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Apprenticing yourself to a reputable craftsman or mentor for the time necessary to acquire a particular skill or knowledge can end up benefiting you for a lifetime.
Borrowing, or buying and using quality how-to books for a particular subject can vastly expand your effective expertise for a given project, and give you a huge headstart towards success. It can also often save you time and money. In fact, having ready access to a suitable reference book for a given subject can be so valuable, sometimes it's even beneficial to have multiple such references. For example, once I was changing the fluid and filter in my car's automatic transmission. I had two references for this: a Motors manual, and a Chilton's [shop for this]. I can't remember which one I was using first, but when I pulled the trans pan off something tiny jumped out of the complex trans innards and went PLOP! into the fluid. The manual had not warned me about this particular circumstance, and offered no help about it after the fact. Fortunately, the other manual did. Turned out it was a tiny spring that had to be put back into a particular spot in a certain way, or else I'd have big problems with my trans afterwards. With the help of the second manual I was able to proceed with almost no delay in my maintenance work from the mishap.
Of course, if you're lucky you won't have to buy reference books because you have access to a public library in your neighborhood or near it. There's a good chance many or most of the books described on this page are available in lots of public libraries worldwide-- because the majority of books listed here are decades old.
Internet access too will often provide much of the information you might require-- but not necessarily as fast, conveniently, and reliably as the proper hard copy reference book would. Those with access to both will find using them in combination will usually give the best results. For instance, the internet may be unsurpassed for obtaining the latest news and ideas-- but much of the rock-solid and useful knowledge for practical matters like those on this page remains available only or mostly in hard copy reference works on retail shelves or within libraries, both private and public. Plus, what how-to information does exist on the internet is not always accurate or reliable, and may need some confirmation from at least one other source (preferably one highly regarded as credible)-- especially in matters regarding health and safety.
Buying good quality tools and taking proper care of them will serve many well over their lives. I didn't have much money when I started out. But I quickly learned that owning the proper tool (and knowing how to use it) could save me a ton of money in regards to auto and other repairs. Very few folks can afford to go to a professional over every single thing requiring an examination or repair in the car or home. The more of these you can do yourself, the more money you save, and the less dependent you are on strangers or circumstance.
One excellent general purpose reference of tools, along with exquisitely illustrated instructions for their use, is TOOLS and how to use them: An Illustrated Encyclopedia [shop for this] by Albert Jackson and David Day, Alfred A. Knopf publisher, 1978.
Related links include:
General purpose do-it-yourself portals
Highly focused DIY niches
Unfortunately, high quality tools typically cost at least a little more than low quality ones. Sometimes a lot more. So after you acquire a basic kit, you'll probably be best advised only to buy additional tools as circumstances require it. That way you'll gradually build up a really nice and comprehensive tool box, with minimal financial pain, and the least possible superfluous purchases to later regret or get nagged about by your wife or girlfriend.
Keep your tools reasonably clean and out of the weather or various corrosive environments. One or more good tool boxes qualify as tools themselves, as they help you conveniently store, find, organize, and transport many tools at once, as well as protect the tools from certain adverse conditions.
My own primary tool box is an all plastic affair from Plano, bought maybe 15-25 years ago at Wal-Mart. It has "711" embossed on the latches, so that may be the model. It's red, about two feet long and one foot wide, with a black lift-out tray and a split top which opens outward sort of like an old fish tackle box. The lift out tray's handle also doubles as the handle for the whole box, when the two lid components are closed over it and latched. Depending on the size of your tool collection and how you deploy or store it, two or more tool boxes may be required.
In my personal experience I've found tool loss due to various factors to be a significant problem. On occasion I'd accidentally break a tool or lose it in a way that I was unable to retrieve it. Sometimes this was due to an improper way of storing the tool in a pocket or tool belt-- a practice which can be rectified once the problem is discovered. However, the biggest factors in my personal tool losses were theft, and legitimately borrowed tools which simply didn't get returned in a timely fashion. If a borrowed tool doesn't get returned relatively quickly, the matter of who borrowed it and when, its true ownership, and even the act of borrowing itself can all become muddled in time and memory, to effectively cause you to lose your tool to others. On large tools you can sometimes scratch your initials onto it like a brand, which will help somewhat in these matters. Paint wears off or can be purposely removed. Logging all tool borrowing on a form devised for this purpose, as to the exact tool taken, the time and date, and by whom (with the borrower signing their name) is perhaps the best way to track borrowing. Of course, you need to record when the tool is returned as well, in this method.
