Screwdrivers to Saws: Stocking Your First Toolbox

by Marla Walters on 9 March 2012 4 comments
Photo: Velo Steve

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” This is a clever metaphor about the all-too-human habit of resorting to the same old coping mechanisms available to us, no matter what our problems. It can also be a literal, real-life lesson. Sometimes, there’s no substitute for having the proper tool for the job. What follows is a list of tools to which every household should have ready access, as well as some that may just come in handy, in order of practical necessity. (See also: 10 Home DIY Projects You Can Do in One Day)

Hammer 

Surprise! Sometimes, the job really does require a hammer. Such as when you want to put a nail into a wall stud to hang a heavy picture. Or when you want to put a compression snap or a grommet into a sewing project. Or crack a particularly tough walnut. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination. A standard claw hammer with a smooth face suits most household purposes just fine and can be purchased for a very reasonable price at discount stores or home improvement centers.

Safety Glasses

No excuses. Safety glasses are cheap and available. They used to be dorky looking, but now there are stylish, even cool-looking ones. And nothing is cooler than having your safety glasses stop a foreign object from poking you in the eye. I’ve experienced a poke in the eye, resulting in a scratched cornea, and that is some misery, believe me. I don’t even want to think about possibly losing sight in an eye.

Utility Knife

Aliases: Razor knife, box cutter, carpet knife.

This may be the most frequently used tool in our house. If you shop at warehouse stores, as we do, you have plenty of cardboard to cut up for recycling. If you garden, a retractable razor knife in your pocket is invaluable for cutting twine or plastic ties, taking cuttings, grafting limbs, or sharpening stakes. If you do much in the way of mail order shopping, putting the retractable blade of a razor knife at the least-exposed setting makes it perfect for opening boxes without slicing the contents.

Safety Tip: As they taught me in the Future Farmers of America, always cut away from yourself. (I have a scar to back that tip up.)

Screwdrivers

Every household runs across the need for screwdrivers. Some small, battery-operated gadgets even require a screwdriver to replace the batteries. A medium and small bit in both Phillips head and straight screwdrivers should handle most situations. If space in your toolbox is an issue, you can get a single screwdriver with various bits stored in the handle. These can be gotten for very reasonable prices, and they have the additional benefit of including a larger selection of bits. The drawback of the all-in-one screwdriver is that the shaft is necessarily large to accommodate the interchangeable bits, so in a tight space (like a screw recessed down inside a plastic tube), they can be a problem. If you wear eyeglasses, a set of tiny screwdrivers can be a huge convenience, and these can also be purchased economically.

Safety Tip: Some screws require great downward pressure while turning, and it’s easy to slip. So, as with knives, always position yourself so that, should the screwdriver slip, you are out of harm’s way. (I have a scar to back that tip up, too.)

Tape Measure

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth and breadth and height my soul can reach…and how am I going to measure depth, breadth, and height without a tape measure? When I write “tape measure,” I mean a rigid, retracting metal tape measure, not a limp, fabric or plastic sewing one. In fact, a retractable metal tape measure comes in darned handy for sewing (no pun intended). But on top of that, a tape measure is useful in accurately hanging pictures, moving furniture, measuring the height of children, measuring for drapes, teasing cats, laying out garden rows…and that’s totally ignoring woodworking or home improvements. If you only buy one tape measure, make it a quality, wide, heavy-duty one, at least ¾” wide and 25 feet long. There are many inexpensive, narrow, wimpy pretenders, but a Stanley FatMax or a Lufkin tape measure, treated properly, could last a lifetime.

Duct Tape

Entire articles have been written on the uses of duct tape alone. Granted, it’s more of a supply than a tool, but no toolbox is complete without it.

Adjustable Wrench

Alias: Crescent wrench (after the original manufacturer).

An adjustable wrench is not just a poor man’s wrench set. There are times when a Crescent wrench is actually superior to an entire set of fixed-dimension wrenches. For example, when you’re going somewhere to turn a nut or bolt, but you don’t know the size before you get there. Sure, there are annoyances with an adjustable wrench, but there are many times when I have been very happy to deal with the inconvenience of that for the convenience of carrying a single wrench.

Tip: Don’t bother with the battery powered wrench that adjusts at the touch of a button. It’s an unnecessary gimmick. Just get a good quality 8-inch and 10-inch basic adjustable wrench, so you can hold a nut and a bolt while tightening.

Slip-Joint Pliers

Alias: Channellocks (after the original manufacturer).

These will do most things that a regular pair of pliers will do, plus a lot more. The longer handles offer additional leverage for much more jaw pressure (another great nutcracker), and the slip joints allow the jaws to open far wider. In a pinch, the large throat of slip joint pliers works great for under-sink plumbing, like tightening a slip nut on your sink’s tailpiece to stop a leak.

