Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The 10 Critical Hand Tools

Imagine a person who is just getting started in the world of being handy.  This person doesn't have any tools yet--or at least no decent tools.  What should they buy right away?  Maybe you are this person, or at least know them and want to give them advice.  Alternately, imagine a guy like me, who has some fairly specialized tools.  What should I put in my main tool bag, the one that I grab and toss in the truck no matter where I'm going?  This week's episode is about the 10 tools that I absolutely can't live without and think every adult human should own.

Mind you, the number 10 is pretty arbitrary.  I could easily have come up with the top 20, 50, or even 100.  But these 10 tools fit nicely in a small tool bag, and will allow you to tackle at least 80% of the regular household repairs that you will ever encounter.  If you buy these tools and master them, then buy other tools because you need them for specific projects, you will soon have a versatile, all-around tool collection.

Back when I was actually working in the trades, I would not have been ashamed to show up for work with just these 10 tools, plus a cordless drill.

NOTE:  Where appropriate, I have inserted a link to Amazon for each tool, where you can buy it.  You certainly don't need to buy them there.  However, keep in mind that a percentage of any sale on Amazon will go towards keeping Handyman Kevin "on the air". 

A Few Words on Cost Control

Buying these 10 tool will cost around $150.  I realize this is a big investment for many people.  It would be for me; that's two or three days pay for a handyman.  If you are on a tight budget, you can probably find many of these used at pawn shops, estate sales, or swap meets.  A used name brand tool with a few good years left in it is always better than a cheap import tool.  Also, keep in mind that tools tend to go on sale around Fathers' Day, Labor Day, and Christmas; you may want to schedule your purchase accordingly. 

Tape Measure

If you can't measure something, then you can't mark and cut it.  If you don't know what size something is, then you can't buy another one.  The tape measure is critical and there is no real replacement for it.

Get a 25 foot tape.  This is the size that most tradespeople carry 8 hours a day because it is big enough to measure most rooms, yet small enough to clip to your belt.  Try to find one with a reasonably stiff blade that you can stick out a ways before it collapses.  A bright colored case is a nice feature, since it will make it easier to find after you drop it in tall grass or a pile of scraps.

Any "name brand" tape is fine, but Stanley has dominated the market for years.  I currently use one of their bright green tapes because it has nice rounded profile that fits well in the small nail pouch on my tool belt. 


Utility Knife

The knife is one of mankind's first and most fundamental tools.  For job site work, a sturdy utility knife with replaceable blades is an absolute necessity.  It is both a marking and a cutting tool.  You use it instead of a pencil to mark boards when you want to make a precise cut with a handsaw or chisel; the teeth of the saw or edge of the chisel slips in and follows the knife mark.  As a cutting tool, it is the appropriate way to cut drywall, carpet, linoleum, tar paper, shingles, and many other materials.

Most brands work pretty well.  I personally use a Stanley with quick-change blades (below), but this is mainly because that is the style they had in the tool rooms when I worked in factories, and I got used to it.  I do like that I can get to the spare blades and change them without a screwdriver, and it fits well in the knife holster of the nail bag that I use when I'm hanging drywall, which some of the funkier designs don't.



For such a simple tool, there is a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes of hammer.  However, the best all around hammer to have around has a 20 oz head, a straight rip claw, a smooth faced head, and either a fiberglass or metal handle.  You might get others later, but this is the hammer that you will reach for most of the time.

The 20 oz size is a medium--light enough to drive tacks and finish nails, but heavy enough for occasional framing.  At the risk of appearing sexist, I will share an observation that I've made.   Women I have known nearly always buy hammers that are too light for the work they are doing.  Good hammering technique uses gravity and inertia to do some of the work for you.  Weight is a good thing, and a you will actually need to work harder with a lighter hammer.  Men, especially young men, tend to have the opposite problem.  They buy the heaviest hammer they can lift, and wear themselves out carrying it to the job site.  Both men and women should start with a 20 oz hammer and buy other sizes later if they need them.

The straight rip claw is a more versatile design than the curved "claw hammer" style.  While this style makes it more awkward to pull nails, it makes up for it by being much more useful for prying and digging.  You can even sharpen it up and use it like a little sideways axe.  When I'm framing I usually keep the claw of my hammer quite sharp.  Then, when I need to let in a brace or a nailer in a wall I just cut the edges with my saw and hack out the wood between with the claw of my hammer.  You wouldn't believe how fast it goes (although you'll see for yourself when I get around to doing an episode on framing). 

