Tool me up, please.
February 10, 2012 5:06 PM   Subscribe

Help a homeowner spend $500 to expand his basic tool collection. What will give me the most value and use for my money?

After reading this recent article in the NYT, I'm turning to you, MeFites, to help me embiggen my collection of tools. I've got a pretty basic set: some pliers, wrenches, screwdrivers, hammer, level, socket wrenches, tape measures, and a cordless drill.

But beyond that, what tools do you have that improve the quality of your life--either because they provide exceptional value and let you do things yourself instead of paying for them, or because they cut a three hour job down to 20 minutes, or because they're just so damn fun to use that you can't wait until something breaks so you can use them? Assuming a budget of $500, what are your recommendations?

If it's relevant, I'm a homeowner willing to attempt to fix stuff when it breaks, but not into taking on huge remodeling projects. Very small yard; house doesn't present any unusual challenges.

posted by MoonOrb to Home & Garden (30 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Any decent electric driver.
posted by drezdn at 5:11 PM on February 10, 2012

Good quality rechargeable impact driver/drill combo kit. Best investment I made in my took collection. After that, compound mitre saw, makes doing any sort of trim work or repair a total piece of cake.
posted by iamabot at 5:13 PM on February 10, 2012

Can't go wrong with anything by DeWalt! What are your projects?

From your list, I would say get a CORDED drill (with a good set of drill bits), an electric circular saw, a cordless screwdriver, a good level, and some sort of work light that stands on it's own..

And as one homeowner to another, GOOD ON YOU for taking on DIY projects!! Just know when to call in the experts; I taught myself a lot over the years on my investment property, and STILL can't get plumbing down all the way. I hate painting, and putting a new roof on was A B*%&!.

Still love doing it on my own, though..

Good Luck!!!!
posted by BeastMan78 at 5:16 PM on February 10, 2012

Oh, make sure you buy a decent quality wet/dry shop vac. They are good for clean up and good for home disaster mitigation.
posted by iamabot at 5:17 PM on February 10, 2012

Circular saw and a sturdy pair of saw horses. If that's too far deep in for you, I would buy yourself a gift card to Home Depot/Lowe's and hang onto it until you come to a project that you find requires a new tool.
posted by InsanePenguin at 5:46 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Around-the-house tools?

Think of your basic jobs that you do not-infrequently, be it gardening, plumbing repair, hanging shelves, etc.

For me, the basic homeowner kit would add, beyond what you have:
* stud finder: doesn't have to be fancy or have a built-in-laser or anything silly, just a simple but decent stud finder. This will save you a lot of time missing studs when trying to hang shelves or pictures.
* dremel-like rotary tool: can do jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none stand-in work for a lot of other tools (cutting off nails, carving away wood to fix replace that door striker plate, polishing a brass drawer pull, etc.)
* a medium-sized demolition / claw-end tool (looks like a crow bar but has nail-grabbing cleats on both ends): good for getting those stubborn nails out of walls or trim. Ever seen drywall where a nailhead "pops" out due to wood aging? Don't bother hammering them back in: claw them out, fill the hole, and put a drywall screw in a couple inches above or below. This tool can also be used as a poor man's crow bar in medium-force applications
* an assortment of decent screws: skip the home-store kits and go buy one of the "getting to know you" square-drive kits from McFeelys or similar. #8 size is most useful for household things; sometimes you'll want a #6 for fixing a drawer. No more fighting with tearing up screw heads when trying to put up that knickknack shelf!
* a nail set: for neatly setting trim nails back in your floor trim, etc., without banging the hell out of the associated piece of trim
* decent wet/dry shop vac (doesn't have to be expensive, just don't cheap out and buy the tiny one because their bearings/brushes are usually awful and they're ungodly loud): good for everything from vacuuming out the car to sucking up basement water from a busted pipe.
* a good pair of comfortable safety glasses, comfortable ear plugs, and a comfortable half-face respirator (the 3M 6000-series can usually be purchased as a kit with a N95 filter for maybe $40 and they're really quite comfortable... buy the right size!): eyes don't grow back, you'll miss your hearing when it's gone, and the mask will save you days of blowing gunk out of your nose if you ever have to spraypaint something, shred leaves, pull up carpet, etc. If they're not comfy to wear, you won't wear them.
* a couple multi-purpose bar clamps (I'm a huge fan of the Irwin Quick-Grip line; they've changed the design recently, and I can't speak to the new style, but the still-available old style in the 18" and longer sizes are very very hard to beat): great for gluing together broken chairs and drawers, can reverse the head and use them as spreaders to press joints apart (like drawers)... they've a million uses

