I ran across something that Adam Savage did on YouTube where he talked about what should be in a person’s basic toolkit and it got me thinking. The video is about 45 minutes long, but I’ll link to it at the end of this article and I think he has a lot of good ideas, but I think there is more to be said on the subject so I’m going to say it!
So the assumption is that you have $200-300 to spend on a very basic toolkit, starting with nothing. I think that’s an unrealistic expectation, even the basics are going to cost more than that but luckily, you don’t have to buy it all at once, you can pick things up when you actually need them. I think that before you even begin, you have to have some idea what it is that you’re going to do with your tools. The tools that apply to woodworking are very different than the tools that apply to electronics and that’s different from the tools you’ll want for model making or hobbyist use. So let’s look at the basics.
Screwdrivers: I think this is the most essential, but Adam says you need four screwdrivers and I think you need a few more. Yes, you need a couple of flat-blade screwdrivers of various sizes, but when it comes to Phillips-head, you have to remember that there’s more than one type. There are actually 4 Phillips bits that come at different angles, etc. and if you’re going the Phillips route, you ought to have one for each. Of course, you can go with the Frearson bits which will fit all typical Phillips screws (except for size 0 which is used in computers), but it’s usually something you have to hunt for. Therefore, you’re probably looking at an 8-10 screwdriver set but they’re not expensive.
Measuring Tools: It depends on what you’re going to do with it. If you’re going to do woodworking, you’ll want one that has standard fractional measurements, not metric. In fact, you’ll probably need a variety of tools that provide both length and angles, you might be able to get away with an accurate tape measure, and a 30/60/90 degree angles to start but certainly, you’ll need more as time goes on.
Hammers: Adam had it right, get a good 16oz claw hammer and it will do just about anything for you. You might also need a rubber hammer or a dead-blow mallet for persuading difficult objects. Depending on what you do though, you might also want a heavier hammer, the more weight you have, the more power you can put to the nail.
Saws: I think you ought to have a good, basic rip saw, the usual American version that we imagine when we think of a hand saw. It cuts on the push stroke but it has plenty of reach, unlike the Japanese nokogiri saw that Adam suggests that cuts on the pull stroke. The rip saw allows you to cut through thicker material and once you get used to using it, you can be quite quick and accurate with it. I agree that some form of hacksaw for making small, delicate cuts also belongs in your toolbox.
Clamps: You can never have too many clamps. Seriously. Get them in all sizes and all types. Start with a couple of good bar clamps and a couple of good pipe clamps. Bar clamps are easier to use but pipe clamps are more flexible and stronger. Depending on what you’re doing, a collection of C-clamps, spring clamps and quick-clamps are also useful.
Wrenches: A good set of box-end wrenches is essential but also a couple different sizes of adjustable wrenches that can fit any size bolt are useful. You might think that just getting adjustable will work but they have a tendency to slip, something that a proper sized box-end will never do. You should also get a set of Allen wrenches, I prefer the T-handle versions, but the cheap ones held together by springs works just as well for most projects.
Safety Equipment: This is something Adam didn’t mention, but they are important. Work gloves, eye protection, breathing filters and the like are really, really important when working with tools, especially in potentially hazardous conditions.
Power Tools: This is where you need to specialize. You’ll never go wrong with a good cordless drill, I recommend 18V, but never go below 14.4V. Don’t skimp on your power tools, investing in quality out of the gate ensures longer life and better overall results. For woodworking, you’ll want to get, at minimum, a good circular saw if you can’t afford a table saw. It’s useful for cutting lumber down to size. Also, invest in a router if you can, there are many shaping operations that are made easier with a router, some that can only be done with a router, especially when mounted in a router table.
He does talk down about Harbor Freight and often, that’s correct. In general, Harbor Freight is useful for consumables but not for things with cords. Anything like sandpaper and sanding discs and razor blades is great, you won’t find a better price, but watch what you buy with a tail. Their tools are cheap for a reason, they usually don’t last. One place that I’ve found where this isn’t the case, and it surprised me, is their air tools, especially their air nailers. Those things are virtually unkillable.
Best of luck on starting your tool collection. Keep in mind that a lot of the tools that you start with, you will end up replacing, probably several times, as you redefine your needs. Your first table saw will almost certainly not be your last. Your first power drill will certainly not be your last. At least for your first handful of projects, a majority of the cost will be tools, but as you acquire a respectable set, that will change. Another thing to consider is tool storage. Do not, and I repeat, do not just buy one of those cheap plastic toolboxes and throw all of your tools into it. That just results in banged up tools. Find a solution that works for you, I have a whole wall covered in pegboard. There’s a place for everything and everything is always in its place. Put your tools away, keep them clean and in good working order and you’ll never get frustrated when something is damaged or rusted when you need it most.
That’s my advice, for what it’s worth.