Pruning Shears

If you live in a home with a garden, or even a patio with potted plants, a good set of hand pruning shears can help you keep shrubs in shape and trim the stems of flower arrangements to keep them fresh longer. If you have trees, you should also have a set of lopping shears. Make sure you regularly clean and oil them. 

Diagonal Side Cutters

Alias: Dikes.

If you do any wiring, dikes are a necessity. They also come in handy for cutting wire to make jewelry, as my crafty daughter has learned.

Square

If you are cutting large pieces of wood, like plywood, or even fabric for a rectangular sewing project like curtains, having a basic framing square makes your project more accurate. If you aren’t too rough on it, a $12 aluminum one will hold up well. It also has the added benefit of being rust-proof, if you ever do use it for fabric, which you won’t want to stain with rust. For smaller projects, you can go with an even less expensive 7” speed square.

Hacksaw

Cutting metal is sometimes a very useful capability. (Those of you who have been in jail know just what I mean.) Seriously, being able to cut off rusted-on nuts, cut a new groove into a stripped screw head, or cut off an overly long bolt after you’ve threaded the nut on can sometimes save a lot of time, trouble, and money. A hacksaw is also useful for cutting PVC pipes for plumbing repairs.

Hand Saw

Even if you get to the point where you have various forms of power saws, you will run into situations where you need a hand saw. In the attic, under the house, or in the yard, when you don’t want to have to run an extension cord to make a single cut, or when a hand saw is just the more convenient tool, you will be happy you have one. A Stanley Sharp Tooth is an amazingly economical tool that gets the job done beautifully. A 15-inch saw with 9 TPI (teeth per inch) fits in most toolboxes and cuts like crazy. $12 on Amazon.

Ear Protection

Most people can get away with just some good quality earplugs for this purpose, rather than the bulky earmuffs you see on airport employees. I favor the fluorescent foam disposable earplugs because they are comfortable, and they work. You can wear them while using power saws, running garden equipment, or even sleeping when the neighbors are partying.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

Dust Mask

Sawdust, silica dust, gypsum dust, paint vapors, etc., have been determined to adversely affect your health. Go figure. 3M makes some of the more comfortable, economical masks to protect you from these hazards. The packaging describes which hazards each of their masks protects against. Have some on hand to protect your long-term health. They can even cut down on hay fever when you mow your lawn.

Multimeter

Alias: Multi-tester.

This one may seem a little esoteric for the basic household crowd, but hang in there with me. Of the houses we’ve lived in over 30 years, only one did NOT have at least one mis-wired electrical outlet somewhere in the house. With an inexpensive (under $15) multi-tester and the most basic electricity knowledge, you can test every outlet in your home in a few minutes, saving yourself untold potential problems in the future. In addition, you can test batteries, test for electrical shorts…you can even test light bulbs for continuity, to see whether they’re still good. You can do that with tiny fuses from electronics or you auto, too. For those who prefer not to learn fundamentals of wiring to test their outlets, a simple, foolproof receptacle tester can be found at hardware, home improvement, and even some discount stores, for $3 to $7.

Stud Finder

Yeah, yeah, old joke. But if you want to hang anything of significant weight on your walls, such as framed art or a decent clock, you are well-advised to hang it from a nail or screw fastened in a wall stud, rather than just nailed through drywall. With practice, you can learn to find studs in the wall by tapping the wall with something slightly hefty, like the rubber grip on the handle of a hammer, and listening to distinguish between the hollow sound of an empty cavity. Or, for less than ten dollars, you can buy a fancy electronic gizmo called a stud finder that reliably locates both edges of the stud, so you can hit it, dead-center. Of course, you can also use it to find the cavity for running wires through a wall, cutting out for a medicine cabinet or spice rack, etc.

Ladder

This is a tough one, not because the necessity for a ladder is in question, but because there are so many variables involved that selecting the right ladder is not automatic. If you only use it indoors, a four foot ladder will serve most people well. But to get more benefit out of ladder ownership, you need it to serve some outdoor purposes, too. A good compromise, because it serves a lot of useful purposes outdoors but will also fit inside, is a seven foot step ladder. But if you have a vaulted ceiling with a light fixture, that may not be tall enough. Measure the height of your tallest purpose, then look at the maximum safe work height of listed ladders to determine the proper size.

