November 30, 2020
Best portable shop lights in 2020

Best work light for mechanics in 2020


I have quite a few lights hanging in my garage, but no matter how bright they are, they never seem to shine exactly where I need them to. Whether I’m reaching down in an engine bay or hunched inside a fender liner, a little extra illumination can make a miserable car repair job… well, a little less miserable anyway.

There are plenty of options out there that address a lot of different needs. What follows are my top 10 picks for the best work light for mechanics.

Read more: Best headlight restoration kits in 2020   

Harbor Freight

The shop light I found myself reaching for most often is actually one of the cheapest here, this $35 folding unit from Braun (Harbor Freight’s house brand). While its length makes it difficult to throw in a toolbox, the strong magnet on the base means you can just pop it onto any metal surface — like, say, the side of your toolbox. The LED light bar throws off plenty of light output for bigger jobs, while the LEDs on the tip meant I could easily inspect down in the fuel tank of my tractor. I got 2 hours on a charge with the LED work light bar on full blast, so it’s maybe not the best work light for mechanics who need it for longer jobs. But it’s a great, affordable rechargeable LED work light choice for most tasks. And, if you catch it at the right time, you can get it for $27 — before the ubiquitous HF coupon!

Harbor Freight

If you’re looking to spend a little more on a portable rechargeable work light, the $50 Braun 3-In-1 Quick Connect Light Kit comes with replaceable attachments, giving you a more powerful flashlight and a snake light as well. It’s a great portable work light kit, but that means you’ll need to also keep the case and all accessories around. I much prefer the cheaper, integrated lighting option.

Harbor Freight

Another win for Harbor Freight here, with the Ultra Bright portable LED work light and flashlight. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if you’ve ever visited a Harbor Freight, you probably walked out with one of these portable LED flashlight and work light units for free. And, if you’re a frequent shopper, you probably have a half-dozen scattered around your house and garage. Even at the full price of $4, it’s hard to ignore the value here. Whether you want focused or broad LED light, an underhood light, or a powerful flashlight, this will deliver. My only complaint is that the AAA batteries inside are too difficult to replace and the whole thing has a tendency to fly into pieces when dropped on a concrete floor, as mine have been. Repeatedly.

Black Diamond

When I asked for work light suggestions, a number of you indicated you prefer to use headlamps when working on your cars, and I definitely can see why. My choice is the $50 Black Diamond Storm, because it throws out a lot of light for such a small thing, and its multicolor light bulb capability means it has dozens of uses. I used mine to get across Italy in the 2019 Mille Miglia. Headlamps are particularly good when you’re working in a tight work area like wheel wells, and when you’re moving around a lot. Complex brake job? Get you one of these.

GoPro

What’s a lifestyle work light? A work light that’ll keep up with your ‘Gram-worthy deeds, naturally, and where else would you turn but GoPro? The $50 Zeus Mini portable LED light isn’t necessarily designed for shop use, but its strong clamp and magnetic base meant it easily went from the brim of my baseball cap to sticking on the side of my tractor’s fender when I was pulling off a troublesome air filter. I later put it on blink mode and clipped it on the front of my bicycle and even used it as a fill light for a late-night Zoom meeting. Plus, the 360-degree swivel hook helps you get the right lighting angle. 90 minutes of battery life on max means again short pursuits only, but this cordless work light gets bonus points for charging over USB-C.

Dewalt

If you need extreme brightness, look no further than the usually $92 Dewalt 12V/20V Max Compact Task Light. This bright light comes with a warning about being careful not to look directly into it, and it’s not kidding. Three brightnesses are on offer and the maximum is truly sunlike, but despite that the 20V rechargeable battery powers it for 4.5 hours. Mind you, the cost of the garage work light doesn’t include the battery, and the batteries require a proprietary charger, but if you’re already in the Dewalt ecosystem that won’t be a problem. It’s big and heavy, but the chunky handle makes it easy to carry and threaded receivers mean it’s even tripod-mountable if you’re so inclined.

