This review started as a bait and switch. You see, I was asked if I would review "a tool belt or two" for Pro Tool Reviews. "Of course, send them there," I said. Reviewing and choosing the right or best tool belt or tool gear is not difficult if you are picking from several products. After all, I've been doing this for decades – I know tool belts!
When I got home a week or two later, there were boxes piled high on the doorstep. The "one or two tool belts" somehow morphed into a dozen tool belts, with more expected to follow. Finding the best tool belt takes more time.
If you've read my articles, you know that I try to take every tool and product I review to the toughest, meanest, and dirtiest testing facility – the job site! So how on earth do I wear, test and basically remove tar from 13 tool bags in just a few weeks?
Even if I gave each of mine a belt, I didn't have time to tie those belts long enough. We want to really see how they perform and perform. I decided the best way to tackle this problem was to systematically examine each tool rig and cover important features and accessories. Along the way, my team and I test as much as possible.
In all, my team and I have looked at over a dozen different tool belts. Since choosing the right tool belt can make or break your day, we looked at a number of models—including the following:
- AWP Classic Construction Leather Tool Apron (LT-428-2) – $50
- AWP TrapJaw Oil Palm Leather Tool Rig (L-903-1) – $80
- Bucket Boss Builders Tool Belt (50200) – $50
- Carhartt Legacy Deluxe Tool Belt – $58
- DeWalt 12-Pocket Woodworking Suede Apron (DG5372) – $55
- DeWalt Carpenter Tool Belt (DG5472) – $80
- Jackson Palmer Professional Comfort-Rig Tool Belt – $44
- Klein One-Piece Nail/Screw and Tool Pouch Apron (42242K) – $80
- McGuire-Nicholas 494 Suede Carpentry Apron—$31
- McGuire-Nicholas Oil Palm Apron (767-E) – $48
- Western Leather Adjust-to-Fit Tool Belt (9855) – $365
- Style N Craft 98444 19 Pkt Framer Top Grain Leather Combo – $194
- Style N Craft 93414 17 Pocket Pro Framer Combo Tool Belt – $192
Occidental Leather Adjust-to-Fit Tool Belt (9855)
After wearing and testing these belts extensively, we have chosen the Occidental Leather Adjust-to-Fit Tool Belt (9855) as the best tool belt overall. Occidental manufactures this premium leather tool belt in the USA. The straps feel snapped off – so you don't experience any stiffness. All 24 pockets seem to be perfectly positioned and I have plenty of room for everything I need to store.
Be warned – if you end up with this tool belt, it doesn't come cheap. However, its hefty $365 price includes lifetime repair (stitching and rivets) for the full leather carpenter's kit. Try taking it off a cheap tool belt!
AWP TrapJaw Oil Palm Leather Tool Holder (L-903-1)
Considering the Occidental Leather pick above is our top pick, I thought it might be good to highlight a more practically priced solution here. I have worked with carpenters and contractors who work with tool boxes or tool bags. They are constantly picking up and putting down tools. Not only are these people constantly looking for tools or having to pick up fasteners, but they are also very inefficient.
While others seek out and reach for tools – for me, having the right tool belt means access. I like my tools always on my tool belt. The AWP HP General Construction Leather Belt Flip Pocket Tool Rig is the best carpenter's tool belt that lets you carry the right tools with you.
Our crew loves soft bags. They found it great for holding just enough tools without overdoing it for woodworking. It also gives you two large loops for the hammer. You also get D-rings if you want to use the harness. The bags also slide easily along the main waistbelt so you can reposition them as needed. For professional contractors performing a variety of tasks, this $80 tool belt can rock the job site.
Klein Tools 42242K Tool Apron
Choosing the right tool belt for electrical work presents some unique requirements. Feedback suggests that less is more. You want a place to keep your main tools, but you don't need 20 pockets and two steel hammer rings. In fact, no hammer ring fit our guy. The Klein Tools 42242K Tool Apron is the best electrician's tool belt to keep your tools and gauges close by. These bags have a soft suede feel, so it's easy to reach inside and grab screws or wire nuts.
You also have plenty of places to store your marking tools and NCV detectors. The center steel belt clip is convenient. Klein then gives you two large pockets and two small pockets to distribute your gear. Overall, we think this bag holds enough electrician tools without going overboard. The $80 price tag won't break the bank either.
McGuire Nicholas 767-E Contractor Apron
Cartographers need tools at hand, but not too many. When choosing the right tool belt for your framing machine, you need to allow enough room for your critical tools. This includes a framing block, hammer, marking tool, nails, tape, and a few other oddities. You also don't want to spend a fortune on a reliable tool belt. We've chosen the McGuire Nicholas 767-E Contractor Apron as our best framing tool belt.