There are other tools I'd recommend for certain jobs (flush-cut saw for doing any sort of flooring work, etc.), but since you're not big into home renovation, don't sweat those.

P.S. Don't buy DeWalt and other low-cost low-value stuff if you can avoid it. If you're not hard-pressed for cash, pay a little more for something that'll last the rest of your life. No need to buy top-tier gold-plated stuff, but there really is a lot of difference between, say, a DeWalt/B&D/Craftsman palm sander and a Milwaukee/Porter-Cable. Remember that sometimes the bottom-tier of even a good manufacturer is cheap crap and you have to step up one notch to get something that won't break.

The same value rules applies to hand tools like the claw-end tool: you'll find that the cheap ones are made from really dodgy soft steel and you'll quickly tear up the inner faces. As a general rule you can go by place of manufacture (though it doesn't always work): western Europe > U.S. > eastern Europe >= Mexico >= Taiwan > China.
posted by introp at 5:48 PM on February 10, 2012 [6 favorites]

IMO, a sliding track saw is better than a table saw nine times out of ten. A sliding miter saw is better than a table saw nine times out of ten. A sliding track router could be very handy for some projects, but I think you'd mostly use the router for bevels, round overs, and other edge work. Dust control should be a high priority. Your cordless drill, if it's a modern professional cordless, is probably more than enough for almost all work.

These four things & basic hand tools get you into cabinet-making and framing from sheet goods and dimensioned lumber. You can make a lot of things with boxes and frames.

Don't skimp on core tools. If you plan to use it well, spend the extra on buying the better-est. There's a reason people rave about certain manufacturers and professional-quality tools: they are just crazy slick. Which makes a world of difference between a job that pleases and a job that frustrates. If it's a job worth doing, it's a job worth doing well.

It's often worth renting if you can organize a day or two to a dedicated specialty tool. Drilling concrete is positively dreamy using a high-end professional-quality tool. I've done a lot of anchor-drilling using a mid-priced consumer-grade hammer drill and cheaper bits — maybe a hundred-fifty bucks invested, including all the worn and broken bits. Pretty much wrecked the drill, what with the dust and vibration. And then I rented a thousand dollars worth of SDS ultra-drill and a couple kryptonite-tipped bits for, I dunno, forty bucks for a few hours? OMG, buttery, done in less than half the time, no broken bits, no frustration. Worth every penny.

When it comes to cordless, you're screwed: you end up buying into someone's "system". OTOH, a modern 12V micro drill is a wondrous joy. Unbelievably torquey, surprisingly long battery life, and agile.
posted by at 6:16 PM on February 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

A portable workbench. I've got one of these (or close to it); folds up nicely, has removable/repositionable jig-thingys for holding stuff with the built-in vise. Damn handy.

