The Most Useful Tools for DIY Mechanics

1 / 7
Every homesteader needs a box of dependable tools.
2 / 7
Vise-Grip pliers are among the handiest tools ever made. They come in 5", 7", and 10" sizes (5" size shown).
3 / 7
Recognize these? Yep: A heavy-duty cotter pin puller and a screwdriver-type puller.
4 / 7
Three pipe wrenches. From top down: Heavy-duty aluminum model, offset pipe wrench made by Ridgid, and chain wrench (for odd-shaped objects).
5 / 7
Typical hammers. Top one is a plastic-face model, middle one a stonecutter's hammer, bottom a ball-peen hammer.
6 / 7
The contents of Doug Richmond's toolbox. These tools will cover just about any mechanical issue the typical homesteader is likely to encounter.
7 / 7
The top wrench is for copper tubing fittings (not nut-turning). Middle: The ubiquitous Combination wrench. Bottom: Half-moon wrench gets into inaccessible places.

Unless you know what you’re doing, shopping for tools
can be a time- and money-consuming endeavor. To help you
with the task, here are a few words of wisdom from Doug
Richmond
… a mechanic and tool buyer of many
years’ experience.

As anyone who’s lived on a homestead or spent any time in
the back country knows all too well, today’s “built to
last” mechanical contrivances break down with disconcerting
regularity. And when they do, someone (guess who?) must fix
them.

This holds for just about any contraption–with or
without moving parts–that you can think of Coleman
lanterns, corn-binder pickups, push cultivators,
rototillers … you name it, and it’s a leadpipe cinch that
throughout the item’s useful life it’ll have to be repaired
and/or adjusted over and over again. And of course, most of
that repairing and adjusting can only be done with the aid
of mechanics’ hand tools.

I started my own collection of hand tools while living in a
cabin on Alaska’s Gravina Island. We didn’t have a whole
lot of mechanical devices to contend with up there in
America’s “last frontier”, but I was forced to tinker
almost daily with the weary old outboard that powered the
boat we used for running errands to Ketchikan. The
experience quickly taught me that quality hand tools were
(and are) embarrassingly expensive and I
resolved–then and there–never to buy one for
which I didn’t have an immediate and specific need. Over
the years, as I’ve worked as a heavy-duty mechanic and
electrician, I’ve kept this vow religiously … and never
regretted it. The problem most homesteaders run up against
is that it’s often difficult to choose–from the
bewildering variety of tools on the market–exactly
the right implement for the task at hand (even if it is
obvious that 99.9% of those available are unsuitable for
the job to be done). Yet it is important to make the
correct choice, for mistakes in tool selection can be
expensive.

Of course, one way out of this quandary is to buy a
ready-made assortment of tools from a dealer. Anyone who
goes this route, however, soon begins to suspect that the
person who made up the selection got his master’s degree in
fruit fly genetics and doesn’t know the rust thing about
how to assemble a practical collection of tools.

How do you go about buying hand tools, then? This is a
tough question to answer, but–as a mechanic and
inveterate tool buyer with more than two decades’
experience–I feel qualified to offer some advice on
the subject. Here are a few suggestions:

Shop the Tool Catalogs

Number one, when you first start purchasing tools study
every catalog in the field that you can put your
hands on. Because thousands of different types of
mechanics’ hand tools exist, it pays to have a good idea of
what’s available before you go looking for a particular
item to do a given job. (ONE CAUTION: Read your catalogs
with a certain amount of skepticism. The folks who write
them sometimes dwell overlong on the good points of an item
while completely forgetting to mention its limitations.)

You’ll find that the most economical way to buy tools is to
purchase them “pre-owned”. Used tools depreciate about as
fast as used furniture, used spacecraft, etc.,
yet–unlike an old sofa or a Saturn rocket–a
quality wrench or screwdriver will last a lifetime if it’s
not grossly abused. (Some of my tools were purchased
secondhand over 25 years ago and are still going strong.)
Flea markets are probably your best bet for used hand
tools. Beyond that, you might check auctions, swap meets,
or the classified section of your paper.

Mail-Order Tools

The next best way to obtain tools is buy them new from one
of the big mail-order houses, such as Sears, Roebuck and
Co. or Montgomery Ward. Not only are Sears’s and Ward’s
prices reasonable and their wares of good quality, but the
sales personnel are extremely accommodating when it comes to exchanging broken tools., (I’ve seen 1/2″-drive sockets
which had obviously been ruined by heating promptly and
courteously exchanged for new merchandise at a Sears
store.) An extra advantage of dealing with these leviathans
of the mail-order business is that you don’t have to shop by
mail. If–as is often the case–you need a
certain tool right now, you can usually find a retail
outlet close by.

After the big catalog stores, your next choice when buying
new tools, I believe, should be an auto parts
establishment. The main disadvantage to doing business with
such firms is that many of them have very primitive
inventory control, which means that they’re often “fresh
out” of an item when you need it the most. Also, the prices
at these stores are usually a little higher than at Sears
or Ward.

The absolute worst place to buy tools is from a peddler’s
truck (you know, the kind that drives around and stops at
shops and factories). Not only are tools expensive when
purchased from a vendor, but too often the driver-salesman
objects loudly and strenuously to replacing a broken tool.
I’ve seen this happen even when the implement in question
was obviously defective in manufacture and–as a
result–failed within a week of purchase.

No matter where you shop for tools, you’ll notice that no
one supplier will have all the pieces of equipment you need
or want. (One firm might sell everything except hacksaw
blades, while another might offer everything except socket
wrenches.) On this score, Snap-On Tools Corporation seems
to have the most complete line of products, with bears,
Ward, and Western Auto not far behind. Of course,
Snap-On–which is generally sold from a truck by a
traveling vendor–is also a good bit more expensive
than any of the latter three.

Does it Pay to Buy Premium Tools?

Which brings up another question: Does it pay to buy
premium tools … tools made by firms-such as Snap-On-that
specialize in tool manufacture? The answer: in general, no.
The exception to this is the occasional instance in which a
certain premium tool is priced competitively with the
corresponding product from a lower-priced line, or when you
can’t find a needed tool anywhere else but in a premium
tool manufacturer’s catalog.

On the other hand, it’s usually bad news to buy tools out
of the 98¢ jumble basket at the local lumberyard or
hardware. Usually these cheapies won’t hold up well enough
to repair a wheelbarrow, which of course means that you
don’t save any money in the long–or even the
short–run. (And just try asking about “replacement
warranties” after you’ve bent the blade on a putty-pointed
two-bit screwdriver!)

A final tip: Avoid special-purpose tools–the ones
made to do a specific job on a certain make and model of
machine – except when the use of such a device is
absolutely unavoidable. In most cases, a standard tool can
do the job … the special-purpose gadgets
purportedly do it better, that’s all.

In closing, let me restate my belief that it takes a long
time–and a lot of capital–to build up a really
useful collection of tools for the homestead. So go slow,
buy only what you need when you need it, and insist on
quality whenever you do make a purchase. Before you know
it, you’ll be equipped to handle any repair job on the
farm.