Basic Tools for the Newbie

A frequent question on asks, what is a basic set of tools for the novice/new homeowner.  The answers they get are a remarkable scatter of widely varying advice. Some people even suggest starting with table saws and routers.  Despite these big differences, the opinions seem to be strongly held.  Best I can figure, each person's individual experience has resulted in these firmly held, yet very different, opinions.  In face of this danger, I'm going to venture to give some advice.

At this point I should explain, one camp says, "Why buy any tools in advance. Wait 'til you need a tool--then buy it. This way you never buy anything you don't need."  I ask, what if it's Saturday night and water is spewing everywhere?

There's general agreement that cheap tools are a bad buy and can damage your work.  So, I am going to give a very rough estimate of what you should expect to pay for an acceptable quality item of each type. My complete starter set would cost you about $200.

I have tried to list these tools in order of need, starting with most essential.

I get no money whatsoever for the products or webpages mentioned here
[except my own program].
They are my unrewarded opinions and reports.

Almost everyone agrees a first purchase would be screwdrivers. A minimum of three sizes of flat blade screwdrivers and two (a #1 & #2) Phillips drivers. -- $6 each individually or about $3-$4 each in a set.  The upper line of Stanley screwdrivers are usually quite good. Klein also makes good screwdrivers -- Lowes' carries Klein.  Buy Good Screwdrivers!  Cheap screwdrivers and wrenches may be the worst cheap tools there are.  Try to resist using your good screwdrivers as pry-bars or chisels -- get some bargin table screwdrives for this.

An ordinary 16oz claw hammer -- $15

Starting here opinions vary.

  The next tool I'd get is a 1" wide by 25' tape measure -- $9. A bright colored case will help you find it when you lay it down in a jumble of stuff.  The 30' version crams too much tape in the package, so it doesn't operate smoothly.

  A flashlight -- Click here for my article on choosing a flashlight.

  A utility or box knife with a retractable blade -- can't remember price but, don't get the cheapest because the blade retractor can slip suddenly and risk your hands and what you're working on. Again, a colorful one is easier to locate. Other people like the IRWIN 2082300.  My current favorite is a big yellow Stanley model 10-989.

  A razor blade holder/scraper -- $3.  These things come in handy for scraping/cleaning all kinds of things, such as, windshield stickers, paint on windows, caulk on tubs/tile, and on-and-on.  Unfortunately the single-edge razor blades my kind uses have become obsolete so you have to buy them specially for these scrapers at special prices.  If you have a style you think works better that mine send me a picture.

  A 12" flat-jaw, arc-joint plier (tongue and grove). They're called Channelocks because that was the original and traditional brand.  A problem with Channelocks is they scar up whatever you use them on. If you use them on a decorative object (such as a chrome plated faucet) they'll mar/ruin it. In theory you can wrap the object in something to protect it, but in my experience the jaws usually bite through to the metal.  A strap wrench may be the answer for decorative fixtures, but I've not used one enough to know how well they work.

I used to recommend the self-adjusting style sold by Sears under the name RoboGrip, but I don't any more.  Sometimes the self-adjusting feature slips, and RoboGrips won't work in as tight a space as the standard Channelock style, and it takes a bulker tool to get the same jaw opening (useful size).  So, I've gone back to suggesting the regular Channelock style as a starter tool.

Others suggest an adjustable (Crescent type) wrench (10-12"), instead of a arc-joint plier. I feel if you can only have one, in a pinch, the arc-joint will do almost anything a wrench will do, and will do many things the wrench won't.  The arc-joint is be more likely to scar the fitting, but it's "any port in a storm."

Note: I should explain at this point, my philosophy is, if you are only going to buy one size of a given adjustable tool, get a larger one (not a giant). That's why, in the above case I suggested the 12" over the 9" or 7". It will usually do the smaller jobs (albeit perhaps more clumsily), thus it will get you through a wider range of jobs. Others disagree with this, saying the smaller is likely to do most jobs and is more convenient to use.