The best thing I've bought in the last year is a shop vac. I had no idea how useful one of those could be (esp. if you've got a bit of water where it shouldn't be...).
posted by Bron at 6:28 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't like circular saws and I've used plenty of them. I have a Bosch orbital jigsaw and it cuts through anything a circular saw would cut through and more. It's a lot easier to use, easy to control, and it's safer. Sawhorses for sure, also clamps to hold things down or together.
posted by mareli at 6:34 PM on February 10, 2012

Also... pick up some quick clamps, similar to these.
posted by Bron at 6:38 PM on February 10, 2012

A good quality palm sander and a dremel, that I just used to remove the grout from my bathroom tiles.
posted by francesca too at 6:57 PM on February 10, 2012


Also, I'm of the school where I buy my tools gradually when I actually need them. No sense in dropping a few hundred on tools that may never be used but seem cool to have...
posted by scalespace at 6:58 PM on February 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Cheap, but makes so many jobs so much better: some non-crap hex bits for the screws you'll encounter regularly (flat, philips, posidriv, maybe robertson). A coping saw. A lightweight-but-sturdy ladder.
posted by hattifattener at 6:59 PM on February 10, 2012

I'm in the school where spending a little bit more for quality is worth a heck of a lot more than getting a bunch of gadgets.

Your basic set is decent; how's the quality, though? I'm a little partial to Craftsmen/Sears brand hand tools. Not expensive, built well, won't fail on you for no good reason. They used to have a lifetime warranty, but I don't know if they do anymore.

For power tools, I have older Makitas; not particularly expensive, but decent.

If you have a lawn, get a nice lawn edger. Save money by edging your own lawn instead of paying someone to do it for you. Gives lawns that little bit of professional look. Same with an aerator; aerate your lawn once a year (and rake away the plugs) and you won't have to spend big bucks getting your lawn redone every 5 years.

Alternatively, rent the gas-powered versions of the above.
posted by porpoise at 7:30 PM on February 10, 2012

Oh yes, second'ing Bron: I forgot about the Workmate portable bench!
posted by introp at 7:45 PM on February 10, 2012

It's very important to get tools you are comfortable using. For instance, if you are left handed, you should get a left-handed circular saw. Circular saws are designed such that when held in the proper hand, the weight of the electric motor will naturally tip the blade away from your body, which means using a standard right-handed saw in your left hand is slightly more dangerous than it ought to be.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:45 PM on February 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

A sawhorse/workbench like this is actually the most useful for me, because I use it with all the other tools I own.
posted by annsunny at 8:37 PM on February 10, 2012

For the occasional bit of woodwork, hand tools can be more economical and more satisfying to use than power tools.
A miter box and back saw for example will allow you to do reasonably precise bits of joinery, like replacing moldings or framing a window, without having to spend a lot on a seldom used power miter saw. You can often pick up old but perfectly useful old hand tools at flea markets and second hand stores. They're also fun to collect, if you don't *ahem* get carried away.
posted by islander at 8:55 PM on February 10, 2012

My rule is to not buy a tool until I need it.

What works for me may not work for you as we may have different priorities and different stuff to fix.

For example, are you going to:
- build cabinets or furniture (circular saw, saw guide, workhorses, clamps, perhaps a plane)
- finish furniture (palm and detail sanders, shop vac, good bristle brushes)
- paint and drywall (A sawzall, a shop vac, a drywall screening attachment for the vac, a 12" knife and a 4" knife, good taklon brushes)
- tile a bathroom (a tile cutter, a trowel for thinset, a float for grout)
- install baseboard and trim (compound sliding mitre saw, air compressor, brad nailer)
- build a deck or patio (shovels, rakes, buckets, circular saw, impact driver)
- do electrical work (volt stick, plug tester, screwdrivers, lineman's pliers, wire stripper)
- plumb a sink (propane torch, pipe cutter, sandpaper---copper---or crimp tool and pipe shears---pex, assortment of monkey wrenches)
- do bicycle maintenance (metric box wrenches, hex drivers, laser cut cone wrenches, third hand, cable cutters, spoke wrenches)

