Essential tools


September 10, 2012 by quirkyuncle

Everyone should have a few basic tools and supplies in their house, apartment, or car (a lot less than in the picture). Here are a couple lists, with some price estimates, of what I would suggest as the minimum items to get started solving common household/automotive problems or performing some simple DIY tasks. The prices given are a guess – you’ll likely find them cheaper if you look for deals.

You can spend a fortune on tools, however, there are some basic tools that are used most often. These are the ones give you the biggest bang for the buck. You can build your collection of tools over time, adding items as you need them to perform each specific task. Tools also make great gifts, with something useful to be had at any price point.

For each DIY task described on this website, I’ll list the tools you need to do the job, along with an estimated tool cost. What I normally do is compare the cost of hiring someone to do a job versus the cost of materials, tools, and time for me to do it. I’ve learned this: you can typically purchase almost any tool you need to do a job and still save money doing it yourself. The best part is that you get the satisfaction of accomplishing something and the tools you buy will be there for you to use the next time you need them.

While it might be convenient, there is no need to buy multiple sets of tools. You can keep the ones common for home and automotive use in your car and bring them inside, as needed.

Tool quality: where to buy and what to look for
Tools, like everything else, come in all different levels of quality. Tools are sold in many places and prices can vary greatly between items that look the same. The selection is daunting! So how do you choose?

The biggest differences that I perceive in tool quality relates to the durability of the metals used and how precisely they are manufactured. Tools made of better metal have less tendancy to bend, break, or distort. Tools that are made with greater precision work better, having less tendancy to slip and damage what you’re working on, for instance.

So how do you tell what’s good?

It’s not easy. How good a tool looks is not always an indication of how well it is made. Guarantees help, with in-store replacement the best of these. Sticking with name brands can help, too. If you live near a Sears or K-Mart store, you can never really go wrong with their Craftsman line – it costs a bit more, but all of their hand tools come with a lifetime replacement, no questions asked warranty. Decent tools can also be found at all major home improvement centers, auto parts stores, hardware stores, and some of the major retail/discount chains.

To be honest, none of the cheap tools I’ve purchased has ever failed prematurely during normal use. (Everything breaks equally well when misused.) Cheaper tools can be bulkier (to make up for weaker metal) or more roughly finished, but this normally does not make a difference, unless you are working in tight spaces. For the beginner, most of what you can buy will work fine – try to buy better if you can, but anything is better than nothing.

There are other factors relating to the functional design of tools that set some of the professional brands apart, but these come at a price. People that earn their livlihood with tools should always buy the best they can afford. The rest of us have a bit more latitude.

Home or apartment tools
Essential items:

  • Screwdriver ($10) – There are several ways to go here: screwdrivers with single tips, multiple tip screwdrivers, or the 6-in-1 screwdriver shown here. I have all of them and use the 6-in-1 most of the time, because it is so convenient. It’s the cheapest to purchase, too.
    6-in-1 screwdriver
  • Adjustable wrench ($10) – While dedicated wrenches each of a different size are no doubt the best way to go, the adjustable wrench can be used in most cases, unless the nut or bolt is obscenely tight. The head on an adjustable wrench is big, so you can’t get it in tight places. The key to success when using an adjustable wrench is getting (and keeping) it tight on the nut or bolt, or it will ruin the fastener. When purchasing, look for ones with less play in the mechanism. I once went through a whole box of $3 wrenches at a discount store before finding a nice tight one – patience pays off. The 6-inch size is the one to get, if you can only afford one. The 10-inch is good for stuff that’s a little bigger. If you get both, you’ll be well covered.
    Adjustable wrenches
  • Claw hammer ($15) – The claw hammer has earned it’s place in every homeowner tool box. Drive nails, pull nails, pry stuff… it’s always handy to have around. Bigger is not always better! Those monster framing hammers you see are great… if you’re a framer. The standard 12 or 16 oz hammer is quite good enough, far easier to control (missing a nail makes a mess of the wood around it), and will fatigue your arm a lot less. (Hint – when using a hammer to move something made of wood or plastic, use a piece of scrap wood between the metal hammer and what you’re whacking to prevent marring the finish. Do this, if possble, when pulling nails and prying, too.)
    Claw hammer
  • Utility knife ($5) – A razor knife is handy for everything from opening boxes to cutting drywall. Blades are changed when they get dull, so no sharpening is needed. Make sure you get one with a retractable blade – they’re super sharp.
    Utility knife
  • Slip-joint pliers ($10) – The 6-inch size is a work horse that is used for grabbing all sorts of stuff. Use them to cut wires, too. Enough said.
    Slip-joint pliers
  • Needle-nose pliers ($15) – There’s enough instances where I use 6-inch needle nose pliers to add them to the list. There are a lot of sizes for these type of pliers, but the 6-inch is the most versatile and is the size that has a set of wire cutters built in. Tip – If you want to use any pliers to squeeze a jewelry clasp or some other delicate item, cover the tips with a couple wraps of electrical tape to keep from marring the finish.
    Needle-nose pliers
  • Tape measure ($8) – We all need to measure stuff, right? The 20-foot or 25-foot is a good length. The longer ones are really bulky and the short ones are fairly useless for anything other than measuring furniture.
    Measuring tape

