West Coast Cool

I've worn side bags since I started framing in the 1970s. My ideal set of bags will give up my tools with a no-look grab, carry a ton of nails, and, no matter how loaded down it is, still let me move quickly.

While some guys carry a gang-box of tools on their hips, I travel light and without suspenders. A hammer, nails, chalk box, tape, keel, and maybe a nail bar or utility knife is all I carry. I reviewed bags from CLC, Boulder Bag, DeWalt, and Diamond Back USA looking for efficient tool access and storage, a streamlined design, and a high-quality belt.

East Coast Practicality

I'm an East Coast builder and have been using inexpensive front-load pouches for more than 20 years. When the Bucket Boss, McRose, Nailers, and Occidental side-bag framers' rigs arrived, I was leery of their hefty price tags. I carry a hammer, tape, utility knife, speed-square, pencils, nail set, nail pullers, maybe a hammer-stapler, and lots of nails, and I'm accustomed to getting at them quickly without reaching around my body.

After an hour with each bag acclimating myself to new hand tool locations, I knew I'd never wear front bags again. With each set of bags, I looked for plenty of storage and quick access to my tools. You don't have to, but I wore suspenders with each rig.

Now that we know where these two veterans are coming from, here's what they have to say about the belts and bags.

Occidental Leather. The storage room is great in the 9500 Cordura-and-leather bags. Occidental has a designated spot for your speed-square--a leather-capped slot between the two main pouches on the left side that the square fits into snugly. The left bag also easily stores my utility knife, pencil, and tape. Both bags feature tough leather loops for a nail bar, screwdriver, or pliers. The Cordura is a thick, heavy blend and the corners have leather protectors stitched into the fabric. This rig's built to last.

The most difficult thing for me to get used to, though, was the Occidental 5055 suspenders, which are more like a harness than traditional suspenders. It took a day to overcome the feeling that I was hitched up like a plow horse, but after that, I felt comfortable and fell in love with them. The wide belt is much like a weight lifter's, and since I wear my belt snug, I felt the back support while lifting LVLs. Although expensive, Occidental's system is great and well worth the money. --Steve Veroneau

Occidental Leather 9500: $169. 5055 suspenders: $75. 800-743-6914. www.bestbelt.com

CLC. ProLevlPlus 5451s are interchangeable bags on a double belt system, enabling you to customize your rig with other bags available from the company. The internal belt (that wraps your waist) is wide and padded with a Velcro band. The external belt is thinner, supple leather with a double-tongued roller buckle.

The Velcro-backed nylon and leather tool bags hang from this belt. You can adjust the bags almost anywhere along the leather belt, and once the two strips of Velcro meet, the bags lock in place. I like the carry handle on each bag, which enables you to lift or hang the bags straight up without losing anything.

I also like the removable tape measure pouch. You can hang it on existing clips above the left bag, although it obstructed my reach into the larger bag below it. Since this bag also firmly attaches to the belt in any location, I easily moved it to a comfortable spot. Another choice is to use the bag for something else (like safety goggles) and attach your tape directly to the metal brackets.

This rig comes with two metal hammer holders. One's a standard loop, the other has a spring clip on it that allows you to snap the hammer into place with a sharp blow. I found that I had to look behind me to avoid whacking myself in the leg.

Both bags have ample storage for tools and nails and have a reinforced edge designed to keep them open, loaded or not; this is great for easy access, but could be a nuisance in close quarters. Finally, (I almost don't want to say it) they're great looking. --Don Dunkley

Custom Leather Craft ProLevlPlus 5451: $172. 800-325-0455. www.customleathercraft.com

Bucket Boss. I've been a fan of Bucket Boss paraphernalia for years. True to form, their Cordura Contractor's Rig is a nice two-belt setup with great accessories. The inner belt is a well-padded, wide Cordura belt that you tighten to fit with a Velcro overlay. This inner belt has loops through which the outer belt is attached; you can adjust the bags almost anywhere along this outer belt, or put them on opposite sides if you're a lefty. The outer belt has a solid leather belt-end and metal buckle that allows you to get the belt as tight as you want. Each bag is spacious and well compartmentalized, so there's a place for everything. There's also plenty of room for--and easy access to--nails, screws, or other fasteners.

One complaint: the sleeve on each side bag could be stiffer. When I really loaded them with tools and fasteners, the Cordura sleeves scrunched up on the belt, making it awkward to retrieve items from the bags. I can see numerous, simple jobsite solutions that would quickly and permanently solve this problem and leave you with a set of bags that'll really last.

