Truck Trend Legends: The History of Craftsman Tools
It would be comforting to think that Craftsman Tools was born from the passion of a master American toolmaker—a perfectionist who set up his operation with the intention of producing only the best tools that would be the envy of the world. The reality is not quite as romantic. Craftsman is actually an “umbrella” brand started by Sears almost 100 years ago and has used more than 20 suppliers to make its products. But still, someone had a vision for it, and that someone was Arthur Barrows.
As far as we know, Barrows was not a master toolmaker, but he was definitely head of hardware at Sears. This was around 1927, when Barrow bought the rights to the Craftsman name from the Marion-Craftsman tool company for $500, which is worth about $7,000 in today’s dollars and probably felt like an even greater amount at the time.
However, it was Barrows’ successor, Tom Dunlap, who was really responsible for creating the Craftsman brand as we’ve come to know and love it. He realized society was seeing the dawn of the automotive era and the crudely made tools farmers used up to that point were not going to get the job done. So he went about raising quality levels and even got the tools chrome-plated because he was aware that the people using them would take pride not only in their work but also their implements.
Craftsman tools quickly became known for their value and for being made in the United States, but the real stroke of marketing genius was the unlimited lifetime guarantee. Someone could walk into any Sears store and get their defective Craftsman tool replaced or repaired—no questions asked, no receipt demanded. As more and more families bought cars, homes, lawn mowers, and anything else that needed tools, Craftsman consolidated itself as an integral part of American society, even once named as the nation’s “most trusted” brand. It had sold 100 million screwdrivers by 1976.
President Carter was given a Craftsman woodworking set on his departure from the White House. The Golden Gate Bridge’s maintenance crew use Craftsman tools. More than a million Craftsman lawn mowers were sold in 1994. Costco and Ace have carried the line since 2011.
Just like General Motors has Chevrolet, Buick, and Cadillac as its three brands of ascending quality, think of Craftsman as the equivalent of Buick. The lower level first used the Sears name, then Dunlap (no prizes for guessing whose idea that was), Companion, and then Evolv. Craftsman Professional or Industrial assumed the “Cadillac” level.
It’s only logical that an operation specializing in saw manufacturing may not be the ideal source for, say, lawn mowers or power tools. So Sears has used various third-party sources—many of whom are household names themselves, like Snap-On and DeWalt—to make Craftsman tools.
Despite the built-to-last philosophy and “unlimited” lifetime guarantee (stipulations and exceptions have been phased in), Craftsman, like Sears itself, has not fared so well in the 21st century. Perhaps people don’t use tools quite so much these days. Vehicles have become so sophisticated that they require specialist technicians, and many drivers never even bother to lift the hood. IKEA sells pre-formed furniture pieces that slot together, often requiring only one screwdriver.
And now there’s that thorny issue of off-shore sourcing. The Evolv brand, for example, is currently made in Taiwan. Not surprisingly, users have become wary. Even if build standards are objectively just as good as American-made products, there’s still a question of consumer perception. And plenty of Americans would rather support the jobs and livelihoods of other Americans, given the chance. The right product of the right quality at the right price is just part of the ultimate buying decision. Anyone with Craftsman tools from the “golden era” would do well to hang on to them, but they should still get plenty of use from the current range.