Optional additions:

Here are some other really useful items that you can add now or later, based on your budget:

  • Hex-key set ($3) – Lots of things from furniture to faucets uses hex-key (otherwise known as Allen) screws. The little knife-style set shown can fit most applications and is quite cheap. Be really careful when using hex-keys – if they don’t fit into the hole on the screw real snug, they’ll round out the hole, leaving you, well, kinda screwed.
    Hex key set
  • Deluxe screwdriver (multi-driver) set ($30) – This can take the place of the 6-in-1 screwdriver and the hex-key set. It has every tip you’re ever likely to need.
    Deluxe screwriver set
  • Large slip-joint pliers ($30) – If the 6-inch slip-joint pliers is a work horse, than this one is a Clydesdale. Get the 12-inch size – it’s big enough to loosen and tighten sink drain fittings.
    Big pliers
  • Torpedo level ($8) – It’s always nice to know if things are straight or not. The level with a bubble in a glass tube, called a spirit level, has been doing this for centuries (I guess they didn’t have them in Pisa…). Today, if you have a smart phone, there’s an app for that! I have the free iHandy Level for iPhone, which works well in a pinch. (I still prefer the spirit level though… it’s more resistant to being dropped.)


  • Electrical tape – a vinyl tape that can be used for all sorts of stuff. It insulates electrically and grips quite well.
  • Duct tape – It’s like the Force: It has a light side, a dark side and holds the universe together. Super strong, super useful.
  • Glue – Depending on what you need to fix, you might end up with several types.
    • Carpenter’s glue is similar to the white glue you used in school as a kid, and can be found in a waterproof variety that stays in place outdoors after it is dry.
    • Cyanoacrylates Super Glue – sticks most anything together. It is sold under several brand names. You can do some crazy things with it… like sticking your fingers together, so be careful.
    • There are tons more specialty adhesives designed for specific purposes. Ask the clerks at your hardware store or home center for recommendations, if you have an unusual requirement.
  • Drywall screws (#6 x 1-1/4-inch, coarse thread) – Get a box of these, because you’ll keep finding uses for them! I try to get the weather-proof ones (silver color), so I can use them inside or out.
    Drywall screw
  • Nails (1-1/2-inch finishing) – There are all sorts of nails for all different purposes. For starters, the 1-1/2-inch finishing nail is quite versatile. You can do minor furniture repairs or hang a small picture. They’re not designed for heavy loads or exterior use, so if you have those needs, get some recommendations at the store.
    Finishing nail

Automotive tools
Note – Some cars come with a small toolkit in the trunk from the factory that you can augment to make it more useful.

Most of these items appear in the list of home tools – I’ve marked those with an asterisk (*).

Essential items:

  • *Screwdriver
  • *Adjustable wrench – In most cases, the 6-inch wrench will get you out of most roadside problems.
  • *Utility knife – Or, throw a pocket knife in your glovebox. There’s always something that needs to be cut.
  • *Slip-joint pliers
  • *Needle-nose pliers
  • Flashlight – While you should have one of these in your house, you should also have one in your car. You can get applications for your smartphone that provide a flashlight, but bear in mind that they will drain your battery very quickly. I have the free Flashlight by Rik app for iPhone. One issue with any flashlight is the batteries, or lack thereof. Flashlights are currently available that don’t need batteries, you shake them for half a minute and they’ll light up for 10 minutes. Cool!

