Man is "weak in himself, and of small stature," wrote 19th-century essayist Thomas Carlyle. Yet, with tools, "the granite mountain melts into light dust before him, seas are his smooth highway, winds and fire his unwearying steeds." And this from a guy who never felt a 5800-rpm circular saw scream to life in his hand.
While much has changed since Carlyle's day, one thing hasn't: We need tools to build, repair and maintain the mechanical world in which we live. With these tools, you'll be ready for just about any project--whether it's melting mountains or swapping out the kitchen sink.
Few tools combine brute force and finesse as elegantly as a sledgehammer. Swing it overhead to deliver bomb-blast destructiveness or to fire a wood-splitting wedge through a big log. Handle it like a putter to salvage architectural elements such as a post-and-beam barn frame that needs knocking apart. Most of us are better off with an 8- or 10-pound model that we can swing easily, not a 16- to 20-pounder.
|Center Punch Tool|
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2. Center Punch
In theory, you use a center punch to start holes in metal. In practice, it's far more useful than that. You can tighten a loose handle on a knife or shovel by centering the punch on the rivet and then firmly striking it with a ball-peen hammer, expanding the rivet's head. In a pinch, you can also use a center punch like a steel pencil to mark a line on wood or metal. Or you can use it to countersink a large nailhead or drive down the stub of a broken nail or staple.
|Putty Knife Tool|
3. Putty Knife
The putty knife is more than a single implement. Rather, it's a group of tools, ranging from knives with flexible, thin blades to heavy-duty models that are ground with a tip like a chisel (which, not surprisingly, are called chisel-edge putty knives). Better tools have a high-carbon steel blade; plastic, disposable ones are perfect for the no-scuff application of putty on painted surfaces.
DIY projects may come and go, but you won't get a second shot at good vision--protecting your eyes should be your first priority. Opt for high-impact safety glasses over those rated "basic impact." For maximum protection, wear high-impact goggles because they cover more of your face and the area around your eyes.
For portability and convenience, you can't beat the time-honored adjustable wrench, which enables you to turn a wide range of nuts and bolts with a single tool. If you're going to own just one, make it a 10- or 14-inch model so that it's big enough for residential plumbing fittings. Pull it so the reaction force is applied to the fixed jaw, not the movable one.
|Pipe Wrench Tool|
6. Pipe Wrench
A pipe wrench may not be versatile, but when you need to hold a pipe and fittings, nothing else will work. The body is rigid and heavy, and the teeth bite forcefully into smooth, round surfaces. While most pipe wrenches are cast iron, spring for an aluminum model if you face a long day of plumbing.
|Socket Wrench Set|
Reach for a socket wrench when you need to tighten fasteners or loosen frozen ones. The 1/2-inch drive is the heavy hitter of the socket wrench kingdom, followed by a switch hitter, the 3/8-inch drive, which is big enough to do light-duty automotive work yet small enough for some appliances. Reserve the 1/4-inch drive for appliance and electronics repair.
Today's wrench is thinner, sleeker and stronger than the bulky ones it replaced; it weighs half what it did in the '20s. While it is hard to improve on perfection, in 2006 Craftsman introduced a new twist--literally--in its Cross-Force Combination Wrenches, turning the handle so your palm presses on the tool's broad face, not the narrow edge. Back when blacksmiths forged tools, they would inscribe the year onto the head as if to announce that it would last decades, maybe centuries, into an uncertain future. A fine set of wrenches, bearing dates or not, exudes the same sense of permanence.
Because a jigsaw cuts with an up-and-down motion and its blade is comparatively narrow, it excels at cutting curves in wood, metal and plastic. Advanced models have an orbital setting that also moves the blade in a swinging motion for aggressive woodcutting.
10. Crosscut Saw
Even if you own an arsenal of power saws, an eight-point crosscut saw should be somewhere in your shop. It may not make the finest cut, but it's the perfect jack-of-all-trades saw for small jobs, like the occasional 2 x 4. Hold the saw so that its toothed edge is 45 degrees to the work surface, and start the cut by drawing the saw back very lightly. Use full strokes, engaging as much of the toothed surface as possible.
You don't have to be a metalworker to appreciate snips. This tool cuts sheet steel, copper and aluminum, but also rubber, heavy cardboard and plastic. Pro models have color-coded handles to indicate whether they are designed for left curves, right curves or straight cuts (red, green and yellow, respectively). Homeowners can get by with a single, all-purpose utility snip.
When you need to fish a dropped screw out of a tight space, when working on electronics for example, there's nothing handier than a pair of needle-nose pliers. Their elegant shape is also perfect for fastening a wire to a switch or outlet receptacle: Grip the wire at the tip of the jaws and roll the pliers to produce a neat hook, then fasten the hook under the terminal screw.
13. Power Drill
Cordless drills readily combine speed, power and portability--so for most of us, they've already replaced the corded variety. They also come with a clutch that disconnects the drive mechanism when it reaches a dialed-in force setting, preventing the user from stripping the screw. While 14- to 18-volt models can handle most jobs, some drills have voltages in the mid-20s or even 30s for power that rivals that of the corded product.
14. Drill Bits
For almost all general hole drilling, most of us can get by with a set of 15 or 18 high-speed-steel twist drill bits. You don't need to upgrade to a full set to deal with special circumstances, such as knocking a hole through a brick wall or boring through nail-infested lumber. Buy these expensive, single-purpose bits one at a time. As the years pass, the specialty bits add up, allowing you to tackle any job that comes along without a trip to the hardware store.
15. Circular Saw
Nothing beats a circular saw for speed and convenience when it comes to making straight cuts on a variety of materials. It can crosscut lumber or rip plywood, of course. But with a nail-cutting blade, a circular saw can also do demolition work; with an abrasive blade, it can saw through masonry and metal.
16. Measuring Tape
A measuring tape is a spring-loaded marvel, combining compactness and speed. Poke its tip down to the intersection of floor and wall, then bend it up the wall to measure ceiling height. Extend it horizontally and it's stiff enough to bridge several feet of open air. A 25-foot model is sufficiently long to handle most home construction jobs, yet small and light enough to stash in a nail pouch or clip to your blue jeans.
After all these millennia, the hammer's wood handle remains, preferred by craftsmen for its light weight, shock absorbency and balance. It was the post-World War II housing boom that finally transformed the profile of the modern hammer. Can't-frame-'em-fast-enough carpenters on the West Coast needed still more speed, so they grafted elements of heavy-rigging hatchets onto claw hammers. The result is the beefy, all-business, California-style framer, a swift, long-handled striking tool with a vicious claw. A nail gun might be fast, but nothing beats the feeling of sinking a nail in two or three clean hits.
18. Machinist Vise
Whether stationary or swiveling, a vise is like an extra set of (really strong) hands for securing your work. Cast-iron models function well for most applications, but buy a forged-steel vise for anything heavy-duty. If you cut a lot of pipe, choose a vise with V-shaped jaws to grip round material. For moderate metal pounding, choose one with an anvil behind the jaws. While it's no substitute for a blacksmith anvil, it is handy for small projects.
Because your screwdriver tip should match the head of whatever screw you're turning, a screwdriver with interchangeable tips is a compact, convenient alternative to a drawer full of tools. Plus, a handheld screwdriver often gets small jobs done faster than a cordless one.
20. Extension Cord
Large jobs require corded tools--and an extension cord to match. The minimum spec for most DIYers should be a 14-gauge cord rated for 15 amps. But a 12-gauge cord is better, and a 10-gauge contractor-quality cord better still, because it ensures minimum voltage drop along its length.
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