Buying Your First Toolset

Choosing what to purchase for your first tool set is like choosing what college to go to, which subject to major in, or which woman to marry—whether you like it or not, the decision will have life-changing consequences. Your first tool set can set the tone for literally decades to come. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating just a bit. But if you’re on a budget, choosing the right tools can seriously make or break your car modifying experience. In this buying guide I’m going to show you what I believe to be the best bang-per-buck tools for the DIY car enthusiast on a budget. Whether you’re a seasoned shade tree mechanic or a starry-eyed noob fresh out of high school, these tools will help you get through even the most tedious and difficult installations.

Things You Should Know:
Keep in mind that the order in which everything is listed is intentional. Everything should be purchased in the order they are listed. Ideally you’d buy everything all at once, but for anyone on a budget I know that’s probably not feasible. So I’ve taken into account importance, usefulness, and cost when prioritizing one tool over another. This is why tools like the cordless impact, although extremely useful, are near the end of the list. They are more than worth the money, but purchasing them early would be unwise when there are much cheaper, more essential tools to purchase.

Also, it’s natural to assume that I’m biased and will simply recommend the tools that I myself have purchased. Not so. Although I own most of these tools, I am more than willing to admit when I’ve made a bad decision. I’ve opted to leave out the tools I own that I think could be much better, and replaced them with alternatives that have excellent reviews and feature traits that I find my own tools are lacking.

Finally, as far as my recommendations go, I know that inevitably links will break and prices will change. I’ve listed the prices and detailed titles of each product so that, even when this does happen, you’ll know what price and product details my original recommendations were based on. If my recommendation no longer exists, simply look for something with comparable price, quality, and—in the case of Craftsman recommendations—warranty policy. Try not to spend more than 20% of the price I have listed. Even if a recommendation is no longer available, there will be something as good or better out there. You just have to find it.

Key Assumptions:
Just like any buying guide should, this one will make key assumptions about its audience:

  1. Working Space: First I’ll assume that, since you’re on a budget, you probably don’t have access to luxuries like a large (i.e. 2+ car) garage, a shop-worthy air compressor, or a lift. You’re working out of your own driveway or someone else’s, with minimal storage space.
  2. Mobility: The well-off have the luxury of purchasing, storing, and maintaining two sets of tools: one for home use, and one for on the go. But if you’re on a budget, you’ll probably have enough cash and storage space for only one set of tools, and it will need to be portable enough to transport in its entirety at a moment’s notice.
  3. Metric: I’ll assume that your car uses metric fasteners. To my knowledge this covers all Japanese and European cars. I don’t have much experience working with domestics, so I can’t comment on those.
  4. Moderate Use: finally, the last assumption is that you’re somewhat serious about your habit and in it for the long haul. That means handling routine but fairly labor-intensive tasks like timing belt and clutch installations. If you’re just looking to change your air filter and oil, this guide is not for you. But at the same time, don’t expect all of these tools to handle heavy use (like in a shop environment) or any advanced projects (like fabricating your own parts).

 

Buying Strategy

More is Better:
Many “true” mechanics spend ungodly amounts of money on the best name brand tools and look down on those who even mention cheap tool suppliers (cough, cough… Harbor Freight). I’m all for quality tools. However, I think there are many cases in which it is foolish to buy the highest quality tool for the job. When it comes to working on cars, quantity is king. I cannot stress this enough. You are far more likely to get stuck from not having the right tool than from having the right tool, but a low-quality one. There are exceptions to this, of course (and I will mention them as I go). But in general, more medium-quality tools is better than fewer high-quality tools.

New vs. Used
When it comes to hand tools, usually what you see is what you get. This means that if it has no moving parts (or few moving parts, like a ratchet), chances are you’re safe buying used. Just make sure that there are no visible cracks, gouges or any other damage in key areas (like where the tool makes contact with the fastener). If the tool is electric, think twice before buying used. There are good and honest deals to be had out there, but they are difficult to distinguish.
If you’re starting with a completely blank slate (or are missing some of the essentials), do yourself a favor and pay Craigslist a quick visit before your local hardware store. You might be able to find someone selling most of the tools below for a fraction of their original cost. There really is no wear and tear to speak of for most hand tools, so you can save a substantial amount without sacrificing anything.

Hardware Chain Store Brands (Craftsman, Husky, Stanley…)
                In my opinion, when it comes to quality, Craftsman, Husky and Stanley are pretty much identical. Sears sells Craftsman, Home Depot sells Husky, and Walmart sells Stanley tools. What sets them apart from each other are their tool selection and warranty policies. Craftsman and Husky have an excellent selection of tools. Stanley, not so much. Where Stanley comes on top, though, is price. Some Stanley tools are literally identical to their Husky counterparts, offered at a notable discount. Craftsman, on the other hand, is the most expensive of the three. But it also has the best warranty, by far. Break any Craftsman hand tool and they will replace it at your local Sears for free, no questions asked, no proof of purchase needed.

 

PHASE 1: The Basics

Budget: $400-$500

 

3/8” Drive Socket Set

Requirements:

  • Comes with the sizes you need:
    • For Japanese cars: 8, 10, 12, 14, 17, and 19mm
    • For European cars: 10, 13, 15, and 19mm
    • If you’re not sure what you need, get 8, 10, and 12-19mm
  • Regular (short) length
  • 6 point

Recommendation:

For your first set you’ll want something of decent quality. I recommend Craftsman sockets simply because if you break or lose one (which is common), you can just drop by your local Sears and get a replacement. Sears will replace any Craftsman hand tool for free, no questions asked (usually), without proof of purchase. The recommended set above also comes with a (albeit crappy) ratchet and, for some reason, costs less than the socket set by itself. However you will need to purchase 8mm and 19mm sockets separately. Also, although I haven’t had any problems with 12 point sockets, 6 point sockets are less likely to round your nuts and bolts and are worth the peace of mind.

