Every home deserves a toolbox, and you can pick one up through any reputable online or brick-and-mortar hardware store. But what actually goes into your toolbox? That can be a surprisingly hard list to make – you don’t want to spend the Earth or feel inundated with gadgets, but neither do you want to find yourself missing the right tool for the right job.
Luckily enough, your toolbox doesn’t need to be overflowing to be fully stocked with all the essentials – in fact, any toolbox worth its salt is built around just 10 fundamental items.
Having the right equipment to hand means being able to respond to essential jobs around the home and put together your flat-pack furniture in a flash – you’ll even have all the necessaries if conducting major home improvements starts to appeal to you, but you don’t have to collect the whole hardware store to feel confident in your DIY-ing ability.
Here’s a quick rundown of your essential items. You’ll learn where to use them, how to use them, which ones to pick, and the ins and outs of storage – by the end of this post, expect to be well-versed, well-prepared, and ready to get started.
Essentially just a metal rod with a shape at its head, the humble screwdriver is used to get screws in, get screws out, and, more often than not, to lever lids away from paint pots. Screwdrivers are rarely a one-shot deal. There are differences in heads and differences in size, but you can basically break the essentials down into:
- Slot Head: The head tapers to a single wedge that’s perfect for simple slotted screws. Blades are measured by fractions of inch.
- Philips Head: The head fits into cross-shape-headed screws, with sizes varying between #0 and #4.
- Allen Head: The head fits into a hexagonal shape and is measured in millimeters.
Stubbies are as short as possible; with a pronounced knob to hold onto instead of the customary long handle, they are tailormade for working in smaller, tighter spaces where maneuverability is compromised. In contrast, longer screwdrivers should be your go-to for reaching into gaps. Ratchet screwdrivers save you taking the head from the screw at every rotation – a good investment should extensive screwdriving be on the horizon.
Using the wrong size or shape of screwdriver could strip the screw head. Don’t do that. Rotate slowly but steadily, holding the handle with your dominant hand and the screw with your other. Remember to turn, not press – this is a screw, not a nail. When you’re done, there’s really no wrong way to store your screwdriver, but it’s nice having them lined up so you can pick out different lengths and shapes at a glance.
As for brands, you can’t go too far wrong with the extensive range available from Stanley – Bahco and Draper are also worthy choices.
2. Spanners and Sockets
Spanners, known as wrenches across the pond, provide a set grip that fits over a fastener, such as a nut or bolt, with a handle to deliver leverage for easier turning – the longer the handle, the greater the leverage. A socket set uses a single handle that can be fitted to differently sized grips; whole sets are pricy, but they’re what you need to tackle a diverse range of fastenings without hauling around a weighty trove of single spanners.
Spanners are available in plenty of sizes, with a standard ‘M-value’ of fastener corresponding to different grip sizes. Look for one made of chromium-vanadium alloy, preferably with a chrome coating to resist corrosion.
Types of spanner include:
- Open-Ended: Uses a U-shaped grip.
- Ring: Uses a ring-shaped grip.
- Combination: One end uses a ring while the other end is open.
- Ratchet Spanners: They rotate in only one direction, so you won’t have to refit the head after each spin.
Adjustable spanners can vary the size of their heads to fit different fasteners, but they’re tricky to use and generally inferior to a good old socket set. Spanners are hardy enough to be kept anywhere, but make sure your socket set stays together instead of becoming liberally strewn across the bottom of your toolbox.
Spanners and sockets follow the same cardinal rule of the screwdriver – turn slowly and steadily to prevent stripping the fastener, and make sure you use the right size instead of cutting corners. Expect no trouble finding screwdriver and ratchet set brands, but don’t yield to the temptation to go cheap – try a dependable name like Unior, Hardman, or Bahco.
A toolbox staple, hammers amplify force to one focused point. You’ll mainly use yours to drive nails, fit parts together, and perhaps break apart smaller objects. The claw hammer is the versatile everymen of the hammering world; perfect for most duties, a cut-out V claw at the rear drags out nails or, in a pinch, levers up floorboards.
Other common types include:
- Ball Pein: Small and specialized, they shape metal, close rivets, and round out edges. They’re also ideal for working with smaller nails.
- Club: Double-headed and typically in the 2-3 lbs. range. Use these pint-sized sledgehammers for light demolition work, not for pounding nails.
- Mallet: Made from wood and used to tap wood joints, or where a metal hammer would cause damage.
Handles are typically made using wood or metal, though going with rubber, plastic, or vinyl assists with shock absorption – a good call if you ever expect to be hammering all day.
The basics of hammering are simple enough. Hold the nail just below its head, then strike with the hammer to drive it in. Your dominant hand should hold the hammer, and you shouldn’t grip the nail too close to the bottom as a misplaced swing could jam it against the surface you’re hammering into. When you do swing, let the heft of the hammer do the work instead of your own muscles, and only make contact with the head of the nail with tool’s face. If you notice the face becoming a little too polished, all it takes is some medium sandpaper to roughen it up again.