Optional additions:

  • BIG 12-inch adjustable wrench ($20) – If the 6-inch adjustable wrench is all you really need in the car, what’s the deal with this huge thing? This bad boy is a tool with multiple uses… loosening large bolts or adjusting bad attitudes… draw your own conclusions. I carry mine under the driver’s seat. A loop of wire through the hole in the handle keeps it in place under the seat or on your wrist, as the case might be.
    Get away wrench


  • *Electrical tape
  • *Duct tape – even more important in the car than in the home. If your window falls part way down inside the car door, duct tape is strong enough to hold it in place if you can pull it back up. If not, you can cover the whole window opening up with the tape. You get the idea.
  • Motor oil – always carry a quart of cheap oil, of the type your car uses, just in case your oil light comes on. (It never should, because you check your oil level weekly, right? Thought so. Carry one anyway so you can help a friend.)
  • Wire hanger – FREE! Never know when you’ll need to lash something in place that is falling off. Can’t use duct tape on a hot exhaust pipe! Coat hangers can also be used to get a set of keys out of your friend’s car, if they lock them in. Use your electrical tape to protect the paint where you stick the hanger past the door or window.
  • Cloth work gloves – The first time you change a tire on the side of the road, you’ll understand this one.
  • Paper towel – 1001 uses!
  • Large trash bags/rain poncho – Trash bags are the poor man’s rain poncho. Wear it to protect your clothes or put one on the ground if you need to get under the car to fix something. In fact, pack a few in there, so you can do both.

Tool sets

Sometimes you can save buying tools in pre-packaged sets. Lots of these become magically available around Christmas and Father’s Day.

  • Basic tool set with bag ($40) – Sears sells this one. It has most of what you need and a cool bag to tote them around in.
    Basic tools from Sears
  • Minimalist tool set ($8) – IKEA sells this really basic set, which is difficult to beat in terms of deals. You can see or order it here. We got one of these for my daughter when she got her first apartment. It’s not bad at all. Neat thing is that it has a little rubber cover for the hammer so you can use it for assembling furniture without damaging the surface. Nice!
    IKEA tools

Multitools are nifty gadgets, but should not take the place of normal tools. They only decent ones are expensive and still a compromise at any function they perform. They can get you out of a pinch as often as they pinch your fingers when they fold unexpectedly. I do have one that I carry when doing handyman-type tasks around the house – it was a greatly apprecaited gift, but not something I’d buy for myself.

Tool care
Most tools are, by nature, robust and require little care. Wipe them down after use, keep them dry, and they’ll last for a long time.

The biggest cause of tool failure is abuse. “Every job goes easier if you have the proper tools” is absolutely true! So is the adage that “anything can be used as a hammer” (although your wrench might not appreciate it). And, while putting a pipe on a wrench to get more leverage loosening a frozen bolt, we sometimes find that the bolt is a bit stronger than the wrench. (This is why replacement warranties are so nice to have.)

Just be careful! Tools are much more robust than your flesh!

Another important thing is finding a good place to keep your tools. They are small and easily misplaced. A tool can do you no good if you can’t find it.

Top three tools I use the most
In order of usefulness… drum roll, please…

  • Swiss Army knife – The Victorianox SwissChamp is one of my most valued possessions, certainly my choice if allowed only one thing to be stranded with on a desert island (after my wife, of course). Too bulky to carry, you say? I used to think the same thing, until it saved me on too many occassions to recall. I never leave home without it, unless plane travel is involved.

    You might try to tell me this is a multi-tool. It is not. The SwissChamp is a refined pocket knife on steroids.
    Go away wrench

  • Screwdriver – I use my 6-in-1 all the time.
  • 6-inch adjustable wrench – Yes, most tasks are small enough to need no more than this.

Updated 29 August 2013 – added “multi-driver” nomenclature to “Deluxe screwdriver set.”


  1. Marissa Gonzales says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. You just covered like 1/4 of my Where’s Dad Now That I Need Him? book. Proud to say our apartment has 90% of these things!

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