Updated on 02.26.16

The Basic Toolbox Everyone Needs to Handle Simple DIY Tasks at Home

Trent Hamm

Do-it-yourselfers should have these essential tools on hand, including 'the dirty dozen' and more.

When we first moved into our house, the only tool I owned was a Leatherman Wave multitool that I kept in my pocket. Honestly, it took care of everything that I had ever needed around our rental apartment. If there were any real repair tasks to be done, I simply called up Mark – our landlord – and he took care of it.

It didn’t take long for us to see the usefulness of having some tools around the house. Within a month of moving into our home, I found myself constantly wanting to fix little things around the house. We discovered that one of the faucets was really leaky, for example. We wanted to hang some pictures. We wanted to install some shelving. Our toilet ran into some difficulties.

Of course, we could have called for help on these situations. It’s easy to find a handyman or an electrician or a plumber who will come to your house, charge you an arm and a leg, and fix the problem for you.

But if you do that, not only are you shelling out a lot of cash, you’re operating on their timeline. You have to wait around for them to show up, wait around while they fix the problem, and then pay their exorbitant bill. Most of the time, the wait for repairpeople is far longer than simply tackling the tasks yourself.

So, we decided to start tackling these tasks ourselves, and slowly, over time, we began to accumulate tools as we tackled these projects.

Since then, Sarah and I worked on countless little home improvement projects. Sarah and I have repaired countless hinges, hung countless pictures, installed shelves, fixed toilets, installed faucets, and many other things.

At first, we were very prone to simply buying every tool that was called for in the instructions for a task. After all, we learned most of our home maintenance and repair and DIY skills from books and from YouTube.

It wasn’t long before we realized that most tasks kept calling for the same things over and over again. Hammers. Screwdrivers. Drills. Tape measures. Levels. Wrenches.

After almost a decade as a homeowner, I now have a very firm grasp on what tools I actually use on a regular basis and which ones I rarely use and should borrow instead of buying.

Here’s our guide to a great toolbox for new homeowners who want to do basic home repairs and minor home improvement projects.

The Two Basic Rules

Our tool selection follows two basic rules.

Rule #1: Only buy a tool if you need it for the project you’re working on and you can legitimately see future uses for this tool. Otherwise, borrow the tool from a friend or neighbor if at all possible. The list presented here consists of tools that we have used for many different projects over the years. We also own a lot of tools that we only used once or twice – those aren’t listed.

Rule #2: Buy cheap versions of tools and use that until you can clearly understand and need any benefits that come from the more expensive versions. Get the cheapest version of the item you can find. For most of these tools, the cheap version works perfectly well for most uses, plus it’s not a major issue if you inevitably misplace a screwdriver and need to get another one. Even now, after 10 years of home improvement projects of all sizes, I rarely splurge for the expensive version of an item unless I know precisely what advantages it has over the entry level one in terms of actually using it.

The Dirty Dozen

Here are 12 items that I would encourage every homeowner to have in their home. You are going to find countless uses for these items. In fact, if there are any items you’re going to consider owning in duplicate, it should be the items on this list.

Vise grips, otherwise known as locking pliers, are a set of otherwise ordinary pliers that can be locked into a particular position. This can make them extremely useful in some situations, such as when you’re trying to remove a rusty bolt or when you need a small clamp to hold something in place as you’re working on it. I’ve used vise grips to remove license plates, to serve as a temporary sink faucet, to hold items in place as I’ve cut them, and many other uses.

WD-40 is simply amazing at helping to loosen up tight or rusty bolts or “unfreeze” a bicycle chain or a tight hinge. I keep a can of this in my toolbox at all times, as I find myself often reaching for it when something is tight or rusty and needs to be removed.

A multitool, like a Leatherman Wave, is all that I needed for very small DIY tasks when I lived in an apartment, and I still often grab one these days for little things like opening a single screw or a quick use of a file or something. These tools individually aren’t great, but such a device has a lot of tools in one compact place, making it very convenient.

A roll of duct tape comes in handy for situations where you need to hold something in place temporarily or seal a very minor air leak. It isn’t meant for a permanent fix, but it is incredibly good at providing temporary fixes for all kinds of things, reducing something that’s incredibly urgent to something that you can figure out and solve in due time.

A 16-ounce claw hammer is perfect for hammering and removing nails of all sizes. This is an intermediate-sized claw hammer, which means that it works well for a wide variety of situations. The claw on the hammer has other uses as well, such as removing the lid from a paint can.

