The organized tool box: eight tools you need

My grandfather’s garage was like a wizard’s lair.

When I was a boy I knew that I could ride by bike to my grandparent’s house at any time and get something fixed. I’d hop off my bike at the base of the stairs, bound up to the porch, open the door and stride in like I owned the place (families don’t need to knock). After my grandmother gave me some warm 7Up in a tiny can, which I didn’t like but drank out of respect, I’d ask for my grandfather, who was in one of two places: the basement or the garage.

The basement was an uninteresting place, full of the things that basements are full of. The garage, however, was something different entirely.

Garlic hung drying from the ceiling. Toys my father had played with decades before dotted the walls, dusty and forgotten. It was quiet and dark as under-powered lightbulbs did the best they could. Along the far wall there was a pegboard on which hung every tool you could think of.

That’s what I was after.

The tools were neatly arranged, a magic marker outlining each space’s occupant. Nothing on the wall was new. Instead, this army of stalwarts had earned their spots on the pegboard through years of reliable service.

Trouble with my bike? Fixed. Skateboard acting up? Fixed. Nuclear-powered rocket capable of reaching Earth orbit?

OK not that, but my little-boy imagination thought it was possible.

As I got older, the inevitable started to happen. What once appeared larger than life seemed to “shrink” and become more manageable, more real. Think of the time you returned to your old elementary school gym as an adult, or even a favorite public playground. “How did I ever think this place was big?” Eventually I learned that the massive collection of tools was really a set of nine useful, effective pieces of hardware that allowed granddad fix or repair almost anything.

Today, those are the same nine tools I keep on hand. You might have project- or profession-specific additions, and that’s fine. For example, this list overlooks woodworking, an electrician’s tools and more. But as for a basic set of tools, you can’t go wrong with this collection. New home owners, college students in their first apartments or anyone looking to adopt a “handy” lifestyle, this is for you.

A reliable hammer. A hammer can be used to drive nails, remove nails and start small demolition projects. Go for a 16-ounce model, as they’re the most versatile. While my grandfather had a hammer with a wooden handle, I’ve since opted for steel, as wood can split. The Estwing E3–16C is a fantastic choice for around twenty bucks.

Screwdrivers. I bet you guessed that screwdriver would follow hammer. Phillips screwdrivers have been around since 1936, and their companion flatheads are also very much still in use. I also use the flatheads to open cans of paint, but I know that makes some people cringe. If that’s you, get one of these. In my experience, Wiha makes nice, precision-made screwdrivers with comfortable handles and fantastic overall build quality. The 30295 Screwdriver Set is a good one to own.

You can get away with one Phillips and one flathead if budgeting is a concern, but you’ll be glad you have a selection of sizes if you can swing it.

A tape measure. “Measure twice, cut once” is the adage that old-timers have passed down for generations. Since I’m better at the former, I make sure I have a good tape measure around to help me with the latter. I’m partial to the classic Stanley 25’ PowerLock because it’s the one my grandfather and I have seen take a lot of abuse like drops, falls, being smacked with a hammer…all without affecting performance. Plus, it gives a very satisfying “SNAP” when retracted.

A crescent wrench. I have a love-hate relationship with crescent wrenches. On one hand, they replace a slew of other wrenches. On the other, I’ve experienced wobbly jaws that won’t hold their shape to the point of driving me crazy. I use a Channellock 8WCB WideAzz Adjustable Wrench. The lower jaw does not wobble around and, unlike many other models, it’s got a nice, comfortable handle. That’s precisely what you need when you’re wrenching down on a stubborn nut.

And yes, you can use a wrench to drive in small nails, but please don’t.

A cordless drill. Sure, you’ve got those nice screwdrivers but a drill can add/remove screws quickly and efficiently, as well as perform a whole number of additional tasks. Find one with multiple speeds and a reverse function. While you’re at it, pick up an extra battery that you can keep in the charger. It’s no fun to pick up the drill and discover that your only battery is dead, delaying your project by a couple of hours. I’m a Porter-Cable man myself, and the PCC606LA 20-Volt 1/2-Inch Lithium-Ion Drill is a very nice drill.

A level. I know there are level apps for the iPhone and Android. I can almost see my grandfather rolling his eyes at those. Go out and get yourself a good, 24″ level. Remember the whole “measure twice, cut once” thing? This will help with that.

A handsaw. My grandfather’s handsaw was like one of those that people play with a bow. They’re great, but I struggle with saws that cut on the “push” stroke. Maybe it’s my technique, but I always get hung up on the material being cut. The Shark 15″ Carpentry Saw cuts on the pull stroke, and I like it much better. It’s faster and more comfortable for the way I use a saw.

Vise Grip. Behold, your extra set of hands. When you need both hands to work on something but a third to hold it still, the vise grips come into play.

Here’s a quick note before you go out and assemble your collection. Don’t be afraid to spend a few dollars on quality tools. I’ve thrown away more junky screwdrivers than I care to admit. Also, Rome wasn’t built in a day so feel free to buy quality hardware a bit at a time, here and there. Soon enough you’ll have a pegboard worthy of a grandchild’s bike or skateboard.

Or rocketship.

8 Comments for “The organized tool box: eight tools you need”

  1. posted by Hoyoung on

    This is the one article I was looking for! Thank you for sharing. Now one question from me. What tool bag/box do you use to hold all this. I am looking for that one perfect bag.

  2. posted by Greg on

    It’s sort of annoying that nobody seems to know anymore that “vice” and “vise” are different—or, more specifically, that “vise,” with an S, is the thing that holds on to something tightly.

  3. posted by Beth on

    Love the Estwing hammer, it has to be the best one I’ve used in general. Another tool I think is essential is a good pair of pliers!

  4. posted by SkiptheBS on

    Small nail claw, because you will bend nails and the hammer may be too large for the task. I use an upholsterer’s nail claw for this, and for removing small paint can lids, removing small objects from shallow drains, and other tasks. Also incredibly handy: small narrow needle-nose pliers with ridged grips. They are worth their price if you only use them to replace glasses screws, but you will use them for numerous problems.

  5. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    In British and Canadian English, the gripping tool can be spelled “vice.” Being a Canadian editor, I accepted this spelling however, since the author is American, I have changed the spelling to reflect that.

  6. posted by Terriann Tomlin on

    My essential tool kit also includes a box cutter (with retractable blade, for safety), pliers, needle-nose pliers, and wire cutters. Hm . . . My vise grip became my replacement shower handle many years ago (haven’t been able to match the vintage handle to replace the old one and can’t bear the cheap quality of what is available–guess I would rather, stubbornly, have a vise-grip hot water handle) and I don’t miss it–the vise grip. I find my pliers more useful–personal taste.

  7. posted by Greg on

    I’m Canadian, and I’ve never once in my fairly-lengthy life so far ever seen “vice” used to mean “vise.” At least not deliberately.

    Regardless: the brand name is Vise-Grip, so presumably the proprietary eponym would similarly be spelled “vise grip”?

    Geez, now both “vise” and “vice” look wrong….

  8. posted by Krafty Fix on

    I’d definitely include as set of spanners from 1/4″ to 1″ or so. Adjustables spanners are too bulky for a lot of jobs, so having the exact right size for the task is essential in my opinion. If anyone was wondering how often something might come up where you’d need one, my answer would be a lot more often than you think! Whether you’re working on your car, bike, lawn mower or any other mechanical item you can think of, you’ll need them!

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