Outright theft is the worst factor. How do you prevent it? Keep your tools locked up and out of sight as much as possible. Don't show them off or brag about them to anyone. When you're using them for repairs, try to be discrete in how they're displayed or accessed, and try to get the job done as quickly as possible so you can get your tools back under lock and key again ASAP.
If possible, don't allow strangers into your workshop or other area where your tools are visible and accessible. Don't loan your tools out to strangers. Next door neighbors and close family might be OK to loan tools to, but even then you should use the logging method described before to help insure their timely return.
Don't allow kids to play with your tools. If you allow kids to use your tools for a legitimate project, restrict such use to a particular room or garage or other location, and make the kids inform you when they're done or leaving so that you personally can go see to it that all the tools are still there, and put back where they should be.
A basic, minimal cost, general purpose tool kit should (in many cases) include items applicable to both house and automobile. Such a kit would require the addition of still more items than listed here, including more specialized tools, to serve in many commercial or professional projects. Based on my own experience, I'd recommend the following for a basic, minimal cost personal kit (prioritized based on my own experience of usage):
AUTHOR'S NOTE: In cases below where certain formal types of measurements or tool sizes are required, in most instances metrics are likely the preferred type. Unfortunately, anyone working with some present day and many older American-sourced hardware components may also require so-called 'standard' sizes in their tool sets-- thereby doubling the effective costs of the related portions of their tool kits. END NOTE.
A good, bright, heavy duty flashlight, designed to be flexible in positioning to provide a steady unheld aim, such as being hung by a string, or placed or flexed in various ways to provide varying angles of spot lighting for a task. If at all practical for your purposes, I highly recommend using flashlights with LED bulbs, as your batteries will last perhaps 10 times longer with such bulbs-- and the bulbs themselves are supposed to be much tougher and longer-lived as well (however, there is some price premium involved in the use of LEDs upfront-- they cost more than other bulbs).
A ruler, steel tape measure, or yardstick, which may also serve as a straight edge. Sometimes you might get a small flimsy version of this as a freebie from various places.
A selection of at least one medium sized and one small standard, flat, or flared tip screwdriver. An optional third member of this set would be a large one.
A selection of at least one medium sized and one small Phillips head screwdriver. An optional third member of this set would be a large one.
One 10 inch long adjustable (or Crescent) wrench
A claw hammer for woodwork and carpentry.
Engineer's, combination, or linemen's pliers, preferably with insulated handles.
Needle-nosed pliers, preferably with insulated handles.
A medium to large-sized plier wrench or vise-grip wrench for getting a good grip on anything for subsequent pulling, twisting, bending, breaking, or cutting.
A medium to small sized interchangeable tip ratcheting socket and screwdriver set including an array of tips for flared, Phillips, torx, and possibly other types of screws, plus a similar range in size of sockets.
A power drill and good assortment of drill bit types and sizes for boring holes in wood and metal. You can also drill out otherwise impossible-to-remove screws and bolts, or simply ruin the head of a permanently fixed screw to make a particular latch and locking mechanism secure from bypass via disassembly. Note that in a pinch you can also drill lots of small holes very close to one another in a pattern to create much bigger openings after the interior area of the pattern is knocked out. The zillion hole method can also be used to cut off large sections of wood or metal. The zillion hole method is hard on bits and not recommended if more convenient and practical methods are available.
Keep in mind drill bits can be manually sharpened when they get dull, with the proper information and accessories, essentially allowing them to last almost into perpetuity in some cases. You may find yourself using primarily just one to three different sizes of drill bits in the majority of your tasks. So those sizes will require the most frequent sharpening and/or replacement.
A suitable power drill can be fitted with various attachments and used via certain techniques to perform duties similar to those performed by a miniature power tool, drill press, or bench grinder.
