Just a few weeks ago, I was asked by a friend to lend my expertise in assembling a basic toolkit. She had recently become a homeowner, and as those of us who are homeowners know, stuff breaks. So, in the spirit of Nerd DIY, I decided to share with you, dear readers, what I believe to be the basic must-have essentials for any respectable nerd tool kit.
A hammer. Just about as basic as you can get, you will find yourself reaching for this one frequently. Even if you don’t plan to do any serious carpentry, the good old hammer is useful for anything from assembling kit furniture, to hanging a painting. My recommendation when buying a basic hammer is to get a 16oz claw hammer with an all steel body, and a smooth face. The 16oz refers to the weight of the head of the hammer, and although you can find hammers at your hardware store with 20 or 24oz weight, I recommend 16oz for most around the house applications. If you hammer nails for a living, then a heavier hammer makes sense, but since you’re reading this article, I’m assuming you don’t. Stick with light-weight. I recommend the all steel construction for durability. Although wood and fiberglass are both good options and provide greater shock absorption, the forged steel will offer greater resistance to the elements (in case you want to take it camping to hammer in tent stakes, or you just forget and leave it out in the backyard) and will last a lifetime. Now as for the face, I would avoid purchasing a hammer with a waffle-patterned face, and go instead for the smooth face. Waffled, or milled hammers are better for avoiding glancing blows, so most framers prefer them. However if you are tapping a piece in place on your new Ikea bookshelf, and you miss, you will have ugly circular waffle marks on your furniture. This model from Estwing is a great general purpose hammer.
A measuring tape. I would get one that is at least 20 feet long, has a locking mechanism, and is easy to read. I like the basic Stanley model.
A screwdriver set. You will need a full set of both Phillips (star shaped tips), and slotted screwdrivers for your toolkit. For most household applications, Phillips sizes P0, P1, and P2, and slotted sizes 1/8”, 3/16”, and ¼” should be sufficient. Magnetic tips are nice and may help keep you from dropping screws; however screwdrivers with this feature should not be used for any application near sensitive electronic equipment.
A handsaw. 15 inch is a good size for DIYers. Pick one up that feels comfortable to you, with at least 8 to 12 teeth per inch.
A utility knife. No toolkit is complete without a good quality utility knife. Some people prefer the retractable variety, I personally like the folding type. Just make sure you get one that uses standard utility knife razor blades, tool-less blade replacement. This way, you don’t have to go get your screwdriver to take the handle apart and put in a fresh blade. I like this Gerber model.
Adjustable wrenches. I will recommend eventually buying a full set of metric and SAE (can you believe we still don’t use metric here?) wrenches, but for a basic kit, you can get by with a few adjustable wrenches. You will need at least two, because some common applications call for holding the nut with one wrench while turning the bolt with the other.
A level. Ever plan to hang a picture or shelf? Then you need this tool. The smaller ones are sometimes referred to as a “torpedo” level, and are commonly 5 inches to one foot long. Make sure you get one that has both a horizontal and vertical bubble, and is very easy to read from all angles.
A flashlight. You may have one for around the house, but I think it’s a good idea to have one that stays in the toolbox. Look for a bright light that uses common batteries. The huge ones are great, but really, who keeps D cells around the house? Also, make sure you get one that will stay where you set it. It’s really annoying to bump your flashlight and have it roll just out of reach when you need it. I keep a headlamp in my toolbox for those times when you need to see when both hands are full.
Pencil. I like carpenter’s pencils because they are flat so they won’t roll away, and then can easily be sharpened with a utility knife so you don’t have to carry a pencil sharpener with you. A mechanical pencil with a thicker lead is also a fine substitute.
Needle nose pliers. These are very useful for holding things and pulling things. Don’t get the pair with the ridiculously long tips. Get a pair with a cutting edge near the hinge, so you can use them to clip wire too.
A stud finder. You can go with the fancy electronic battery operated one, or a basic magnetic one that works by finding the nails. There are pros and cons for each, but this one has four and a half stars on Amazon with over three thousand reviews, and that’s pretty tough to beat.
A toolbox. Now that you have all of these sweet tools, you need a place to keep them. I prefer plastic over metal for portable tool boxes, as the plastic is much lighter weight and will not damage surfaces that you set the box on. If you have the space, and plan to expand your tool collection beyond just the basics, I keep a large metal tool box that stays in my workshop for tool storage, and portable cloth tool bags for carrying tools to and from the jobsite.
Look at your tools as a potential life-long investment. I think the best way to put together a respectable toolbox is to buy good quality tools a few at a time. Be prepared to spend some money, as quality does not come cheap. I would stay away from tools made in China, as they just don’t hold up. For added convenience, some brands offer a lifetime warranty and can be traded in at the store you purchased from in the event of breakage.
Happy fixing! If you have a favorite tool that you feel I’ve left out, please feel free to post it in the comments!