I mentor a high school robotics team, so that may be somewhat similar to your age range, and hopefully some of my experience there will help you. You mention hand tools specifically, and for woodworking and mechanic type roles, so I’ll stick to that. When I started with the robotics team, they had a great hodgepodge of different hand tools from all manner of brands, from unbranded or no name up to Channellock and DeWalt and similar. With few exceptions, I don’t think you’d ever need to go better than that “tier” of tools for a school setting. I’ve been able to see what they’ve broken, what tools they avoid since they don’t like, etc., and have been working to slowly refit the shop as things break or go beyond their useful life. Teenagers are hard on tools, especially if they aren’t theirs, and even if they know better, will cut corners to save time or some other reason. Every year I still have issues with students using the wrong tools for something on our final competition robot and rounding out a critical fastener or something else similar, where if they’d just taken the time to get the proper tool, there’d have been no problem. That leads to even snap on level quality wrenches having rounded out box ends from being used inappropriately. Obviously you want durable tools that are reasonable to use, but aren’t going to break the bank. Don’t make the mistake I think a teacher before my time did and assume this means get the cheapest tools you can and replace them more often to keep them in nearer-new shape. A lifetime warranty is a bonus. If I were re-outfitting the entire shop of hand tools in one single brand, it’d probably be Husky, just since we have a Home Depot right next door. Kobalt too mostly has a lifetime guarantee. We’ve used the Husky guarantee a few times to replace like wire cutters that get mangled cutting hard wire or ratchets that break, and it was usually pretty painless. We have had to eat some that were very obvious abuse, but that’s just going to happen and why you don’t get the most expensive tools either for teenagers you aren’t directly related to. But really I think bang for buck value goes beyond just the cheapest tools so you can replace them easy, if you have to replace wire cutters every year because they don’t stay sharp with use, you might actually spend less long term (and your teenagers will enjoy using them more) getting slightly better ones. Pliers are another good example, we had some junk ones that came from walmart (not Stanley even) that the teeth were all flattened out after just a few weeks, they could almost be a pliers wrench now if they weren’t so sloppy. Can’t return them, they don’t work for a lot of what we need pliers for anymore, and buying new ones every few weeks doesn’t make sense. That would be an area where I’d go to like Channellock or maybe some Craftsman branded Knipex if I could find any. We also have some no-name tools that are in pristine condition because nobody will use them, even if they’re the only one of that tool we have. They’re just so uncomfortable or only barely work even new that the kids just won’t use them. And I don’t blame them, I’d honestly not use them either, and would instead find some other way, even if not proper.
Stanley isn’t what it once was unfortunately, in my opinion. A walmart Stanley set isn’t what I want to think of when I think of the Stanley name. I’d have to rate them down with HDX and Anvil, cheap, and there are occasional bursts of sufficient quality in there, but not enough that I’d get them over anything else. The upside is they’re usually very cheap. I’d put Husky and Kobalt in the next tier up. I might lump current Craftsman from Lowe’s in this tier as well, until we see more of what SBD is going to do with it. There’s some great stuff in sears craftsman, but a lot of junk, and while the lowe’s sets I handled in store don’t feel as junky as other craftsman stuff, I can’t give them a sign off yet and move them up a tier. Husky and Kobalt are still cheap, but for a house brand they aren’t terrible, the quality to price ratio is actually close to the best of the brands (except maybe Pittsburgh pro) IMO, plus you get the guarantee. Next up above them you have a giant tier that I’d put Irwin, DeWalt, Milwaukee, Crescent, Tekton and Channellock in. Not to say that each of them doesn’t have their strong and weak points like anyone else, but I find them of more consistent quality than Husky and Kobalt, and still a pretty good value, just maybe not as much as the previous tier. Then you have your top tier, the Wiha, Knipex, NWS, Wera, Felo, Gedore, etc. Obviously higher cost, but usually better quality.
I’m going to break with the other suggestions and suggest not getting an all in one type kit that has sockets and pliers and a hammer and all that, of any brand. They are good starter sets, but I think you compromise on tool quality too much to fill a box with stuff, and you’ll wind up replacing those compromise pieces sooner rather than later. And I’m also more a fan of buying individual tools at the quality you need. Continuing my adjustable pliers example, they get abused, so I’d even step up Knipex cobras for them, even for teens (unless you’re worried about theft), or at least Channellock. Nothing worse than using a worn down loose pair of adjustable pliers. Similarly, a pliers wrench you can’t get much outside of Wiha or Knipex, but oh boy do we get our use out of them too now that I got them a pair. Not something I’d get if I were worried about them walking off though, since they are a higher dollar tool, but I’m also not particularly worried about them breaking or getting worn out any time soon either, so a sensible investment to me and good comparative value to the team because of their usefulness.
