Tools 101: Essential Tools for Basic DIYing

Tools

Source | Andy Jensen

If you’ve decided to tackle a vehicle repair by yourself for the first time, welcome to the DIY Club! It’s fun here, plus we’ve got awesome tools. Whether it’s your first repair, first car, or first garage, we’ll cover all the affordable and useful tools you’ll need to get the job done. Let’s get started with the obvious.

Air Pressure Gauge

Got $2? That can buy one of the most useful tools in your inventory: an air pressure gauge. This simple device does exactly what its name suggests, measuring the amount of air in your tires and displaying the reading of pressure in pounds per square inch. This is useful information, since underinflated tires cause decreased gas mileage, increased tire wear, and poor handling. Wielding this simple, inexpensive tool and adjusting your tire pressure to the proper level will save you money and make your vehicle drive properly. That’s quite a return on such a small investment.

Jack

Sure, your vehicle probably came with a jack, but have you looked at it? It’s likely a stamped steel hunk of junk with the build quality of a Cracker Jack box toy. A solid jack is cheap, well-built, and easy to use—making it safer all around. Floor jacks are large, but they roll easily, have a low profile for low vehicles, and can lift tons in just a few pumps of the handle. If you need something smaller for everyday carry, bottle jacks are conveniently small but offer incredible lifting power. There’s even some that can lift a ridiculous 20 tons, for our DIYers with an Abrams tank.

Jack Stands

Odds are that once the vehicle is in the air, you’ll want some backup support. Modern jacks are reliable, but sometimes you need both front wheels in the air or maybe even all four. In that case, you need jack stands. Think of them like a cell phone mount for your car; it’s cheap safety. These steel or aluminum devices keep the vehicle at the lifted height, allowing for easy and safe tire rotation, oil and transmission fluid changes, and swapping out brake pads.

Buying tip: save cash and get a kit offering jack and jack stands together.

Ratchet and Sockets

Yeah, wrenches are cool. But there’s nothing like the sound of a spinning ratchet that loudly and proudly announces, “I’m fixing my ride!” Rather than slowly working a bolt off with a wrench, a ratchet and sockets get the job done in less time. For small bolts, go with a 1/4-inch drive. For large bolts, like on heavy-duty trucks, buy a 1/2-inch drive socket. Or split the difference and get a 3/8-inch drive. Buy sockets, however, for that specific ratchet, as 1/2-inch sockets will leave you disappointed on your 1/4-inch drive ratchet. Like with the jack stands above, buying a ratchet/socket set is easier and cheaper than buying individually.

Multimeter

This tool is way more than just a battery tester. A basic multimeter can read the volts, current, and impedance of electrical systems, providing valuable troubleshooting assistance. Flip-up headlights being wonky on your Honda Prelude? Use a multimeter on the headlight relay. Thinking that your Ford Explorer’s coil packs might be going out? Make sure with a multimeter. It can also help around the home with installing that ceiling fan or troubleshooting Christmas tree lights, so it’s far more than just an automotive tool. And, yes, it will also be a great way to test your battery.

LED Lighting

Lighting isn’t a tool in the traditional sense. It won’t help you get that seized bolt unstuck or grease those bearings, but it certainly will help with both of those projects. Roadside emergencies seem to mainly happen at night, and it’s no fun changing a tire by the headlights of passing motorists. LED lights are long-lasting, compact, run cool, and can be very affordable. Options cover basic flashlights and headlamps for seeing into dark engine bays to large four-foot shop lighting systems that can turn garage darkness into daylight. A good first buy is a handheld unit with a magnet for attaching to metal surfaces. Everything is easier when you can see what you’re doing. Get some good lights.

Cleanup

Some of the most-used tools, and often most overlooked, are those involving cleaning up. For yourself, get clean with mechanic’s soap and stay clean with some disposable latex or tough safety gloves. For your ride, a degreaser is your best friend under the hood, while the top of the hood needs a good car wash soap. A shop vac is excellent at keeping the interior clean and can even power through the mess of your garage/workspace. PEAK offers a radiator cleaner among other fluids, and if you spill them, use your shop towels. Those cheapo things have a million uses.