A tape measure is a vital tool for measuring dimensions of rooms for designing layouts, figuring out shelving, determining the size of a piece of furniture, and so on. I’m constantly using a tape measure for all kinds of measurements around the house.

Five screwdrivers are needed for different-sized screws. If you have the wrong size of screwdriver, you run the risk of stripping a screw, making it much harder to ever remove it or even finish screwing it in. I recommend three Phillips head screwdrivers – a small, a medium, and a large – along with two regular flat-head screwdrivers. I am not a big fan of screwdrivers with replaceable heads, for various reasons, but they work well for some.

A pocket screwdriver set enables you to take on tiny screws, such as the ones found in eyeglasses or on the battery packs of many electronic devices (particularly children’s toys). They’re also useful for taking things apart to figure out if they can be repaired or salvaged.

If you have these 12 tools, you’ll be ready to tackle many, many little tasks around the house.

toolbox

A hammer, tape measure, and screwdrivers are among the most basic items for your DIY toolbox. Photo: House & Hammer

The Next Step

The “dirty dozen” covers the 12 tools I use most often around the house. I use those items at least monthly and often weekly or even more often than that.

Still, that list doesn’t cover the tools that I find useful to have on hand. The tools listed here are items that I don’t use quite as often as the “dirty dozen,” but they see more than enough annual use to have made their purchase well worth it.

An actual toolbox is the first thing that’s well worth picking up. There are infinite varieties of toolboxes. Honestly, the toolbox I purchased was of the yard sale variety, where someone was selling what seemed to be a practically new empty toolbox at a very low price. I recommend going simple with this one, and not overly large, either. You want one that’s big enough to keep the essentials in, but not so big that it’s cumbersome to carry around.

Additional screwdrivers are a great addition to a tool collection. As I mentioned above, having the right sized screwdriver is absolutely vital to avoid stripping screws, so having several different sizes of screwdrivers is never a bad option. In fact, I suggest getting an inexpensive screwdriver set that offers lots of different-sized regular and Phillips-head screwdrivers.

Additional pliers beyond that first pair of vise grips is another good idea. Pliers are very useful at bending small pieces of metal, loosening and tightening bolts, twisting wire, gripping round things (like a skinny pipe), and countless other little purposes. I find them to be great for leverage, enabling me to hold things in place when I don’t want them to move or to enable me to apply additional force in a tight spot. I’d suggest getting a pair of regular pliers as well as a pair of needlenose pliers.

A 10-ounce claw hammer is a really handy supplement to the larger, 16-ounce claw hammer mentioned above. I use the smaller claw hammer for small tasks – hanging small framed pictures, removing tiny nails, and so on.

A crescent wrench is simply an adjustable wrench that’s perfect for latching on to tight bolts of various sizes. You simply adjust the wrench to the size you need, minimizing the need for a full set of wrenches. Rather than carrying around a bunch of wrenches of various sizes, I usually just carry around a medium-sized crescent wrench and use it for all kinds of jobs.

A level enables you to very easily check that items that you’re installing in your home are level. I’ve used levels to make sure that picture frames are even, that shelves are truly horizontal, that refrigerators are properly adjusted, and many other little tasks over the years. A medium-sized one works well for most jobs, though I also have a very short one, too.

An Allen wrench set is absolutely vital for certain types of screws and nuts which have an Allen head on them. These often come in furniture or shelving kits. However, I’ve opened many different kits only to find that there was no wrench in the box. Also, having a set with a variety of sizes enables you to not worry about keeping the wrench that comes with the kit; you can just use your own wrench set for future modifications as needed.

A stud finder is really useful when hanging stuff in your home. Whenever you hang wall-mounted shelving, heavier pictures, shelf anchors, or other things, you’re going to want to install these into the sturdy boards behind the drywall, and that’s what a stud finder does. I find that I can’t really rely on the “tapping” technique to accurately find the studs, regardless of how careful I am.

A flashlight is something that I try to keep in almost every room in the house, but I keep a small bright LED flashlight in my toolbox. There are many situations where I am working in an area that isn’t particularly well-lit and a flashlight is vital in those situations.

A drill is absolutely vital for significant tasks like installing shelves, putting together furniture, installing hinges, and so on. I prefer corded drills, as cordless drills tend to run out of batteries in the middle of tasks and often don’t generate enough power to finish the job.

