4 modern tools that changed the DIY game

Kyle Smith

The tools of the automotive trade have remained fairly basic for more do-it-yourself types. Wrenches, hammers, saws, screwdrivers, and a few offshoot variations thereof. How those tools are used and what they are used on has certainly evolved, but for the most part, modern technology has mainly focused on specializing those core tool designs rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.

But every so often, there’s a leap in technology that grows to redefine what we garage dwellers are capable of. Not only have prices of tools reached what feels like an all-time low, but some new materials and processes have also come forth and given us the ability to do work better, faster, or safer than ever—all without needing to be a professional with a full shop.

Induction heater

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Heat is a superpower for DIY folks. The more methods at your disposal to add heat to parts and pieces, the better chance you have of never dealing with broken or mangled hardware. The only option used to be heat guns or open flames, but then induction heaters came onto the scene.

The heart of the system is a small controller and a coil of wire. The controller sends a current through the coil and that current creates an electromagnetic field that has the power to heat ferrous metals to red-hot temperatures very quickly and with great precision. No open flame, no heat outside the coil, and safe to touch shortly after heating. It makes for the perfect tight-space solution to heat corroded hardware. The price is still a bit of an investment for most, but this is very much a buy once, cry once tool, as there are no tanks to refill like an oxy-acetylene or propane torch. Just keep in mind that this magical apparatus won’t work on aluminum (or any other non-magnetic) hardware.

Electric Impact wrenches

Impact wrenches have been around for decades, but the compact and powerful modern electric versions are a downright luxury compared to the air hog anchors of years past. No more compressor, air line, or lack of adjustability. These days we have the ability to pick whichever tool brand we prefer and buy a kit with an impact wrench and driver that covers the vast majority of DIY needs.

A 1/2″ impact is lightweight and packable, and some can hit harder than the air impacts of just 10 years ago. Ensuring a battery is charged pales in comparison to the upkeep of a compressor and air lines in a shop, and that’s before you talk cost. Electric impacts make disassembly a breeze and are all but a staple of any home shop these days.

Ultrasonic cleaners

ultrasonic cleaner with motorcycle case half inside
Kyle Smith

While not required to keep vintage cars and trucks running, effectively cleaning parts is critical to restoration efforts. Ultrasonic cleaners have dropped in price to the point where it finally makes sense for home shops to dedicate space on the workbench for one. I am a recent convert to the ultrasonic world and while there is a learning curve, it is fairly mellow and the tools enable passive cleaning which gives me time to do the tasks in the garage I actually enjoy rather than running copper wire through another carburetor passageway.

This is because ultrasonic cleaners are great for cleaning impossible-to-reach passageways thanks to the way the ultrasonic waves cause bubbles to form and burst on the surface of parts and pieces inside the tub. It creates a light scrubbing action that breaks up deposits and junk. Combined with the right cleaning solution, it is possible to pull nearly ready-to-reassemble parts right from your ultrasonic cleaner.

Insert machine tooling

Davin turning bearing press in lathe
Kyle Smith

While most of us lust after having the fabrication superpowers of a knee mill or a lathe in our shop, the footprint and power demands often leave us wanting. Beyond just having the big tool is the need for the skills and tooling to actually complete the processes and create the ideas we have in our heads. That used to mean having the skills and tools to grind your own cutters and tooling, but thanks to affordable insert tooling, it has never been easier to run a mill or lathe in a home shop. Yes, carbide insert tooling really doesn’t show its benefits until it is being run at production speeds and feeds, but it makes for easier setup and roughly the same finished product for most home machinists. This has opened a door for a safer and easier gateway into machining.





Check out the Hagerty Media homepage so you don’t miss a single story, or better yet, bookmark it. To get our best stories delivered right to your inbox, subscribe to our newsletters.

Click below for more about
Read next Up next: 95 years ago, Galvin began building the first affordable in-car radio


    I have always steered clear of the electric impact tools. I have the pneumatic versions, and they come out when the situation calls for it, but I see a lot of folks picking up those very handy electric impacts and using them in situations where a little more finesse is generally warranted. I hand-wrench 90 percent of my work (probably more) and this avoids a lot of stripped and broken fasteners and overtorqued gaskets

    Agreed, TG. I sometimes use an electric drill (not an impact) to run things up snug if there are a lot of them to do, and then torque by hand – and reverse that process when disassembling – but a long breaker bar gets grabbed by me more often than even the air impact I own.
    To me, the “modern” tool that’s been the biggest boon in my workshop has been the multi-meter. The ones nowadays can tell me so much that I either had no tool for – or needed 4-5 different bulky and cumbersome items to find out what I can just turn a dial or move a switch to learn now. Plus, it just requires a 9v battery and fits in a shirt pocket!