Have any suggestions for the first-time wrencher? What would be a common and affordable tool that everyone needs? Add to this list in the comments.

Comments

  1. You left out one of my most used tools! Good ‘ol penetrant. Whether you like WD40 or PB Blaster or just some ATF in a pump bottle, you should have some handy. Good for drilling in metal, freeing stuck bolts and nuts, cleaning rust off parts, preventing flash rust from forming. I have little cans in all the cars and larger ones in the garage because you never know when you’ll need it!

    Perhaps not required for the first couple of DIY jobs, but sooner or later – 6 point AND 12 point sockets. You will need both at some point. Those 12 pointers love to round off the head of rusty fasteners where a 6 point would’ve done a better job. Likewise, you’ll find some 12 point bolts and nuts on some of the more important items that require the 12 point sockets: flywheel/pressure plate bolts, performance head studs and nuts, etc.

    Working on old machines with cross-head screws? (think old motorcycles where for some reason, everything is attached with a cross-head or Phillips screw). You will at some point need an impact driver (http://shop.advanceautoparts.com/p/autocraft-impact-driver-set-6-piece-ac683/10051759-P). These clever tools require you to hit them with a hammer in order to turn the head a small amount, hit by hit. The force of the hammer hit prevents the tool from slipping on the head of the fastener. Impact drivers aren’t often used but they will often save your tail! I have to get mine out maybe once or twice a year. Its also one of my most borrowed-out to others tool in the tool box.
    If you are working on Japanese motorcycles, be sure to have bits that are JIS along with some varied JIS screwdrivers. They are different from other cross-head standards, no matter how silly and unknown a fact that is.

    • Andy Jensen says:

      Good call on the PB Blaster. I love that stuff. This one is very basic, so I wasn’t able to cover everything in a small word count article. Good thoughts there tho.

  2. why didnt you mention anything about the 1990’s Saabs, especially the convertibles in your classic car list???? Not Cool, there’s a huge fan base out there and those of us who love our cars would like to see them make the list.
    Also what about the Early Lexus, like the first one ever made? isnt that a classic?? please do tell a mistake, an oversight or do you just not like Swedish convertibles wtih turbos?

    • Andy Jensen says:

      I love turbo Saabs, and *almost* put down money on a Turbo X when they were new. A little outside the scope of this article though. 😉

  3. Gabriel J. says:

    Thank you for sharing these! I would also include, with your rachet set, that you add a ratchet “extender” with the set. I use a simple metal pipe that I can fit on the end of my ratchets. This pipe extends the length of the tool, and makes it easier to get those stubborn bolts (longer end = more torque). I call mine “the persuader”, because it helps me “persuade” those tougher bolts.

    • Andy Jensen says:

      Yup, excellent point. A breaker bar can be nearly free, but proves invaluable sometimes. Thanks for posting that up.

  4. Robert Mckinnon says:

    Yes, PB Blast is a must. I Johnson bar or two are extremely convenient. I have a large and smaller one for any basic job. I have also found that a long curved pair of needle nose pliers are valuable to reach into tight areas to retrieve bolts and nuts if dropped down into a hard to reach area. Thanks for all the valuable information.

  5. Kevin Horst says:

    One of the most overlooked tools for any wrencher is a good torque wrench. This tool is often overlooked as essential but this tool could prevent a lot of problems first timers and seasoned mechanics have by uneven torquing of bolting. As any expert mechanic knows, every bolt and or stud needs a proper torque to applied to it to achieve a goal of proper torque. If this is not performed correctly it will cause leaks, parts breakage, uneven wear and more. Torquing of bolting is perhaps one of the most overlooked by many mechanics (first timers and seasoned) but once you learn and see the results of proper torquing Technics, I’m sure everyone would agree.

  6. How about a torque wrench to prevent over torqueing or breaking bolts, which causes more problems to fix, when you probably don’t have enough time anyway. Another useful tool is an oversized c-clamp for compressing brake calipers.

  7. Dale Strand says:

    What about a Magnet? Every thing I drop seems to go to the most difficult place to reach there is! One that extends and/or can flex is a must.

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