Whether it's still true this day or not, I've always envisioned American-made tools coming out of a dingy factory in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, or some Midwest city with ash, coal dust, and slag piled up on the floor. Monstrous barking open-hearth furnaces spew out showers of yellow-orange molten steel before the honey-like high-carbon cocktail is poured into molds and then formed into rough shape on evil-looking hammer forges by guys named Mike or Al or Carl. They manhandle their work from side to side quickly and expertly while wearing dark protective aprons and heavy cowhide gloves covered with grime from years of hard manual labor. And after their shifts are done and the tools they created cool in bins post finish-grinding and polishing, they pile in their Buicks or Plymouths or Fords and make for the bowling alley to down a half-dozen or so Schlitz beers and a bacon sandwich or two. American tools made by Americans who unapologetically live the American way. At least, that's the mental image my noggin conjures. I'm sure it's no longer the reality of the tool-making process in this modern day and age, but if not, don't tell me. I like my version of reality better.
The bummer is that most tools today, even from long-trusted American brand names like Craftsman, Matco, Mac, and Snap-On, have moved much of their manufacturing overseas. Yeah, profits are maximized, but even if the quality isn't degraded, the romance is. I don't get a warm and fuzzy feeling about my kids, grandkids, or great grandkids building Jeeps and hot rods with my old Chinese-built tools after I leave this planet. But for all my ranting and railing against imported hand tools, a peek inside any of my massive and overflowing toolboxes would reveal only a percentage of truly American-made products. So what's a gearhead to do? Start buying American.
There still are tool companies that insist on keeping their entire manufacturing process here in America. And even some of the larger companies such as Craftsman, Matco, Mac, and Snap-On still offer 100 percent USA-made tools. But there's a lot of digging, researching, and sleuthing required to find 'em. I've started going through the motions if it's a specialty tool I really need and insist on a USA-made product. But for more common socket sets, wrenches, screwdrivers, and other assorted hand tools, I've started shopping somewhere else: estate sales.
Many of you may already be well-versed on estate sales, but for those of you who aren't, the best usually involve an older dead guy and the stuff he left behind or maybe a couple needing to downsize into an apartment or nursing home. These are the ones you wanna look for and not the "moving out of state and need to sell these crappy Huffy bikes and kitsch lawn trolls we don't want to bring with us." Don't bother with Craigslist or any other online source. Buy a paper. Old folks are analog, not digital, so the best estate sales advertised in old-school black-and-white and nowhere else. You'll often find an arsenal of old USA-made hand tools that can range from the beautiful to the bizarre.
I'm still a noob at the estate sale thing, but so far I've stumbled across F-stamped tool kits that came with the purchase of a new Model T, weird square-drive ratchet sets, vintage Craftsman ratchets solid enough to double as a hammer, and even a bunch of cool old-school power tools. I've been a wrench-spinning, hands-on tool junkie since I was fresh out of diapers, and even I find things I never knew existed. These golden nuggets are the barn-finds of the tool world. So get yourself out there on a Saturday morning and grab some history to pass down before it goes to scrap…and gets turned into a Chinese hand tool.