    I would have to say mine is my 110v MIG welder. Probably a bit beyond basic in most books, but the amount of use I have gotten out of that thing is phenomenal

    Agreed. Bought one years ago to work on the frame on my Spitfire. Got a couple of quotes for the work that were higher than the welder so I figured out how to weld. Worked out well and I have welded all sorts of stuff. Only complaint is it really won’t weld thin metal real well but if you are patient and tack, tack, tack, tack and grind, grind grind…..you can get there.

    110V mig welder is sooooo handy, agree completely! Also, a powder coating gun is the cats meow. You can do so many colors & effects that is very durable. Gun and old kitchen oven are all you need.

    I threw my pneumatics away. If you’re worried about overtorque, use the torque limiting extensions protect from that. Easily found on Amazon and sometimes at Home Depot and far better than dragging a heavy tool and an air line around.

    Air impact wrenches are infinitely more effective at removing stubborn fasteners than lithium-ion. Not only are they quicker, easier and longer-lasting, but even my tiny Ingersoll-Rand 3/8” drive 2115Ti can out-muscle any 1/2” drive lithium-ion. My 1/2” drive 2125Ti is only used to remove larger fasteners like the 22mm lug nuts on my SUV, drive axles and others over 19mm.

    Compressed air is the ultimate game changer. Besides inflating tires, it drives my pneumatic one-man brake bleeder, air hammer, die grinder and air ratchets.

    Throwing all this away would be a big mistake.

    Don’t buy cheap torque limiting extensions. They’re not accurate nor precise. You’ll break stuff that’s not cheap. Use a real torque wrench- mine is a twist set handle Craftsman I got as a gift in 1973. I send it to be calibrated every other year, never let me down.

    You won’t ever talk me out of believing that my DeWalt 1/2″ 20v impact driver isn’t one of the best tool purchases I’ve ever made. First, it’s completely adjustable for torque. Second, it’s very portable and lightweight. It makes switching between 5 street tires and 5 off-road tires a pretty easy process. The icing on the cake is that I can then put it in the back and if I get a flat while off-road, I don’t need to mess around with less-than-optimal tire irons included in the factory tool kit. Those lack the leverage needed for sufficient torque and often don’t seat squarely or stay seated squarely, so they can round off a lug nut.

    I only use air tools for removing stubborn bolts like lug nuts and snugging them up. I still use my torque wrench. I don’t like oxyacetylene but have used my torches on occasion. I use my TIG welder ( thanks brother in law and sisters). I also use my lathe and mill when I want to.
    Electric tools are nice but I don’t use them enough to buy them. I would rather do the job with my hand tools. Much safer that way.

    Good list since I had not even heard of the induction heater . One tool I have found invaluable that has little to do with cars is the electric power hammer by Craftsman and now only available from Skil . Trust me having that one hand hammer power high up on a ladder is good to have .

    Maybe not so modern, but about 10-12 years ago I happened to be at the Big Blue store on evening towards the end of the year. I guess they were getting ready to do an end of the year inventory and were marking down discontinued models of all sorts of tools and I got a decent Campbel Huasfield (sp????) compressor for about half the regular price. Up until then I had a small pancake compressor that worked OK to blow crud out and really small paint jobs, but not much more. I was able to get the 240 wiring into the garage for a small cost so now I have pretty good compressor that will do just about any job. Way back when I started working on cars nobody had a compressor unless you had access to a service station.

    Kyle – You-Tube is hands down the number one tool for the DIYer. It is pure magic to watch someone else do the work that you are about to attempt on your own. Everything from having the exact right tools at hand, to watching others do things correctly, as well as incorrectly, has enabled me to take on far more DIY work than I ever would have attempted, but for You-Tube.

    CaptainR, right on. Not only in the garage, but it has helped me repair our refrigerator, microwave, dishwasher, and washing machine. These home appliances are less than 7 years old! Don’t make them like they used to.

    TG says, “……..I see a lot of folks picking up those very handy electric impacts and using them in situations where a little more finesse is generally warranted.”

    Agreed. My impact wrenches are great for wheel and suspension type work but misused you can do a lot of damage. Same with drills and power screwdrivers.

    When working on aircraft, I’ve seen a lot of people use cordless drills on inspection covers, etc. This often results in stripped or spun fasteners. I usually use my Snap-On ratcheting screwdriver. My late father’s (A&P, IA, Engineer, erstwhile Piasecki / Boeing Vertol guy, and Airline Maintenance Supervisor) weapon of choice was a classic Proto palm-knob “speed handle” with an Apex bit adapter that usually had a magnetic No. 2 Phillips bit. Old-school, to be sure. Gets the job done, and quickly. Still have it, and still use it from time to time.

    On the subject of game-changers, let’s not forget the “chem-tools” we have now. Brake Cleaner is a must have in the shop (I hear you can even use it on brakes!), DeoxIT and contact cleaners, carb and choke cleaners, penetrating oils, Loctite, JB Weld type products, etc., and the list goes on……..seems like we have more choices than just a few years ago, and in most cases the stuff isn’t snake oil – it actually works.