Storing a hammer is no great secret either; there aren’t any special instructions here, but placing it towards the bottom of your toolbox will prevent it from moving around too much. Hardman provide a solid range, as do Estwing and Faithfull – hammers might seem simple enough, but don’t ever compromise your safety by settling for a bargain basement model.
4. Measuring Tape
The measuring tape in your toolbox should be spring-loaded, with a slide-grasp to hold the tape in place. When you need to measure twice to cut once, you can extend out the measuring tape and check along its markings to see how things stand.
And it’s those markings that really differentiate various types of measuring tape. UK measuring tapes typically go for the best of both worlds by including dual scales for metric and imperial units. You’ll find measures for millimetres and 1/8-inches, centimetres and inches, and meters and feet, and those markings should get progressively larger as you go. There are usually markings every 16 inches (40.6cm) since this is a standard interval for studs, and some U.S.-made measures have additional markings every 19.2 inches (48.77 cm). These set out equal spacing for joists – you can probably ignore them. Metallic tape is common, though steel is available.
Using your measuring tape can be as easy as running out a small length and swiftly making a note, but you might need to cover areas longer than your arm span. Luckily, you can secure the end and run plenty of tape out – it helps to use that handy level we’re about to discuss to make sure you’re keeping the tape straight when measuring across walls.
Measuring tape is kept in tough housing, so storage shouldn’t be much of an issue. However, you’ll want to keep it dry to prevent the interior mechanism from becoming rusted in place. Power Lock, Rolson, and Stanley are great brands to keep an eye out for.
More useful than you might suppose, pliers are often left out of toolboxes before being sorely missed when you need to loosen tough fasteners, pull nails, cut wire, or generally exert additional grip.
Truth be told, you’ll probably need one, two, or a few according to your needs, with options including:
- Adjustable: Off-set jaws can be moved to fit around larger fasteners. They usually come equipped with a longer handle for extra leverage.
- Locking (Vice Grip): Can be fastened to maintain a secure grip, perfect for stuck bolts or when you need to keep one object stable while moving another.
- Needle-Nose: Tapered and thin, they can reach into tight spots and work well when you need to pull smaller or more delicate nails.
- Cutting: Cutting edges come together just below the gripped sides, giving you the option to cut through wiring.
Plenty of pliers will be spring-loaded to save you manually returning the handles to open after each use – it’s an extremely convenient feature that no pair should enter your toolbox without. You can also pick up insulated pliers if you’re going to work around electricity.
While pliers can technically be used as wrenches, you shouldn’t make a habit of that substitution unless you want to strip your fasteners or mar your surfaces. You’ll need to make sure that the gripped edges don’t become too worn or dull, the cutting edges stay sharp, and the spring stays oiled. Whether making a cut or tightening the grip, never jerk the tool from side to side, and ensure you wear safety glasses, goggles, or a face shield if the parts you’re cutting could fly outwards.
Again, storing a pair of pliers is simple, but you should make sure they are kept dry to prevent any potential rusting. Bessey, Faithfull, Stanley, Unior, and Hardman provide a comprehensive range – Bessey are particularly well-known for their heavy-duty vice grip pliers.
6. Utility Knife
You’ll be surprised how often you need a utility knife. Whether opening boxes, carving marks, or cutting through tough bindings, a utility knife is a real workhorse, with a razor-sharp blade that can be extended outwards via a handy slide and then retracted to remove any danger of unexpected cuts.
All utility knives should be retractable, but retraction methods differ. Hardier knives are made from metal or thick plastic, with a slide fastener that can be locked firmly in place. Some will have longer segmented blades that can be broken off in sections when the endmost edge becomes dulled. Box-cutters are fine for lighter work, and any utility knife needs to fit snugly in one hand.
Using a utility knife isn’t particularly challenging, but vigilance is clearly paramount when dealing with such a sharp blade. Make sure the blade really is sharp; a dulled blade will present unusual resistance and should be replaced before you continue. Check for signs of damage or corrosion before you start cutting, and remember that these tools are for cutting only, never for stabbing.
7. Spirit Levels
The spirit level sees your photos hung straight and keeps everything you build, hang, or install horizontally perfect. Don’t kid or cajole yourself into believing you can guess when things are dead level. You can’t, and who wants to sit with their head cocked while watching their brand-new flatscreen TV? Nobody.
Your basic level is known as a carpenter’s or mason’s level. It should range from 24 to 96 inches in length, with angular sides letting it act as a straightedge. A 6 to 9 inch ‘torpedo level’ slips handily into a tool belt, and a cross-check is cross-shaped to measure horizontal and vertical levels simultaneously. If you’re serious about your tools, digital levels should strike your fancy. Highly accurate and capable of displaying precise angle readings, they’re usually considered the top-of-the-line for around-the-home work or general labouring.