The smooth faced head is a compromise.  You bend fewer nails with the hammers that have a milled or knurled head.  But you can't use them for finish work because they chew up the surface too badly. They can also damage the butts of chisels and similar tools.  Your "all around" hammer should have a smooth face.

Your first hammer should also have either a fiberglass or metal haft.  I actually like the action better on wooden handles, but they just aren't as durable.  This is your main tool-bag hammer and it needs to be rugged enough to face whatever you run into.  Also, I can tell you that less experienced workers break a lot of wooden hammer hafts, because they don't have a good understanding of the forces they generate when using the hammer to pry things.  Someone like me can get years out of a wooden handled hammer because he knows how much leverage is "too much".  If you are just starting out, steer clear of wooden handles. 

I'm really hesitant to recommend specific brands or models.  The best way to buy a hammer is to go to the store, pick a bunch of them up, and buy the one that feels the most natural to you.  When I bought the hammer that I have been using for the past 6 years (which appears in several videos in this series), I went into the hardware store with $40 in my pocket.  I picked up every hammer in the store, and ended up going home with the one that cost $8, because it felt the best in my hand.

However, if you do want to buy a hammer online, the three below all match the description above and seem pretty popular (going by what I've seen on job sites).


Channel Lock Pliers

The generic name for these is "groove lock pliers", but everyone calls then Channel Locks, which was the first, and is still the best brand.  These will be your number one tool for anything involving plumbing or pipe-fitting.  Get the kind that have curved jaws (also known as V-jaws) becuase they work better on pipe.  The 12" size is the handiest.

During my time in the Fire Sprinkler business, various members of Sprinkler Fitters' Local 709 showed me a bewildering range of uses for this tool.  Every self-respecting sprinkler fitter has a pair of 12-inch "channies" sticking out of the pocket of his overalls at all times.   A few of these uses:

  1. Turning pipe and plumbing fittings, particularly when a pipe wrench isn't available or is all the way at the bottom of the ladder
  2. Lifting manhole covers
  3. As a hammer to pound in pipe hangers
  4. As a pair of tongs to pick up red-hot objects
  5. To grab and bend metal objects
  6. As a nail puller
  7. To turn bolts that are bigger than our biggest wrench
  8. To compress brake cylinders when changing brake pads
  9. To undo the tie-downs on the truck when we forgot the leverage bar
  10. Etc, ad infinum
If I was going to be stuck on a desert island with only one set of pliers, I would pick a 12" pair of Channel-Locks.

If you can, get the real Channel-Lock brand, which is made in the USA and is still the best:

If you are on a constrained budget, I have had decent luck with the Stanleys.  Just be prepared for some ribbing if you work with union sprinkler fitters.   



You can never have enough screwdrivers.  You will eventually want one in every shape and size.  However, to start out, get a multi-screwdriver (also known as a 6-in one screwdriver).  This style has the four most popular screwdriver bits, plus a shaft that functions as two sizes of nut driver (one of which happens to be the right size for most kinds of hose clamps).  I keep one in my tool belt at all times.  Since they are pretty cheap, I also keep one in the glove box of my pickup, and another in a drawer in my kitchen.  Most hardware stores that I've shopped in have a display of them right next to the cash register.

The one I've carried in my tool belt for the past few years is made by Stanley, and often sells for under $5, which I consider to be a pretty good deal.


Adjustable Wrench

The world is full of nuts, bolts, and other things with wrench flats on them.  While the channel locks will handle some of these, you will never be able to put as much leverage on a nut without destroying it as you would with a real wrench.

If you only have one wrench, you want it to be adjustable.  Even if you're like me and you own a pretty good selection of wrenches (SAE, metric, special shapes for bicycles, special shapes for plumbing, etc), you probably still find yourself fishing out an adjustable wrench on a regular basis for those sizes that you don't have.

Most people call this style a Crescent wrench because Crescent was the company that first came out with it.  Prior to that, a style called a "monkey wrench" (invented by a guy named Charles Moncky) was the most popular.  Monkey wrenches still turn up now and then, and they work fine, but the same length is both heavier and bulkier than the Crescent style, and can't fit in as tight a spot. 

Anyway, the wrench you want for your tool bag is about a 10" Crecent-style adjustable wrench.  You will use it to tighten and loosen all sorts of things.  Later, when you have a chance, try to pick up a little bitty one (say 6") and a big one (at least 14") to keep around the shop.   

