This roundup is meant for DIYers, homeowners and renters that are starting off with few tools – the kind of users that know they need more tools, and want to be better prepared for common and unplanned projects and tasks.
While you could just buy one of those all-in-one home tool sets, you get better variety and usefulness if you customize and piece together your own kit. This also allows you to spend more on tools you plan to use frequently and to cheapen out on tools you don’t plan to use as often.
By no means is this an all-encompassing list, but I’ve narrowed it down to the 12 basic and essential tools homeowners and aspiring DIYers should have readily available. Think of it more as the first 12 tools (or tool types) a homeowner should buy. I could have easily expanded the list, but had to draw the line somewhere.
0. Safety Gear – Goggles, Hearing Protection, Gloves
PPE, or personal protective equipment is so essential that it’s number 0 on our list. At the bare minimum you’ll need safety glasses, but goggles offer added protection against chemical splashes. Pick up a box of latex or nitrile gloves to protect against potentially harmful or gross substances. Rugged work gloves are an inexpensive addition to consider, and ear muffs or earplugs protect your hearing when using power tools or noisier kitchen appliances.
Safety goggle recommendations; Hearing protection: Peltor ear muffs
Also worth picking up – a pack of disposable or semi-reusable respirators. Make sure they’re rated N95 or N100, or P95 or P100 for added protection against oil-based aerosols. You only have one pair of lungs!
1. Utility Knife
Utility knives are handy for a wide variety of cutting tasks, and are far better for opening boxes and clamshell packages than cheap paper-cutting scissors. There are plenty of brands and styles available, with basic models priced at $4-7. Tip: be sure to always keep a few replacement blades on-hand.
ToolGuyd Favorites: Stanley QuickSlide (~$12 via Amazon) and Dewalt Folding Utility Knife
2. Tape Measure
Tape measures are especially important for new homeowners and will be heavily utilized when planning out empty rooms. There are many brands, sizes, shapes, and styles available, and it’s okay to start off with a basic model. I recommend starting out with a 25-foot model for home use, and perhaps a small 10 or 12-foot pocketable model to carry when shopping for furniture or room accessories.
Inexpensive 25ft: Stanley PowerLock (~$11 via Amazon); Super-compact: Komelon 10′ ($7 via Amazon)
3. Multi-Bit Screwdrivers
Everyone’s screwdriver needs will be different, but a multi-bit screwdriver is usually a safe bet and can handle most basic tasks. Budget-permitting, a screwdriver set is also a solid investment and usually offers better ergonomics and comfort. There’s also the slightly above bare-minimum combo option: a multi-bit driver plus a quality #2 Phillips screwdriver.
$: Picquic multi-bit ($11 via Amazon); $$: Channellock ratcheting screwdriver; $$$: Wiha 12pc screwdriver set ($55 via Amazon)
Remember, one can never have too many screwdrivers!
3.5 Precision Screwdrivers
Most people neglect to buy precision/jewelers/mini screwdrivers until they really need them, at which point they run out and buy the cheap low-quality sets many retailers insist on pushing. For infrequent use, a 5 or 6-piece set for $5-10 set should suffice.
Trusted brands: Xcelite, Craftsman, Wiha, Wera, Felo, General Tools, Stanley (sometimes), PB Swiss, Moody.
4. Hex Key Set
Two words – IKEA furniture. Sure, a teeny tiny double-ended hex key is included with products that require it, but having full-size hex keys can make ready-to-assemble and knock-down furniture MUCH easier and quicker to assemble. It’s even better if you have T-handle drivers.
If you’re going all-out, ball hex drivers are better for accessing fasteners in tight spots, but straight-hex drivers can handle more torque. Consider buying an all-in-one hex key set for general purpose use and full-size 4mm, 5mm, and 6mm drivers for IKEA assembly and bicycle maintenance needs.
ToolGuyd Favorite: Bondhus ball hex (via Amazon), made in USA.
Tip: You’ll need both inch and metric sizes. Sometimes both sets are sold bundled together.
5. 16oz Claw Hammer + Dead Blow Hammer or Mallet
A 16oz claw hammer is great for driving in smaller nails here and there, and a dead blow hammer is useful for general pounding tasks. And yes, you’ll need both. For the claw hammer, there’s no need for anything fancy – a simple hickory-handled hammer should fit the bill. For the dead blow hammer, a 2 or 3lb model is a good choice, and at least one non-marring face is preferable.