A heavy duty weather-resistant electrical extension cord, at least 20 to 30 feet long, for various repair jobs both inside and out. Having two or more such cords will be handy under some circumstances.
A heavy duty large sized socket wrench set with extensions and extra long handles offering a long reach and powerful leverage to users, for various automotive and heavy duty home and business repair and construction jobs.
A spirit level or plumb rule is used to make sure a surface or member is truly horizontal or vertical, and is essential in construction work. The longer a level is the more accurate it'll be, but really long levels can be unwieldy and often unnecessary for individual do-it-yourselfers.
(A combination square combines a ruler, straight edge, and level indicator all into one device).
A punch to help prepare surfaces for drilling or nailing.
A cold chisel or flat chisel can be used to cut sheet metal, chain links, otherwise shape solid masses, or cut the heads off screws or bolts.
A hand saw (also called rip saw) for straight wood cutting.
A hack saw for straight-line metal cutting
|-- TOOLS and how to use them: An Illustrated Encyclopedia by Albert Jackson and David Day, Alfred A. Knopf publisher, 1978 [shop for this]|
One or more clamp-on or otherwise easily positioned temporary work area lights, for various jobs in car or computer repair. The most practical and cost-effective of these are usually household AC powered units. In many instances you'll find there's no such thing as having too much light for a particular task.
A heavy duty small sized socket wrench set can be very handy for many automotive jobs as well as others.
A set of small through medium-sized combination wrenches, open on one end and closed on the other.
A 12 to 16 foot long retracting flexible metal tape measure for large jobs.
A half-round file is a good general purpose file for sharpening things, smoothing surfaces and edges on wood or metal, as well as enlarging or smoothing holes. In some cases a more specialized file may be desirable. There's many types of files. I suggest the half-round file because it offers a collection of features of several types in one tool, and so is a decent budget selection for small or infrequent (but varied) filing tasks.
A hole saw set-- attachments to power drills to bore large holes such as required for pipes to pass through walls.
A pen-type tire pressure gauge for auto maintenance.
A heavy duty, preferably waterproof tarpaulin, preferably incorporating some grommetted holes for tie down purposes can serve many, many purposes around the house, workshop, and elsewhere. From an outdoors tablecloth or picnic ground sheet, to drop cloth during housepainting, to making a simple tent with the help of some ropes and other supports, to laying between you and the cold, wet, bug-infested ground during automotive work, or protecting an on-going auto repair job and related tools from weather conditions, to forming 'walls' of protection around an open carport in wintertime repair jobs (and more), tarps can be very handy indeed. Possessing a single tarp of some sort is almost essential to a regular handyman; possessing several is even better.
Tarps typically should be fairly large. The 'poor man's' tarp might be nothing more than a large, thin sheet of plastic. But a heavier duty version (in some cases perhaps including canvas cloth) is much better. Keep in mind if you have no other way to fasten down a tarp, you might use heavy rocks or bricks on the corners.
A kerosene heater can be vital during wintertime repair or construction jobs. The tarp described above can complement the heater by reducing heat loss to the outdoors. For example, multiple tarps can be tied to nearby fixtures to create enclosing walls around an otherwise open car port or porch, thereby reducing what wind and rain enter, as well as reducing heat loss in the vicinity.
A saber saw or jig saw for wood or sheet metal cutting of curves.
A ladder. There's several different types of ladders, so you should select the type based on your personal circumstances.
A ripping chisel is handy for taking apart things like wooden pallets or buildings to be demolished.
A single, very large, heavy duty C-clamp for various automotive and home repair jobs.
A portable circular saw for straight-line wood cutting.
Jeweler's or instrument maker's screwdriver set, for working on computers, electronics, eyeglasses, etc.
A torque wrench can be a necessity for many indepth auto repair jobs and similar tasks. Basically this wrench allows you to tighten a fastener to the specification recommended for a particular machine or circumstance. In many cases too little or too much force will cause such a fastener to fail prematurely, or even damage the equipment it's attached to in some way.
