Top 10 Hand tools for the Home Owner / DIY’er.

This is likely to be the first of a series of my “Top 10 Tools” posts.

I will admit I am a tool junkie. My entire family knows that if they are ever at a loss for something to give me as a gift, a gift card or gift certificate to anywhere that sells tools (Lowe’s and Sears are my favorites) is always a well appreciated gift. It’s a sure bet that I will end up with something that I will use and hopefully, something that I will have for a long time. I would in most cases, rather do the work myself, and spend a fraction of the money I would have spent on hiring something out to buy the tools to do the job right. In my opinion, this is an investment in the future since the next time the same or similar task comes up, I will have the tools and experience to do it myself.

The first listing I have assembled is the Top 10 hand tools for the home owner and Do-It-Yourself enthusiast. These will be non-electric hand tools and these come from my experience. These are probably the most valuable or at least most frequently used tools in my collection, but first a quick word about hand tools.

Here is my take on hand tools: I can’t afford to buy the best, but I can’t afford to buy cheap tools either.What I typically do is to look at how the tool will be used, how frequently it will be used and then buy accordingly. While I would love to buy an entire collection of hand tools from the likes of Snap-On, MAC, or Cornwell, that kind of stuff is a little out of my price range. As I have hinted at previously, I do a fair amount of my tool buying at places like Sears and Lowes so many of the tools in my collection carry names like Craftsman, and Stanley. I like these brands because they have a lifetime warranty on many of their hand tools and a majority of them are still made right here in the US of A. These companies have replaced tape measures, sockets, ratchets and the like for me at no charge, so for hand tools, I like to stick with them. There are, however some exceptions to that rule as you will see in the list that follows. There are some companies that I feel offer higher quality offerings of some frequently used hand tools, so I tend to go with them. One word of caution is to look at where the tools are made. Tools made in China, Taiwan, etc. tend in my experience, to be of very low quality. They are typically made of lesser quality materials and they just don’t hold up to what I would consider normal use. This is an area where you really do get what you pay for. Buy a high quality tool, take care of it, use it for its intended purpose and you will likely have that tool for a long, long time. As the saying goes, “I’m too poor to buy cheap tools”.

That being said, lets get into the list! Here in no particular order is my list of the Top 10 Hand tools in my collection for the Home Owner / DIY’er.