A basic set of hand tools will do most household jobs. Power tools are for larger jobs, where you'll be doing the same motion over and over, flooring, decking, drywall, trim, for example. For handtools, I look for lifetime-guaranteed manufacturers: Sears, Estwing, Canadian Tire. You can't go wrong there.
posted by bonehead at 9:10 PM on February 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Unless you are buying cordless tools, always check your local Craigslist for tools. You can often pick up good quality handtools really cheap. Right now (unfortunately) there are a lot of out of work construction guys and companies selling off their tools. You can make a good deal. when working around the house on bigger projects a corded drill is really nice. No battery issues and usually way more power. A good quality jig saw and circular saw is well worth it (dewalt is a find brand btw, just don't buy the cheap ryobi/harbor freight stuff). Fine Homebuilding has all kinds of tool guides (and a subscription to this magazine is well worth spending some of the money on). If you have a used bookstore in town check out and see if the they have some time life books on home improvement and tools (I have found the most useful books to be the how to use tools books, not specific how to books). Good screws/fasteners are money well spent. I have found an air compressor to be very useful for a lot of different tools (automotive and household). A pin nailer is the best time saver for putting up trim and finish carpentry ever invented. A miter saw is great and a better buy for most household diy projects over a table saw, unless you want to make furniture than it might be worth it. I am getting along just fine with a sliding miter saw (dewalt btw) and a good router and table (porter-cable and kregs). Best bet is buy good hammer, measuring tools, screw drivers, hand saw(s) and save the rest for what you need for the next project.
posted by bartonlong at 9:20 PM on February 10, 2012

Without a doubt, the most insanely useful beyond-the-basics tool investment I've made is a quality reciprocating saw (I got a factory refurb Milwakee). I've used it everwhere from cutting holes in plaster walls to cutting metal bolts and sheets to cutting firewood. Get a couple of specialty blades and it's amazing what you can do.
posted by kjs3 at 9:35 PM on February 10, 2012

A block plane, a set of chisels (1/4, 1/2, 3/4 and 1"), maybe a #5 jack plane, a sharpening jig, and a water store. I'd advise getting old planes via ebay and cleaning them up - there's roughly a zillion web pages on how to do this out there.

I've seen lots of people doing seriously dangerous shit with a circular say trying to get things just so. The right answer is to cut it a hair oversized and plane it until it's perfect.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:47 PM on February 10, 2012

I agree that you should buy tools as your projects dictate. I could recommend five useful plumbing tools--but are you going to do any plumbing work? People stock up their garages with huge sets of tools they never use. I see them at estate sales all the time, with no visible use.

That said, a decent cordless drill and a set of bits is useful for nearly any job. Get one with a spare battery and not one that is friggin' huge and heavy, 12 volts max.
posted by LarryC at 10:57 PM on February 10, 2012

"I've got a pretty basic set: some pliers, wrenches, screwdrivers, hammer, level, socket wrenches, tape measures, and a cordless drill."

I agree that for the most part buy tools as you think you need them. However I think your basic set is still missing some useful every day tools:
Staple gun that handles brads: $40.
A decent set of chisels for paring wood. $40-$100
A super cheap set of chisels for when you want to knock the mortor off a brick or otherwise abuse a sharpish edge : $6.
A card scraper or two. $6
A 4lb sledge/drift hammer. $13
A brass hammer. $16
A steel square in Steel or Aluminium and stair guages.

And finally it's on the expensive side but I use my laser level all the time.
posted by Mitheral at 11:22 PM on February 10, 2012

* a good pair of comfortable safety glasses, comfortable ear plugs, and a comfortable half-face respirator (the 3M 6000-series can usually be purchased as a kit with a N95 filter for maybe $40 and they're really quite comfortable... buy the right size!): eyes don't grow back, you'll miss your hearing when it's gone, and the mask will save you days of blowing gunk out of your nose if you ever have to spraypaint something, shred leaves, pull up carpet, etc. If they're not comfy to wear, you won't wear them.

I probably own 90 percent of the tools mentioned in these answers, and the bit I just quoted is the smartest advice of all. Buy safety gear now, and then buy tools as you need them -- and when you do, buy high quality, rather than cheap shit with lots of bling.