A drain/toilet plunger (plumber's friend) -- $15-$20

Now we have to talk about hand saws and this is where my experience clouds my advice. Many people say a hand saw is a basic tool. Yet, I didn't own a hand saw for my entire adult life until a few years ago. My first saw was a sabre/jig saw (~ $50) which I used for my few necessary sawing jobs. Some people swear by them, I tend to swear at them.  I still find it damn near impossible to get a smooth/regular/straight cut with these gadgets but, it did the crude cutting I needed until I bought a circular saw -- often called a 'Skill saw' because Skill either invented them or made them famous.  I wouldn't buy Skill brand today. For a circular saw, a lot of folks on like the 6" Porter-Cable SawBoss at about $120. (Sadly the Saw Boss is no longer available. You can probably find a used one on eBay. Home Depot has a Rigid version but there are issues with it.)  I own a SawBoss and I'm pleased with it, but you may want to get a 7 1/2" saw if you are only going to have one 'cause it will do heavy duty jobs.  The bigger version will do anything the SawBoss will do, albeit a little more clumbsly.  So, you probably want to get a 7 1/2".  With a circular saw, a saw guide and a little practice you can do almost any lumber or plywood cutting you need to do. I am not suggesting a circular saw is a basic tool but, if you progress to stage II of home repair you'll probably want to get one.  

If you decide to get a hand saw I suggest you consider the Stanley 20-526 15-Inch 12-Point/Inch model or similar. These small saws are easy to store and carry and will do most hand sawing jobs. Or, Just to confuse you, you may want to consider a Japanese saw such as the RyobaI Gyokucho 770-3600.  I recently bought one but haven't used it enough to give an opinion.  They have a growing number of advocates.  Here's a brief discussion of the merits of this style saw.  (Note: Yes, I know, these suggestions reverse my, 'Get the bigger adjustable wrench' philosophy, but after all, is a hand saw really a necessary basic tool. :-)

And finally some people swear a hacksaw is the best "only saw."  Hacksaws are intended for cutting metal and pipe, but they'll cut almost anything crudely.  They are sort of a manual sabre/jig saw -- cuts crude but can get you by in a pinch.  I use a hacksaw about once a year, but if it were my only saw I'm sure I'd use it more often.

A scratch awl -- ?$6? You can probably get by using an ice-pick for this but, the awl has more oomph.

A pair of ordinary 7" slip-joint pliers with wire cutting jaw -- $7


Now we come to the electric drill. Without question, the most useful and versatile power tool you will own.  Cordless drills are very convenient for regular users but, they're more expensive, heavier, with lower power than corded drills and, if you seldom use them the battery is likely to be discharged or kaput when you need the drill, but corded drills don't drive screws which is on of the great features of the cordless drill.  If you get one choose one with a lithium battery, they're lighter and have more power.  Keyless chucks are convenient but, they tend to slip on hard drilling jobs so, for your only all-purpose drill you may want to buy only the hex shank bits that can't slip -- see next paragraph..

With your drill you will need to buy a set of drill bits. I strongly suggest you consider starting with one of the snap-in quick change bit holders such as the Bosch CC2100 Clic-Change -- $15, and some hex-shank bits.  After my DeWalt bit holder wore out and they didn't make it anymore I bought two or three brands that didn't work well until I found the Bosch.  The Sears Speed Lok sets comes with some bits)  -- $25.  Other people make these things.  But some of them aren't well made.  I know Black & Decker makes them, but as I explain elsewhere, I avoid B&D whenever possible.  This system is more convenient to use.  If you plan to really get into do-it-yourself buy the largest set of drills you can afford.  

Now you may want to consider a set of 1/4" sockets with a snap-on screwdriver type handle (can be used like nut-drivers) and a drill adapter that lets you run nuts (and hex head screws/bolts) on and off with your drill -- ?$12? for a set with 5 sockets, plus a dollar for a drill adapter.

A 10" curved jaw, locking plier -- Called Vise-Grip because they have a locking viselike grip and it's the brand name used by the inventor of this style tool. Vise-Grip may still be the best locking plier today and, they're reasonably priced. They lock/clamp on the item.  They will scar (bite into) the object and will crush hollow objects, but you can grab the object so tight it simply will not slip. They are the only tool that will hold tight enough to break some objects loose.  When you're getting desperate, out come the Vise-Grips.  You can also use them as a third hand or miniature vise to hold small objects.  I own 6 sizes and styles of Vise-Grip pliers.  $15

If you plan to do electrical work I suggest the following:

  • This style wire stripper/cutter -- $10  I got my Klein Tools 1011 on Amazon.  I think Lowe's carries Klein

  • A no-contact voltage detector/sensor that lights or buzzes as you get near (without touching) a live wire.  One among several uses, it lets you verify you've turned off the power before working on a switch, fixture, outlet, etc.  Note:  Check it on a known live wire before each use to be sure it's working -- $15

Well, that's the basic list



This isn't tools exactly but I couldn't figure where else to put it.