Ryobi

Another great LED lighting option with super bright intensity is the $60 Ryobi 18-Volt One+ Hybrid LED Color Range Work Light. It’s a little lighter in weight than the Dewalt and its integrated stand/handle is easier to position as well, but the killer factor here is that you can change the LED bulb color temperature. This is key if you’re doing any paint work — or working late and trying to avoid excessive blue light.

Eastwood

If your needs are complex and many, check out the comprehensive ecosystem of lighting systems that Eastwood offers. At its core is a little light with a repetitive name: the $35 Modular Light Module. It’s shaped like a little steering wheel, but more importantly the integrated swivel base features both a strong magnet and a threaded receiver to potentially use with a telescoping tripod stand. A battery life indicator on the back is a nice touch, but relying on a proprietary charger instead of USB cable is a bit of a bummer. Still, 2.5 hours of battery life at maximum brightness doesn’t disappoint, and it’s a very bright light. The little light throws out a lot of lumens (1,000 to be exact) but, if that’s not enough, there’s a 3,000-lumen model for $90. From there, you can add everything from custom tripod stands to underhood work light clamps, making this the ultimate lighting system setup for your ultimate garage.

Ryobi

I have fluorescent lights mounted right on my workbench, but even with that on I was struggling to see inside my tractor’s carburetor when I was rebuilding it a few weeks back. Enter the $55 Ryobi 18-Volt One+ Cordless LED Workbench Light. This LED shop light changes shape like a Transformer, unfolding and concealing a series of hidden hooks and recesses for mounting. But, for me, it was best used sitting on my bench, unfolded so that it shone LED light from the side and from above, obliterating any shadows in my carb. And, unlike a lot of the other lights here, the output from this was soft enough that it didn’t hurt my eyes up close. Three hours of battery life is more than solid, too, but again we’re looking at proprietary batteries and charger for this portable work light, and they aren’t included in that $55 price.

Comparison of best shop lights

Brand Name Price
Best portable shop light overall Braun 390 Lumen Magnetic Slim Bar Folding LED Work Light $27
Best reconfigurable shop light Braun 3-In-1 Quick Connect Light Kit $50
Best cheap/free portable shop light Harbor Freight Ultra Bright LED Portable Worklight $4
Best portable shop light for tight spaces Black Diamond Storm Headlamp $50
Best lifestyle portable shop light GoPro Zeus Mini $70
Best big and portable shop light Dewalt 3-In-1 Quick Connect Light Kit $99
Best big and portable shop light runner-up Ryobi 18-volt One+ Hybrid LED Color Range Work Light $60
Best portable shop light system Eastwood Modular Light Module $37
Best portable shop light for your workbench Ryobi 18-Volt One+ Cordless LED Workbench Light $55

Some notes on the best work light for mechanics

  • Battery life matters: Almost all of my picks for the best work light for mechanics are rechargeable, and while I much prefer something with an integrated battery that’s easy to juice up again, something with swappable batteries may be better if you have a long, tough job ahead. However, units with integrated batteries tend to do better at maintaining bright illumination and light intensity all the way until their battery is completely dead.
  • Connections matter, too: Being able to recharge is nice, but having to keep track of proprietary chargers is no fun. The options from DeWalt and Ryobi may be no problem if you’ve already bought into their battery ecosystems, but the Eastwood lights all relied on proprietary plugs usable only for them. Lights that charge over an USB power cord are much more convenient, but only the GoPro Zeus relied on the current USB-C standard!
  • Think mobility and mounting: A big part of getting the most out of these portable work lights is making sure they are where you need them. If you’re moving around a lot, like for a full brake job, then the Black Diamond headlamp may be best. If you’re instead doing a lot of work on a wide area, something like the DeWalt floor lamp puts out a lot of light from a single location.
  • Flexibility is key: The Harbor Freight lighting options are so inexpensive it can make sense to dedicate them to be used only for specific tasks. But options like the Black Diamond headlamp or GoPro Zeus are easily repurposed for all sorts of jobs. This means you’ll get a lot more use out of them — but also might mean they aren’t readily at hand next time you’re out in the garage. It’s no fun rummaging through the house when you just want to get those brake pads out.

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