One of mankind’s distinctives from the animal world is in our use of tools. While other creatures may make use of twigs to fish insects out of cavities, or crack shellfish by banging them with stones, only man has exercised his mind and used tools to make so many things possible. The history of tool making is a fascinating study in itself, as our parents have progressed from the simple to the complex. Today it’s quite possible for a person of modest means to have a hobby woodshop or machine shop with astonishing capabilities.
But what about most of us who just want the tools to take care of minor repairs or to do simple projects? Maybe we’d like a basic kit for our apartment, house, or RV. Maybe you’re thinking about a box or bag or bucket of tools to throw in your vehicle to get you through most needs during an evacuation and the following events.
This discussion is based on my experiences over forty years plus, including various construction trades, farm work, and manufacturing. There’s twenty years of military service in there, half active duty and the rest in reserve components that included training as a combat engineer. We’ve owned several homes in four states and while we still have two of them, we’ve been living in RVs for the last eight years. This list is based on the bag of tools in the back of my truck that I rely on at work and at home every day.
So while someone with a different background might differ over details, I think that this list is pretty solid. It’s followed by a shorter list of things that I think are extra helpful, though not so essential. These are all ordinary, inexpensive hand tools. And play it safe, safety glasses, gloves, etc., as needed.
- A framing hammer. “If all you have is a hammer…” Hammers are available in a surprising variety. If you’ve just got room for one, make it a heavy framing hammer. All-steel construction is the best, and a milled (dimpled) striking face is better because nail heads are less likely to slip around than when hit with a smooth face, meaning less fatigue over the course of your work. Get a hammer hook to carry it on your belt. You can drive and pull nails and staples, do light demolition, hack through things with the hook side or even the steel shaft, use the hook as a rough splitting tool, etc. I once cut a full sheet of plywood in half by chopping through it with my hammer’s shaft.
If you get a second hammer, a drywall hammer with a light hatchet side would be great. This might even be a better call if a framing hammer is too big for you. A third choice (I don’t carry it, but you might) would be a two pound baby sledge.
- A four-way screw driver. It’s really a six-way when you include the two bit driver ends with the screwdriver bits removed. I’d be surprised if you don’t already have one or two around. Quite a few different bits can be used with them, like torx and square drive. Since they’re not solid, don’t use them for anything rougher than punching holes in drywall.
- Channel-Locks. When I left active duty and consolidated the tools from two houses, two vehicles and a camper, there were ultimately eight pairs of channel-locks on the garage floor. They do a lot of general gripping and pulling and twisting while being easy to handle and adapting to the work material well. The eight-inch size seems to be the most effective for general purposes. Opened to about two inches, they also serve as an adequate bung wrench for opening or closing barrels. Plumbing repairs, working on a vehicle, and all kinds of general construction; this tool is one to keep around.
If you plan to be stringing fence or barbed wire in a hurry, then fencing pliers and maybe lineman’s pliers are the way to go. Channel-Locks won’t serve well for those tasks.
An open-end wrench, or crescent wrench, is a better tool if a lot of nuts and bolts are involved in the day’s work.
- Utility knives. The kind with the disposable blade. My best one is a cast aluminum model that was one dollar at a flea market. They also come in a folding lock-back style. The blades are more durable than you’d guess. Flip it around when it dulls, then discard it when the second end is shot. It’s kind of fiddly, but the blade can also be resharpened on a flat honing surface like the edge of a toilet tank lid. Blades are cheap and available in a number of styles.
The hooked blades used for carpet and linoleum are worth considering for skinning game. Skinning knives with disposable blades are available for hunters, if you think you’d use them. Heavy skinned animals like wild hogs are sometimes handled by cutting slits down the hide and just grabbing the strips with a pair of pliers and pulling them off. (I’m one of those people that would rather skin five deer than one hog.)
- Rough use handsaw. This kind of saw has a short blade, about two feet long, and long jagged teeth in comparison to other types. The better ones cut on both the push and pull strokes. A good saw is usually less tiring than an ax over time, except for limbing, far quieter, and cuts cleaner. Lubricating the blade with soap can make cutting easier. A hacksaw can be uniquely useful, though I’ve rarely used one. A folding saw of the type that landscapers use would be a good option. Also serves as a butchering tool with proper sanitation.