Levels are strikingly easy to use. You place them on a surface or against a wall you need to mark, then check you’re at horizontally perfect, as well as vertically perfect if you’re using a cross-check, by making sure the bubble is sitting right between two marks. But who levels the level? If you suspect yours is out of whack, test it on a known flat surface, preferably with another level to check results against, then calibrate until all is well. Sounds hard, but the internet is replete with online guides that cover at-home calibration in easy steps.
As tough as many look, levels are still precision instruments; keep them in a protective case and slot them somewhere in your toolbox where they will be held still. If you drop it, check it and recalibrate if necessary. Look for Faithfull or Stanley when you’re shopping for your toolbox’s level.
Yep, torches bring light where there is none or not enough, but not all are created equal. The basic type of torch in your toolbox should be long and thick enough for you to hold easily with one hand, but a penlight is often necessary for tighter places and a lantern is what you need for ongoing work in unlit rooms; if you’ll need directional light and both hands to remain free, a head-lamp is worth the cost.
Beyond size and design, pay attention to meters, lumens, hours, and beams. Meters measure how far a light will shine before brightness diminishes to the equivalent of a full moon. Lumens measure the intensity of light, from a modest 20 to a blinding 3500. Hours tells you how long a torch will run on a fully-charged set of batteries.
As for beams, they can be broken down into:
- Flood/Fixed: A single beam that is reasonably wide.
- Spot/Focused: A single beam is focused down, handy for long distances or precision work.
- Adjustable: You can vary the width of the beam manually.
Torches should be moved steadily for optimal lighting, and you should place them down carefully to prevent any damage. Store alongside a fresh pair of batteries or right next to their charger, and prevent any prolonged contact with moisture. There are scores of torches available, and you should do fine with any brand aimed at construction or DIY-ing; torches made for hikers, emergency situations, or for use by children should be vigorously avoided – they just aren’t robust enough to be a reliable part of your toolbox’s basic arsenal.
A clamp is a holding device that you’ll use during your handiwork to hold items down or press objects together. They’re great when you feel like you need a third hand, and they can be utilized to great effect while you use other tools.
Your common clamp varieties include:
- Spring: Light-duty and hand-held, spring clamps look much like pliers, although a little bulkier. Use them to hold down lighter objects in a pinch.
- G-Clamp: The type of traditional clamp you might remember from your woodworking days at school, these are usually secured along the edge of a table and then tightened using a long corkscrewing handle. They exert a very strong grip but the opening capacity is limited
- Bar Clamps: Bar clamps are exactly what you need to span those greater distances. Two clamps can be moved along a single bar, usually with a ratchet system and a quick release function to speed things up.
- Corner Clamps: When you need to hold up an item vertically instead of horizontally, a corner clamp is going to be what you use.
- F Clamps: A quick action type of clamp . More of a modern day alternative.
- One handed Clamps: usually a pump action enables one handed speedy operation
It’s tough to hurt yourself while using a clamp, but proceeding improperly can damage the surface of whatever you’re trying to hold, so make sure you don’t tighten up more than necessary. If you’re worried about crushing or splintering the surface, try slipping a shim between the clamp and the object you’re holding to provide a touch of cushioning, or using a clamp with built in protection on the pressure pad. If you’re concerned about staining delicate surfaces, use wax paper instead of a shim.
They aren’t strictly tools, but a few items of personal safety wear definitely belong in your toolbox. Welding-masks and coveralls probably aren’t necessary, but some working gloves, a pair of safety glasses or goggles, and possibly some manner of ear protection are all vital additions. As well as protecting you from harm and discomfort, they can improve your focus on the job at hand and help you finish what you need to do as quickly as possible.
- Gloves: A standard pair of working gloves should be thick enough to provide cushioning between your hand and the tool you’re using, and yet also tight enough to ensure proper articulation of the fingers. Cloth gloves breathe well and usually come with leather patches for reinforcement. Insulated and waterproof gloves should be used when necessary. If you’re going to be painting, a few pairs of disposable plastic gloves are nice to have.
- Eyewear: Protects your eyes from flying particles, splashed liquids, fumes, bright lights, and sparks. Whether you opt for glasses or goggles, look for the CE symbol that certifies adherence to EU requirements. Safety lenses must be strong enough to withstand impact, and you’ll need UV protection if you’re likely to be working around bright lights or glare.
- Ear Protection: From hammering nails to sawing wood, handiwork can be surprisingly noisy, so ear protection is probably more important than you realise. For general DIY, a pair of construction earbuds should be sufficient. For more extensive work, heavy-duty earmuffs should be used.
Of course, you need to protect your safety wear if you want it to protect you in turn. Store goggles or glasses in protective cases, and then replace them if the lenses ever become scratched. Ear protectors should be cleaned after each use to maintain good hygiene, and gloves should be kept dry. Bollé are as excellent for protective eyewear as Dickies are for protective earwear.