Assembling The Perfect Toolbox: The Gear You Need

No matter what renovation project you're planning, having the right set of tools is essential to getting the job done efficiently and safely. Here's our take on the essential items that every household needs.

Picture by Dottie Mae

The most important principle I can offer when it comes to assembling a tool collection? It's worth spending extra money to get decent quality gear. Yes, if you hit Bunnings or another large hardware store, you'll see pallet-loads of bargain-priced items. However, hardware really is a case of "you'll get what you pay for". Buy a cheap paintbrush and you'll spend far more time removing loose bristles from your work. Buy a cheap screwdriver and it will likely snap on you at a crucial moment. Good-quality tools will last much longer, especially if you put a little effort into storing them properly and keeping them clean and well-maintained.

While that might sound expensive, it runs in parallel with the other key principle: add to your collection as the need arises. While I'd argue (based on my own experience) that most of the items listed below are pretty much essential even if all you're doing is occasional home maintenance, there's nothing wrong with simply acquiring items as specific needs arise. (I never got around to grabbing a power drill until I had my own place, for instance.) If you're planning a major project, you might find yourself hitting the hardware store and buying a lot of stuff at once, but it's generally much simpler to grab items as you need them, or as you tackle smaller specific projects. And needs definitely vary individually: my best mate swears that a socket set is essential, I've never had the use for one.

Here's our 101 version of tools every household should have in their tool kit, even if you've just left home for the first time and are renting something the size of a shoebox:

Screwdriver set

Essential for everything from assembling furniture to adding batteries to kids' toys. Magnetised options are handy for ensuring you don't lose small screws. Check the handles carefully; cheaper models often have grooves which make them uncomfortable for extended use.

Hammer

A rubberised grip on the handle, a claw fitting for removing nails you don't want, and enough weight in the head to ensure the nails get driven in properly are all on the list of requirements.

Adjustable spanner

Check the adjustment mechanism; cheaper models often have difficulty actually staying at a fixed width, especially at their widest setting. A socket set is a possible alternative.

Pliers

Again, rubber handles are your friend. I've never personally seen the need for a set of needle-nose pliers, but a standard pair are handy for removing nails and holding stuff in place. Nick from Giz points out that if you've got a Leatherman or similar multi-tool, separate pliers aren't needed.

Tape measure

Two key features to look for: the ability to lock the measure in place so it doesn't automatically retract on you, and an accurate measure of the width of the tape measure itself (that way, you can simply add it on when measuring large distances such as across a room).

Stanley knife

Or other similar design with retractable, replaceable blades. Again, you might prefer a multi-purpose knife/tool for this.

Spirit level

Essential if you want pictures to hang straight. (This category has been revolutionised in recent years with phone apps to perform the same function, which we'll revisit later in the week.)

Electric drill

OK, I said that I didn't really need one of these until I got my own house, but in retrospect it would have been useful before that, both for drilling and as an easy way of working with screws. A battery-powered option is easy to move around, but a powered version does have the advantage of working as soon as you need it. Remember that you'll need separate masonry bits if you want to drill into brick or concrete.

Saw

I don't actually own one of these, because I don't do much woodwork and I don't have any trees that need occasional pruning. But I suspect I'm in a minority here.

Beyond this, there's obviously lots of gear you can add, especially for specific tasks such as woodwork or electronics or painting. We'll cover some of those areas in our ongoing Renovation 101 column, which we'll be launching this week as part of Renovation Week. That said, this is a good basic starter set for simple maintenance tasks, no matter what your level of experience or enthusiasm.

So that's our take as a starting list -- but there's a wealth of renovation experience amongst Lifehacker readers, and I bet there's more advice and ideas to add to what we've got here. We're eager to hear your own toolbox recommendations and buying tactics in the comments.


Comments

    With all the fixing of IT stuff and pulling my own pc apart, the best tool I ever bought was a $20 small battery screwdriver, off ebay. Recharable, smallish, holds charge for ages and its makes it so quick to pull stuff apart. I know a screw driver is not much time for a few screws, but you add up all the times you screw in and out,hundreds of times a year, it soon adds up. Probably not for everyone, but for anyone who is like me that fixes and breaks everything, while hacking it up all the time...

    Been involved in all sorts of projects from building a chicken roost to building a whole house, and can definitely give a big +1 to the combination of "buy it as you need it" and "you get what you pay for" points.

    I would add to the list:
    Tarpaulin - sometimes stuff needs to be left outside.
    Drop cloths - whether you're painting a room, sawing some wood or drilling a hole, a mess is always easier to clean up you can wrap it up and take it to the bin straight away. And obviously you don't want paint on your carpets.
    Sawhorse/trestle - a pair of these is far more useful than just for cutting wood. Lay a board on it to create a temporary bench; lay a pair of planks to make painting tall ceilings/walls easier.
    Ladder(s) - A good stepladder makes a big difference, even if it's just changing a blown bulb under your awnings.

    umm... that's all I can think of for now, but always remember: you get what you pay for!

