35, and the extension to $137.58. The same set up in the 8″ saw works out to $111.47, a mere $852.47 in 2014 dollars compared to $199 for a similar set up today.

Another item that blew me away was a 29 piece HSS drill bit set. It was listed in 64 at $27.99 which translates to $214.05 in todays money. That’s roughly twice the cost of a premium HSS set today from Norseman or the like.

Craftsman bit 1964

 

Conclusions

So what does all this mean? Look, I’m no economist. I’m not about to sit here and pretend to have any educated answer as to why these calculations work out the way they do, but one reasonable conclusion is that tools are more affordable now than they’ve ever been. Even if you do the calculations with the higher quality brands of today like Proto and SK, that more accurately represent the level of quality and COO of the early 60″s Craftsman, the results hold true. For shiggles, I ran some numbers from the 1953 catalog and the margin was actually a little higher, meaning that even in some of the best economic times of the 20th century, tools were a lot more expensive than they are today. I remember my dad and grandpa talking about what a special occasion it was to buy things like tool sets, appliances, furniture, and many of the other items we take for granted today. People saved for months, even years, to make purchases like these, and when they did, it was something you might invite friends and family over to see.

 

Just for fun, find some old ads or catalogs and run the numbers though the Inflation Calculator to see for yourself. It’s kinda fun. Other calculations from 1964 to 2014 work out interesting as well. We see some items have became more affordable, while others more expensive:

                                          1964________2014 Adjustment__________________________

Minimum Wage                $ 1.15                       $ 8.79

Gallon of Gas                    $ .30                         $2.29

Avg. New Home           $ 20,500.00              $ 156,773.42

1st Class Stamp                $ .05                         $ .38

Gallon of Milk                     $ .95                        $ 7.27

New Corvette                   $ 4,300                   $ 32,884.18

Feel free to comment and let us know what you think about this article. Until next time, thanks for reading.

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Travis (Conductor562 on the Forums) is an Editor and Forum Administrator for Tools In Action. As a father of 4, he is an avid fixer off all things broken. He enjoys woodworking and restorations. While he enjoys all tools, he focuses primarily on hand tools. When he's not at work he can be found in his home shop working on something with lots of help from his 5 year apprentice Evan (aka Conductor Jr.).

22 COMMENTS

    • As has been said, the difference today is that many of the Craftsman tools are made in Red China. And you can bet they won’t last for over 50 years, especially their ratchets that are junk today. Back in ’64 many professional mechanics bought and used the Craftsman tools. They don’t do that today, the Craftsman tools just don’t hold up.

  1. The problem I have with Craftsman is that their tools are so expensive when there are same quality tools from other similar brands, like Husky, Kobal, Stanley, I can go on. I was at Sears the other day & they had the DeWalt mechanics tools sets on sale. The 117 tools set was at $89 & the Craftman 119 piece (I think it was the 119 set) was at $150. I have DeWalts sets & they are way better than the stuff Craftsman is shelling out. I would consider them if they would bring some of there manufacturing back to the US. Laters TIA & Travis

  2. I was looking at old color tv prices one night because someone mentioned an old local appliance store on Facebook. It’s crazy what the prices were back then when you adjust them to today’s prices even with inflation its just crazy. I guess part of me is glad things are more affordable at the entry level, but is has reduced the quality of the product long term. The other huge downside is the loss of American Manufacturing. I will say Sears made a mistake the just offshored their manufacturing just as we had seen an upswing to more American manufacturing the costs with the high productivity of the American worker and the high automation we have here has leveled the costs. The other huge thing is making products here lowers the costs of transportation and reduces the complexity of logistics for companies. If Klein can produce high quality products at competitive big box store prices I think anyone can do it. Even Texton an company known more for being a budget brand is selling more American made products every week.

    • It depends n what year you were looking at. When the color TV’s first came out, the prices were very high and the quality was not very good, mostly green and orange in the picture. But with time, the prices came down and the quality improved.

  3. Interesting article.

    I think a big component of the pricing difference is that is MUCH cheaper to manufacture goods now than it was in 1964- and not just because of China. Modern manufacturing methods have changed dramatically from the way things were done 50 years ago, and as a result everything we make is significantly cheaper, even if it’s still something of the finest quality available and made in the USA.

  4. Great article Travis. I like to know some of the history about sears and craftsman to know more about what older folks are taking about. Would have been great to see both brands back in their day. Crazy to see what price back then look like today after inflation. Maybe what the older generation was talking about was that possibly it was easier to earn those dollars as opposed to today, but that’s just a guess

  5. I got the craftsman 299 piece socket set a month ago and holy cow was it the most underwhelming purchase ever. The sockets can is 4 clear plastic bag with no apparent organization, padding, packaging. 2 of the sockets had rust, there was 2 9/16 inch (3/8″ drive) sockets and no 16mm socket. That said at $250 for the whole set I was not expecting much more. We just need to realize Craftsman is not a quality brand any more it is a budget brand for Sear stores, same as husky, Kobalt…. I only wish is another company would make the big socket sets. Where you can buy all 300 sockets in a couple clicks. I looking at you tekton and gear wrench.

  6. Some Craftsman tools are still made in the USA, I think these are the larger sets, also there individual sets are made in the USA as I bought the a single socket then a kit with the same socket and the one in the kit was a completely different socket and design!! If I was to purchase any more Craftsman I’ll make sure it says Made in the USA!

    I am truly sad to see such an icon essentially sell out, I think I would be able to be some what ok with the manufacture of some tools in china if they were to the same quality as the USA ones.

  7. Great info. Everytime i go buy Sears I always look and see if I can grab some old American Made stock. I have a lot of American made RP wrenches stocked up. I also look for old American made Craftsman and others on e-bay.

  8. Sears has been a failing business for a long time now, but I can still find more USA tools at Sears than at Lowe’s. Perhaps they looked at the success of Harbor Freight and realized that American-made tools are not as important to Americans as they might claim.

  9. Sears sucks and craftsman sucks. I was a fierce loyalist and huge collector of craftsman hand tools. For many, many years I collected the old stuff, bought and used the newer stuff. Until one day around 2011 I realized that sears had been covertly making craftsman tools in china. They called my wrenches “Obsolete”.

    So my entire collection (years and years of collecting) was sold in months on ebay. A bunch of it I gave to my friend, Ryan. He said, “Are you sure, Turner?”…….I said, “Yup…….I don’t keep craftsman anymore”.

    The way I figure……I won’t stand behind a tool company that won’t stand behind me.

    True story.

  10. I have a great many Craftsman hand tools from 1958 on up to the late 1960’s. As a young apprentice I may have wanted the “Snap on” class of tools, but my wages did not support my wants. I purchased Craftsman tools, and still have all of them. They did replace a 1/2″ drive ratchet that had the teeth worn down from so much use. I am now retired and still use those tools. When my time is up, those tools, and a great many others will pass on to my grand kids.

    • That is the way it used to be. A lot of professionals used Craftsman tools day in and day out. The could not do that with what Craftsman is making today.

  11. I’m completely dumbfounded by craftsman. I’m 52 years old with sockets and wrenches I still use from my teens. Over the years I’ve lost a good chunk of them. I’ve replaced a boat load of them over the years with craftsman. The quality has gone from top of the line to cheap harborfrieght junk. If I was a mechanic who relied on these tool every day I would be forced to go to snap on, Matco, etall to be assured not to break down mid job. Just so sad seeing a decent store and product nosediving.

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