What tools do you need?
I love tools. Everyone loves tools. Tools are great. And you’re gonna need some!
- Tool set: I’m talking about the basic hand tool set, usually between 100-200 pieces and come in their own toolbox. I think the ~150 piece sets hit a sweet spot for usefulness, portability, and cost. One of these kits will be enough to do most of the basic maintenance tasks you’ll ever have to do to your car. When you start to get a tool chest and fill it out with more/nicer stuff this set can transition into the portable set that you keep in your car.
- Jack and jack stands: You’ll need these pretty early since almost any project car you’ll buy will need a thorough brake and suspension inspection and probably some work. Make sure the jack stands are good and stout, never work on a car just supported by the jack. I’m fine with the Harbor Freight 3 ton stands and HF rolling jacks are about the best bang for the buck.
- Consumables: Pretty cheap, always useful, these are the things that save the day:
- WD-40/Liquid Wrench/penetrating spray
- QR contact cleaner for electronics
- Steel wool
- Sandpaper – a variety of grits
- Brake cleaner
- RTV (silicone gasket sealer)
- Razor blades
- Shop towels (way better than paper towel)
- Torque wrench: I’m adding this early to the list because they’re pretty cheap and it’s much better to have them than not. Sure, you can just feel the torque out by hand… but eventually you’ll be either overtightening and breaking bolts or undertightening and having stuff fall off. Seriously, get a decent beam or click torque wrench (and always leave it set at 0 when not in use so the springs don’t creep and lose accuracy) and save yourself a lot of trouble down the road.
- Power Tools: Mmm power tools. Which ones you need depend very much on what kind of project you’re doing but some of the Greatest Hits:
- 4/4.5″ angle grinders are incredibly versatile and useless but they can also be dangerous if you’re stupid with them. Leave the guard one, make sure to never sideload a cutting disc, and buy quality balanced consumables.
- Dremel. Serious fabricators laugh at these consumer quality tools but I find then super useful. Light or precise sanding and cutting work are made a lot more convenient and the maneuverability make it easy to get them into tight spaces to cut off seized bolts.
- Sawzalls are particularly useful for, err, ‘redneck’ bodywork but they’re great multipurpose cutting instruments that make quick work of sheet metal.
- Impact gun. I like my little 12v: it offers a lot of convenience in quickly threading and light break-loose work but it doesn’t have the raw power to destroy stuff. The 20v models are crazy powerful though, they make air powered impact guns almost pointless.
- Random orbital sanders will be an absolute arm saver if you’re doing a lot of bodywork but you’ll never touch it if you’re just doing mechanical work.
- Miscellaneous bits: These can make things a lot more convenient and expedient. Good gift suggestions for your family as well. Some of my favorites:
- Magnet trays
- Pulley puller
- Slide hammer (5lbs)
- Oil drain pans
- Short rolling stool
Where do you get them?
You’ve probably seen a gorgeous $30k Snap On toolset in a professional shop. I have the pleasure of using one at work. But they’re really not necessary unless you make your living with tools. Here are some good places to look and good brands to look at.
1. Craftsman: Once the first and only choice for the home mechanic, the mighty has fallen. Many of their tools have dropped seriously in quality and are now made in China. Their prices haven’t fallen accordingly though. However, their stuff is still a pretty good deal and the lifetime warranty makes it worth it. Especially because Sears are conveniently everywhere so you can get a tool replaced that same day if you need to finish a job.
2. Harbor Freight: Yes their stuff is low quality. But it’s also so cheap that you can usually buy them twice before you buy the more expensive option. And a lot of their hand tools are actually better than Craftsman, now that most of their manufacturing has been outsourced. Their rolling toolboxes and jacks are just two items that I’ve found are better from HF than Craftsman. My main set of wrenches are Pittsburgh (their house brand). Most of the Pittsburgh Pro line are competitive with other entry level tools. They also have a lifetime warranty that’s about competitive with most other tools. Also, if you’re unsure of how much you’ll need a tool you can buy it from HF and if it breaks you can go buy a nicer replacement and only be out a few bucks. Avoid anything electrical from Harbor Freight, focus on simplicity.
3. Matco/SnapOn/Proto/Mac/other professional brands: These are the luxury tools, high quality, and expensive. Different mechanics will swear by different brands but I’ve found them all to be good. Your best source for these are used. Craigslist and estate sales are the best. It’ll be the most economical to buy a full toolbox loaded, if you really want to invest. You’ll still pay a few thousand for something like that but it might be 5x that new. However, grabbing a few ratchets and some wrenches from one of these manufacturers might be a good investment just cause you’ll use them so much.
4. Kobalt (Lowe’s)/Husky (Home Depot): The best thing about these tools is the easy available at their respective stores. Quality is good, about on par with Craftsman or even a little bit better but their prices are a bit higher.
So what to buy and from where? The first step is always do some research. I usually look at Garage Journal, r/tools, then just some google searches. The quality of different tools from each brand varies. For example, Harbor Freight’s ratchets are horrible but their toolboxes are actually very good.
Here’s what I’ve bought/own:
- Hand tools like ratchets, sockets, and wrenches: Craftsman, but will start to supplant with professional level tools because they see so much use. The nice thing about a Craftsman set is they make good Christmas presents, and I know a number of the readers here are younger folks who might be asking for tools from family.
- Jack and jackstands: Harbor Freight is about as good as anything else you’ll get for cheap money. But check craigslist to see if something high quality is available for cheap.
- Tool boxes: A tool chest is very nice, especially when you start accumulating a lot of neat little tools. Look for thick steel and ball bearing drawers. You can get them on craigslist for days and days, but if you want to buy new Harbor Freight’s US General toolboxes are the best bang for the buck. This GarageJournal thread is what pushed me towards US General and I have no regrets, it’s an awesome chest.
- Occasional use specialty tools: These are things like tie rod end removers, taps and dies, rounded bolt removers, things like that. I just buy the cheapest option, they get used so rarely by a non-professional that it’s not worth investing.