That said, I would suggest looking at your current tools, and if there are any of them that are just plain crappy -- not a pleasure to use, don't work all that well, don't give great results -- replace them now. Do this before buying anything new -- there's no point in going out and buying a $300 miter saw if your screwdriver and hammer are worthless toys.
posted by Forktine at 1:03 AM on February 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'll tell you what I had as a yound renter that you don't that made my life so much easier:

1. a saber saw - doesn't take up much space, takes blades that cut just about anything up to 3 inches thick. I've used mine for cutting 2x4s (including ripping - slow but worked) and coping molding.

2. a Dremel tool - I've abused mine so badly, but it's been a great tool for finishing work.

3. A good back saw - I don't know what stores are selling these days, but I wanted a saw for cross-cutting dimensional lumber and for mitering. I got a one with teeth more like Japanese saws because I felt they're sharper and mine is still pretty damn sharp.

4. Shop mate work bench

These are all things that don't take up a huge amount of space and which I used all the time, didn't take a huge amount of space, and lasted for years and years.
posted by plinth at 4:17 AM on February 11, 2012

I don't really have suggestions on what tools to buy; i'm very much in the buy-as-you-go school of thought.

Regardless of what you decide to purchase, if you're looking to expand your tool library right now, I would highly suggest going to check out pawn shops. During economic downturns, higher quality tools will be sold to pawn shops in pretty high numbers. You can greatly increase your buying power by buying lightly used tools at pawn shops. And if you're into bartering, most pawn shops are into that. If you're buying cordless stuff, however, plan on just buying a new battery. You might not need it right away, but just budget it into the purchase price of a used widget.

This is a great way to buy piecemeal too; like if you need a road tool-kit for a motorcycle, bike or a camping kit. I've found it is really nice to just have little job specific tool-kits. In my vespa-riding days, I had my glovebox crammed full of everything I'd need to do just about anything short of an engine rebuild, and it was a great feeling. It also saved my ass a couple times, and helped out a few people along the way. All of the non-specialty tools for that kit were bought at a pawn shop. Buying full kits of every metric wrench and socket didn't make sense for cash, or for space. I also ended up saving about 20-40% off retail. For a bunch of REALLY nice tools (Snap-On, Mac, etc).

Also, Harbor Freight Tools. If you need a weird tool for something, and you know you're only going to use a tool once or twice, buy it there. They're shitty, crappy tools with weird exceptions; things that don't do 'heavy lifting' like feeler gauges, thermometers, letter punches...I've had some weird luck with really quality stuff from there, but it's random. But I have a flywheel puller from there. I've used it once. I didn't need to buy the Craftsman flywheel puller because it was SIX times as expensive. Do put some thought into how much you're going to use a tool, vs how quality you need it to be, or how much you need to rely on it.
posted by furnace.heart at 5:35 AM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

To the person above suggesting using a cheap wood chisel to knock mortal off a brick: no, no, no. Wood chisels are typically extremely hard (so they will hold a keen edge), and thus prone to shattering in such an application. If you like keeping the use of your hand, I recommend using the right tool for such a job: a cold chisel (or a stone/masonry chisel). You can get a cheap medium-sized cold chisel for all of $10 at your local hardware store and it'll last you a lifetime of casual use. Cold chisels are hard but not brittle-hard (they don't have to hold a razor sharp edge). Is saving five bucks worth the risk of explaining to an ER nurse why your hand is full of steel splinters?
posted by introp at 10:15 AM on February 11, 2012

The CoolTools Craft subcategory will have much useful information.
posted by conrad53 at 1:30 PM on February 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

An aluminum Quick Square.
A plumb bob.
A 2' level and a 4' level

Then splurge and get a 10" compound miter saw. A circular saw is a must but this bumps you up to another level.

plumb, square, and level combined with accurate cuts will make even basic projects look better.
posted by pianomover at 5:28 PM on February 11, 2012

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