We like that it has steel hammer rings on both sides. This might also make it the best tool belt for lefties. Tape bags are where we like them, and you don't have a billion pockets to deal with. What you get is just enough to carry what you need. The only downside has to do with size. Thinner frame pros can end up in a weird way thanks to hard riveted seam pockets on the waistband that won't slide. Still, you can't go wrong at $48.
Jackson Palmer Professional Comfort-Rig Tool Belt
The Jackson Palmer Tool Belt lets you feel the weight – even when carrying heavier cordless power tools from its integrated tool hooks. Thanks to its well-built design, this tool belt is our most comfortable choice. From the adjustable padded shoulders to the triple rear tether, it distributes the weight between your waist and back. Iron buckles and reinforced stitching at key stress points add durability.
Jackson Palmer also gives you a large removable pocket organizer with an integrated tool compartment for your screwdrivers, pliers and more. We also like the rear mounted hammer ring – it doesn't get in the way of the tool until you need it. This comfortable tool gear is probably the best choice for anyone who climbs or needs to carry a lot of heavier items. For $44, you almost feel like you're stealing it!
DeWalt DG5372 12-Pocket Carpentry Suede Apron
This $55 suede apron is easily our pick for the best value-for-money tool belt. The DeWalt DG5372 12-Pocket Carpenter Suede Apron has 5 main pockets. It also gives you 7 small pockets and sleeves for pencils and similar small items. The waist belt features dual soft handles above the main pocket. You can use them to easily adjust the belt while wearing it. It's also great for folding and carrying a tool belt when you're moving from site to site.
Carhartt Legacy Deluxe Tool Belt
I still feel that polyester and nylon (or even canvas) are the best tool belts that are light, simple and comfortable. Sure, you can get a comfortable leather tool belt with shoulder straps and a harness, however, a polyester or nylon belt will do just fine. This synthetic material weighs less than leather but performs similarly. The Carhartt Legacy Deluxe Tool Belt seems to offer a nice simple solution for anyone looking to lose weight.
This polyester-lined tool bag has nine pockets with a metal hammer loop and steel tape measure holder. You even get two detachable pockets. Priced at just over $58, we really like the value this tool belt offers.
In my home building world, I can build the framing one day and install the kitchen cabinets and crown molding the next. I tend to load my tool belt/bag purely based on the daily task at hand. Even though the applications are diverse, I have some "permanent" tools in my tool belt. These tools have proven their worth over time, and each has a dedicated and very specific place. The best tool belt you can find is the one that holds all the tools you need.
- my best frame hammer
- Stanley Fatmax (best tape measure in my opinion)
- wooden folding rule
- 2 sets of nails
- chalk line
- Swanson Aluminum Speed Cube
- Small Combination Pry Bar/Nail Puller
- end mill
- Needle nose pliers
- torpedo class
- 2-3 woodworking pencils
- 2 fixed-blade utility knives
- led flashlight
- multi-head screwdriver
Build muscle memory and good habits
Over time, with repetition, I got into the habit of being able to reach these tools and store them in my belt without having to look for pockets. Call it muscle memory, but it's a huge time saver when you're working or concentrating on a task. You don't have to stop what you're doing to see the belt to remove or store tools. Get into good habits and you can speed up your work over time.
I wear a tool belt most of the time. While there are some situations where a tool belt is neither feasible nor appropriate, these cases are rare. To me, wearing a tool belt equates to being efficient and organized. That means I personally have the tools I need to get the job done.
My tool belt is pretty rough too. My bags and belts usually fail at the tool pouch over time. It's probably because I insist on putting away and using two fixed open box utility knives and a super sharp chisel. I'm a little old school with box cutters. I prefer the speed at which they can be turned on without having to operate a switch. (Don't tell OSHA!) I've even customized my knife and chisel pockets with pieces cut from plastic bottles to reduce damage to the bottom. Don't knock it – it works!
Choosing the right tool belt requires more than one opinion. To resolve this issue, I called an emergency meeting with my crew. I tell them to put on their best tool belt, grab a cup of coffee, and meet me at the store. Some might think they got a layoff notice!
Once in the shop, we sat down, loaded each tool belt with our own "permanent resident" tools, and tried them on. We've looked at each tool belt and discussed them based on their pros and cons. It's actually pretty funny.
I encourage everyone to load up on tools and fasteners, actually wear a tool belt and leave a comment. We decided to look at each rig individually and discuss them…which helps avoid immediately comparing them to each other, which is hard to do. That being said, it didn't take long for us to choose the right tool belt for ourselves!