    Yes, you get what you pay for, but if you're using a cordless drill 3 times a year, you don't need a DeWalt - a cheapie from bunnings or aldi will be just fine. On the other hand, cheap screwdrivers will be made from softer metal which will deform the first time you use it. A bit of perspective as to how often, and how hard you will be using your tools should help set a price point.

    Also, a bit of blue-tack on a screwdriver tip is as good as a magnetized tip.

    Cheap is not always bad! I have and still use sockets and handles that I bought very cheap in the late 70's. Only use them on light jobs and they don't get a lot of work. Also the cheaper the tool the more gently you have to treat it. My general rule is cheap tools for light and infrequent use. Quality tools where real work is required.

      Cheap in 2011 =/ cheap in 1970

      Cheap in 2011 < cheap in 1970.

    re Pliers - although a leatherman does have pliers it's no good for serious plier work. You need a pair of good solid chunky pliers.

    I agree that quality does make a difference in hardware, particularly the non-powered gear.
    I'd break it down like this:

    Brand name
    Drill Bits
    Screwdrivers
    Pliers
    Saws
    Hammer
    Wrenches

    Cheapie
    Tape Measure (I love my extra wide tape... stays straight well past the length of a thinner model)
    Drills and other electrical
    Spirit level
    Jemmy Bar (superb when ripping stuff to bits)

    I'd say Needle Nose Pliers are MORE useful than standard pliers!
    You can use them as normal Pliers at a pinch, but you can't do the reverse!

    I say 2 drills -
    1x Corded Hammer Drill
    1x Cordless drill
    Both my drills are cheapies.. and do the job when I need them. But the cheapie drill bits that came with them are either bent or snapped.. Brand name bits just get the job done.

    Most certainly you get what you pay for. But you need to take into account, you should only pay for what you need.

    As someone else rightly pointed out, if you only use a cordless drill 3 times a year there's no point in paying mega bucks for a top brand drill. At the same time though, if you CAN afford a half decent one you'll be much better off in the long run.

    Using the drill example again, you don't need to buy a $700 Milwaukee cordless drill to put together some Ikea furniture a few times a year, but if you invest in a half way decent one, perhaps with 2 Li-Ion batteries, it will give you a lot more serviceable years then the $30 one at the reject shop.

    From personal experience, avoid nimh/nicad power tools if your are a handyman (hell, avoid them regardless).

    Lithium batteries hold their charge for ages so they are ready to use when you them. Also with lithium you get an hour of use from 15 minutes of charge, with nimh you get 15 minutes of use from an your of charge.

    Expect to pay 3 times (the cost of nicad) for a good lithium battery.

    Go for an 18v model too, more useful than a 12v, while 36v is too heavy to use overhead for any length of time.

    Go for a 240v impact/hammer drill as well, anything you need a hammer drill for will benefit from the extra power.

    Get yourself a decent ratchet, with the smallest socket set they make. 3/8 drive is fine for home use, more versatile than 1/4 or 1/2, you can buy individual sockets as you need them.

    A multi head screwdriver is great for low torque work, as is a pair of adjustable wrenches.

    Although you touch on drills and the differences between cordless and wired in terms of power, today's cordless drills are coming on leaps and bounds in terms of their battery strength.

    They are definitely worth considering and sometimes you'll find they are a lot cheaper than their wired cousins.

    Just my two pence worth :)

    Painting gear gets a regular workout at my house.

    Roller kit - avoid the really-cheapies if you don't want to be picking fluff off the wall
    Smallish (30/40/50mm or Cutting-in) brush - I'm not a fan of paint edging tools, and these can do fiddly bits too. Pair with a jam jar to hold just enough paint to keep you mobile.
    Scraper/spatula - for spackling dents and dings in the walls before painting
    Sanding block - to remove excess spackle while keeping a flat finish
    Sponge+bucket+sugar soap - Cleans grime away before painting
    Plastic drop sheets+rags for clean ups

    adding to the list:
    pencil (writes on anything, even upside down),
    wd40 (good to keep things lube, including your other tools),
    steel ruler

      +1 for a steel rule

    very intertested in purchasing your red rocket

    One tool I've always found handy are vice grips. Great for attacking nuts, bolts, screws whose head tore off etc that were damaged by using the wrong tools in the first place! ;>)

    They beat almost any pliers or multi-grips... except needle nose pliers.

    A dremel is always useful to have, though they aren't that cheap. $120ish I think you can get them for. Many of my projects wouldn't have been possible without one of those.

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