A hacksaw and/or a crosscut saw can be avery useful addition to your toolset. A crosscut saw is preferred for cutting through wood, while a hacksaw is best for cutting through metal. I generally find more use for a crosscut saw in the things I work on around the house, as I’m most often dealing with pieces of wood rather than pieces of metal.

A pipe wrench can be absolutely vital when working on repairing a faucet or a toilet or replacing a pipe. A pipe wrench is designed to help you loosen or tighten a pipe, as the head is designed to grab ahold of a pipe fitting perfectly.

Wood glue will help you make small repairs to wooden objects, such as picture frames, shelves, and so on. It’s perfect for all kinds of small woodworking projects. I’m not an extensive woodworker by any means, but I find regular use for wood glue.

A mechanical pencil is absolutely perfect for making marks on the wall or on a piece of wood as you’re working on a project. I keep one in my toolbox so I’ll always have one on hand when I need it.

This actually covers the content of my regular toolbox and the tools hanging from our garage pegboard that I use with any regularity. We have a variety of other tools in our garage that are rarely used – honestly, I should have tried to borrow them first or find another solution.

Tool Kits

If you’re just getting started, you’ll probably find that many of the above items can be bought together in one package by buying a tool kit from Amazon or a hardware store. There are usually a pretty good bargain compared to buying tools individually, especially for someone just getting started with doing it yourself.

Often, the tools in an introductory tool kit are on the lower end of the quality spectrum, but as I mentioned above, this is perfectly in line with my two rules of buying tools.

It’s important to remember that no kit is going to line up perfectly with this list. Different tool manufacturers select different tools for their tool kits for various reasons. What you’re looking for is a tool kit that largely matches up with this list.

Which one should you get? Honestly, get the one that’s on sale. Watch your department store and hardware store flyers for tool kits that are on sale and pick up one that matches the items you find on this list. That’s the perfect tool set for you – very economically priced with a variety of items in it.

You can also look for tool sets at garage sales and yard sales. I sometimes see tool sets and toolboxes at garage sales for very reasonable prices, often due to a homeowner getting rid of redundant tools.

The Bottomless Pit of Tool Spending

One major challenge when it comes to tools and smaller DIY projects is that buying tools can sometimes be a bottomless pit of spending. You’ll realize pretty quickly that there is a perfect tool for every job, but for many of those jobs the tool in question only has that single use and it’s often expensive.

Now, if you do that one job over and over again, that tool is probably worthwhile, but most homeowners aren’t doing specialty tasks several times a day. Homeowners do a wide variety of relatively simple and straightforward tasks, tasks that require a fairly small array of tools (most of which are listed above).

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you do need a specialty tool, don’t just run to the hardware store and buy one. Instead, put out a call on social media and among your friends for that item. See if anyone already has one and can lend one to you. And, of course, be open to lending out your own tools as well.

Using your social network to keep your spending at bay on irregular use items like tools is a powerful way to save money. I’m absolutely in favor of people having their own basic tools, like the ones listed here, but check your social network for other tools that you may need.

Final Thoughts

I find myself using the tools on this list far more than I would have ever expected back in the day when I lived in an apartment. Back then, my pocket Leatherman took care of all of the minor needs that I had. It took care of lots of minor tasks – hanging paintings in drywall and so forth.

When you become a homeowner, though, many of the tasks left to the landlord now become yours. You also have free reign to make permanent changes to your home by adding shelves, repainting, replacing fixtures, and so on.

Even if you think you’ll never do these things, the truth is that you’ll probably end up doing them far more than you expect. I certainly did. I found myself taking on projects that I would have never believed several years ago. I’ve hung shelves. I’ve repaired – and even replaced – toilets. I’ve replaced sink faucets. I’ve drained hot water heaters. I’ve repaired drywall. The list goes on and on and on and on.

The truth is that almost all of these tasks were handled by the items on the list above. The few that required more tools could have (and should have) been borrowed from friends, though I ended up buying additional tools here and there that now largely gather dust.

If you start with “the dirty dozen” and then slowly add to this list over time, you’ll find that it’s not really all that expensive, either. A good tool set – bought on sale or from a yard sale – will help you acquire most of these tools very quickly.

Then you’ll be well on your way to handling all kinds of minor home improvement projects all by yourself without any need to call an expensive specialist in. You’ll also be able to do these things on your own time and on your own terms instead of waiting around for a slot in that specialist’s schedule to take care of your issues.

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