Being born into a mechanically inclined family, I was raised on tools. I still remember wrenching on my first bicycle, then lawnmowers, and finally my first car. Each step of the way I learned a bit more, and gained a few more tools. If you’re just starting out, the sheer number of tools you’ll find at your local store can be daunting. I came up with this list in an effort to help clarify the tools every beginner mechanic needs in order to start working on their own car, truck, lawnmower, motorcycle, or whatever you may have!
A Word on Brands – The actual brand of tool you purchase doesn’t matter nearly as much as long as they come with a lifetime warranty, and are readily available in your area.
Craftsman – A DIY staple for many years, Craftsman Tools can be found at Sears. I would stay away from the bigger craftsman sets and opt for the “Premium” or full polish craftsman tools instead. The fine tooth ratchets, and full polish wrenches are much better than their “economy” craftsman counterparts. Made in China/USA (Depends on Tool).
Kobalt – My personal favorite currently, Kobalt tools can be found at any Lowe’s Home Improvement. It seems to me like their tools are generally on par with craftsman’s premium lines, though the variety in Kobalt’s line is a bit smaller than that of Craftsman’s. Made in Taiwan/China.
Husky – Home Depot’s tool line, Husky tools are very similar to Kobalt’s, but in my opinion they lack some of the fine details that Kobalt’s tools have, such as color coded SAE and Metric tools so you can tell at a glance what goes where. Still a great buy though. Made in Taiwan/China.
S-K Tools – S-K Tools are considerably more expensive than the othe 3 brands in this list, but 100% USA made. These guys are the best option if you absolutely refuse to buy imported goods. Professional quality, and a cheaper price than the truck brands (Snap-on, Mac, and Matco).
1) A Toolbox
OK, while this one technically isn’t a tool, trust me when I say you will definitely want a place to put all of your tools so you can find them easily when they are needed. I like the rolling cabinet type toolboxes, as they provide both a toolbox and a workbench in one unit if you don’t buy a top chest. Additionally, they can be rolled from job to job if necessary. Check out Masterforce or US General toolboxes if you’re on a budget under $1000. Waterloo or Craftsman HD are good choices if you want to spend a bit more. Searching Craigslist for a used Snap-on or similar “truck brand” toolbox is another option to consider.
You’ll need a total of 3 ratchets to start off, a 1/4″ Drive Ratchet, a 3/8″ Drive, and a 1/2″ Drive Ratchet. These are the 3 most common sizes used, and you’ll be using them on basically every project. Most Automotive tool kits from Craftsman, Kobalt, or Husky will include all 3. If yours didn’t, no big deal. Just go pick up the one (or ones) you’re missing! Also, check out my Kobalt Ratchet Review to see what makes these things tick!
Every beginner mechanic needs both SAE (Inch) and Metcric (MM) sockets to go with each of their ratchets. These will be your bread and butter, and what you’ll be using to remove and replace most bolts you’ll encounter. I recommend starting off buying 6 point sockets (you’ll notice they have 6 sides) as they are less likely to round off bolts than their 12 point cousins. Socket Organizers like the ones pictured are also a good investment if you have a big toolbox, as they keep everything neat and easy to find. Just don’t get the Hansen Socket Trays (or anything with labels for that matter) if you have OCD. You WILL have empty spaces.
Torx and Hex sockets are a necessity if you plan to do brake jobs at any point, as most brake calipers are held on by one of these fasteners. You don’t need too many of these, so don’t go blowing through your budget on them. If possible, figure out what you’ll be working on most often and see what the brake calipers require. You can start off with just those and pick up more as needed. I don’t suggest trying to get away with using a screwdriver on caliper bolts, you’ll want to be able to torque them properly.
Swivels, Extensions, Wobble Extensions, and Size Adapters make it possible to remove sockets from hard to reach places. With most modern inline engines, the spark plugs alone will require a long extension and possibly a swivel, depending on the design. A lot of the automotive tool sets you’ll find come with a swivel and an extension or 2, but you will definitely end up buying more as you need them. I have extensions ranging from 1 to 24 inches in all drive sizes (not all of them are pictured), and they all get used.
There is no substitute for torque. Beginner mechanics often can’t afford to buy a full set of power tools, so you’ll need breaker bars to “break” loose stubborn nuts and bolts. Ratchets are prone to failure if used for this particular task, so a set of breaker bars is a good investment. Like ratchets, you’ll want to have at least one in each of the 3 most common drive sizes (1/4″ 3/8″ and 1/2″).
You’ll encounter countless phillips and flathead screws no matter what you work on, so a good set of basic screwdrivers in various sizes and lengths is something every beginning mechanic should have on hand. At the very least, you should have #1 and #2 Phillips and 3/16, 1/4 and 5/16 Slotted screwdrivers in long, standard, and stubby lengths. Go for quality over quantity here. The Kobalt Mechanic’s Screwdrivers pictured are a good, heavy-duty starting point. This Gearwrench Screwdriver Set covers pretty much every common screw you can think of.