This kind of wrench can also be put on the back of a screwdriver or another wrench and used for additional leverage.

Using Crescent wrench as a "Cheater" with Screwdriver and Smaller Wrench

An adjustable wrench is also great for bending pieces of metal.  I used to use one in the bike shop to bend derailleur hangers when bikes weren't shifting right.  I know several people who work on medieval armor who like to use them for fine adjustments on pieces of plate mail, or for closing chain mail links. 

Finally, when I have to make house calls in bad neighborhoods, I often tuck one in my belt.  A crescent wrench to the side of the head is a pretty good attitude adjuster, and it is less likely to get you in trouble with cops than a "real" weapon.  Just keep it in plain view.  Not only does it show the locals that you are prepared, but it avoids leaving you open to a concealed weapons charge.  (Such nice places you get to go in the handy-business...)


5-in-1 Tool

Don't ask me what the original five uses of this tool are, but I must have found at least 100 so far in my career.  I really can't imagine doing any sort of painting without one close at hand.  I keep one over the workbench, one in my main tool bag, one under the kitchen sink, one in...well, you get the idea. 

First and foremost, it is a scraper.  It works well for old paint, dried wood glue, dirt in rain gutters, old window glazing, old caulk, and many other things.  The cut away part of the blade lets it get into tight corners.  All of them have the end ground for scraping flat things, and many have the curved parts ground for scraping round things.  If you need to scrape a floor and don't have a floor scraper (eg, because you are about to glue down carpet), you can lash one of these to a broom stick and get a lot of leverage.  I've also used a 5-in-1 on the end of a stick to scrape hides when I was making rawhide.

Next, it is a light duty chisel.  Mind you, it will never take as sharp an edge or be as precise as a good bench chisel, but it works fine for a lot of the sort of rough and ready "hammer it in and pry" jobsite stuff that you would never want to risk your expensive bench chisels on.  I particularly like to hammer it into drywall to square off a hold I've made so it will be easier to patch.

It works as a thin prybar for removing moldings, cabinet face frames, and the like.  Because it is thinner than most regular prybars, you won't need to repair as much damage afterwards.

It can work like a froe to split green wood.  You can take a relatively straight billet of green wood and split it into stakes by hammering your 5-in-1 into the end.  With practice, you can make stakes this way faster than you could set up a power saw to rip the wood, and stakes come in handy for all sorts of things on a job site.  

The square bit on the side is made for opening cans of paint.  I like it better for this use than the church key things they give you at the paint store.  This part is also a good size to undo the big screw that holds the iron in a bench plane, as well as the screw that holds my camera to its tripod.   

The handle is sturdy enough that you can use it to hammer paint cans closed.  Some of them have a steel butt cap, and can be used to dimple a nail hole in drywall before you spackle it.

Some of them have cutouts in the blade for pulling nails, opening bottles, or changing tips on a paint sprayer.

In a pinch, you can use a 5-in-1 as a putty knife to apply spackle or wood filler.  It is a little too stiff to be a good putty knife, but it will work.  There are some spots that you can reach with a 5-in-1 easier than a with a putty knife.  What it does works rather well for is to scrape the putty knife clean after you are done with it. 

I think you get the picture.   


You can never, ever have too many clamps.  If I was rich, I'd probably have a whole room full of them so I would always have enough of exactly the right size and shape.  The one that I usually keep in my tool bag, however, is a 12" f-style clamp, which seems to be the size I use the most.

The two obvious uses of a clamp are holding things together while they are gluing and holding things down while you work on them.  It usually makes things much safer if you can find a way to clamp down a piece of work before you use a rotary tool like a circular saw or router on it, and sometimes its just nice to have another hand free.

Clamps are useful for much more than that, though.  You can put them on nearly anything and they become a handle.  Or (spoiler alert!) put a clamp on the bottom of a door to keep it from tipping over while you cut the hinge mortises.  If you get to the point of building your own scaffolding (and you will get to that point very quickly if you work on Victorian houses), you will want to use lots of clamps to make sure that scaffold boards and safety rails stay put.

There are many jobs where you need a helper to hold the other end of something, unless you get creative and find a way to do it with a clamp.  Then you just saved having to hire a laborer or cajol a friend or spouse into helping you.  The definitive book on this topic is John Carroll's Working Alone.  Carroll is a guy who knows his clamps. 

I tend to buy the Jorgenson Pony clamps because that is the brand I got used to when I worked in cabinet shops.  Bessey is also another good brand.  Lately, however, I've noticed that the off-brand (i.e. Chinese) clamps are getting much better and I've been buying more of them; I would rather have plenty of "good enough" clamps than a few "pro quality" ones.  That being said, the one in my tool bag is a Jorgensen heavy-duty model.


Combination Square

This is the basic layout and measuring tool for any sort of precision work.  When I was a cabinetmaker I wore out several, and most machinists and finish carpenters probably have a similar experience.

It is called a combination square because, in addition to being 45 degree and 90 degree squares, it also includes a level and the sliding blade allows it to function as a marking gauge and a depth guage, both of which are incredibly useful when you start to do actual joinery.  Take it apart, and you have a small square (perfect for squaring the blades on circular saws) and a high quality ruler.

Combination squares are sometimes sold as sets with extra attachments that go on the blade.  The most common are a center finding head (useful to wood turners) and a protractor head that lets the square be set at any angle.  Sometimes you also see a surface gauge head, which you can use to mark things that are laid up on a surface plate.  All of the above are nice, but none of them are useful enough to get in the top 10 by themselves.  If it were me, I would just get a serviceable square with the standard head. 

Look to spend around $15 for a square that is accurate enough for general handyman and woodworking use.  Master woodworkers and machinists often fork over triple digits for a top of the line square, but they never take them on job sites where they might get knocked around.  The brands below are all adequate, and I don't have a personal preference between them.

Japanese-Style Handsaw

Even in this day of affordable electric saws, some sort of hand saw belongs in every handyman's bag.  There are still plenty of cuts that you can't finish with your circular saw or reach with your jigsaw.  There are still plenty of work locations where the nearest outlet is 10 feet further than your extension cord, or where you are up to your knees in water and afraid of electrocuting yourself.  And, if you don't have an electric saw, then you will be using hand saws for everything.

There are two main families of saws in the world.  European style saws have heavier blades and are made to cut on the push stroke.  They have thicker blades and leave a wider kerf, so they bind less when you are cutting.  The steel tends to be softer than Asian saws and the shape of the teeth makes it possible to sharpen them yourself (although it takes practice and specialized tools to do it right).  However, the push stroke makes it harder to control the saw with precision and more likely that the back side of a cut will chip out.  When using a European saw, always cut with the good or finish side of the work towards you.

European saws tend to be optimized for a particular purpose.  You use a different saw for cutting with the grain than you do for cutting across it.  A saw meant for cutting plastic will have the teeth shaped differently than one for cutting plaster or wood.  Back in the day carpenters used to carry saw bags with five or six different kinds of saws in them.  These days, with power saws available, you can get away with just carrying a smallish crosscut saw. 

Asian saws cut on the pull stroke.  This makes them easier to control and allows for a thinner blade that you can bend to, for example, cut something off flush with a floor.  Many of the job site models have blades with crosscut teeth on one side and rip teeth on the other.  The crosscut teeth are of a shape that works equally well on wood or plastic, and will cut soft metals in a pinch (although that's bad for he teeth).   Typically, the blade detaches from the handle so the whole thing will fit in a tool bag.

Asian saws are not meant to be resharpened.  The blades stay sharp a long time but, once they get dull, you toss them out and get a new blade for your handle.  A replacement blade costs about half the price of the whole saw.   The exceptions are some high end saws, for which you can mail the blade back to Japan to be sharpened by a master saw smith.

I started out using European saws, and still use them quite a bit for fine woodworking in the shop.  For about a decade now, however, my tool bag saw has been of the pattern the Japanese call a Ryoba, which is made for general carpentry.  Not only do I like the pull stroke, now that I've had time to get used to it, but I love that the saw packs down into a convenient package that doesn't require a super long tool bag.  

A regular European style crosscut saw would also be an option, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you are really used to using one.  If you are starting out and don't have any bad habits, then you might as well learn on an Asian saw.


The Top 25

There were a lot of hand tools that almost made my top 10 list.  I chose most of the ones I did because they are multi-use tools that fill more than one niche.  Other tools didn't quite make it because, while I use them quite often, they only do one thing.  So, for example, a 6" taping knife didn't quite make it because you will buy it the first time you work with drywall, but you won't need it before then.  Still, I thought I had better list the other fifteen tools which I think would go in the Top 25.

If I was starting from scratch and trying to build a tool collection I would probably aquire the first 10, then buy the best cordless drill I could afford (with a basic set of drill and driver bits), then pick up the other 15 as I needed them for projects. 

In no particular order, they are:

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