Dead blow hammers can be expensive. If you’re unsure about needing one, consider a non-marring or rubber mallet instead.
Claw hammer: Vaughan or Craftsman; Non-marring: 24oz Vaughan ($20 via Amazon); Dead Blow: Nupla Power Drive ($37 via Amazon)
6. LED Flashlight
Think about a few of the times you may need a flashlight – when the lights go out unexpectedly, when an object rolls under a heavy piece of furniture, or when you hear a ruckus in your yard in the middle of the night. Do you really want to risk your flashlight failing during any of those times? For home use, a 2D or 3D Maglite is harder to lose.
Inexpensive and Trustworthy Favorite: Maglite LEDs ($15+ via Amazon)
7. Adjustable Wrench, Combination Wrenches, Ratchet and Socket Set
At the very least, you’ll need two adjustable wrenches – an 8-inch long model and maybe a 6-inch or 10-inch. Maybe even a 12-inch, but at that point you may be better off with a heavier duty pipe wrench. You can get away from needing longer versions by buying an extra-wide-capacity 8-inch or 10-inch wrench.
Two adjustable wrenches can accomplish a lot – one can hold a hex nut fixed while the other is used to tighten or loosen a hex-head bolt. Beyond adjustable wrenches, consider a adding combination wrenches, which offer greater versatility and improved clearance. A 9-piece metric and 9-piece inch/standard/SAE set should suffice until your needs grow more advanced.
You may not need one right away, but a ratchet and socket set offers even more accessibility options and a speed advantage. Prices range from $20 to $200+, and it’s okay to wait for a good sale to maximize the bang per buck.
Recommendations: Favorite adjustable wrenches; Combination wrenches: Craftsman; Inexpensive ratchet & socket set: Craftsman or Kobalt
8. Pliers and Cutters
This is another big category. To start off with, you’ll need long-nose pliers and either slip-joint pliers or combination pliers. Channellock or tongue-and-groove style pliers are also good to have. If pliers you choose feature built-in cutters, you won’t need a pair of diagonal cutters right away.
Mini bolt or heavy duty utility cutters and a wire stripper or general-purpose electrical multi-tool are also good choices if your budget allows for it.
Recommended brands: Stanley, Channellock and Klein
9. Saw – Hand, Hack, Corded or Cordless
At one point or another, you’re going to need to cut things. There are many, many tools that can handle the job, with new designs coming out every year. If you don’t know what you’ll need to cut, consider a jab saw that accepts reciprocating saw blades, and bundle it with a few general purpose metal, plastic and wood-cutting blades.
Eventually you’ll probably want to pick up a hand saw and hack saw, and possibly even a corded or 12V cordless mini reciprocating saw, like the Bosch pS60. Most basic projects, such as cutting shelves down to size, are best accomplished with a circular saw.
You can hold off on buying a circular saw if you ask the home center or lumber yard to cut your boards down to size before you pay. Most places offer 1-2 free cuts per board, with a marginal fee for additional cuts.
Recommendations: Hand saw: Stanley; Hack saw: Dewalt or Bahco
10. Tool Box
You will need a tool box to help keep everything together. Otherwise, some of your tools will end up in a junk drawer, others will be in the basement, and the rest will be scattered elsewhere. A tool box, even an inexpensive $15 plastic one, will help keep everything in one place. As your tool collection grows, so should the size of your tool box. Alternatively, tool bags often feature a number of pockets and compartments that can help with organization.
Recommendations: Stanley, Keter, Craftsman
11. Cordless Drill Driver + Drill and Screwdriver Bit Set
Cordless drill drivers can be pricey, so it’s okay to wait until you need one to go shopping. Selecting the right cordless drill driver for your needs is a whole discussion in itself, so all I’ll say for now is to stick to reputable brands. Stay away from NiCd if you can help it – you can often find a very good 12V Lithium ion model for the same price as a just-okay 18V NiCd model.
As for drill bits, screwdriver bits and accessories, you get what you pay for. Beware of cheap drill bit sets, especially those by unfamiliar brand names.
General recommendations: Bosch, Dewalt, Kobalt, Makita, Ridgid, Milwaukee, Hitachi, Craftsman Nextec.
12. Wet/Dry Shop Vacuum
This is one of those things that you might not think you need until you NEED it. Shop vacuums are great for heavier messes, and when vacuuming up materials that household vacs simply aren’t designed to handle.