Ok, so how about some real world. If I were to refit the entire robotics shop today for hand tools, what would I get. Our uses may be slightly different from yours, particularly for certain tools (we have a lot of critical hex screws so I don’t skimp on hex keys, but that’s fairly specific to our team), but maybe this list will help you.
Hex keys: Wera Hex+ keys for critical applications, Bondhus otherwise. Husky/Kobalt ones round out on us too fast and strip fasteners too much to create value in the cost savings.
Torx keys: Husky/Kobalt. I use these more than torx screwdrivers, though I keep torx bits in a driver set to put in a ratcheting screwdriver and use that when the keys are annoying.
Tape Measure: Just about anything. Milwaukee’s beefy hooks hold up better than some of the others, but they’re more expensive and the hook still will eventually get bent or some kid will hammer the rivets so it doesn’t slide anymore anyway. I keep a couple around though because of the markings on the back side of the blade. Otherwise, lufkin, Stanley, whatever is cheap, since they will get abused and once the hook is bent, game over. We’ve gone to using metal rules from hobby lobby when possible for more accurate measurements and to decrease wear on tape measures.
Calipers: Husky/Kobalt. Cheap, not the most accurate but good enough, keep them in their case and we keep ours locked away to hand out specially, one of the few “check out when needed” type of tools.
Level: Empire. Great as a straightedge too! Get one on a holiday deal where it’s like a 4’ and 2’ combo. Same with a torpedo level and small metal rafter square.
Rafter square: We use these to make 90 degree angles riveting our chassis beams together so we don’t have any diamond surprises later, plastic are cheaper and do hold up, but are easier to take chunks out of, the metal ones are more expensive and still get scratched. We have some of each in small and large sizes.
Center punch: Tekton
Scissors: Milwaukee, they seem to hold up really well and stay sharp longer than your common-variety fiskars.
Snips: Wiss, DeWalt, or Milwaukee, whichever is cheapest where you are.
Screwdrivers: DeWalt, Milwaukee 2nd. While I like the cheapness of Kobalt and Husky here and the warranty for when a kid inevitably uses a screwdriver as a pry bar or chisel, we had a string of bad luck with head fit and excessive wear, which caused more pain than the cost savings was worth. Went to DeWalt and they hold up better to head wear, seem to strip less, and also seem to be a little more forgiving for being used as a pry bar. Still not forgiving for being a chisel though. I finally got some demo driver screwdrivers for the known abusers to use and they are happy as can be, and not too many problems with poor fit or stripping, but definitely more $ per screwdriver than a normal set. Make sure to have some stubby drivers as well.
Ratcheting / multi-bit screwdrivers: Milwaukee. Love my ratcheting multi-bit (and the stubby version), and the
new handle style non-ratcheting multi-bit, the students do too.
Nutdrivers: I haven’t found a cheap set that I like, and can’t justify the cost of other sets, so we skip this in our shop. Don’t really think it’s missed.
Box Cutter; If you are going to trust the kids with knives, my only suggestion is stay away from snap-off blades. They’ll snap them off even when they aren’t really dull because they “need a sharp edge” and the existing blade “wasn’t sharp”. And then who knows where the snapped off pieces go sometimes, which is a safety hazard. We have a mix of Dewalt, Milwaukee, and Husky box cutters with regular blades, and issue them with just the loaded blade and no spares (some of the fastbacks hold spare blades but we keep the spare holders empty). This way, if a blade breaks, we can go find the piece, and they have to come to us to get a new blade if flipping it isn’t to their satisfaction.
Flashlight: Harbor Freight, whatever is free with coupon. Get a Pittsburgh pro replacement for some mechanic tool and get a free flashlight. Second place would be cheap Husky or Kobalt holiday specials, like the 1AA or 2AAA lights. I love my Milwaukee penlight for it’s light and how durable it is, but it’s on the higher end of the price spectrum for a penlight.
Hammer: Husky or Kobalt. We got HDX for a while since it’s just for beating on stuff, but after a few chipped heads (safety issue) or heads just flying off, we went up to Husky and Kobalt. Still cheap and they’ll get marred up and janky being abused by kids. Same for ball pein hammers.
Rubber mallet: Whatever is cheapest. We go with HDX for these since they’re cheap and kids are always misusing them and taking chunks out of them.
Punch/Chisel set: Dasco or Stanley. Won’t use these much, but sometimes you need a cold chisel to put a dent in something to fit a burr on something else.
Wood chisels: DeWalt. We like the ones with the cutting surface on the side as well as the front, and they’ve held up pretty darn well.
Pry bar: Snap on, if you can find it used at a good price. Their pry bars hold up, unlike just about any others we’ve tried. Kobalt would come next, but they’d be a distant second choice and only get them if you wind up needing them.
Crowbar: DeWalt or Stanley.