- Tape measure. Twenty-five feet is standard. Favor the plastic body over the metal as being lighter and quieter. Durability isn’t a concern because it’s the tape winding mechanism that always fails first. Get a couple of them. They’re inexpensive, but not very sturdy. The old-style folding rulers are okay for short measurements, if you can find one, but tradesmen don’t carry them anymore. What do the guys who do this every day use? That’s probably what you want.
Here’s a trick you might use sometimes: If you need to cut, say, ten inches off the end of a sheet of material or a wide board, pinch the tape measure between your fingers at that marking. That sets your distance. With you other hand, hold the blade of a knife against the hook on the end of the tape. Then just run the blade across the material as you slide your other hand along the edge with the tape measure, keeping the distance pretty consistent. Drywallers measure and score their material in the same move this way, then they just snap it off. This also works for marking material with a pencil or scratching a line with the tip of a nail. It’s obviously not as exact as using a six foot T-square and a table saw, but it’s a very practical method for rough carpentry.
- A good flashlight/camping lantern/headlamp/trouble light can dramatically shorten a delay at night or get you back on track sooner. You can’t work well if you can’t see. If you need some light, you really need it. How often does a problem occur in the corner of a dark basement or attic, or when the power is off? Some vehicle trouble lights have magnetic bases and flexible goosenecks – mighty handy. Most soldiers with a deployment or two behind them learn to swear by headlamps for that midnight potty trip. Lots of lights or a few good ones you always have with you, that’s a matter of preference.
- Needle nose pliers. Best with a wire cutter in the jaws. Hold that little item you can’t really manage with your fingers, get back into tight places, hold a nail so you don’t hammer your fingers, trim up wire and fishing line.
- Wood rasp and bastard mill file. Shape wood and metal, do general sharpening, knock down rough corners and edges, clean up some messy surfaces. These tools need to be kept clean and free from rust.
- Speed square (aka carpenter’s triangle). A right triangle in plastic or aluminum about six or eight inches on the shorter legs, though some are larger. In this case, choose aluminum for sturdiness. Layout and mark cuts whether straight or angled. Check squareness of material or layout. These also have tables for rafter framing marked on them, if you comprehend that information – I really don’t. Marking off longer distances is usually done with a chalk line.
- Torpedo level. A bubble level about eight to twelve inches long. Much more convenient than the big levels though not as exact. Keep things even and plumb as you work, get floors level or back to level, etc. Those really tiny ones are line levels, meant to be hung on your string line as you lay brick, block, or stone.
Another trick: you can make a primitive level with an equilateral triangle. Hang a pointer from one of the angles and when it crosses the midpoint of the other side, you’ve found the level. It’s also pretty simple to make a water level with an open or closed container on a straight edge. Good enough for building cathedrals and pyramids.
- Pry bar. These come in many sizes, with plain tips, angled tips, nail pullers, etc. Once they get two or three feet long, people start calling them crowbars. That’s more in the line of pioneer tools, though. You should have a small one with a nail puller. They’re inexpensive even new, as all these tools are, and using them even once to wedge something in or pry something open or rip out that one stubborn nail will make you glad that you have it. Even though the framing hammer has a nail hook, it just doesn’t seem to have the same power. If necessary, you can pound the nail puller down onto a stubborn nail with the hammer.
- A cold chisel and a wood chisel. Cold chisels are for cutting metal; get one about a half-inch wide at the tip. Wood chisels can be gotten in inexpensive sets. Just one with an inch wide tip should serve most of your needs. Sharpen the wood chisel with your file against the angled side of the tip, not the flat. Beveling both sides of the tip takes away the cleanness of the edge. Your hatchet can serve as a crude, large chisel by pounding the poll side of the head with your hammer. It’s a good way to quickly notch material or to get a saw cut started in the middle of a piece.
- Eight or ten inch pointing trowel. Lay brick and block, do a little parging, dig a small hole, work the soil a little. If you’re laying more than a small amount of masonry, you’ll need a string line too.
One recommended bonus item: A good multi-tool. I use a Leatherman Wave that I got at the Ft. Bragg PX in 2005. Mr. Leatherman’s politics might not suit you, but his tools are excellent and so is their warranty. I sent this one back when I managed to damage it – entirely my fault – and the company replaced the whole damaged side and sent it back good as new.