A set or collection of setscrew wrenches (also called hex keys or Allen keys or Bristol wrenches) can be especially handy for disassembling, repairing, replacing, and re-assembling factory-made devices of all sorts. This makes them practically an essential 'junkstorming' tool. They can also be very useful in putting together the increasingly popular 'assemble-it-yourself' furniture kits available in retail establishments in the developed countries and possibly elsewhere. This was pointed out to me around 11-12-02 by reader "melinko A" (email address omitted for privacy reasons).
A pipe and tube cutting, bending, and flaring kit helps you build things like certain automotive systems (custom routed fuel lines, etc.) or home plumbing like solar heater components, by allowing you to bend tubing without flattening it, and install fittings of various sorts to connect things up.
Aviation snips or compound action snips for curved and straightline cutting of sheet metal.
A pop rivet gun is handy for fabricating things out of sheet metal. After you've cut and shaped your sheet metal to desired configurations, you can put the sections together or attach them to other things with pop rivets.
A workmate bench [shop for this] offers a portable, fold-up small work table surface(offering multiple levels), versatile clamp/vise capability, and short step ladder functionality all in one appliance.
Stubby screwdrivers and short offset screwdrivers sometimes work in spots nothing else will.
|-- TOOLS and how to use them: An Illustrated Encyclopedia by Albert Jackson and David Day, Alfred A. Knopf publisher, 1978 [shop for this]|
An optional compact pocket tool kit, suitable for storage in a car's glove compartment, or the pockets of a heavy jacket, or within a small backpack, might include (prioritized based on my own experience of usage):
#1: A small flashlight, preferably with a LED bulb, and the most powerful consumer batteries available. This pocket light will usually be small enough that only one or two AAA batteries are required for operation. This category of lights tends to be fairly low cost nowadays in the developed nations, as they are essentially throwaways. Their small size apparently makes it difficult to design them for durability. I've possessed both expensive and cheap versions of such lights, and paying the extra money doesn't seem to buy extra long life or toughness in the devices. So figure on replacing this item in your pocket kit every few years or so.
Although it'll be tempting for a pocket kit to go with the tiniest possible flash, that's not necessarily the most cost-effective and practical thing to do circa 2010, as the tiny one AAA battery key fob lights often offer just barely the amount of light you might need, and seem to run out of juice pretty quickly too. A small two AAA cell flash of more or less traditional design seems to be the best bet.
Note that this pocket flash should not be your main flashlight, but only an on-person item meant for use when your regular tools and equipment are not immediately available.
#2: One of the intermediate to top end Victorinox Swiss Army knives [shop for this], including amongst its tools a nylon toothpick, tweezers, magnifying glass, scissors, knife blade, reamer, can opener, bottle opener, flat screwdriver, and phillips screwdriver. (These things were expensive when I bought mine maybe 20-25 years ago; last time I checked they'd gotten only more so. But it's tough to come up with a suitable substitute. Hopefully you can find one for under $100US).
This knife and its tools come in handy for everything from personal grooming to cutting out coupons and engine gaskets, to starting fires with the glass, to extracting splinters, to opening cans and bottles when sometimes even expensive electric openers won't, to cleaning computer mice, to disassembling and repairing almost anything involving screws, to enlarging holes, carving wood, and more. Heck, I've even used mine as a small hammer too-- though I really recommend no one else does (it scars the handles). If you live in a dangerous area, you can attach the knife to a lanyard on your key chain and it'll be handy for its normal purposes as well as for defense: if attacked by a dog or whatever the knife and keys on a short length of cord will be like a sharp edged black jack weapon. By sharp edged I mean the keys will tend to cut your target at the same time the weight batters them.
And all this is how useful the knife can be in the middle of civilization. If you ever get stranded in the wilderness you'll probably appreciate it even more.
(There's actually a book touted to provide survival in the wilderness with only it and a knife. It's called BUSHCRAFT: A Serious Guide to Survival and Camping by Richard Graves, Warner Books, 1978).
#3: The smallest available Vise Grip needle nose pliers [shop for this] (mine are 5.25 inches long). These things give you something akin to bionic fingers, letting you get a terrific grip even on slippery, rounded, or very small objects, and exert tremendous force on same. You can crack nuts, cut or pull wires, bend and shape metal, use it to temporarily hold a fender or other part onto your car, as a clamp for gluing things together or holding a light or other object in a certain position, and more. In some cases it can be used like a third hand. And yes, Vise-Grip is a brand name. And yes, I'm recommending you get that brand name.