Even an inexpensive shop vacuum will likely last for many years, stretching out its $50-$150 initial investment. As with most things, the more you spend the more you get. Higher-priced vacs come with larger capacity tanks, additional features (e.g. a built-in blower and water drainage valve), larger capacity and longer hoses, more attachments, and longer power cords.
Recommended brands: Shop Vac, Ridgid, Craftsman
There are several other tools that, while not as absolutely essential as those listed above, can greatly improve project results or make certain tasks easier to accomplish. At the minimum, I would suggest the following layout tools: 12″ or 16″ combination square with detachable straightedge, 9″ torpedo level, 24″ level and a Speed Square (<$4 via Amazon). And if you’re going to be mounting anything to your walls, you’re going to need a stud finder.
I was going to make these layout tools #11 on the list, but technically you can get around not having them. But how are you going to drill anchor holes for new window shades without a drill?
I Disagree, I Disagree!
I don’t expect everyone to agree with my recommendations and welcome you to share your own opinions in a comment. If you’re a regular ToolGuyd reader, maybe you already have a fully-loaded toolbox. Or maybe it’s half-filled and you’re still building it up piece by piece. Think back – which were the first 12 or so tools that you purchased?
Has anyone used that swanson speed square? Whats the material it made of (looks like a plastic one)? is it strong enough?
Actually, I have one in my drawer right now. It is made of plastic (maybe HDPE), but it’s rigid and accurate. The markings can be a little difficult to read at times. I like that it’s easily visible from a distance, and it’s inexpensive enough that I don’t worry about dinging or destroying it.
How thick is it? Before I bought my aluminum one, I had another brand’s version. It was fairly similar, but it was too thin to use as a straightedge for cross-cutting 2Xs with a circular saw (the baseplate could ride up on the square).
It should be full-size. I also have a Craftsman Speed Square, and the orange Swanson version is a bit bigger. The product description says it’s an 8″ square. Most of the squares I’ve seen are 7″ or 12″.
Oh no, I mean thickness. I don’t have access to mine right now, but it’s probably close to 3/16″ thick. I’m hoping Swanson’s plastic model is the same as the aluminum. This makes a big difference when using it as a straightedge.
I have the orange 12″ Swanson and it is around 3/16″ thick as well. I have used it to cross-cut 2×12’s but my saw’s baseplate is pretty flat. I don’t think that is any thinner than the metal ones though, unless you have seen a bigger one out there.
Since this list is geared towards DIYs/newbies, I would add a laser level, or a combo laser level/studfinder like the one B&D makes. Makes hanging stuff on the wall a lot easier.
I’m going to have to agree and say that this is a pretty good list for assembling the basics of a good set of tools that everyone must have. Even if one not a DIY sort you’re going to encounter IKEA furniture, a loose screw, and a need to hang a few pictures.
Adding a few more tools?
A scratch awl
A 10 inch mill file
A decent low-angle block plane
A pry bar / nail puller
A few nutdrivers – for hose clamps etc
A small broad knife or wall scraper
A putty knife
A razor blade scraper
A good quality 2 inch paintbrush
A 1/2 inch butt chisel
A sharpening stone
Those are great additions! Perhaps not essential for beginners, but most should be useful for intermediate and more experienced DIYers.
I would add a caulking gun, good for both the re caulking tasks that every new starter has to deal with, but also essential for adhesives, if you don’t want to waste money on squeeze tubes.
Is there any model you especially recommend? My father has some inexpensive no-name ones that lasted him for years and years, but I spent a little more for a Kobalt-branded “heavy duty” model. And you know what, the darn thing broke the first time I used it. It’s still mostly functional, but I’m not a fan of tools where metal parts randomly snap off.
Good list, but I don’t remember the last time I’ve used my rubber mallet. If I want to move something I don’t want to make marks on I put a block of wood against it. I would put a pipe wrench in and take out the Allen wrench set. With a good 1/4 inch driver set you should have everything from screwdrivers, torx bits, Allen bits and both types of sockets. That Wera set you recommended a while back would get my vote.
A good list. A few comments on listed items, and a few items that need to be on the essential list for a homeowner.
Safety equipment: Its important that goggles and ear protection is comfortable or you will never use it. Thats why I always use safety glasses over goggles- they never fog up.
Tape measures: Nothing is more frusterating then needed to measure something, but not being able to find a tape measure. This happens a lot since almost any project (inside or outside) needs one. My solution has been to buy several. I always buy some tape measures during Black friday/Christmas sales. Quantity over quality for me on these.