Bucket Boss Contractor's Rig 55034: $65. 800-688-2677. www.bucketboss.com

Boulder Bag Co. The Ultimate Pro-Framer Combo Plus 2884 is a nice bag. This double-belt system has a 5-inch-wide padded belt with a Velcro closure that fits around your waist securely. Outside is a 2-inch-wide nylon belt ending in a short leather section for the single-tongue metal roller buckle. The exterior belt slides through loops on the interior belt.

The Cordura nylon side bags are interchangeable with other Boulder bags. They're adjustable along the outside belt, but the loops on the interior belt only allow a few inches of movement; however, once you've located the bags where you like them, they lock in with Velcro.

There are two longer, horizontal pockets above the left and right main bags that are great for safety glasses or phones. One closes with a flap, the other is open. I wish the pockets were on opposite bags, though. The one with the flap is on the left side and it obstructed my reach to the speed-square and nails; however, it's a great pouch if you arrange your tools differently than I do. The bags themselves have plenty of loops and compartments both inside and out, great for smaller tools. On the lowest portion of the left bag, there's a designated tape measure pouch; it's out of the way and accepts my 30 footer--cheers to that. Two metal loops take care of your hammer and/or hammer-stapler/snips/etc. --Don Dunkley

Boulder Bag Co., Ultimate Pro-Framer Combo Plus 2884: $120. 801-265-8089. www.boulderbag.com

McRose Leathers. While newer materials make for lighter toolbelts, there's something magical about strapping on leather bags. Their texture, smell, and feel speak to me. The craftsmen at McRose Leathers have designed a set of framing bags you can probably hand down to your child.

Each side bag of the US301 is divided into three individual bags layered on each other. The largest bag is where you'll find individual niches for a utility knife, cat's paw, pencil, or nail sets. On the left bag, there's a sleeve for a chisel between the large bag and the middle bag and spots for nail sets or framing pencils between the middle and front bags. Between the largest bag and the middle bag--on either side--is a slot for your speed-square. The bags also are fully adjustable and can be switched around. The belt itself is a true weight lifter's-style belt with lamb's wool padding and metal buckle. I found it extremely comfortable and I bet it gets better with age. There's plenty of space for fasteners, hammers, hammer-staplers, or try-squares, too. --Steve Veroneau

McRose Leathers US301: $170. 800-866-5224. www.mcroseleathers.com

DeWalt. These bags are lean. The D5100 black ballistic-nylon bags are riveted to a single 3-inch padded nylon-and-leather belt. The leather section has a double-tongued metal roller buckle attached to the nylon belt with maximum heavy-duty riveting. The two main bags have outside pockets and several inside and outside compartments made of looped leather.

The inside loops are small and good for pencils or a center punch. The outside leather loops are small, too. You can't carry a nail bar, try-square, or even a utility knife. The main large bags can easily fit lots of nails and a speed-square. They have two smaller bags just above them where you might put your tape. These small upper bags slightly obstruct my reach into the lower bags.

This rig has two leather hammer loops and one metal loop, good for carrying other striking tools, staplers, or snips. These bags look rugged, but they're are a little too lean for me. --Don Dunkley

DeWalt Industrial Tool D5100: $90. 800-433-9258. www.dewalt.com

Nailers. Nailers is the lightest set I tried. This Cordura nylon rig is comfortable and well-organized. Unlike the other bags, Nailers has a quick-release closure, which is convenient.

The pouches on this setup are well-designed with easy-to-reach spots for the tools I carry. The bags hold their shape and are easy to access when loaded with tools and fasteners. This was the only set of pouches that shipped without suspenders. It's not a big deal, though; I easily clipped on a pair of my own. --Steve Veroneau

Nailers 60680: $98. 800-221-9036. www.nailersrock.com

Diamond Back USA. These Cordura nylon bags are pull-your-buddy's-truck-out-of-the-mud tough. Diamond Back's wide belt (7 1/2 inches wide at its widest) is designed to provide lower back support. The loop that attaches each bag to the belt is Velcro-backed, and you can swap out bags for other Diamond Back bags without taking the belt apart.

They called the 1C200 bags I reviewed a framer's rig, but I think a remodeler would be happier with them. There's a place for every hand tool you can think of, a big rear pouch for a tape or strip nails, loops for a try-square or nail bar, and a unique hammer holster that looks like an archer's quiver. The speed-square pouch is in the correct place--snug to the inside of the either nail bag--kudos for that. There's a top pouch above each bigger bag opening that can hinder easy access; however, it will lay flat and out of the way if not in use. --Don Dunkley

Diamond Back USA 1C200: $300 (accessories additional). 800-899-2358. www.diamondbackusa.com

Steve Veroneau owns Transformations LLC, a custom framing and trim company in Falls Church, Va., and is a contributing editor to Hanley-Wood's Tools of the Trade.

Don Dunkley is a framer from Cool, Calif., and construction coordinator for Hanley-Wood's JLCLive! residential construction shows.