Top 10 Tools for the Automotive DIY’er

Socket Set Deep and shallow well, 6 pt.

Time for another “Top 10 tools” list. This list is the top 10 tools for the automotive DIY’er. I have been wrenching on cars most of my life and I seldom (okay, never) take my car to a shop to have someone else perform service or repairs to it. I would rather spend the money on tools! While I know a lot of people aren’t willing to perform an engine overhaul, or change a transmission, I bet there are a lot of people who wouldn’t mind changing their own oil or doing a simple brake job and having the tools to allow you to do the job is the first step toward empowering you to do so.

My approach to automotive hand tools has been to buy from reputable tool manufacturers. While a cheap hammer will still pound nails, a cheap ratchet or a bad wrench will cause headaches that you just don’t need when you’re dealing with an automotive repair. I tend to buy the best hand tools I can afford for automotive repair. Right now, at this stage of life, that  means I can not afford Snap-On, MAC, Cornwell or any of the other high end, professional quality tool manufacturers. What I usually end up with is Craftsman tools because decent prices + respectable quality = a good value. I have mentioned it before that I like buying from Craftsman because they have an unconditional lifetime guarantee on many of their hand tools, and I have had the opportunity to hold them to that guarantee on more than one occasion. This is not to say that they are the only place to get decent tools, since there are other high quality hand tools available as well from Kobalt, Stanley and others. The best word of caution is to look at where the tools are made; nothing against China, but  they don’t make good hand tools, Taiwan is in the same boat. If you get a tool made in the USA or even Mexico, you’re likely holding a fairly decent piece of gear.

Furthermore, I fully recognize that there are literally hundreds of variations of specialty tools for automotive purposes. Professional automotive technicians spend thousands of dollars on their tools and have some very specific specialty tools for individual applications. I’m not going to get into those tools in detail. What we’re going for here is a quick top 10 of the most versatile and useful tools for general use in repairing your auto. Also, I am going to assume that if you’re interested in repairing your auto, you’re interested in repairing your home as well, so in the interest of simplicity I will not be including any of the tools that were on my previous lists of Top 10 Hand tools and Top 10 Power tools for the homeowner.

Okay, enough with the tool drivel, on to the Top 10 list! Here in no particular order are my top 10 recommendations for getting your automotive tool collection started (witty, yet somewhat dry pun intended, yeah you probably had to read it again didn’t you?).

  • Combination Wrench Set – One of the most useful things you will buy in working on your own auto is a good set of combination wrenches. Whereas many applications in the home will allow for the clearance to use a crescent (adjustable) wrench, when you’re working on your car, clearance is almost always at a premium. Having a wrench that will fit into the tight spots on your car is of tantamount importance. The first wrenches that I reach for in my collection are from the manufacturer GearWrench. These wrenches are a typical combination wrench with an open end and a closed (box) end, but they have the added feature of having a ratchet mechanism built into the box end of the wrench. Placing the box end over a fastener allows you to operate the handle in a back and forth motion without removing the wrench from the fastener. The ratchet mechanism loosens or tightens the fastener depending on the direction you have the tool set to operate. Some wrenches have a lever that you flip to reverse the direction of operation (Mine are like this) and some, you simply flip the tool over. These things are really handy! I have tried other gimmicky wrenches, but these are in a class of unparallelled usefulness all by themselves. These are truly a great tool. Of consideration is whether the auto you’re most likely to work on uses Metric or Standard (SAE). If your car is an import it likely uses Metric sizes on the fasteners, if it is a domestic car, well then it’s a crap shoot. Many Domestic cars are a strange hybrid of metric and SAE fasteners as some of the parts are made overseas. My projects (even on domestic cars and trucks) are using metric tools with increasing frequency. Long story made short, it is a headache but you may need both. If you have to choose one, I would suggest that you buy the metric sizes and make sure that the set includes all the sizes. Many cheaper sets don’t include all the metric sizes and they are likely to skip sizes that you may need. Typically automotive applications use 10,12,13,14,15,17 and 18 mm sizes. Spend a good amount on these tools and you won’t regret it. A set of gearwrenches goes for around $80 while a set of standard combination wrenches is considerably less. Buy cheap wrenches and you will be calling down curses upon your own head as you try to extract rounded off fasteners than no wrench on earth will fit.
  • Screwdriver Set – Unlike my home owner list where a 6 or 10 in one screwdriver was the best tool for the application, in automotive work, you often need screwdrivers of varying sizes and lengths so buying a set of decent quality screwdrivers is a good investment. Philips and Slotted head are both needed.
  • Floor Jack and Jack Stands – If you have ever tried to use the poor excuse for a jack that is sold with most cars these days, you will understand this one. A hydraulic floor jack is a must for doing your own auto work. A 2 ton unit is typically sufficient for a regular sized car or minivan, but you should look for something a bit larger or a “SUV” model if you have an SUV or truck. Typically weight rating is not so much an issue as the maximum lift height can be. A smaller, less expensive jack will in most cases be more than powerful enough to lift your vehicle but may not lift high enough to get the wheel off the ground. Jack stands are also a must. If you are working on your car (or under it) with it supported by a hydraulic jack, you are entrusting your life to the fluid and seals within that jack. I don’t know about you but I don’t feel all that comfortable trusting life and limb to a $.05 o-ring. Having the rigid support of a jack stand is a much safer approach to supporting the vehicle for repairs to be performed. I list these together since many retailers offer them together as a kit.
  • Work Light –  I know I included work lights in my previous list, and I said I wouldn’t duplicate items in this list, but this is a more specialized type of light than you may be purchasing for another application. An automotive work light is small enough to be hung in a wheel opening while you’re doing a brake job, but needs to be powerful enough to provide enough light so you can see easily. There are lots of options here, so just find one that works for you. One thing to remember, however is that a unit that uses an incandescent light bulb will get HOT. The last thing you need when working on your car is one more way to hurt yourself, so try to stay with something that uses a fluorescent or LED lamp.
  • Oil Filter wrench – While there are a lot of different types of filter wrenches out there and each one has its strengths, the one I use the most is a Craftsman wrench similar to the model below. It is adjustable for size and fits into the tight spaces that I need to get into and does a good job loosening a filter for removal. If you’re worried about chewing up the filter while installing it, don’t be. For installation of a new filter, you don’t typically need a wrench. Most filter manufacturers will tell you that the only tension necessary is to tighten the filter until the rubber seal on the bottom of the filter is contacting the filter base, and then an additional 3/4 a turn or so. IN other words hand tight. Any tighter than that and you’re just making more work for yourself when you have to strain to remove the filter next time.
  • Socket Set – Again this is an area where you can spend from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars, it just depends how serious you are. In my opinion this is something that you can buy just once in your lifetime and have to pass on to your kids, so I would tend to spend a bit more on this area. I generally prefer to have 6 point sockets as opposed to 12 point since they are less likely to strip out a rusted or stuck fastener than a 12 point socket would be. There are different size drives (1/4″, 3/8″ and 1/2″) that will include ratchets of different sizes, but if you’re just buying one, I would suggest a 3/8″ drive as a good starting place. A 1/4″ Drive set typically also contains smaller size sockets that will be very useful for removing fasteners on the body and interior of your car. This picture shows both 6 and 12 point varieties.
  • Pliers Set – There are a lot of different types of pliers on the market, but a set of at least 5 or 6 pliers is a great way to ensure that you have the tool you need for the job at hand. The most commonly used pliers in my tool chest are a pair of bent nose needle nose pliers similar to the ones shown in the picture above (4th set in from the left). These are really good for getting into awkward spaces to release spring clips and the like. Again, most of these in my personal collection are Craftsman, but anything from Channellock, or Klein Tools will be of equal or greater quality than what I have.
  • Vise Grips – This one is almost too cliche to mention, but it really is an irreplaceable tool in terms of the function that it fills. Having a good set or two of Vice Grips in your tool box is insurance against being stonewalled by a rounded, broken or stuck fastener. This is one tool that if you don’t buy a good set, don’t bother buying any at all. A cheap set will cause more problems than it solves. In this case the Vice Grip name is a prerequisite for a good pair of locking pliers, although I have a set built by Proto and they seem to be of equal quality. The Vice Grip company was sold to Irwin tools a number of years ago and, unfortunately, since then their quality has been on the decline. Yard sales and eBay are still good places to source the genuine “Vice Grip” brand tools. Look for the distinctive logo as can be seen on the pair in the picture above. I have had other types of locking pliers and different gimmicky tools similar, and they just don’t hold a candle to the original.
  • Oxy/Acetylene torch – Okay, practical for most people – maybe not; dangerous – definitely, but this one is really the be all end all for auto work in the “rust belt” where I live. Rust, road salt and water combine to seize fasteners into place and in many cases a little heat is the only way to free them up. Enter the “Red Wrench” or “Fire Wrench” as some call it. Heating the seized nut or bolt up to cherry red will allow the metal to expand, and it will burn off the rust that is holding the fastener in place allowing you to remove it with a wrench or socket. Add to this the ability to use the torch to “cut” off a bad exhaust or fastener and with the proper technique and safety tools in place, the fire wrench can get you out of a bind in a hurry. It can also get you INTO a bind in a hurry too. It is useful for setting ablaze just about any combustible item in the vicinity so don’t use it without a fire extinguisher, wet rags, a bucket of water or all of them handy. Draping soaking rags over delicate items around the work space is helpful in safeguarding your project, but you really need to be careful. For all the dangers inherent to this tool, it is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal and knowing when and how to use it can be a huge asset. Smaller, portable units like the one pictured above can be had for around $200, take up less space than their full size brethren, and are more than capable of doing the job for smaller projects. There are some new products on the market that perform the same function by a magnetic induction process and without the fire. While these should be safer and faster alternatives, I haven’t had opportunity to see any of them work, so I can’t comment on their function.
  • Computer with an internet connection – This one may be a bit obvious but it bears to be restated. The WWW is your friend in your forays into automotive repair. There is an online forum devoted to about every car manufacturer and model under the sun and it is, no doubt populated by people that specialize in the DIY approach to caring for the car of your choice. Belonging to one of these forums is typically free and opens you up to a world of resources and experience that is truly priceless. Countless hours of frustration can be spared by the experience of the men (and women) on these sites. This is by far one of the most valuable tools you can have access to. Even without the benefit of being able to ask your questions directly, you can search past discussions, and generally find the answer you were seeking. There are YouTube videos on how to perform basic services to your car and even services where for a nominal fee you can register as ask your questions directly to a professional mechanic. The internet is possibly the best resource you have in learning how to do this work yourself.

Honorable Mention:

  • Impact Wrench – This is one tool that while not practical for everyone, if you have an air compressor you will really appreciate the convenience of having this tool at your disposal. It is the ideal tool for removing lug nuts on your wheels. There are electric models available as well for those who don’t have an air compressor at their disposal. This really makes short work of rotating your own tires.

That’s a lot of tools, I know but there are lots of options when purchasing your tools collection. The method that I have taken was to buy (or receive as gifts) a few tools at a time and accumulate this array of tools over a period of time. Others may prefer to buy a large tool set all at once. Buying the tools as a large set, is no doubt a cheaper way to get the tools. It might be a good way to use part of a tax return or bonus, and many tool sets will come with some type of tool box or organizer to store them in. As I have said before, I tend to ask for tools as gifts around the holidays or for gift cards to stores that sell tools. Having a list to work off of is a good way to start watching for those items to go on sale and stretch your dollars as well. Used tools can occasionally be bought at yard sales, auctions and online auction sites like eBay for less than new as well. Regardless of how you choose to go about it, it is money well spent in my opinion.

Well I think that is more than enough for now, Happy wrenching!