Hex key set: Do not get one of those folding hex sets that look like a large swiss army knife. They are very hard to use when you cannot remove an individual hex key and use them independently. The individual L shaped sets with the ball end is the most flexible set and works for almost all applications.
Hammers: I use a rubber mallet as much as a conventional hammer and think they are a must. For the DIYer I think a dead blow hammer is overkill and the rubber mallet will be fine. I’ve always had a claw hammer, and they are fine for tapping in small nails into drywall. But for about the same cost you can get a framming hammer, which is much better when it comes to larger nails, as well as minor demolition.
Wrenches and pliers: If you are a homeowner, your going to have to deal with large pipes. There is nothing more annoying than having to drive your wet, dirty self to the store in the middle of a water pipe repair to pick up some expensive large wrenches. You might not need to get a pipe wrench, but make sure you have a wrench and a pair of channellock style pliers that can be used on 1″ fittings.
Pry bar set: not mentioned, but a cheap set of small/medium/large pry bars from an auto parts store is useful for many applications.
Electrical: Even if you try to avoid it, you will eventually have to do some electrical work. A simple voltmeter or multimeter is a must for safety when dealing with your wiring. Beyond that, there are cheap combination wire cutter/crimp/strip tools out there that are a minimum.
Laser level – cheap and indispensible.
As to the caulking gun, I really haven’t checked out a lot of the higher end models, but a couple of weeks ago we had a cheap one break during a job, and just grabbed up a Stanley model to finish, which I was surprised to find barely worked from the beginning, not sure what they were going for, or if the one we had was defective, but it wouldn’t push the material out with any consistency whatsoever. That said, I recently picked up a Work Force branded gun at the Depot, and used it extensively on a job last week. The gun seems to be better constructed, and just “beefier”, than most of the lower price guns I have seen, and I expect it to last quite some time, price was around $12.00.
Newborn Brothers and Albion are the brands of caulking guns I use
Duct tape, WD-40, and (wire) coat hanger. 🙂
Kidding aside, great list Stuart! Kudos for putting the safety gear first. Most lists like this I see have them last, almost as an afterthought.
Multiple knives will generally happen quickly, same with tapes. I probably have 30 tapes, from 300′ to 3′ (yeah, I probably have a problem, but probably 15 of ’em came from Harbor Frieght as freebies.)
Like the precision/small screwdrivers. I have two sets and the one in the house that gets way more use than the one in the shop.
Most of the suggestions from others should probably be given consideration for numbers 13-24.
I am becoming a true believer in the Knipex Plier Wrench. It’s expensive but it replaces so many other tools and the quality is so good it will last as long as my 50 year old Craftsman, Cresent, and Klein Tools.
I am not much of a fan of laser levels for the homeowner. My favorite level is the Black & Decker ACCU-MARK™ Level. I wish they still made the 24 inch version. I also have a Craftsman Digital Torpedo Level that I use when I need to level something (like my cabinet saw, frig, or stove) perfectly
I have a small Knipex plier wrench and it works well. Since it is expensive, what size will you buy if you can only buy one? 6” or 12”?
Hex keys seem to be so much more common today, beyond IKEA it seems most furniture you purchase requires hex keys. When I was a kid it seemed we only used the hex key set when we were “fixing” our BMX bikes. As for the drill, I agree 12v is the way to go, I reach for my 12v almost always first. I am a big fan of both the Nextec from Craftsman and the M12 line from Milwaukee. That being said I don’t seem to drill much, so I reach for my impact driver most of the time. I often wonder “how did I live w/out an impact driver before?”
IMO, make the only utility knife worth mentioning. Forget folding, forget keeping extra blades and just buy an OLFA.
Great list Stew. I just have a couple of issues to address. First, don’t be tempted to go cheap on utility knives. A razor blade that slips in the middle of a job is no fun to deal with (nor the hospital bill). And change the blades on the utility knives often.
Don’t go cheap on the slip joint (channel lock) pliers either. Had an issue with this in the middle of a job recently, no fun.
Last issue I have is this; I used the caulking gun extensively on that job, not Blair. He was too big and too old to get into that tiny space in that attic. LOL.
Someone above made mention of a putty knife. Getting more specific about it, I really cannot describe how useful it has been to have one additional tool:
5-in-1 Painter’s Tool
This is one of the most versatile hand tools available, and great for a beginner’s (or anyone else’s) tool kit. I’ve used it to scrape, apply putty, open paint cans, pick at old window glazing, clean paint roller covers, mix small amounts of compound, etc. You can use one end as a flathead screwdriver, and the pointed end sometimes does the trick on phillips head screws in a pinch. It can be used as a wedge, door stop, and who knows what else.
