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Tools for Building and Remodeling

Use this guide to gather the right gear and tools for a wide range of work on your home and yard.

Tools Kevin O’Connor

You can’t do any project without tools, but which tools do you really need? There’s a specialty tool for every task, but you don’t need every tool in the store to begin tackling projects. A smart strategy is to match the tool to the job at hand and fill your toolbox over time.

For any given tool, you’re likely to find a broad price range that usually equates with quality. It’s usually best to look in the middle of that range, buying tools that will let you do good work without breaking the bank. Also, consider how often you’re likely to use a particular tool. It’s worth buying a better version of something you’ll use every week than one you break out only occasionally. And keep in mind that many expensive or specialty tools can be rented.

Safety Gear Comes First

Two important pieces of safety gear often go without mention. The first is your own mind—if something feels unsafe, it probably is. Find another way. The second is the instruction manual for the power tool you’re about to use–read it!

The most obvious body parts that need protection are your eyes. Wear safety glasses whenever using a power tool or any hand tool, such as a hammer, that might send something flying. Look for safety glasses that meet the ANSI Z-87 standard. Full face shields are called for whenever using a grinder.

Lungs need protection, too. On top of proper ventilation, dust masks or respirators will help guard your lungs. Paper dust masks are just for particulates like sawdust or insulation fibers. Use a respirator with the correct filters when working around chemicals and toxins found in lead paint dust or solvents, for example.

Muffs offer the best hearing protection, though they can be uncomfortable. Ear plugs are a lot cheaper and offer nearly as good sound reduction.

Consider your cell phone a piece of safety gear, too. Keep it with you whenever you’re working for emergency purposes but take care not to allow yourself to become distracted by it.

Build Your Hand Tool Arsenal

Every toolbox needs several sizes of screwdriver, both straight and slotted. To save space, consider buying a multi-bit screwdriver rather than individual screwdrivers. You can buy hex-type inserts for these multi-bit screwdrivers that fit a wide variety of screws. A 25-foot tape measure handles most measuring, and a combination square helps with layout.

To reach higher, a 5-foot, Type 1 fiberglass stepladder is a sturdy workhorse. You may also want an extension ladder for outside work. Match the ladder height to the height of your house and buy at least a Type 2 ladder–Type 3 versions are cheaper, but not sturdy.

A 16 oz. carpenter’s hammer is crucial, along with a utility knife and spare blades. A flat bar is good for prying, and a cat’s paw is better at pulling nails than are a hammer..

Have a variety of clamps at hand–they’re essential for gluing and for holding materials while you cut them, and they make great temporary handles.

A hacksaw and set of tin snips will handle most metal cutting needs. You’ll also want a cordless drill and a set of bits. With any cordless tool, regularly charging the batteries extends their overall lifespan, particularly if you don’t use the tool much.

Rounding out a basic tool kit is a set of 3/8-drive sockets in both inch and metric sizes, and a corresponding set of wrenches. Add in some locking pliers and you can handle most nuts and bolts.

Get Set for Painting and Patching

A 1½-inch putty knife and a 4-inch taping knife will take care of most filling and spackling. Get a sanding block to do the best job smoothing surfaces.

Painting is probably the most common DIY project. Quality brushes and rollers make a big difference and don’t cost all that much–spend the money and learn to keep them clean.

A 2½-inch angled sash brush is generally very useful, and especially for corners, and a short-handled brush is great for tight spaces.

Gear Up for Outdoor Projects

If you have any yard at all, you’ll need a shovel, a bow rake, and a steel leaf rake. If you like to grow plants, get a gardener’s trowel. To trim shrubs, hand pruners handle little stuff, while loppers take care of medium branches. An arborist’s saw will cut the rest.

For lawn care, start with a mower. Reel mowers are great for small yards, cordless electric mowers are great and trouble-free for larger areas, and a gas-powered push or riding mower is best used in large yards. You may also want a broadcast spreader for fertilizer.

Build Your Carpentry Tool Collection

Power saws are eclipsing handsaws, but a Japanese-style “pull saw” with a replaceable blade is still very useful, and a cordless jigsaw lets you cut curves, as well as making straight cuts. Circular saws are better and faster at straight cuts, especially in framing lumber and other thick material. With cordless tools, stick with one brand so that the batteries are interchangeable.

A level is indispensable to make your work true. At a minimum, buy a 4-foot level and a torpedo level.

For trimwork, you’ll need a miter saw. A 7¼-inch sliding saw is extremely versatile, and the blades are less expensive than those for larger saws. For interior trim work furniture projects, you’ll find that a cordless 18-gauge brad nailer gets the job done better and faster than hand-nailing. Make sure you have a nailset to drive any proud nails below the surface.

For framing, a rafter square is crucial for layout, along with a chalkline. Finally, impact drivers have all but replaced cordless drills for driving screws and lag bolts. The power these small tools deliver is impressive.

Just a Few Electrical Tools

Once you have a basic toolkit with screwdrivers and a cordless drill, you’re well on your way. The first specialty electrical tool to buy is a circuit tester so you can be sure the power is off.

Linesman’s pliers are great for twisting wires together. You’ll want wire strippers for removing insulation from individual wires, and a cable stripper for cutting the sheathing on standard non-metallic sheathed cable.

To pull new wires in the walls of an existing house, get an electrician’s fish tape to lead the way.

Get Plumbing Tools for the Materials You’ll Use

As with electrical work, the basic toolkit already has many of the tools you’ll need for plumbing. The most used household plumber’s tool is a toilet plunger. And those cheap, barbed plastic drain snakes do a great job pulling hair from clogged showers.

Most houses are plumbed with copper, and you’ll need a pipe cutter to work with that. Also, a propane torch and sandpaper are required if you’ll be soldering new connections.

If your house is plumbed with PEX, or you want to use PEX in new work, you’ll need a ring crimper and a PEX cutter. Get whatever ring crimper works with the PEX fittings your local store carries. Also, consider getting a PEX-clamp remover.

So, what’s left in terms of tools? Plenty. But with the gear listed here, you can handle a huge variety of remodeling and home-improvement projects.