This story originally appeared in the Winter 2021 Issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.
One of the habits I’ve carried with me since my days as a carpenter is always wearing a tool belt when I’m doing projects around my house.
Having the necessary hand tools readily accessible improves my efficiency—and the result. These days, I tackle most repair and remodeling tasks on my own, whether carpentry, plumbing, or electrical. I find the work rewarding but have enough experience to know when I’m in over my head and need to call in a pro. As my skills have evolved, so has my handtool collection.
Having the right one for any job makes the task more pleasurable. After all, we’re passionate about working on our own homes because we enjoy the process. Discovering—and using—great tools makes the process fun.
10 Simple Tools to Keep in Your Tool Belt
Read on to find an assortment of handtool picks that have passed my personal performance tests; each one does its intended job with ease and precision. The fact that they are all reasonably priced—nothing here costs more than $50—and can slip easily into a pocket on my tool belt is a nice bonus.
Versatile folding saw
I didn’t realize how much I needed this saw until I actually had it in my tool pouch. Now I keep it with me no matter what kind of carpentry work I’m doing; its super-sharp teeth cut fast through rough framing and smoothly through finish trim. It comes in a variety of lengths and tooth configurations. I’ve used my 240mm model to undercut door jambs, finish stair stringers, and fine-tune window stools, and it’s proved useful for yard work and camping, too. A hard plastic sheath is included, but I prefer to fold the blade into its handle and stash it directly in my pouch.
Silky Gomboy $50 on Amazon
Basic side cutters
No matter how careful you are, sometimes a pneumatic nail catches the grain wrong and pops out the side of a window or door jamb. At that point, the best approach usually is to pull the nail through or clip it off below the surface. That’s where my pair of 7-inch Channellocks comes in. Their drop-forged jaws and anvil-style cutting edges are perfect for reaching in and grabbing those errant nails to either extract them or snip them off.
Diagonal Cutting Pliers – $24 on Amazon
Precision line snapper
I’ve snapped (and broken) a lot of chalk lines in my career, but this one is my favorite. I like that it has a very thin braided line, just .02 inch wide, so the lines it snaps are far more precise than standard chalk reels, which usually have twice as thick strings. And it has a couple of other features that I like: a fast-retracting reel, thanks to a five-gear winding mechanism, and a lock at the end of the box to keep the line secure when not in use.
Tajima Chalk-Rite II Ultra-Thin Chalk Line – $40 on Amazon
No-wing-nut bevel square
Bevel squares are invaluable for copying or bisecting angles, which makes them invaluable for setting up miter saws to make precise cuts. Inexpensive squares typically have a wing nut at the pivot point for locking the angle in, but that nut often gets in the way, preventing the tool from lying flat, and it’s not that easy to tighten. A couple of years ago, I discovered the Shinwa Sliding T-Bevel. It has an aluminum stock, a stainless-steel blade, and, best of all, an easy-to-grip thumbscrew located at the end of the stock. Voilà! No more interfering wing nut.
Shinwa Sliding T-Bevel – $25 leevalley.com
A better marker
Carpenters’ pencils are as easy to come by as they are to lose. (There must be a thousand out there with my teeth marks on them.) When I discovered this pencil, it replaced all my chewed-on wood ones. It has an integrated pencil sharpener in its sheath (far left). The pencil itself can be fitted with a variety of specialized leads for marking any surface: wet or dry, rough or glossy, oily or dusty, bright or dark. I use mine all the time—and haven’t lost it yet!
Pica-Dry Long Life Automatic Pencil – $15 on Amazon
Cut miters by hand
When installing narrow trim pieces, like base shoe molding and screen bead, making cuts with a miter saw is a tad overkill. These molding snips, with their built-in angle guide, are a great alternative. Where they shine is when I’m running base shoe: I can move from piece to piece, cutting and installing as I go; there’s no getting up and going back and forth to the saw. They’re accurate enough for softer, factory-primed moldings. And unlike a miter saw, they don’t send little pieces flying when they cut returns.
Crescent Wiss Molding Miter Snips – $20 on crescenttool.com
The secret to a tight fit
I especially value tools dreamed up by people who work in the trades. Their inventions are often ingenious but straightforward, with hidden uses built into them. California-based general contractor Dave Brallier came up with the idea for this little scribing tool when he needed a no-gap fit along the edges of some expensive paneling.
While a basic compass and pencil are my usual go-to’s for scribing, this tool comes out when I need a more precise line than a pencil can provide. Its razor-blade head, with either a plastic or an aluminum body, shines when scribing smooth surfaces, both horizontal and vertical: countertops, baseboards, shelving, you name it. The added benefit? Its built-in magnet makes a great stud finder.
RazorScribe Pro – $28 on Amazon
While it’s not technically a tool, I include this respirator because I often keep it on my tool belt. I discovered it about five years ago and found its low-profile design to be so lightweight and comfortable (or as comfortable as a respirator can be) that now I don’t wear any other kind. Its filters are NIOSHapproved to protect against silica and wood dust, asbestos, and lead fumes. The mask has no silicone or latex and comes in two sizes: S/M and M/L. Plus, it’s affordable and has readily available replacement filters ($15). I recommend buying the carrying case ($12), as well, to keep it clean.
GVS Elipse P100 Half-mask Respirator – $30 on Amazon
I often use a string line to set built-ins, line up kitchen cabinets, or check stud alignment. But with a simple string line, you have to tie both ends to a nail or screw to keep it taut.
This handy tool simplifies the process. It has a pin on the string end and two pins on its case, allowing you to anchor both ends with minimal damage quickly. And because the string retracts, it maintains tension on its own.
Shinwa Handy String Line – $23 on Amazon
Electrical work involves a lot of cutting, stripping, and twisting of wires, but not all wire strippers out there are up to the task. This stripper most definitely is. Its incredibly sharp jaws notched to keep from nicking the wire, slice easily through the insulation jacket, and will even shear off 6-32 and 8-32 screws. The tool fits comfortably in hand and is springloaded to stay open when in use. You can also use it to twist wires together, though it doesn’t have as much leverage as linesman pliers.
Klein-Kurve Wire Stripper – $20 on Amazon