17 Must-Have Tools for Any Project

A tool bag full of tools.

The true "must have" tool that all homeowners need for any job around the home is a toolbox. But, naturally, the toolbox by itself won’t help fix the leaking faucet or hang a picture. It will, however, hold all the tools you need to do that job and make sure they're right there when you start working.

Without that toolbox, your tools will end up scattered all around your basement, garage, and maybe in the trunk of your car. You'll be so frustrated by the time you find the tools you need that you won't have the energy to start the project.

The term "toolbox" might be slightly inappropriate. The most versatile and handy toolbox is a canvas bag designed to fit over a 5-gallon bucket. It has lots of pockets to keep your tools organized; plus it's light, inexpensive, and won't mark or scratch your floors. Here is what should be in that toolbox/bucket.

Essential Tools for a Homeowner

Here's a list of the basics that should be in any home toolbox. All together, these tools shouldn't cost you more than $250, and if you buy a good-quality set(many home stores sell hand tools that have lifetime guarantees) most of them will be with you for the rest of your life.

  • Hammer - A 16-ounce hammer with a curved claw for pulling nails. Wooden handles are fine, but a fiberglass handle will help to cushion the shock of driving nails. Look for "drop forged" on the hammer head. (Drop forging is a more expensive process for making steel tools, but a tool that has been drop forged rather than cast will be stronger and last longer.)
  • Tape measure - 25-foot tape measure is your best size choice. It's still small enough to be easily held in one hand, but will allow you to measure almost any room from wall to wall. Be sure the tape has clear contrasting markings and is broad and strong enough that it won't droop when it's extended.
  • Screwdrivers - You can start out with a single screwdriver with interchangeable bits that will do for most jobs around the house. If you're going to be working on bigger projects, however, you will likely want to get a set of screwdrivers. Inclusive sets that contain an assortment of heads (slotted, Phillips, and square) are readily available.
  • Level - A small 9-inch torpedo level (named because of its curved ends) will allow you to make sure that whatever you put up is straight and of course, level.
  • Pliers - Often available in sets of three that include needle nose, wire cutting, and small slip joint. The needle noses are amazingly useful for getting into narrow spaces and a necessity for doing any wiring work. The wire cutters will not only cut wire, but they can double as wire strippers.
  • Locking pliers - Often called vise grips, the jaws are adjustable and literally lock on to anything that needs to be kept stable. Can also be quite helpful in persuading stiff bolts to turn. You can often use locking pliers instead of an adjustable (Crescent) wrench and minimize your investment in tools.
  • Pry bar - In most cases, an 8 to 12-inch pry bar (sometimes called a cat's paw) will be all you need for pulling nails or removing moldings. If you're going to be doing any demolition work, a larger pry bar will make the job go much easier.
  • Utility knife - With retractable and replaceable blades, it's safer to use than an ordinary knife (since you can retract the blade when it's not in use), and the replaceable blades mean it's always sharp. Great for cutting flooring, plastic, or just to sharpen a pencil.
  • Handsaw - Small (12 to 15-inch) handsaws will cut wood quickly and are a good choice for folks who are concerned about the safety of a power circular saw.
  • Combination square - Allows you to measure and mark on a 90 or 45 degree angle. Can also be used as a depth gauge, marking gauge, and height gauge.

Power drill - A 3'8" reversible power drill is essential in any toolbox. They're not just good for drilling holes, they can also be used as a power screwdriver. Corded drills never run out of power and they're lighter than a cordless model. However, cordless drills are more versatile and often easier to get to a job site (like at the top of a ladder). Don't forget to get yourself a set of various sized drill bits as well.

Safety glasses - An absolute necessity to prevent eye injuries.

In addition to these essentials, there are a number of "nice to haves" that you'll need to add to your assortment depending on the projects you're working on.

Non-Essential Tools for a Homeowner

  • Electrical tester - You can get a meter for around $10 but then you've got to figure out how to operate it. A good alternative is a tester with probes and a light that turns on when there is current. Use it before you work on any electrical circuit to be sure there's no current.
  • Chalk line - Really helps when cutting large sheets of plywood or laying flooring.
  • Stud finder - If you're hanging shelves, you want to be sure to mount them on studs.
  • Random orbital sander - If you're going to be finishing (or refinishing) a woodworking project, you'll want to invest in a sander.
  • Circular saw - If you're going to be taking on a building project of any size, you'll find a circular saw is virtually a necessity.

So, there you go. The "must have" tools for any project as well as the basic tools you need to start on your home projects.