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Tool Chest Treasures: 11 Must-Have Tools

Posted on 7/17/2013 15:49 EST

If the only home improvement projects you will ever take on involve hanging pictures or putting together IKEA furniture, a hammer and a screwdriver are the only tools you'll need. In fact, when asked to name the must-have tools for maintaining a home, contractors and DIYers alike put these two stalwarts at the top of their lists.

Photo by sxc.hu/l4red0

But there is a world of tools just begging to be used. They'll save you a fortune on small projects that really don't need the pricey services of a professional. Moreover, you can make an investment of less than $200 (see chart below) on an assortment of practical implements that should last a lifetime. There's no need to assemble a basic tool kit all at once, however; just let your DIY projects be your guide.

To get you started, we asked two contractors and four dedicated DIY homeowners to devise a list of the must-have tools for home maintenance. We did not specify hand tools or power tools, and their responses mentioned both. We winnowed down the list to 11 and then comparison shopped (see chart below) at Home Depot and Lowe's. For a set of basic tools, as close to identical as we could find, the total at Lowe's came to $173.64 compared with $182.68 at Home Depot.


The best type of hammer for a beginner's toolbox is clawed; i.e., one that can pull nails out and bang them in, and costs no more than $10. A curved claw makes nail withdrawal easier than a straight claw. One of the contractors we spoke with favors a hammer made entirely from one piece of steel, with a soft grip, which absorbs shocks without any parts coming lose. Make sure the hammer feels comfortable in your hand and its weight allows you to swing properly and efficiently.


Even neophytes should have both a flat head and a Phillips head screwdriver. The experts at Houzz suggest filling every toolbox with three sizes of flat head screwdrivers (to fit a variety of screw slots). Flathead screwdrivers are also good for opening paint cans; pair one with a hammer and you can use it as a small chisel. For convenience sake, buy a set, which can be had for less than $20.

Tape Measure.

After a hammer and screwdriver, the most frequently mentioned must-have tool was a tape measure. "And make sure you know how to use it," one contractor cautions. If you're measuring a room for paint or an air conditioner, approximate measurements are fine, but for many other projects all those little 1/16-inch markings really count, especially if you're going to make a cut. "Measure twice, cut once" is a maxim worth holding to. A 25-foot tape measure costs less than $10.


A surprise entry, clamps turned up on the must-have tool lists of nearly all of our interviewees. When you need to glue together two pieces of something, clamps save you from holding the pieces in place until the glue dries. One of our DIYers says six-inch clamps are a good entry-level buy that should cover the most basic needs. You can get one for $12 or less.

Photo by sxc.hu/topfer


Using a level ensures that the next set of shelves you mount or picture you hang will be level and plumb. It's easy to spend big bucks on a laser level that measures horizontally and vertically, but a liquid level is a perfect and cheaper substitute, one that costs no more than $5. In a pinch, notes one of our contractor sources, you can put a pencil on a just-hung shelf and if it rolls, it's not level. But with the right tool, you can be sure the line is straight before drilling the holes.

Power Drill.

A power drill is absolutely essential for attaching anything -- hooks, shelves, curtain rods, what have you -- to a wall. A 3/8-inch reversible drill is the most practical; use the reverse for removing screws from holes as well as getting them in. Personal preference and the layout of the workspace dictate whether you choose a corded or cordless model. Corded drills are lighter, won't run out of juice in the middle of a project, and cheaper. We found 6-amp variable speed drills for as little as $40.

Vise Grips.

Two DIYers put vise grips, also known as locking pliers, on their lists. If you ever need to remove a stripped or broken screw -- and you will, we are told -- our handy informants say vise grips are really useful because they lock onto the object and won't slip. This must-have tool will set you back about $13.


You would be amazed how many nuts and bolts there are around your house, and eventually one will need tightening. There are all kinds of wrench sets for the buying, but a couple of DIY interviewees say a crescent wrench, which is adjustable, is the single best variety to have on hand. The cost of this must-have tool: $18, tops.


Several of our respondents said pliers are super-important tools but did not agree on which type is most practical. Any pliers are useful for holding or bending something, but our sources were divided about whether needle-nose pliers (for small objects, like wire or nails) or channel-lock pliers (adjustable and somewhat like wrenches) are best for a beginner's toolbox, so be prepared and opt for a set. Your outlay will be no more than $10.

Staple Gun.

There are plenty of times when a nail just won't do, which means a staple gun should be an, ahem, staple in your toolbox. (Heads up here, renters: If you can't put screws and anchors in the walls, get a staple gun.) DIYers use staple guns for a variety of tasks, such as attaching cable to walls, replacing the fabric on a chair cushion, or putting plastic sheeting on a wood frame to keep plants warm in winter. Electric staple guns are available, but a manual version is cheaper -- figure on $20 -- and does the job; some shoot brads (small nails) as well.


Although contractors and DIYers attest to the value of a saw, there are so many types of saws that it proved difficult to pin down "the one" to buy. The most common response to our query was, "It depends on the job." A compound miter saw, a power tool useful for jobs like cutting decking or framing windows, garnered the most votes. But a handsaw, which can cut a door saddle or a piece of PVC pipe, is about as basic as you can get and at less than $25, far cheaper. Regardless which direction you take, professionals stress the importance of knowing how to use the saw. When using tools, safety is paramount.

Product Home Depot Home Depot Price Lowe's Lowe's Price
Screwdrivers Set Dewalt 10-piece set $19.97 Kobalt 20-piece set $19.98
Curved Claw Hammer Stanley 16 ounce $9.26 Kobalt 15-ounce angle handle $7.98
Tape Measure Stanley 25 feet $9.98 Komelon 25 feet $6.98
C-Clamp Pony 6 inch $9.87 Bessey 6-inch malleable cast $11.98
Torpedo Level Johnson 9-inch magnetic $4.48 Project Source $2.48
Power Drill Dewalt 6-amp variable speed reversing $51.28 Black & Decker 6-amp 3/8-inch variable speed $39.97
Vise Grips Irwin 10-inch locking pliers $12.94 Irwin 10-inch locking pliers $12.94
Crescent Wrench Crescent 10-inch adjustable $15.97 Crescent 10-inch adjustable $17.51
Pliers Husky 3-piece indexing pliers set $9.99 Task Force 4-piece pliers and wrench set $9.98
Staple Gun Dewalt 18-gauge heavy duty staple/nail $19.97 Arrow 9/16-inch manual staple/nail $19.86
Hand Saw Dewalt 15 inch $18.97 Stanley 26-inch contractor grade short cut $23.98
TOTAL $182.68 $173.64

by Elizabeth Sheer (Google+ Profile)

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