My one tip is to be sure and sharpen the beveled end. This will make it much more useful as a scraper. Some also have a metal cap on the handle that can be used for light duty striking, especially in tight spots. I consider it a “must-have”.
I love my Painter’s Tool, It the tool I abuse so my chisels stand sharp and my screwdrivers drive screws. I use it more than my hammer, because likely if my hammer is in hand and not hitting a nail, my other hand is holding my 5in 1. I use has a wedge to make room for my pry bar and molding bar. I use it tiling to clean thin set from the grout lines, to pry tile in place for spacers or up to add more thin set. I use it when I need pry up staples in floors.
By the way, don’t get me wrong, I really like using “the right tool for the job”. A proper putty knife for putty, a proper screwdriver for driving screws, etc. But if you’re in a bind, you’ll be amazed at how handy that 5-in-1 tool can be!
Thanks for the suggestion! I probably wouldn’t have considered a 5-in-1 putty knife if you hadn’t mentioned it, but it does seem to be a logical add-on. I find razor scrapers to be extremely handy as well, but often use them far less than I do regular utility knives. The scraper on a multi-putty tool would probably suffice for most applications as you said.
One more electric tool. A Hand Grinder. VERY useful. You can cut metal, saw brick or concrete, remove mortar, and accurately cut tile. The blades are inexpensive and swap out easily. Indespensible for the DIYer.
How did noone mention a basic metric/standard socket/ratchet set?
This is absoluetly an essential tool IMO.
It’s kind of up there in #7 with wrenches. A lot of times beginners don’t often use ratchets and sockets enough to place them in the top 12. They do come in handy, but I would consider a socket set a sort of home essentials 102 type of tool. Still, they’re definitely among the very next tools a DIYer/homeowner should buy, maybe #14 if adding to the above list.
Sockets, to me, are more pivotal than some of the other tools considered. If you are doing any work on anything mechanical you absolutely have to have a good socket set.
Well I guess it depends on the work being planned.
I would imagine a Tape, Claw hammer, 2 0r 4 pound hammer, Spirit level, Wood chisels, a few screw drivers, square, (or builders square).
As the work/job progresses, a wood plane, electric drill, The list can go on for ‘ever’ .. As I said it depends of the job to be done.
Anyway good luck.
I would have recommended an impact driver as number one. With very little ingenuity it can be used as a socket wrench, drill, hole saw, right angle drill, flashlight (depending on the model), hex/screw driver, even a drink mixer. Purchasing a Dewalt Lithium-Ion XRP Impact Driver a little over a year ago has changed my life… quite literally. There are so many useful attachments available that it nearly makes a cordless drill obsolete, corded as well if you’ve got two batteries which charge in less than an hour and take well over that to run down (excellent benefit of Lithium Ion, no gradual power loss). There’s not a tool in my shop that I use more than my impact.
As a DIY homeowner I’ve owned the following long before I ever owned a hammer drill, angle grinder or 3/8″ drive ratchet and socket set. But really the order of tool acquisition depends on the current state of home, car, bank account and/or your marriage 🙂
square and round nose shovels
hand garden spade
bow and leaf rake
extension ladder and step ladder or multi-ladder
bucket (add a bucket bag and you have a toolbag AND a bucket)
floor jack and jack stands
oil filter wrench
6″ drywall knife
paintbrushes and rollers
vise with anvil
Fantastic list. I know because I bought each type of tool when I eventually needed it. The only amendments I would make would be to suggest any type of good drills either corded or cordless as I feel a typical homeowner wouldnt need to spend extra for a cordless drill since they will seldom be used and the extra cost becomes unjustifiable. It also becomes an issue if the batteries are not used enough and are left unused for a very long period of time and eventually die out from not being used, this is true for lithium ion except the self discharge is longer. Im not saying we should only promote corded drills for home owners & diy’s, I feel it should have been added to the list along with the cordless option. Also I dont see the need for ear protection as infrequent use of loud power tools should be ok.
I feel a level is a must have since way back in the day before I was serious about tools I still needed a level to correctly position a picture on the wall and everyone hangs pictures. Also a good extension cord is a good candidate for the list as they are always usefull. Also a good stepladder comes in very handy around the house.
Downsizing TODAY…all great suggestions…THANKS…They helped