Corded Electric Drill and Bits

Okay, I know you’re bombarded by Sears, Lowes, and Home Depot ads for the latest, greatest cordless drill/drivers. But I assume that, if you’re reading this, you are not a contractor or an experienced do-it-yourselfer. Cordless tools are great for frequent users, but for the occasional do-it-yourselfer, maintaining batteries can be a real pain. When you have a couple of hours on the weekend to complete a task, it’s mighty frustrating to pull out your cordless drill and find out the battery is dead. A plug-in tool is ready to go all the time. Sure, you have to deal with an extension cord, but in the long run, that turns out to be less hassle than keeping batteries charged between infrequent uses. The minimum chuck size I would consider is 3/8”, and 1/2” is all the better.

Heavy-Duty Extension Cord

You knew that was coming. A recurring theme you may notice throughout this piece is, “tools for a lifetime.” I believe in that. We still have tools given to us as wedding gifts or passed on from parents. Part of maintaining a corded power tool is using proper extension cords. If your extension cord is too light for the job, you put your tools under strain and wear them out (or even burn them up) more quickly. For most applications, a 25 foot cord will be sufficient. If you are likely to run outdoor tools like weed or hedge trimmers, you may need a 50 foot cord or longer. Just remember, the longer the cord, the heavier the gauge necessary. The heavier the gauge, the smaller the number (so, a 12/3 cord is heavier than a 14/3 cord). Consult the manufacturer’s specs for your tool and application.

Circular Saw

Alias: Skilsaw (after the original manufacturer).

If you plan on cutting plywood and/or dimensional lumber in straight lines, a circular saw is a versatile tool for your arsenal. With a few tricks and techniques, you can make nice, straight, square cuts without having to own several separate, bulky tools, like a table saw, and a power miter saw.

Safety Tip: As with all power tools, always stay alert and respect the destructive capabilities of your circular saw. Stay clear of the blade during use and after use, when you are setting it in a safe place, especially if it is not equipped with a blade brake to stop rotation after use. Wear your sporty safety glasses, your ear protection, and your dust mask.

Sabre Saw

Aliases: Saber saw, reciprocating saw, jigsaw.

This is the saw you go to when you want to cut curved lines, notch out small pieces, or make small cuts in the center of something without starting at an edge. You might want to cut a small notch into a board to accommodate the edge of another board or an obstruction. This is also the saw you would use to cut out intricate shapes to make Christmas ornaments, craft projects, etc.

Bench Grinder

This is another item that might raise eyebrows, but a decent bench grinder is an invaluable tool for a homeowner. As far as I’m concerned, its usefulness is as surprising to a new owner as a microwave oven turns out to be. Before you own one, you think, "what would I use that for?" After you own one, you wonder how you lived without it. We have a wire wheel mounted on one side and a grinding wheel on the other, and it’s hard to say which gets used most often. The wire wheel is used to buff rust and corrosion from metal, and the grinding wheel is used to sharpen lawnmower blades, machetes, hatchets, knives, scissors, etc., as well as remove sharp edges from metal cut with a hacksaw.  

Safety Tip: Keep long hair tied back and away from the grinder, and respect its power. Concentrate, maintain a firm grasp on anything you touch to the wheel, and wear your safety glasses, ear protection, and dust mask!

These are the tools, among many others, that we have found most useful in our household. Different households may have completely different priorities. I would be very interested to see readers’ suggestions!

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Guest's picture
gt0163c

I disagree with the bench grinder. I don't have one and haven't missed it. A dremel tool with a grinding bit will do most of the same work and a whole lot more. A dremel with the right bit can also often sub in for a hack saw (although I still those are useful) and hand saw.

I do agree with corded power tools. Besides the reasons you mentioned, they also tend to be lighter, which is helpful for people without a lot of arm strength, especially when not working on the ground. They're also cheaper.

There are two tools that I would argue need to be added to the list:
1. A good socket set. It's almost impossible to do anything on a vehicle and can be hard to take apart appliances without one. Mine is both standard and metric as I drive a Japanese car, which uses exclusively metric nuts.

2. Vice grip/locking pliers. I use mine so often that I keep a "mini" pair and a smallish pair in the drawer in my kitchen. They're great for being able to really get a grip on things, opening jars, removing stripped screws or nails without heads and many other things.

Marla Walters's picture

Thanks for the great comments, "GT"! A socket set was actually on my list, as was the vice grip. However, it was starting to look like a list of 100 things so had to make some cuts. Those were excellent suggestions, though. Thank you for writing!

Guest's picture

I would also include some nail patch/filler. It's good for patching small holes and filling in gaps in drafty windows. You never know where that will come in handy!

Guest's picture
Guest

I would like to thank you very much. Years ago my x-husband got me a tool box with the basics. I then gained a job where I needed auto repair tools and what was in the tool box were not put in a safe place. My boyfriend bought me a tool box for Christmas this year and now I need to put the tools in there. I really appreciate the assistance with getting it set up with the tools I might need.