When choosing the right tool belt, we researched and discussed the following:
- install and finish
- Quality (materials, seams, stitching and rivets)
- Adjustability, material and comfort of straps and buckles
- pocket and tool holder, capacity, ambidextrous use, fixed or adjustable
- Number of pockets, size and utility
- Hammer Stand and Position
- Which industry is best suited to use belts
- price and value
There are many elements that go into a quality tool belt: material, seams, stitching and rivets. Then you have the adjustability, material and comfort of the belt and buckle. Also, some belts come in multiple sizes, while others claim to be "one size fits all." If your waist is smaller than 34 inches, you may have difficulty wearing many one-size belts. They always seem to assume that the average construction worker is slightly above the median.
When it comes to choosing the right tool belt for their needs, my crew agrees that oil tanned leather tool belt drills are of the highest build quality. All of these styles of rigs are well made. Some, like those from Style N Craft, AWP, and Occidental Leather, have strong rivets, great padding, and really thick straps. Others even include built-in sling loops and handles for carrying or hanging the belt when not in use.
Most people on my team agree that oil tanned belts with "fixed" bags have drawbacks. These tool belts can become uncomfortable. They also severely limit your ability to customize them individually. Less adjustability generally means less ability to store smaller tools and fasteners. We speculate that these belts were designed and set up for cartographers who carry and store minimal tools but may need to install fasteners.
I'm the only one who prefers a canvas, polyester or nylon belt because it's light and comfortable. I stand my ground even when the majority votes against me. I'm the oldest of the group and the only one with a lower back problem so far. For obvious reasons, I tend to use lightweight nylon gear.
But you can also find high-quality nylon or polyester tool belts and drills. I suggest, if you are considering one, look at the thickness of the material. You'll also want to check the stitching (is it single or double?) and note any features that allow for customization. This could be a handle, a padded waist belt, a harness loop, or a hammer and tape holder.
Keep in mind that you're likely to wear your best tool belt on a regular basis. It needs to competently accommodate all the tools you use regularly. Choose a high-quality, durable product, whether it's made of leather or synthetic, that can withstand all the abuse the territory throws at it.
Not all leather is created equal
Some of the leather tool belts we reviewed from Klein, AWP, and McGuire-Nichols all reminded me of my first tool belt. Unfortunately, that one didn't last me that long due to pocket blowouts. Each of these tool belts uses soft (almost suede) leather with heavy studs and is mostly double stitched. We felt these belts were strong enough to be called worksite-worthy belts, but most workers gravitated towards the heavier leather styles.
In general, belts also vary widely. Both AWP belts come with top grain leather pockets, but the belts are double stitched together. This type of belt is unlikely to last as long as the thicker full-grain leather belts made by McGuire-Nicholas. Some belts with this construction also appear to be made of bonded leather. Bonded leather is harder and hardly as durable. Of all the models we tested, the best tool belt has to be the Occidental Leather 9855. We also like the Style & Craft option. Both appear to use thick, pliable saddle leather.
In addition to the material used for the belt (ranging from nylon to bonded leather to saddle leather), all models are equipped with strong buckles. While the large metal buckle is durable, it also has the potential to dig into your belly when you lean over. Worse, it may scratch the finished surface. We all tend to lean on the tool belt so the wearer can twist the buckle back, or slide it on the back of one of the two included tool bags.
The rivets on most belts are fairly understated. There are no sharp edges other than the hammer ring and combination square bracket.
The oil-tanned leather gear is well constructed and designed for long hauls, but they're also fairly heavy. However, their main bag compartment tends to be left open, thus retaining its shape – a plus when wearing gloves.
The supple leather bag has a "low profile" main compartment that lays flat and can be adjusted by sliding it on the waist belt. In fact, many tool belts allow you to slide them around the main compartment. This provides a huge advantage when you want to adjust your gear by sliding the bag from your hip to the most comfortable position. In all functions, this one is almost required!
Customization, capacity, and those damn lefties!
One consideration you need to keep in mind when trying to choose the best tool belt (or tool belt for your trade) is to choose one that will give you enough room to carry what you need. Trust me, there are enough tool belts out there. In fact, even if you don't like a certain belt from a certain manufacturer, there's a good chance they've made another model that's more to your taste.
It is important that your tool belt has room for all the basic tools you use frequently. A major disappointment is trying a tool belt that doesn't offer a single pencil or marker holder. I'm sure you could fit six markers in a bigger pocket, but you'll need to use the marker tool for every transaction. This is so important that it requires a dedicated pocket front and center on the left and right straps.
If you're like me, quantity is important, so look for a belt with lots of pockets and compartments. This way you can be sure that all your favorite tools are easily within reach. Balance capacity and weight. If the belt is too heavy or bulky to wear, you won't be using it. That really means you wasted your money. You want to choose a well-organized system so you can make the most of all the space. This will make it easier for you to wear your tool belt on a regular basis.