    We married in 1970, and upon returning from our Honeymoon, my new wife insisted I / We go to the shop. There sat a used Kellog American Commercial Air Compressor, that she had found at a closing Gas Station Auction. Needless to say, the Air Compressor AND my Wife are still with me. Bob H

    While battery tools are nice, the one MAJOR gripe I have is that if you don’t use them a lot, like professionally, the batteries are often dead. NiCad batteries only last so long before they are no good and the tool makers keep changing the designs, discontinuing replacement batteries, making your $100+ tool worthless because having a battery rebuilt cost more than a new tool. I’ve had my air compressor for over 35 years and it never fails to start. I just gave away two battery tools that had little use because the batteries went bad, weren’t available and cost too much to have Batteries Plus rebuild them.

    All of the quality tools have moved on to Lithium ion batteries. They don’t have the memory of NiCad, tend to hold their charge much longer and last more cycles. Manufacturers have also gotten a lot better about making tool families that fit specific battery types. The reasons you mention were reasons why I avoided cordless tools for a long time.

    I’ve gotten a ton of mileage out of my compressor and it’s perfect for a set of jobs. But a few well-designed cordless tools more than earn their place as well.

    That is why I really like the Ryobi One+ family of 18V. I bought my first set in 2007. Back then they were just coming out and marketed as a true “family” of devices. They have stayed true to that commitment. I now have the lithium version of the batteries and here is an incomplete list of the tools I have that all run on the same power cells. Drill, Impact Driver, Small Circular Saw, Sawsall, Trim Router, Planer, Random Orbit Buffer, Chain Saw, String Trimmer, and Lawn Edger. BTW, some of those tools are from the original kit and still work great. Only two of the original NiCad batteries have died. These aren’t quite the “professional” grade of DeWalt and Milwaukee tools but the fact that they kept their commitment to the platform all these years and have made a good product at a great price has allowed me to build a great collection of power tools.

    Tools/Equipment…where does one leave off and the other start. Back Yard Buddy…invented and still built in Warren, Ohio has “elevated” DIY repair/restoration/storage of cars and created a total transformation and market segment. In my youth it was a hydraulic lift that was only built into the floor of the local gas station, unobtanium for 99.9% of hobbyists. Today BYB and it’s clones are a game changing tool and best equipment for us collecting hobbyists. Think of how much it benefitted the car collecting insurance business too….

    Agree with those listing You-Tube and would add mark specific forums. Taught myself how to MIG and TIG reading online forums and watching videos online. My current projects are an MGB GT restoration and a Triumph TR6. The MG Experience and Triumph experience forums have been great to get information and help others with what you know. It’s also great for research of cars you are considering to fully understand what you’re getting into. It kept me on the fence on getting a 928 and still haven’t pulled the trigger on one, and probably won’t.

    I am intrigued by the induction heater and the possibilities but disappointed that all the video shows is it being used to essentially dry paint. (I would have put the parts in the old toaster oven I had on the bench). What I don’t understand is how you would actually use the induction heater to do what you describe – loosening corroded hardware. How long does it take to get the heat down some distance into the threads, especially if it is not as hot as a torch?

    I like what you have offered ,but I still like my air tools , how many parts do you need to clean to justify the cost of the cleaner unit-a lot I would guess. I like the heating unit ,but it always seem to be the recessed bolts that don’t want to budge. I would love to have a lathe in my garage ,but cannot justify the cost . Thanks for the effort.

    I have a 1/4″ and a 1/2″ impact wrenches I have the Ryobi 1 Plus series (more than 15 distinct tools) The batteries last a long tome and since I can use them for my leaf blower, cordless wet-or-dry vac, 4″ grinder and so on. They get used a lot and will hold a charge for months sitting on the shelf. I use the 1/2″ impact to loosen things – lots easier than a breaker bar – and to snug up things when putting it back together. I always reach for my Snap-on torque wrench to do the final tightening. Makes things a lot easier, especially since I’m not nearly as strong as I was 50 years ago.

    Wouldn’t even have an impact gun if I hadn’t been trolling Craigslist a few years ago. Had to do an axle replacement on an Acura. Noticed a 1/2″ Makita 18V Lithium-ion impact gun with two 4.0A-H batteries, charger, and carrying bag for half what it would have cost elsewhere. Worked great. Like most specialty tools, I suspected I’d use it for just the one project and then it would sit. But I’ve used it for numerous other tasks, including swapping snow tires on and off 3 cars each year. Used for removal mainly, not tightening. Can’t imagine how I got along all those years without one. Picked up portable tire inflator recently that uses the same batteries. No more extension cord ridiculousness with the Chinese-made Slime unit that lasted only 2 years…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *