Essential tools for the household handyman

After we ran the post Creating a multi-tasking wedding registry for your kitchen, I was asked by a reader about what essential tools a person might keep in his or her collection. Minutes later, I received an e-mail from another reader offering to write us a post on that exact subject. Planets must have been aligned! Here are Reader Dustin Boston’s terrific suggestions for an uncluttered tool box.

I know people who probably own every tool known to man. Sometimes a gleaming 800 piece tool set is a necessity, but for most people 11 tools will get the job done the majority of the time. If you’re looking to start a toolbox, or just clean one up a bit, this list should help:

Adjustable wrench

An adjustable wrench–or crescent wrench–is used for loosening or tightening a nut or bolt. I prefer the 10″ version because it can be used on larger bolts if necessary.

Circular saw

For most people, a handsaw is clutter. First, nobody wants to work that hard. Second, most household projects are big enough to warrant the use of something more efficient. A circular saw will make quick work out of non-precision woodworking projects like cutting a 2×4 or plywood.

Drill and drill bits

Everyone will tell you to get a cordless drill. Don’t. The batteries will die and you won’t replace them. If you just get a drill with a cord you’ll be much happier and there will be less clutter filling your toolbox.


A lot of hammers these days are made with plastic and rubber, but any old hammer will do. I use a claw type hammer with a nail puller on one end. A ball-peen hammer with the rounded head is useless for most household projects.


There is very little art to choosing a level. Plastic, metal, and wood are all fine, just get something that works for you. You don’t need one that’s 5′ in length, but at the bare minimum you’ll want one at least a foot long. I’m not sure if the 45 degree angle vial actually has a use so just stick to one that has horizontal and vertical.


There are probably 1,000 different kinds of pliers, most of which can be used in the home. However, you can get by with just two: a slip joint plier and a needle nose plier. That’s it.

Screwdriver kits

You need two types of screwdrivers: a Phillips head screwdriver (which looks like a cross) and a slotted screwdriver. I like the Master Mechanic screwdrivers from True Value because they have a lifetime warranty. Get a 1 pt. an 2 pt. Phillips, a 4″ and 6″ slotted, and an eyeglass screwdriver kit with one Phillips and one slotted. Don’t mess with stubby screwdrivers, battery powered screwdrivers, or the 4 in 1 screwdrivers.

Tin Snips

Although tin snips are intended for cutting sheet metal, they’re actually really good for cutting wire and plastic without any problem. And, they’ll last forever. Sometimes the little latch will break, but you can manage without it. I recommend tin snips over diagonal pliers because they are more versatile.

Socket wrench

You’ll get the most use out of a 3/8″ socket wrench with a Standard measurement, 6-point socket set. A metric set will really only be useful if you have an Asian car that you plan to rebuild.

Stud finder

A stud finder is indispensable for hanging pictures and shelves. Don’t get fancy, their only purpose is to locate a board in the wall.

Tape measure

A 12 or 16 foot metal retractable tape measure will do for most household jobs. They come in a vast array of colors, shapes and sizes, so go crazy. But remember, you only need one. One note of caution: if you can fit it in the palm of your hand it’s probably too small to be useful.

Utility knife

For starters, don’t be foolish when using this item and end up in the hospital. Simply use it for things like safely cutting cardboard or rope, and you should be fine.

Bonus tips
Make sure you have a classic toolbox with a nice strong latch. If you can fit all of your tools into it (minus the power tools and level) you’re in good shape.

Put your toolbox, level, and drill into a big bucket or basket with handles or wheels. When you have a project, just pick it up and carry the whole thing wherever you’re working.

Over the past five or six years I’ve managed to hobble together a coffee table, heavy duty garage shelves, a planter box, and a chicken coop. I’ve hung countless pictures, secured unsafe dressers, installed ceiling fans and more with just the tools listed here.

57 Comments for “Essential tools for the household handyman”

  1. posted by Tools You Need on

    [...] Essential tools for the household handyman For starters, don’t be foolish when using this item and end up in the hospital. Simply use it for things like safely cutting cardboard or rope, and you should be fine. [...]

  2. posted by C C on

    I am a woman, 53, and love my tools!
    I’ve thrown away too many to ever suggest buying cheap! Go for the best -always. (I prefer Craftsman with their lifetime warranty.) Start simple. I like the idea of borrowing first. This helps you whittle down the amount you really ‘need’ from recommended lists.
    Cord vs. cordless drills…I began with a manual drill, moved to a corded, then to a cordless, had battery failure returned to corded – hated it, and returned to cordless with new, better batteries. I’ve had the same drill/driver for 20 years now. It’s a 14.2 Makita I never got rid of it. When battery technology upgraded, I did, too.
    I agree some may have difficulty with the weight of a cordless drill and should be careful not to drop it on the foot!
    I liked reading the suggestion about a miscellaneous box. Often I find what I need faster there than going to a store.
    I own a circular saw. I would NOT recommend it to a beginner handyman. A small jab saw or borrowing a power saw would be a better option.
    I agree also about not lending your tools. Go with them and help. There’s more opportunity to help and teach a new generation. You might even get a free cup of coffee and a precious thank you!
    Have fun but be careful!

  3. posted by mike smith on

    It’s fun to read about tools and handyman stuff, thanks for a great article. There are two things I thought I’d add.

    The 4-in-1 or 6-in-1 screwdrivers are actually a good idea. One tool to take to the “job site” and cuts down on trips back to the bucket – “because all I need is a phillips”. Famous last words

    Also you can pull the entire assembly out of the handle and chuck it up in your drill for a handy drill bit extension on-the-fly.

    The second tool I’d add is patience. Take your time and think the project through.

  4. posted by Lynne on

    I can do basic things around the house, but the one thing that always worries me is: when I drill through something, how can I be sure there isn’t wiring on the other side? Handymen with some knowledge may laugh at me, but I would really like to know if there is some way of knowing.

  5. posted by remodelista, expanded (in beta)! « The Improvised Life on

    [...] me to useful sites I didn’t know about, like Unclutterer, where I found a good post about essential tools to have for projects and figuring out [...]

  6. posted by Jim K on

    I think I’d go with a jigsaw instead of a circular saw for most people’s needs. The old models weren’t too good but they have improved. I recently bought a Bosch jigsaw and was amazed at the quality of its cut — and it will cut curves. Try that with a circular saw. It’s also much less intimidating for the people this kind of list is aimed at.

  7. posted by 2-in-1 Stubby Quick Change Pocket Screwdriver on

    [...] the leap for a stubby screwdriver.  One of our favorite blogs, Unclutter, suggests in their article “Essential Tools for the Household Handyman” to avoid these niche tools altogether.  They say all you really need for most jobs is one each [...]

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