A multi-tool on your belt saves a lot of trips to the truck and if you’re traveling on foot it might be your only option. They are a big time saver when you need to keep several small engines running every day. And carry one on a camping trip sometime, you’ll be surprised how often you reach for it.
All of these tools together will cost around $250, new. The costliest are the Leatherman and the framing hammer, which should run around $30, new. If you pick these tools up at flea markets and yard sales, they’ll cost much less, often at a giveaway price. The value of hand tools strikes me as being far higher than their cost.
This list is admittedly an opinionated one, though based on many years of extremely varied experience. I know that someone might say: how about a socket wrench set or a vise or a blowtorch set or a multimeter or…? The plan was to provide a short affordable list of tools that would fit in a single carrier. I have socket sets in ¼”, 3/8”, and ½” and a bunch of other mechanical tools, but that’s another article better addressed by a real mechanic and not this jackleg. Pioneer tools or timber framing tools are also whole other categories, albeit fascinating from the practical engineering standpoint.
Some Other Useful Tools
As was mentioned at the start, I want to suggest a few other tools. These are things that I don’t think are essential, but might be a huge help sometime. Some are kind of costly, but again, what’s a tool worth when you really need it? These are tools that you might not think of, some I held off getting for years until I was persuaded of their value.
- Weed burner. Uses a propane bottle and a long wand to burn off weeds, clean out the garden, melt ice, soften roofing material and asphalt, etc. Keeps you at a safe distance from the work.
- Long cable ties. Quickly and conveniently bind items together, easily cut away when you’re done. I attached closet rods to the ceiling of a utility trailer with them and turned it into a walk-in closet.
- Spray lubricant/penetrant. There are many kinds that can be a real help in getting things working. White lithium is excellent.
- Strap wrench. About fifteen dollars. Lets you get a grip on all kinds of awkward items. Serves as a substitute pipe wrench at much less weight and bulk.
- Come-along (aka power-puller), it’s a ratchet set in a frame with a standing end or anchor, and a running end that pulls in as you pump a handle. Get an old furnace or water heater out of the basement and put a new one in. Pull your truck out of a patch of sand or get that ridgepole up onto the kingposts. A two or three ton capacity unit should run about sixty dollars new. Don’t expect these to turn up used too often.
A block and tackle or pulley set is an even more old-style way of pulling or lifting things. If you’re into field engineering, there’s the Spanish windlass too…
- Farm jack (aka Hi-Lift or sheepherder jack). Popular with the four-wheeler set, also popular with farmers. I recently used mine to raise a slide out on the fifth wheel to do some repairs. This can also be turned to make a huge bar clamp. It could serve as a slow come-along in a pinch. They come in different sizes; 48” seems to be the most popular. These tools require care in their use to avoid unstable situations.
- Limb loppers. Even if you don’t have a hedge, these would help clear a shooting lane for hunting or defense or let you quickly and silently gather branches for camouflage or firewood.
- Folding ladder. There are several makes and styles. Most let you fold the ladder into halves or quarters and adjust the sections in different ways. Seeing them on infomercials, I always though they looked stupid. When an insurance adjuster pulled up at my two-story house in a compact car after there had been some tornado damage, I thought, how does he plan to get up on my roof? Out came a folding ladder and away this gentleman went. Got one of my own a couple days later, now I’ve got two. Very useful for RV dwellers, folded in half it’s just the right height to work on a high-riding pickup or load the luggage rack on your vehicle’s roof. About $100.
And finally, my vote for the most generally useful power tool goes to the electric drill. Mine is a corded no-name unit that I got for about thirty dollars somewhere. Get one that’s variable speed and reverses – pretty much all of them these days. You can drill all kinds of materials: wood, metals, concrete. Drive screws with all kinds of drives or pull them back out. Stir up paint or joint compound. Put a grinding wheel on it and sharpen your lawn mower blades. Put a wire wheel or other abrasive on it and polish your work up in several ways. A cut off wheel will cut old lock shackles or those bolts sticking out of the concrete that are annoying you. I got a little water pump for mine. These accessories and probably quite a few more are available at pretty much any hardware store.
Well, that’s it. One old guy’s opinions on a tool bag you can pick up with one hand that will let you fix or build an awful lot of things.