We’ve all been there: twenty feet up a ladder or contorted under a kitchen sink only to realize that you’ve left the one tool you need on the ground or up on the countertop. Before long you’re using a screwdriver as a pry bar or the butt end of a chisel as a hammer, celebrating your ingenuity while trying not to feel too guilty about it at the same time.
If you’ve never worked in the trades, chances are probably pretty good that you’ve never been lambasted for tool abuse before coworker and homeowner alike. I can promise you that as a young helper or carpenter it’s not something one soon forgets. When I was younger it struck me as an eccentricity most bosses held in common, but I eventually came to realize that there are some legitimate elements at the core of this popular tradesman’s pet peeve. First, tools are engineered to perform specific tasks. Now it seems that asking a tool to go outside its comfort zone seems akin to your high school track coach saying, "Nice job on that relay – now how 'bout we go to the top of those bleachers and see if you're any good at flying."
I’m not suggesting that every misused tool will end in bone-splitting, blood-letting disaster, but yes, occasionally ugly (and typically preventable) accidents do happen as a result of using the wrong tool for the job. Aside from the mild to moderate risk of personal injury, misused tools typically sustain some sort of damage as a result of their misuse and consequently end up being less effective at their intended function.
So what does using the right tool for the job look like? Below are a few scenarios any DIYer might encounter and some friendly suggestions on what “the right tool for the job” might look like.
- Chop/Miter Saw: For precision cutting (to length) anything from a 2x8 to a piece of crown moulding. Will typically cut angles to 45 degrees, and sometimes to 60 degrees.
- Circular Saw: Typically best for rough cutting framing and sheathing (e.g. dimensional lumber and plywood).
- Table Saw: For precision cutting or "ripping" material to width.
- Jig Saw: For cutting curves or intricate cutouts.
- All-In-One Driver Kit: Will typically include a ratcheting driver and a whole universe of driver bits. Spring for a kit that includes Philips, slotted, square, Torx, and hex head. When you encounter some sort of crazy screw that needs to be driven or removed, you’ll be glad you did.
- Adjustable Wrench: For tightening or loosening nuts and bolts of varying sizes. Commonly known as a Crescent wrench (a trade name) or C-wrench.
- Hammer: There are dozens of different types of hammers on the market, all intended for different uses. For most typical DIY projects you’ll only need one of three hammers. For trim and finish applications, you will want a 16 or 18-ounce clawed hammer. For framing applications, you will want something in the 18 to 26-ounce range. For demolition, a mini-sledge or "lump" hammer is the way to go, although I think you'd be hard-pressed to find any contractor who would yell at you for using your framing hammer for demolition as well.
- Tape Measure: In a forty-hour week I might extend my 35-foot tape measure past the 20-foot mark once or twice. For your DIY home tool kit, I’d recommend a good 16-inch tape measure. It's lighter, more compact, and less cumbersome for most common home projects.
- Chisels: Consider keeping a few sharp wood chisels of varying sizes (between 1/4 and 1-inch) on hand, as well as a masonry chisel, in case you find yourself needing to chisel some concrete, brick, or mortar. And for Pete's sake, please don't use your wood chisels as concrete chisels (see above notes on safety and damaged tools).
- Torpedo level: Good, compact level suitable for leveling small accessories like picture frames and towel bars.
- Pry Bar: The pry bar you decide to use will ultimately depend on what you intend to be prying with it. If you’ll be removing moulding with the intention of re-using it, go for a small flat bar. Big demolition project? You're probably going to want a wrecking bar on hand.
- Pliers: For gripping pretty much anything, from a nut to a stripped out screw, to a nail you’re just trying to start without bashing your fingers.
Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
This is by no means a comprehensive list of every tool you should have in your home toolkit, nor do you need to go out and buy it all at once. Take it on a project-by-project basis – it's the most economical way to amass a collection of the "right" tools. Don't think you'll ever have to use a tile saw ever again, but still want to use the right tool to cut your bathroom tile? Consider renting one from your local big-box hardware store. And if you're ever in doubt as to what the right tool for your particular project might be, put it to the staff in the tool department. Most times they’ll be able to point you in the right direction. Just remember, people don't fly and screwdrivers don't pry – stay safe out there!