Adjustable pliers: Channellock or Knipex. Our cobras were expensive up front but have held up for years where other pliers fell short from being abused. We only have two pairs of cobras but they’re probably our most used tool behind a screwdriver. Channellocks cover smaller/larger sizes and the overlaps we use for holding materials for sanding or similar, so we don’t care if they accidentally get a little grind mark on them.
Vise Grip pliers: Irwin, Channellock, Grip on. Another tool that will get abused as a clamp or holding things to grind and accidentally get ground.
Hand clamps: Milwaukee or Bessey
Quick clamps: Dewalt, we find them to be significantly better quality than Irwin, although Irwin has some neat attachment things for their quick clamps now. Come to think of it, I don’t think there are any Irwin clamps other than specialty styles that I’d really want over Bessey or Dewalt or anything else. Though I do have some quick clamps just for their new attachments (which also some fit on the dewalt quick clamps)
Bar clamps: Bessey.
C clamps / 90 degree clamps / strap clamps: Whatever is cheapest. I do think we cracked a Husky C-clamp once just tightening it by hand, but it had to be a defect and it was replaced no problem.
Wire cutters: Milwaukee or DeWalt. They stay sharp longer than husky or kobalt or Irwin, and can cut more without seeming to be damaged.
Wire strippers / other electronics tools: I’m going to lump a lot of this together since I don’t know how far into electrical you’ll be getting for mechanical or woodworking. Wire cutters are always useful, but strippers and such are more specialized. We use Irwin self adjusting and standard strippers and crimpers, and some no-name blue handle die-based ratcheting crimper from Amazon that actually makes super awesome crimps somehow.
Precision pliers: Husky or Kobalt. Neither hold up super great, but they’re meant for precision stuff. Only about 50% of when they get used is it actually for something they’re meant for, a problem we’re still trying to tackle.
Precision screwdrivers: Husky or Kobalt. Same as above. Better than ubercheap, but not worth upgrading since they’ll get misused and then need to be replaced.
Adjustable wrenches: Crescent or Milwaukee. The Milwaukee are harder to find and likely more expensive, but I really like how little slop they have, helps to not loosen up and wind up damaging fasteners. Crescent would be my next choice.
Wrenches: Tekton. Available on Amazon usually on prime, and the warranty service has been painless the couple of times we’ve used it. IMO even a better value than Husky or Kobalt. Though we still add sets from holiday specials from husky or Kobalt, just to have ones to hammer on or fill in size gaps for the occasional weird fasteners. Watch for Tekton sales to fill out more specialty wrenches like stubby or ratcheting or double open ended.
Sockets: Tekton. Same as above. Sometimes we’ll get multiples of common sizes from Husky or Kobalt if Tekton is being expensive for their single sockets.
Impact sockets: Tekton. Cheaper than Husky or Kobalt usually, and I hear fewer horror stories about them shattering than I do about Husky impact sockets.
Torque wrench: Tekton. I think there’s a theme here. We really like Tekton for their quality and value. I know pro mechanics that use tekton, some entirely because they don’t have the downtime pressures that make snap on worthwhile, some that use snap on or Mac for their common tools but fill the breadth with Tekton, etc. You were right in looking at them, they’re easily the brand to go with for mechanics tools.
Driver bits: We use makita gold, Dewalt of multiple types, and bosch impact bits in bitholding screwdrivers, they all seem to hold up well, and they cover things outside some standard screwdriver sets like hex sizes, torx, Robertson, etc.
Files: used USA-made Nicholson if you can find it, otherwise current nicholson, or husky or kobalt. We surprisingly don’t abuse files too bad, but the husky and kobalt ones definitely don’t stay sharp as long as the nicholson’s Home Depot carries, and those don’t stay sharp as long as just about any other older file you can lay your hands on.
Hack saw: Milwaukee or Dewalt, good tension adjustment.
Jab saw: Milwaukee folding jab saw, uses sawzall blades, so we like it being able to pick a metal or wood blade specific to the application (and we use used sawzall blades since the end of the blade is still good, and we can cut with just that well enough to justify the slight inconvenience for the cost savings).
Hand saw: Stanley, haven’t had good luck with Husky or Kobalt staying sharp surprisingly. But we hardly ever use a hand saw anymore either so haven’t gotten one recently to see if they got any better.
Some of these may overlap with some woodworking things, like I’d probably upgrade the chisels to like a Stanley set if you were doing more of the woodworking side, add a plane, maybe spring for some nicer saws and such. I’m not including consumables or power tools since it sounds like you’re not looking at those. These are just my suggestions, and are definitely subject to bias from me using mostly Milwaukee at home and Home Depot is close so i go there more than lowes or anywhere else, and as mentioned, some of our specific needs being a robotics team. If there’s any tool I forgot on my list (I was just going off the top of my head as to what tools we have), any other insight I can provide from my $0.02, or anything you want a more specific suggestion for than just brand, happy to help.