by Bill Wilson
Now comes the fun part: equipping your new shop with all of the tools you’ll need to get to work. This can be either the most satisfying or most frustrating part of the experience, depending on a number of factors. The rule of thumb is to buy the best tools you can afford. Unfortunately, as I’m sure you already know, first-rate tools usually fetch first-rate prices. There are ways for the frugal mechanic to minimize his costs in this department, however. These include buying used tools, buying only what you truly need, and building your tool set over a period of time.
Websites like craigslist.org are terrific places to find bargains on auto tools, as well as hundreds of other products. Classified ads in your local newspaper are excellent places to look as well. Yard sales are hit or miss, but great deals can occasionally be found.
One source that should be approached with caution is a flea market or swap meet.
Many of the dealers at such events sell the shoddiest stuff China has to offer. Sometimes these inferior products may even have prestige names such as Snap-On printed on them.
In reality they are nothing more than junk. Sockets quickly rust, ratchets fall apart, wrenches break under stress, and unstable, three-legged jack stands made out of stamped metal bend under the weight of cars. The only thing you’ll get from using this kind of equipment is a lot of pain and possibly the loss of your life, if a car collapses on you.
One brand that has a long, distinguished reputation for good quality at reasonable prices is Craftsman. This has been my brand of choice for years and personally I’ve never had any issues with their hand tools. But, if I did, getting a replacement is as simple as carrying the broken item down to the local Sears, where they’ll happily exchange it for a brand new one, no paperwork needed, no hassles involved. I’ve even heard stories of persons who found broken Craftsman tools in junk piles and traded them in for ones right off the rack.
Most guys (and gals) who work on cars start out with the bare essentials, then add to their collection as time and money allow. So don’t feel bad if for now you’ll have to make do with just the basics; you’re not the first and you won’t be the last.
This is one item you simply have to have. Prices range from around $25 for a basic one to over $400 for a 3-ton version from a company like Snap-On. Generally, however, you should be able to find one in the $100 range that will meet your needs nicely. I just saw a decent 3-ton jack on sears.com that was on sale for $80.
A good floor jack need not cost a fortune.
You’ll likely be spending a great deal of time underneath vehicles supported by these, so get the strongest, sturdiest ones you can afford. One crucial point to keep in mind is to ONLY use ones with four legs! The 3-legged ones found at flea markets or Wal-Mart tip over easily; what’s more, they’re made from cheap metal that’s notorious for giving way.
I just spotted a pair at sears.com on sale for $29.99. They have a 3 ton capacity and are built from plate steel that will hold up under pressure. Stands like those will serve you well for years.
In case you’re wondering, the answer is no, I don’t own stock in Sears.
Never compromise on quality when buying floor jacks.
You can never have too many of these. Buy a dozen pair or more, and keep them near
your drill press, grinder, or any other piece of equipment that creates metal particles. Put a pair or three in your toolbox. And wear them! You only have two eyes. Make sure they’re protected.
Safety goggles will protect your eyes from dust and metal particles.
Ear Plugs/Hearing Projection
You also have only two ears, and auto work generates a lot of noise. A buck will buy you a pair of foam plugs that will protect your hearing. You can also find sound deadening earmuffs that look like headphones. Whichever way you go, make sure your ears are covered when doing noisy work.
Ear plugs are cheap protection from hearing loss.
Like eyes and ears, lungs tend to come in pairs. A disposable dust mask will keep chemicals and other pollutants from getting into them. If you plan to do serious body work or painting, it’s best to go ahead and buy a respirator from a paint shop or auto parts store.
Face masks let you breathe easy.
First Aid Kit
This is an item folks tend to skimp on, unfortunately. Those $5 – $10 kits in discount stores might be fine for office workers, but you should have something more serious on hand. Around $75 will get you a kit with the same supplies that paramedics and other emergency responders use, such as burn gels and larger bandages. A great web site for these is beprepared.com.
Don’t skimp on your shop’s first aid kit.