I've switched entirely to square drive wood screws.   

Invented by  Peter Robertson, a Canadian, and also called Robertson head screws, they're much easier to use than Phillips.  And, slot head screws are terrible.  I don't know why they still exist.  Here are some reasons square drive screws are better.  So far, these screws still haven't gotten enough general acceptance to be widely available.  And the places that carry them often don't have a big selection.  If you can't find them near you, you can order them from  McFeely is pricey, but they're good screws and you'll get their catalog which has everything you ever wanted to know about screws.

Other tools suggested for purchase after those above:

A stud finder -- ?$20  I couldn't decide whether to include this in the starter set
                   above or not, so I'm listing it first here.  Sorry ladies, these studs are the 
                   wooden framework/structure inside your walls.  If you're going to 
                   hang heavy objects on the wall you need to attach them to studs.  I have 
                   2 Zircon units. One is their cheapest--it wasn't much good, so I bought 
                   their better unit, the Studsensor Pro 4 SL.  It does a pretty good job. All
                   of them seem to loose their mind sometimes. If you are really frugal you
                   may want to try the Studpop Magnetic Stud Finder
A caulking gun -- Caulking around windows and doors reduces air (and bugs) 
                   leaking into and out of your house.  Painting and repairs to the outside 
                   (and sometimes the inside) of your house often require caulking.  They're 
                   used to caulk tubs, showers, basins, sinks, etc.  Construction adhesive 
                   is applied with a caulking gun.  Do not get a super cheap one.  They flex 
                   and break and frustrate you.  Expect to pay in the range of $10-15 
                   depending on where you buy it.  Newborn makes good ones.
A 3M Stickit black plastic sanding block with the roll paper feeder -- ?$4-7  I'd get
                   one of these earlier if you have much sanding, but you can use sandpaper 
                   wrapped around a wooden block.  The illustrated one is old so they may
                   have changed designs but you get the idea.
A flat pry bar (aka WonderBar)-- $9 For removing molding, siding and paneling, 
                   prying up flooring and shingles, and as a lever for shifting heavy objects.  
                   Be careful if you use it for pulling nails. The bar flexes like a spring and 
                   when the nail comes loose the spring action can shoot it across the room 
                   or into your eye.  A common size is 12"-14".  
Crescent type wrench 10" or 12" -- $25  This assumes you got the Channelock
                   (arc-joint) pliers mentioned above.  Vice versa if you already have a
Pipe Wrench(es) -- I'm not a good person to give advice on pipe wrenches.  I've
                   used a pipe wrench only 10 or so times in my life.  I only own one 14" pipe
                   wrench.  I'll probably draw a hail of scorn for saying this, but it's a tool I
                   think you can buy cheap that'll get the the job done.  If you intend to
                   plumb an entire house with iron pipe maybe you want to buy good ones,
                   but, you can get cheap pipe wrenches for MUCH less that good ones.  If
                   you decide to spring for good ones, get aluminum ones, they're much lighter
                   and easier to use.
Combination square -- $15
Drain auger -- ?$8?
Torpedo level -- $4 My experience with Stanley torpedo levels hasn't been good.  
                   If you can find Johnson Level & Tool Co. plastic one they're cheaper 
                   and, in my experience, better made and more accurate.
Cordless screwdriver -- $24 A cordless drill doubles as a cordless screwdriver but is a
                  little clumsy for around the house use.  My cordless screwdriver has an
                  adjustable clutch so you don't over tighten screws in delicate locations. 
Long Nose or Needle-Nose Pliers perhaps these should be under basic tools they're
                  so versitile -- $11
Putty knives 1" and 4" -- $??
A 10"curved-jaw, arc-joint plier -- This adds a second Channelock style plier to  your collection
Wrenches, wrenches, wrenches -- Click Here For Too Much Explanation On Selection
pistol grip clamp -- $18  It's a third hand.  I chose the 12" model 512QC.
                   I later added the 6" 506QC, while somewhat less versatile, it's more convenient to use.
More Rulers - Click here for Discussion of Rulers
Wood Chisels -- $?? -- I have two.  A 1/4" and a 1".  I don't use either much and when I do, it
                   looks more like I used a hatchet, but sometimes they do things easier than anything else
3/4" Cold Chisel -- $??
Nailset -- $?? Used to drive finishing nails below the surface of decorative wood to hide them.
Circular Saw -- $120  See discussion of circular saws above.
Sabre Saw/Jigsaw -- From my discussion of saws above you know I don't hold sabre/jigsaws in
                   very high regard.  But, they do some jobs other saws can't.  Today I own a Bosh
                   top-handle corded sabre saw.  Most people rated  them the best when I bought it, but
                   others rated the better Milwaukee best.  These high end sabre saws do a better job than
                   the cheap ones, but they're still sabre saws, with most of the issues that come with this
                   kind of saw..
Vaughn Bear Claw Nail Puller
-- If you have tear down or renovation work this 
                   nail puller is a great help.  If there are others like it I haven't run across 
                   them.  If you find it buy it.  If not, look for the ability to hit behind the jaw 
                   with a hammer.  The manufacturers of most nail pullers warn against striking 
                   with a hammer.  The Bear Claw is made for it.  I have the 12" model.  I'd 
                   have probably gotten the 14 incher if the store had it when I bought.  
3' Level -- $20-$30  If storage isn't a problem you may want to get a 4' model.  Again, Johnson
                   Level & Tool Co. is a good mid-price brand.