  • Claw Hammer – This one should go without saying. There is a reason why most tool belts have a dedicated spot for this tool; you need to have a good hammer to get just about anything done around the house. From hanging picture frames, to building outdoor projects, you’re gonna need a hammer or you’re not going to get a whole lot done. I tend to prefer a framing hammer design because of its relatively straight claw design. This would be as opposed to a carpenter’s hammer which has a curved claw on the back of it. I tend to gravitate towards models with fiberglass handles but a good quality hickory handle will last almost as long. This is just a personal preference thing for me.
  • Speed Square – I have a couple of these and they seem to find their way into the majority of the carpentry projects I get involved with. These things are a great way to square up a joint before you fasten the boards together, they work great for marking lumber prior to cutting, can be used as a square guide when making cuts with a circular saw, and if you know what you’re doing they can help you lay out a stair riser, and calculate hip and valley joints in roofing. A good Swanson speed square and the accompanying “Little Blue Book” will go a long way towards keeping your projects on the straight and narrow.
  • Crescent Wrench – I will be the first to admit that there is a definite time and place for a combination wrench set to be used, but for most home repairs, an adjustable wrench or crescent wrench is the first thing I grab. It is typically more than sufficient to handle the little jobs that are encountered around the house. Some call it a “hillbilly socket set” but I call it just plain handy.
  • Tape measure – There aren’t many home projects that can be completed without a measuring tape. A good 25′ tape measure is a must for just about any project. I have tapes from several manufacturers but one of the oldest names in the game, Stanley, makes the tape I reach for the most often. Some of the newer tape measures are even available “cheater style” and show the fractional measurements right on the tape. While these may be a good way to start learning to read the measurement marks, a standard tape is easy to read after just a few minutes of explanation of the meaning of the markings. Just remember, measure twice, cut once. Otherwise you will cut the same board twice and it will still be too short (a little carpentry humor for you there).
  • 2′ Spirit Level – A tool for an exorcism in your home? No, just a tool to keep your work level (horizontal) and plumb (vertical). While there are literally dozens of types and designs of spirit or “bubble” levels, if I had to choose one and only one, it would be my Stanley aluminum 2′ I-beam level. Bigger jobs are better suited to using my 4′ Stanley (which is, incidentally made of aromatic cedar, mmmm smells nice!) but it is just too large for many jobs. Torpedo levels are a nice fit in your back pocket for hanging pictures and the like, and I love my Black and Decker Laser level, but again, if I had to pick just one, it would be the 2′ variety. The aluminum edges double as a nice straightedge for cutting and laying out projects too.
  • 6/8/10/11 in 1 Screwdriver – The interchangeable bits in these screwdrivers ensures that you will have the right tool for just about any screw driving job. Klein Tools makes some especially nice models, some having 11 in 1 capabilities. You typically get 2 different sizes of Phillips head and slotted bits, as well as hex head drivers for 1/4″ and 5/16″ screws. Some also include torx, Robertson’s (square drive), and 3/8″ drivers as well. This one is, quite possibly the most used tool in the house and even the better models usually sell for around $10 with lesser quality ones, even less than that. There are some jobs these drivers cannot do, such as removing screws recessed far back into a kids’ toy for replacing the batteries, but for most jobs this screw driving wonder will do the job. Just tell the kids that you won’t be able to replace the batteries in that toy…it was obnoxious anyway.
  • Utility Knife – This is another one that will be used frequently. Everybody and their brother makes one of these, but inexpensive as they are, spend closer to $10 a get a good quality one. I have one I particularly like that is a cheap model made by Lenox. Stanley also makes some really nice models that have varying features and designs. There are a plethora of different designs and variations of these designs, but I prefer a pretty basic retractable blade version which allows you to replace the blades when they get dull. Spending a few extra dollars on one should get you one that locks the blade in place firmly so the blade does not slip back into the handle in the middle of a tough cutting job.
  • Diagonal Cutting Pliers – Call them side cutters, call them snips or dikes, or whatever you want to call them, in my experience there is only one manufacturer that makes these things right and that is Klein tools (and no, I’m not getting a kickback from them for saying so). Over the time that I spent working in the electrical trades, there was one thing that about 90% of the guys in the trade agreed upon. These cutters were the only way to go if you wanted a good “pair of cuts”. Klein makes several varieties of these cutters with varying handle designs and metallic makeup for different applications, but use a pair of these along side a cheap pair from the dollar store and you will understand why you’re willing to pay close to $20 for this pair of wire cutting wonders.
  • Lineman’s pliers – Another remnant of my days in the trades and another shout out to Klein tools, these side cutting pliers are the jack of all trades (no pun intended) when it comes to your hand tools. Great for gripping, the 9″ handles make them great for cutting off screws and nails as well. They even make a great hammer for the occasional driving job. These things are heavy and they are the workhorse of your tool collection once you get used to using them. Expect to pay around $30 for these, but once you get used to using them you will agree it is money well spent.
  • Groove Joint Pliers (Channellocks) – This is another case where one manufacturer’s design was so iconic or revolutionary that the tool is universally referred to by¬† their name regardless of who manufactured it. Call them Channellocks, groove joint pliers, water pump pliers, etc, these are a great addition to your tool collection. This is yet another place where I have seen time and time again that you get what you pay for. A cheap pair of these will slip, pinching your hand between the handles, which is usually followed immediately by a demonstration of the aerodynamic properties of these pliers in flight across the work space. This is one area you don’t want to go cheap. Buy a set of these from the likes of Craftsman, Klein, or of course Channellock and discover a whole new plane of gripping, bending, and tightening bliss. Buy a cheap pair, and be prepared to explain your foul language, sour mood and the blood blisters on your palms to the kids and wife.

Honorable mention:

The final thing I will add to the list here is really an essential even though it isn’t a tool at all. Your tool collection needs a home. You have to have a tool box, a drawer, a cabinet, or something where everything belongs. Without this, your tools will be scattered all over the place and you will spend more time looking for the tools than you will using them. While I have a number of toolboxes scattered throughout my life, knowing where the tools are is a key factor in getting the job done. Having the self discipline to put things away when you’re finished with them takes a lot of work for some and comes naturally for others, but it really is important. I think this will become apparent the first time your quick afternoon project is derailed because you can’t find the tool you need to finish it.

Until next time,