 


3/8” Swivel or Flex Head Ratchet

 

Requirements:

  • 72+ teeth
  • Non-locking or 9 position locking
  • At least 10 inches

Recommendations:

This is one of those tools that are worth paying a premium for. Mine has proven invaluable to me time and time again. I can’t tell you how many times this was the only tool in my arsenal capable of loosening a particular nut or bolt. I highly recommend a 9 position locking unit (that is, if you make the head “nod” from front to back it will snap into place 9 times throughout its range of motion). I have a 5 position non-locking flex head ratchet, and I frequently find myself wishing it could lock in-between positions. However, the 9 position locking ratchets can be pricey, so if you must opt for a cheaper unit, get a swiveling ratchet that does not have any positions to “snap” into (like the HF unit listed above).

 


Wobble Extension Set

 

Requirements:

  • 1/4″, 3/8”, and 1/2″ sizing (at least 2 lengths each)
  • 9+ pieces

Recommendation:

When I bought this extension set it was only $10, but even at $30 it would still be a deal. Hands-down the best bang-per-buck purchase I’ve ever made. This extension set has uniquely shaped ends that allow the attached socket to “wobble” back and forth at different angles, allowing you to access nuts and bolts at the most awkward of angles without breaking a sweat (or tearing open a finger). Normally I’d recommend Craftsman for something so likely to break, but to this day I still haven’t broken a single one of these extensions. A must for any DIY’er.

 


Wrench Set

Requirements:

  • Comes with the sizes you need:
  • For Japanese cars: 8, 10, 12, 14, 17, and 19mm
  • For European cars: 10, 13, 15, 19 and 21mm
  • If you’re not sure what you need, get 8, 10, and 12-19mm

Recommendation:

When it comes to wrenches, longer is better. The recommended Harbor Freight wrench set is longer than most standard wrenches and comes with a lot of sizes.

 


Pliers Set

 

Requirements:

  • Comes with:
    • Long/needle nose pliers
    • Wire cutters
    • Diagonal pliers
    • Slip joint pliers

Recommendation:

In the past decade I’ve broken or rendered unusable maybe one or two pairs of pliers. In contrast, however, I have found myself wanting more or different pliers countless times, which makes this a “more is better” type of tool. The recommended set is a good start, but larger/smaller or longer/shorter additions will also serve you well in the future.

 


Screwdriver Set

Requirements:

  • Comes with at least two stubby (one flat head, one Philips) and two regular-length screwdrivers

Recommendation:

I haven’t found a huge difference in quality between cheaper and higher quality screwdrivers; both wear down or break over time, especially if you’re like me and use your flatheads to pry, chisel, or do other non-recommended things.

 


 1/2” Drive Socket Set

Requirements:

  • Comes with the sizes you need:
    • For Japanese cars: 12, 14, 17, 19, and 21mm
    • For European cars: 13, 15, 19 and 21mm
    • If you’re not sure what you need, get 12-19 and 21mm
  • Regular (short) length

Recommendations:

I prefer to use non-impact sockets—even with my impact gun—because they’re lighter, and I have personally broken only one ½” drive socket throughout the years. However, that’s not recommended. If you have any plans to purchase an impact gun in the future (which I highly recommend), pick up the impact sockets above. If not, consider the Stanley set for its low price or the Craftsman set for minimal warranty replacement hassle.

 


1/2” Drive Deep Socket Set

Requirements:

  • Comes with the sizes you need:
    • For Japanese cars: 12, 14, 17, 19, and 21mm
    • For European cars: 13, 15, 19 and 21mm
    • If you’re not sure what you need, get 12-19 and 21mm
  • Regular (short) length

Recommendations:

The same goes for these sockets as their short-length counterparts; if you plan to use them with an impact gun (again, highly recommended) then pick up the impact socket set above. They’re much heavier, but they are also cheaper, and the peace of mind is worth their extra weight.

 

1/2″ Drive Breaker Bar

Requirements:

  • Swivels
  • 25” or longer
  • $13 in store—1/2″ Drive 25” Breaker Bar

http://www.harborfreight.com/12-in-drive-25-in-breaker-bar-67933.html

Stubborn nuts and bolts are an unavoidable tragedy for all mechanics; not even the most ripped power lifter is exempt. When it comes to working on cars, leverage is your best asset, not strength. A good breaker bar is long, strong, simple, and cheap. It’ll give you the leverage you need to break almost any fastener loose.

 

Floor Jack

Requirements:

  • Aluminum
  • 18” or higher max lift
  • $150 shipped—Powerzone 3 Ton Aluminum Floor Jack

http://www.amazon.com/Powerzone-380044-Aluminum-Steel-Garage/dp/B003UM7B98/

Honestly, 18” is not quite high enough for every job or every person, especially if you want to fit underneath your vehicle while using a creeper. However, that is a sacrifice you’ll have to make if you want an aluminum floor jack (most of them can’t lift much higher than that), and trust me—you want aluminum. If you plan to transport your floor jack at all, it’s well worth it. The weight savings over steel is huge. If you need an extra 2-4” of height you can always slap a block of wood on top of (or underneath) the jack. Ideally though you’d pick up a second floor jack with a 30” max height lift.

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