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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?