There are a number of toxic chemicals in every auto shop, from plain old gasoline to solvents poisonous enough to kill a dozen men. Protect yourself from contact with these dangerous substances by wearing gloves. Your choices range from cheap latex ones for less than five bucks to quality nitrile pairs for around $20, maybe a bit less if you look around.
$25 – $30 will get you a pair of professional mechanic’s gloves. These were designed with input from NASCAR techs that have to work quickly around extremely hot engine components and other parts. They offer a good degree of burn protection and are generally worth the cost.
Good gloves will protect your hands from burns as well as chemicals.
You’ll want at least two of these. One will be the main chest that holds the bulk of your hand tools, including specialized ones that you’ll only use occasionally. The other will be a smaller, portable one that you can carry with you; it will hold the basics, such as wrenches, a socket set, electronic testing equipment, etc. Buy the best ones you can,
and keep in mind that tools are among the most frequently stolen items on the planet. Get boxes with decent locks.
Get the best toolboxes you can.
You’ll want to have two or more of these in each standard size. It’s common to find a ½ inch nut on a ½ inch bolt, and you’ll need a separate wrench to hold each. Adjustable wrenches in a variety of sizes are important to have as well.
The newer ratcheting wrenches can be pricey, but they’re worth every penny, especially when working in tight spaces. Get a set, even if you have to buy them one at a time. Your wrist will thank you.
Wrenches are a must have in any shop.
Standard slip joint pliers are a must to have around. Again, this is a tool that people sometimes skimp on. Don’t. Absolutely nothing is worse than a shoddy pair that slides out of joint when you’re working.
Besides the standard pliers, you’ll also want a pair of needle-nose, linesman, and plumbing (also known as Channel Locks) pliers. Get some diagonal cutters and wire strippers too, as well as locking pliers, also known as Vise Grips. And please don’t use pliers in place of wrenches, unless you enjoy trying to turn rounded-off bolts at weird angles.
Get a variety of pliers for different jobs.
Flathead, Phillips head, star, Allen, hex – whatever types of screws you’re likely to face, you’ll need a way to loosen and tighten them. And, even though you shouldn’t, you and I both know that you’re eventually going to use one to open a can of paint, as a chisel, or in some other way that may damage the tool. So get some cheap ones just for these purposes.
Good screwdrivers should only be used for tightening and loosening screws.
You’ll want two sets of these, an extensive one for your main tool box and a smaller one for your portable tool chest. Get ones in all the standard drive sizes: ¼, 3/8, and ½ inch.
Six sided sockets offer more torque than their twelve-sided cousins, but are harder to work with. Make certain you get both regular and deep well sockets; little can be accomplished without both.
You won’t be doing much mechanical work without ratchets and sockets.
Simply put, a torque wrench is one with some sort of meter on it that tells you how much force is being applied. All real mechanics need one of these.
A torque wrench removes the guesswork from tightening bolts and nuts.
As a young adult, when changing tires I never knew how much pressure to apply when replacing the nuts, so I would just stand on the lug wrench. That worked okay until I snapped a couple of bolts and had to spend some serious cash at the local machine shop.
Learn from my stupidity; get a torque wrench. The most common ones are the clicking type. You twist the handle to the setting you want, and then start tightening. When you hear a click you’ve applied the proper amount of force.
Other Stuff You’ll Need
An extractor is essential to removing bolts and screws that have broken off. These are fantastic tools, but don’t expect them to work miracles. They have been known to break off inside of the part, making the situation worse than it was before.
In college I was trying to bleed my brakes once when I noticed that one of the calipers had a broken bleeder stem. I tried and tried to drill it out, only to destroy one bit after the other. It turned out that the previous owner had tried using an extractor to remove part of the stem, only to break it off inside the caliper. Removing it required destroying three metal chisels.
Learn from my misfortune. Always use the largest extractor head possible. Tap it in place. Drill out as much of the old bolt as you can first. And be sure you know of a good machine shop, in case you need it.
A tap and die set, a Riv-Nutter, an assortment of cheaters bars for your ratchets, and an extension tool with a magnet on the end to retrieve dropped screws will round out the list of basic hand tools you’ll need. Next time we turn our attention to ones that require electricity. See you then.