You'll find massive showrooms at some of the biggest stores, like Seven Corners Hardware, where they display 60,000 items on two levels –each level covering 14,000 square feet. "We stock 950 different power and pneumatic tools, a complete masonry department, and more than 1,000 ladders," says manager Chuck Reese. "Our downstairs area is all hardware."

Does size matter when it comes to tool stores? It sure increases your chances of walking out with what you need. Alaska Industrial Hardware's cash-and-carry showrooms are between 20,000 and 40,000 square feet and they stock products from more than 400 vendors. AIH carries so many tools and parts the company actually supplies other tool stores with fill-in stock.

Another big-inventory distributor is Neu's Building Center, which offers up products from 650 vendors in its single store. "We inventory more than 56,700 items," says Neu. "We also try to introduce innovative tools and technology to our customers." Of course Orco, Kel-Welco, and Omaha-based Carlson Systems rate high on the size and inventory scales, too.

But if a store is too small to compete with these mega-showrooms, that doesn't necessarily knock it out of contention, it just has to be more selective about what it stocks and must grease the skids for quick turnarounds on special orders. Again, service can make up for size, and it does at the best small stores.

Knowing what tools to carry doesn't help if you can't keep them in stock, so a number of the larger stores have established their own distribution centers. They can re-stock their locations without waiting for the manufacturers' deliveries. AIH, Orco, Kel-Welco, and Carlson Systems follow this model. Kel-Welco stocks $250,000 in parts alone at its Omaha distribution center to ship to branches (to counter problems manufacturers are having with supplying parts).

Special-Focus Items

Tools stores also distinguish themselves by focusing on core business strengths or offering unusual specialty items and services. Carlson Systems is a good example. For 55 years, the company has been an industry leader in industrial fastening products and pneumatic nailers, staplers, and fastening systems. The company's 27 stores, located mostly in the Midwest and West, distribute products from 200 vendors, and while Carlson sells power tools, staging, ladders, and more, its focus is squarely on fastening. "We started and stayed with pneumatics," says president Don Carlson. "And we've stuck to our roots."

Orco's claim to fame is being California's No. 1 residential framing supplier, stocking tools and equipment for the large production framing crews in the state. "We've got 20 different types of framing hammers, the broadest selection of nail pouches, and all the nailers, compressors, and nails anyone could need," says Look. "We're also the biggest distributor of Simpson Strong-Tie framing hardware in the country."

"Diverse" might be the best way to describe Montague Tool & Supply, its customers, and its inventory. In addition to full lines of power, pneumatic, and stationary tools, Montague has developed a specialty for helping people lift, pull, and move extremely heavy objects. "We get loggers, farmers, quarrymen, and railroad workers in here along with our contractors," says Stark. "So we make a lot of chain and wire rope slings for them and actually advise them on all types of rigging applications." Not coincidentally, they also sell lots of safety equipment.

And if you're a woodworker looking for hard-to-find hand tools, chances are Tools Plus in Wilmington, N.C., stocks them. The store's inventory includes hand planes, spoke shaves, froes, scorps, draw knives, and vices. Of course, you also can ask the sales staff just what froes and scorps do, before you buy them.