A Sleeper Tool

For some unknown reason I bought this small pair of needle nosed vise-grip pliers years ago (They look like they're for some unusual specialized use.).  They've solved many problems I simply couldn't have solved without them. They can get in places and lock onto things other pliers can't.  I'm not sure if they sell small ones anymore and the size is the key to their usefulness. 

Well, there's my list. I hope it helps.

Here's a picture of the tools I used on a small project.  It gives
you the idea how many tools are required or useful.

Tool Brands

The following are only my opinions, they could well be wrong.  They are based on my limited experience, and on ratings I've read in woodworking magazines and that well known national consumer product rating magazine.  If you don't agree with my "opinions" tell your friends, please don't write me.  
You can't assume any brand will be uniformly and consistently superior.   All companies make some weak tools.  Some brands make the best available of one kind of tool, but not others.  To get the best tool of each type you have to buy different brands.  But, there are some brands you can look to if you have no specific information about a given tool. 

I avoid Black & Decker tools when possible.  Over the years I've tried quite a few of their tools and found them generally inferior.  They're cheap, made to attract a mass unaware market.  

Though DeWalt is part of  Black & Decker company, it's a different division, and DeWalt tools are usually good quality.  Klein hand tools are usually good quality.  Snap-On or MAC are considered the best mechanic's tools (socket and hand wrenches, etc.) but they're quite expensive.  Porter-Cable power tools are usually good quality, but pricey.  I own their SawBoss circular saw and their variable-speed random orbital palm sander.  Makita power tools are usually near the top but not the best.  Milwaukee power tools are something of an enigma to me.  They often get high praise from construction people (real users), but they rarely seem to be the top magazine rated tools, with one notable exception.  The Super Sawzall reciprocating saw with their patented Counter Balance Mechanism is the best saw of its kind.  Bosch is also a good brand.  I own their jigsaw (sabre saw).  In 1999 it was rated best jigsaw.  There was a time when you could depend on Sears Craftsman when you didn't have specific information, but not any more.  Today, they're spotty.  Most of their low priced power tools and many of their hand tool are substandard.  Some of their top priced power tools are made by major manufactures like DeWalt, but it's hard to know which, and often you can get the major brand version at a Home Center or for less than Sears' price.  You can see my discussion of Sears socket wrenches in Wrenches, Wrenches, Wrenches.

Finally, another hard call is Stanley.  I've probably owned more Stanley hand tools than all other brands combined (except Craftsman mechanics tools), probably because they're inexpensive and available almost everywhere.  I haven't looked into it, but either I was lucky years ago or their quality has declined in recent years.  Their quality today is very spotty.  I've never owned an excellent Stanley tool other than their top screwdrivers bought 20 years ago.  Some of their tools are junk, others are adequate.  Their steel tape measures are adequate.  I bought a hardened tip Phillips screwdriver a few years ago that rounded off after a few uses.  The last time I tried to discuss a bad product with them I found them customer unfriendly.

I had an excellent Delta bench grinder that was stolen and a Hitachi cordless screwdriver which I give mixed reviews.  Other than that, I don't have opinions on other brands such as Panasonic, Hitachi, Delta, etc.


As a sidelight here's a picture of all the tools I used to replace two beams on my deck cover.



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