There are scarves, and then there are Hermès scarves; there are hand tools, and then there are Gray Tools. And every August, tool geeks gather in Ottawa to drool over the premium line, which is still made in Canada 100 years after the Gray family founded the firm.
The event is Preston Hardware’s ToolFest, where Canada’s largest independent hardware store takes over an Italian banquet hall and stuffs it with booths featuring about 30 tool companies, from Dewalt to Stabila. “It’s a candy shop for men,” says Bart Jackson of Lapensée Sharpening in Lac des Loups, Que.
Most Canadians have never heard of the company because you can’t find Grays at big-box stores. It sells through its own distributors, including independent stores like Preston Hardware. The company is able to maintain this exclusivity because it makes top-of-the-line, precision-crafted tools aimed at the industrial and manufacturing sectors, with prices to match. A limited-edition 11-piece wrench set manufactured in honour of the company’s anniversary costs $500. Seven regular screwdrivers go for $92.
So when Gray offers discounts averaging 40 per cent at ToolFest, eastern Ontario rep Glenn Truelove does a brisk business. While most of its products are used by professionals, a sizable chunk are bought by hobbyists for whom quality matters. For the centennial, fans have flooded the company’s website with stories about Gray. Kathryn of Douglas, Ont., writes that she started building her collection after learning engine maintenance. “One thing that girls were taught is shopping and we were taught to buy the best we can,” she wrote. “For me, that’s Gray Tools.”
The premium line of tools is made of high-grade steel, which is thicker and heavier than regular brands, explains president Gary Nuttall. This spring, Nuttall and marketing guru Frank Dominguez bought the company from Alex Gray, the third generation of Grays to run the family business, after his two daughters made it clear that “tools didn’t turn them on.”
Gray, who stayed on as chairman, says the premium line will still be made in Canada at the company’s factory in Brampton, Ont. While that may not mean much in the big city—“Bay Street doesn’t buy a lot of our tools,” he notes—it makes a difference in Moose Jaw or Comox. (Dynamic, a secondary, mid-priced line, is made in Taiwan.)
Even the finish on the premium tools is smoother and shinier—some are still hand-polished. They are designed to be comfortable, and hold up to years of use.
“You can depend on them,” says Keith Liebelt of Neilburg, Sask. “They’re not going to break like most others.” When his 60-year-old, ¾-inch ratchet started to slip, he shipped it off with a “repair only” note: “I would like this ratchet back even if you cannot fix. It belongs to the set and has been in the family for so long.” Within weeks, the fixed tool was safely back in his hands.
Sometimes customers will insist their clients use Grays. Nuttall says IMAX ships out Gray products with its projectors, while power-systems distributor Cummins Eastern Canada sends out a Gray master set with each engine. And sometimes customers drive innovation, such as when one man complained that his large, wheeled Gray tool box was falling apart. It turns out he was loading it to the brim and towing it behind a forklift, over train tracks and through gravel. Gray made a special heavy-duty base for the tool kit and added it to its list of 5,500 products, which includes everything from tiny screwdrivers to a massive 22-lb. combination wrench with a four-inch opening, one of the largest in the world.
Now in its fourth year of double-digit growth after weathering the 2008 recession, Gray Tools, which dominates the high-end, industrial market domestically, is looking outside Canada for sales, taking on big names like Snap-on, Armstrong and Proto.
As for its cult following at home, another generation is already being indoctrinated. While Dave Bolton loves collecting tools—they are displayed in his “Boltonshrine,” a double garage in Kingston, Ont.—he seems to have passed on the passion to his 23-month-old son, Connell, who loves playing with Gray’s hand tools. “He likes to take the sockets off the trays and put them all back on again.”