We all know that there are a few purveyors of power tools (okay, more than a few) that fall into the category known affectionately as “CCC” (Cheap Chinese Crap). Of course, a great number of good power tools are also made in China. Unfortunately, though, so many of the “Harry Homeowner” models from off-brand companies are really just not a good investment, even if you only use them once a month. But what if you only need them once a year? Or just ONCE? Are disposable tools ever a good idea?
Harbor Freight is one of those companies that sells a myriad of equipment at seductively low prices. I get their catalogs in the mail because I go there to buy things like tarps, packing blankets and ratchet straps and the sale catalogs make good bathroom reading and cat box liners. I love to daydream about having my own milling machine for under $300, but I know that the reality would be a nightmare of ill-fitting parts, poorly translated directions and crusty pig-iron castings. However, once in a great while, I admit…I succumb to temptation.
Such is the case with the El Cheapo 3 ½ cubic foot cement mixer I just purchased. I have several summer projects around my old farm this year that are going to require small batches of concrete and mortar. New footings for an ancient front porch, repointing the limestone foundation, replacing some cracked sidewalks. In addition, I regularly pour footings for deck jobs and occasionally for ground-mounted solar arrays. Paying the minimum load fee from the ready mix plant always seems like a money-loser, and mixing by hand is just…a drag. Renting a beat-up mixer from the local hardware store looked like the best option. And then…
While doing some light reading, I ran across the “preferred customer” coupon. The $399 mixer from Harbor Freight was on sale for $209, but for me (and a select few thousands of other “preferred customers”) it was going for $189. “Holy crap” I thought. If it lasts one summer, it will cost me less than renting for a few weeks, or a couple loads from the ready-mix plant. So I went for it. NOTE: Almost identical models are available, branded as Tool Shop, Northern Industrial. Pro Series, Masalta and others…
Of course, as with any CCC tools, assembly is always interesting. The instructions, to put it mildly, SUCK. No big surprise, right? But who reads those things anyway? It went together pretty easily. I only had to ream out a few screw holes that were full of paint and re-bend the sheetmetal motor cover and mixing paddles a little bit. And I ended up with extra screws! Surprise! I went back over the instructions to make sure I didn’t miss anything…okay. I’m sure I’ll discover their use somewhere down the line, right? That’s what we call an “Oh $%^& moment.” All together, it took me about 1 1/2 hours of leisurely monkeying around to get it dialed in and ready to run. My best suggestion on assembly is to get on youtube and watch a few of the endless videos posted by guys who were frustrated with the instructions! Tons of good tips out there.
My first impression: the sheet metal it not thick, and the wheels are cheap, hard rubber, but all in all, it seems pretty sturdy.
Moment of Truth
I rolled it out of the shop to the sand pile to give it a test run. I flipped the switch and….It runs! It seems pretty well balanced. The mixer is belt drive, and the gear drive itself is a pretty pretty crude casting. It is noisy when it runs, and noisier the farther you tip it toward horizontal. I threw in a small 1-2-3 mix with shovels full of portland, sand and gravel. Mixed great, no problem. I doubled the batch…no problem. Tripling the batch, the mixer starts to load up a bit, and I had to stop and scrape the bottom a bit and tip it up farther. That seemed like a good sized load to me – equivalent to 2 80 lb. bags of gravel mix.
Down the Road
I have read a lot of reviews and watched a lot of videos of this machine online, and they are mostly positive. I anticipate it will last for a while, but I will update this article down the road if I manage to kill it.
I have acreage with plenty of room to stockpile junk (and a packrat wife who doesn’t bug me about it, thank god). When I’m done for the summer, this mixer can go in the barn until I need it again. For people with limited space for such things, it may become more of a hassle than it is worth. But even if you bought it, used it for a year and sold it on Craigslist, you would probably get your money’s worth out of it. In my case, I may consider other uses for it down the road. There are several videos out there on converting it into a compost mixer or trommel as seen here:
The Harbor freight cement mixer is available for around $210 without any coupons or promotions, and is currently rated at four stars with over 130 reviews: