The Home Tool Kit: What to Look For, What to Buy

Making sense of the woodshop and selecting the right tools, including wrenches, pliers, screwdrivers, hacksaws, and hammers.

| July/August 1989

  • Pliers
    Gripping: Channeled slip-joint pliers open to a variety of jaw sizes.
  • Combination Wrench
    Turning: A combination wrench includes a box end and an open end, each angled by 15°. 
  • Hacksaw
    Cutting: A good hacksaw has a front grip, accurate tension control, and an all-position blade.
  • Machinist's Hammer
    Beating: The 40-ounce head of a machinist's hammer has enough weight to be convincing.

  • Pliers
  • Combination Wrench
  • Hacksaw
  • Machinist's Hammer

One of my favorite contests is the one in which the winner is given five minutes, an empty cart and carte blanche to clear a store's shelves of whatever looks appealing. We all can imagine ourselves successfully sacking the grocery aisles, but how many would feel comfortable making the best choices in a hardware store?

Having a home tool kit ready with the utensils of basic maintenance is as important to the car owner as mechanical know-how. The latter develops with experience; the former, by understanding each tool's function and its limits in routine repair.

Thankfully, most of us have only a car or two (and maybe some lawn and garden power equipment) to contend with. The work we'll be doing probably won't involve complicated electronics, diagnosis or even heavy mechanical repair. But it can still be a jolt to see the spread of metal that's needed to keep after just the garden-variety jobs.

The shock is eased somewhat by the fact that quality consumer-grade tools—those still old-time tough—are a sound purchase. "Bargain" brands almost never are—either they're built to sloppy tolerances, made from inferior steel or designed and finished poorly. Using them is more than an exercise in frustration; they might even be the cause of an injury, whether handled properly or not.

How do you shop for a decent product? Start with the tangibles: A good tool is solid and well balanced. It feels comfortable in your hand because it's been engineered to fit there. The finish really is finished—the forgings are clean and the rough areas machined and polished. Where rust resistance is a factor, the nickel-chrome plating is smooth and consistent.

Tools with a moving mechanism—pliers, ratchets, universal-joint connectors—should operate smoothly without binding or, to the other extreme, rocking sloppily on their pivots. A loose action is the mark of a potential "knuckle-buster" and should be shunned like the plague.

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