#4: The smallest available adjustable wrench with the widest possible jaw opening (mine is just over 4.25 inches long, and opens to 9/16th of an inch; most other wrenches of this size that I've seen won't open this wide for some reason; getting this slight extra width on a wrench like this can make a bigger difference in the field than you might imagine).
This tiny adjustable wrench is so handy you'll often find yourself resorting to it even when you have a whole regular workshop of normal sized tools and wrenches available to you. It'll simply work in closer quarters than many other tools will. I also can't count the times it's come in handy for loosening/tightening auto battery cables and the like.
In many cases the pliers and adjustable wrench will be used in combination like two wrenches.
There's a stainless steel folding and locking Gerber Multi-Plier tool [shop for this] similar to a combination of pliers and Swiss Army Knife, which offers many (not all) of the tools of the knife described above, plus pliers functionality, in a form which might serve better in certain especially strenuous instances than the separate implements. However, the Gerber is overall a bit larger, heavier, and more inconvenient to carry than these others, and although I've had the Gerber for many years now, I've never used it nearly as often as the other items. However, those really pinched financially might make do with the Gerber and forego the Army knife and Vise Grip pliers to save significant money on this tool kit. Just keep in mind the Gerber cannot replace 100% of the functionality of the Army knife and pliers-- only maybe 50%-60%, at best.
#5: A trimming knife, shop knife, or ratcheting disposeable box cutter-- essentially a plastic handle about the size of an ink pen you can keep in your pocket, with a metal band of blades you can nudge out of the handle for cutting. When the present blade gets dull you can snap it off the end and push the metal band further out to expose a fresh blade. The best ones allow you to adjust how far the blade comes out of the handle, so you can control the depth of your cut. From my own experience one of these might cost just a dollar or so and last you a lifetime (if you can avoid misplacing it).
This type of knife turns out to be much more handy for many around-the-house jobs than my Swiss Army knife, because you can deploy it more quickly to cut open or apart boxes and other packages, plus adjust the depth of the cut to avoid damaging contents.
#6: A small mirror, preferably unbreakable and unscratchable, and/or stored in its own protective pouch or sheath of some kind. Using such a mirror and a flashlight in combination can help you locate lost screws or bolts, pinpoint specific PC connectors, and even perform delicate repair or replacement tasks in otherwise inaccessible spots, sometimes saving you all sorts of trouble and time. High quality camping mirrors made of metal or plastic may serve well for this purpose in some cases, so long as they provide a sufficiently clear and bright reflection when needed. I currently use a small glass mirror, some 2.25 by 2.75 inches in reflective area, and 3/16th inches thick, which slides in and out of a thick rubber or plastic protective sheath. This particular mirror was a giveaway from my bank, many, many years ago.
#7: A tiny steel tape measure. With this one we're getting into either luxury territory or really desperate measures (if this is the only retracting tape measure you can afford), as I don't use this tiny measure nearly as much as the other items of the pocket kit. My measure essentially consists of a spool case 2 inches in diameter, slightly over half an inch thick, with a retractable steel tape measure inside. The flexible metal tape is three feet/36 inches long, and 0.25 inch wide.
In this page I've mostly discussed implements people normally would associate with trades or crafts, such as items mechanics, carpenters, wood workers, etc., might use. However, the world of useful tools really encompasses many more fields and possibilities than these, such as office work, artist's studios, outdoor living, and lots, lots more.
To get some nifty (and specific) recommendations about both the latest tools as well as the best of the classics, across-the-board, I recommend you visit Cool Tools. Cool Tools is very much like a newer, online version of the original Whole Earth Catalog, created by Kevin Kelly, who is an alumni of the WEC, if I'm not mistaken.
Establishing yourself a dedicated workshop can increase the scope of the jobs you can do, help protect your tools from loss due to theft or misplacement, and also help protect your family from the risk of injury from your tools or the tasks to which you put them. Besides helping you save money by facilitating your own repair and design work, it can also help you earn a profit by occasionally doing jobs for others (where you feel up to the task).