Personally, I really like belts that offer a separate tool holder inside the main compartment. Only two tool belts offer this option: the Klein Tradesman Pro and the AWP 1L-903. Others only have large main compartments, with tools tending to gather at the bottom. I like to organize and like to keep them separate for easy access.
customization is key
Tool belt customization is also an important topic, and one that resonated with my chief carpenter. He is left-handed and prefers a kit that opens from both sides. The ambidextrous rig is just a good idea, and many tool belt manufacturers seem to be going down that route to gain more general appeal.
Permanent mount bags such as the AWP, Klein 42242, and some of the DeWalt and McGuire-Nicholas rigs seem to be very restrictive and tend to limit the bag to a specific application or body shape. I also shy away from fancy hinged metal hammer frames because they look a little flimsy in the long run. A simple metal or leather hammer ring is best – my whole team agrees on that.
Some tool tables provide a tape measure holder on the front with a strap to lock the tape in place – I always found this annoying so cut the straps off. It mostly gets in the way – usually when I try to "reload" the tape. If you end up in a position where the tape may fall off a lot, then you might want to give tape a try.
match trade with belt
We can all agree that these rigs are great for carpenters. However, with all the belts we looked at, it really depends on your scope of work and how you work. Lightweight, lightweight leather and a low-profile belt seem to be perfect for decorators, painters, and those who make punch lists. The Klein was obviously designed and laid out for electricians, but it's a great belt for just about anyone.
go all out
Choosing a kit is like choosing a girlfriend or buying a car. I'm very conceited to pick yours, and of course I don't want you to pick mine… Or talk about a girlfriend? The factors that go into deciding to use one belt drill over another are nearly endless. My personal decision emphasizes low weight and lots of dedicated pockets. I also want to be able to customize and position the accessories inside the bag.
I started my career with a soft leather tool belt (it's cheap). Later on, I tend to opt for heavier leather tool belt rigs. Recently, however, I hung it all up and bought a lightweight nylon-style rig with a padded waist belt. I've found that the padding helps spread and distribute the weight, which is better for my aging (and, on some days, sore) back.
So what do I think is the ultimate tool kit? I wanted to combine the weight and capacity of the Bucket Boss gear with the comfort and evenly distributed weight support of the Klein Tradesman Pro padded waist belt. Then I wanted to somehow look into the longevity and durability of those really cool oil-tanned rigs. I will be in heaven!
Below are some of the quotes we've received from actual tradespeople on the various tool belts we've given them to try out. These may affect you more than what we wrote above!
"I love the full leather tool belt because it's comfortable and durable. They have nice sized nail pockets and are easy to grab a handful even with gloves on. There's also a place for my tape, a square and a Metal rings for hammers. I've had mine for over 20 years and although I get new ones for Christmas or birthdays, I always go back to my old leather friends."
"I've been a carpenter for 38 years. I started with a cloth apron, but it couldn't carry enough tools, so I settled on a leather rig with a tape measure on the front. It's heavy, but except on wet roof days, it Works great. Boy, you can experience a lot of sweat! I've been using the canvas type for the last 10 or 12 years. Lightweight, no sweat, and the bag slides along the heavy duty belt. I also like to put the hammer holder on function in the back so that it doesn't tap the back of my knee with every step I take."
"I needed a good belt that would distribute the weight evenly, so I'm currently using the Occidental Leather Pro Leather Framer bag. This belt is perfect for my needs, and I would be lost if I worked without it."
comfortable and practical
"Comfortable and practical are the most important things. You have to have good slings that don't rub and take weight off your hips. It also has to be practical so you can support and carry all kinds of tools without messing up the It's a mess."
"I think picking the right bag really depends on what type of work you do. Every job can really use its own setup. For that, you need custom and flotation bags that move along your belt. Take an impact driver as an example .It’s a difficult tool to carry around and some manufacturers such as McGuire-Nicholas, AWP and Style N Craft offer such solutions.”
"The weight was the biggest issue for me. I found myself using braces for a few months. Then, when my shoulders were sore, I would take them off for a few months until my hips and lower back started to feel It. Rinse, repeat. When I first started building, I used to fill up my tool bags and fill every available pocket with chisels, screwdrivers, etc. I started off with affordable nylon bags, But I use them every few years. They just seem to fall apart and don't age.
Eventually, I got bigger and bought a leather gear for long-term use. I've had it for eight years, and during that time I've also learned to work smarter. Now, I only fill it with the tools I need for the job. Weight is still an issue and I've been trying to swap my heavier metal tools for equivalent plastic, aluminum and titanium models. "
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