Hex Screws and Torx Screws are common on pretty much everything these days. Tamper proof Torx and Hex (AKA Security Torx and Security Hex) are becoming more and more common. If you own a Japanese car or motorcycle, you’ll most likely encounter JIS (Japanese Industrial Standard) screws. These look like phillips screws, but a standard phillips screwdriver will round them off. The easiest way to have all of these on hand is to buy a good ratcheting screwdriver (I suggest this Williams Magnetic Ratcheting Screwdriver) and simply buy more bits as you find you need them. Want one pretty complete, organized set? Check out this Gearwrench 40 Piece Ratcheting Screwdriver Kit.
While these may seem pretty obvious, many people don’t actually have a quality set. You’ll be using combination wrenches when a socket just won’t fit, or when you need to hold one end of a bolt while you tighten a nut. Like sockets, you’ll need a set of SAE (Inch) and Metric (mm) wrenches. 6 point combination wrenches are available, but I suggest getting the 12pt variety instead, as they are more versatile and work better in tight spaces. This Kobalt 34pc Wrench Set offers a pretty complete package at an easily affordable price.
Fuel Lines, A/C Lines, Brake Lines, Oil Lines, pretty much any line with a fitting that can be unscrewed. Line Wrenches (AKA Flare Nut Wrenches) spread force over a greater surface area of the fastener than a combination wrench would. This helps prevent the fastener from rounding off and becoming the world’s biggest pain in the you-know-what. You don’t need to buy every flare nut wrench in existence. Just buy a basic set like the Kobalt one pictured, and work your way up from there.
You wouldn’t think a mechanic would need a hammer as much as they do, but sometimes a part just needs some good old fashioned “convincing” to go where you need it. Stuck parts are another common reason you may need to beaterize something with a BFH (Big Freakin’ Hammer). Ball Pein Hammers, Sledgehammers, Dead Blow Hammers, and Mallets all have their uses. You’ll want to have a good variety of hammers to start with, so a set like this one on Amazon is a good choice.
You’ll need Channel Locks in a couple sizes, Standard pliers, and Needle Nose pliers in a few sizes. You’ll use them a lot more than you would think. Most people have at least one standard plier lying around. If you need to purchase new Channel Locks, I suggest this Knipex 3-Piece Set. As for needle nose pliers, you’ll probably want one standard needle nose, a longer needle nose, and a bent needle nose at minimum. If you already have a regular Needle nose, pick up this set on Amazon and you’ll be good to go.
Holding up hoods and trunks when the hydraulic rods have failed are only one possible use for a good pair of vise grips. In the movie Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood’s character hands a novice tool user a roll of duct tape, a can of WD-40 and a pair of Vise-Grips. He tells the youngster that any man worth his salt “can do half his household jobs with these three things.” Clint isn’t exactly wrong. You’ll find all sorts of uses for Vise Grips, so you’ll probably want a few shapes and sizes.
Sometimes you’ll find yourself needing a lot of leverage to make things line up properly. Other times you’ll need a lot of leverage to separate parts that have been together for thousands of miles. This is when a pry bar will be worth it’s weight in gold. To get the most bang for your buck, I would suggest picking up this 3pc Craftsman Set, or the 4 Piece Pittsburgh Tools Set at Harbor Freight (Pictured) if you have one nearby. Either option should serve you well for years to come!
A Circuit tester is used for – as you may have guessed – testing circuits! An indicator light in the handle tells you if electricity is flowing or not. This allows you to find wiring issues, locate hot wires, and test fuses with one handy tool. I bought mine at Harbor Freight, it’s cheap and simple.
If you need to measure voltage, resistance, or current, you need a multimeter. You’ll be using this a lot to test batteries, check voltages, and troubleshoot electronic parts. Invest in a good quality digital multimeter as accuracy is important, and you want it to be able to survive should you accidentally drop it. I would suggest this one from Klein Tools, as I haven’t had any issues with mine, but a lot of pro’s stand by this Fluke Multimeter. Either one should work exceptionally well, depending on how much money you want to spend.
Need to get a car off the ground? You’re gonna need a floor jack! You’ll put this to work whenever you need to remove a wheel, or get under a car. Floor Jacks come with weight ratings, so you’ll want one that will support a little more than the weight of whatever vehicle you’re working on. If you’re not sure, get the biggest one you can. A 3 or 3.5 ton Jack will support almost any car, truck, or SUV. Just remember to always use Jack Stands to support the vehicle while it’s in the air.
Jack Stands are a mechanical safety item when using a floor jack, or any other type of vehicle lifting device. They are there to stop the vehicle from crushing you in the event that the jack fails or slips. Jack stands are a 100% mechanical device, so they are less prone to failure than a hydraulic jack. Unless you like the idea of being a pancake, get at least one set of these!
It’s never fun when a bolt backs itself out when your driving down the road. How do you prevent this from happening? By using the proper amount of torque! How do you know how much torque you need? A service manual or a google search. How do you know how much torque you’re using? A torque wrench! A torque wrench is a tool used to precisely apply a specific torque to a fastener such as a nut or bolt. The Craftsman Digi-Click Torque Wrenches are a great starting point.