Your workshop can be simply a commandeered room in your house, or a corner of the basement, or a garage, or a standalone building altogether.
Keep in mind though that your workshop will require heating, cooling, ventilation, and humidity levels pretty much the same as your main living quarters. Why? To prevent tool corrosion, as well as unwanted deterioration in whatever building materials and spare parts you may store there. You'll also need practical ways to get quite large and heavy objects into and out of your workshop at times. So narrow doors and dangerous stairways and short L-shaped corridors leading into your workshop could really cramp your style as well as cause injuries to you or others trying to move items in and out of the shop.
You'll also require the heating, cooling, etc., for your own comfort. If you're too hot or too cold while working in your shop, you're more apt to make mistakes and waste material, or even injure yourself.
Your workshop will need at least the same level of security as your home, too. After all, you don't want to make it easy for thieves to steal your expensive tools, parts, and materials stored there. You also don't want a fire or explosion to do the same. Note that the risk of fire or explosion will often be higher in a workshop than other parts of your home. Grinding throws sparks, torches produce flames, and many types of volatile flammables like paints, oils, and greases (and non-volatile flammables like wood components) may be stored there. This is one reason many would prefer their workshop to be a standalone building, so that any accidents there wouldn't necessarily damage or destroy the main living quarters too, or injure the rest of the family. But to have a standalone workshop can be considerably more expensive than simply using a portion of your existing home. A standalone might require substantial new construction on your site, or renovation of an existing outbuilding. And even after that, it'll usually cost more to heat, cool, etc., a separate building than it would a combined structure. So all these items must be weighed in your decision as to go standalone or not.
You may actually need more and better quality lighting in your workshop than you generally possess in your living quarters, due to the detailed and sometimes hazardous work you'll often be doing. Mistakes in the workshop might also be costly in money terms. Good lighting will help reduce the possible liabilities involved in use of your shop.
It'll often be useful for your workshop to have its own running water, for purposes like hand-washing and parts washing, as well as others. This would be a time-saver and even add a bit more safety to the shop in some ways (such as help in putting out fires, treating skin burns, or washing off hazardous chemicals after an accident)-- but is not wholly essential. A water hose might be run in from outside to provide a water source, or a few jugs of water and a washing bowl kept handy for these purposes, in lieu of true plumbing in the shop.
A few especially valuable and versatile pieces of equipment for a home workshop would include (prioritized based on my own experience of usage):
A large, stable, and strong work table.
A large, heavy duty machinist's or mechanic's vise, securely fastened to a stable surface. In some cases you'll want to have lots of free space around the vise in many different directions, as you may at times have large or lengthy items in it you're trying to bend or otherwise manipulate.
A bench grinder can be used to sharpen blades, smooth edges and surfaces, or cut through wood or metal.
An air compressor can be used to drive power tools, paint sprayers, sand blasters, airbrushes (for artwork), or to simply blow away dust and dirt from areas or parts. They can also produce both pretty hot and pretty cold air flows simultaneously, where vortex tubes are attached to them.
A drill press allows for more accurate, controlled, and deeper drilling than a hand wielded drill.
Some folks might say a small and separate storage shed or storage area is a basic necessity. And they'd be right for many circumstances. But for lots of folks a dedicated storage shed or warehouse might be a luxury. Fortunately, such housings can pay for themselves and more if used by a frequent and well-skilled 'junkstormer', as described elsewhere on this site. Getting together with other like-minded folks to share a large storage area might also be one way to obtain such a space. Just be sure to agree upon a set of rules for how the space will be used, and even write them down and distribute copies among all involved to keep disputes to a minimum and benefits for everyone at maximum.
Well organizing your storage space is a good idea; this was a failing in my own family's case early on, resulting in our savings and profits from our own junk storage not being quite as large or easy to obtain as they might have been otherwise. Things got lost or misplaced in the jumble, for example. Our chaotic storage also made it difficult and even dangerous at times to traverse the storage area, and forced a lot of extra work to be done to enable certain renovation jobs in the vicinity, as junk had to be moved from one place to another to gain access to required locations.
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