5 tools you’ll wish you’d bought sooner

Even an affordable welder is a great asset. Kyle Smith

There are always more tools to buy, whether we need them or simply want them. Most at-home wrenchers have some version of a “man, I wish I had one of those” list, but not all medium- to high-priced tools deserve to remain on the wishlist simply because a cheaper version exists. Any tool in your shop is an investment, and putting more dollars into a purchase is sometimes wiser than holding out or scraping by.

We pulled together five of our favorite tools that, in hindsight, we would have invested in sooner.

A nice set of jack stands

Corvair on jack stands
Kyle Smith

Let’s start off with the basics: Tools that most home wrenchers already have but could likely stand to upgrade.

Jack stands are literally the only thing keeping you from becoming an uncooked organic pancake on the shop floor. Not only should you not be cheap here, you should err on the side of spendy. Jack stands can be purchased for for very little money from places that rhyme with hazard-fraught, but why subject yourself to questioning whether that wiggle was “just normal”? Buy a set of stands with more metal than the hull of the Titanic and use them religiously. It’s nearly impossible to wear them out—we implore you to try.

Drill press

drill press on bench
Even an older, bench-top drill press like this one is a nice upgrade from hand drilling everything. Kyle Smith

Space is a premium in every home shop. Dedicating some floor or bench space to a drill press can feel like wasting space, but the ability to accurately put holes in objects is invaluable. You will soon find yourself building jigs and, even if you don’t use it every day of the week, finding it more useful than you ever imagined.

We love using a drill press to start taps at a perfectly perpendicular angle by tightening the tap in the chuck and the workpiece in a vice. Use the quill to apply even and straight pressure while hand-turning the chuck (drill unplugged!) until the tap is started, then pull the workpiece and attach a tap handle to finish the job. Cheap drill presses can be just a few hundred dollars. Used, medium-duty pieces can be just under a thousand and last your entire lifetime if well maintained.

Welder

The ability to permanently join metal is a superpower. With few exceptions, you have no reason to deny this to yourself. Inverter welders have smaller footprints and friendlier prices than ever—you will likely spend more for scrap metal to practice on than you will for the welder itself. Welding can be intimidating, but an evening class at a local community college goes a long way to learn proper technique and build relationships that make advice a phone call away. A welder often provides another solution to some common problems when wrenching on old cars, like corroded or broken hardware.

As big a bench as you can afford

The floor is sometimes the only place to work, but if it becomes your go-to space for disassembly or diagnosis, you will tire of projects quickly. Mount a bench to the wall or put it on wheels to make it mobile, but build it as big as your space allows. (You will still want more space in the future, trust us.) When you do, look into adding work tops to toolboxes or other horizontal things you already have. Who says you can’t have storage and a workspace?

A quality drill index

Two ways to go about this one: Buy what you need as you need it, or buy once and be happy you aren’t making trips to the hardware store covered in grease right before closing because you need a specific bit. A quality drill index feels über expensive when popular sizes come in $5 blister packs, but those cheap bits rarely hold up to much use. Also, they often don’t contain the proper wire gauge sizes you will need if you get into any fabrication or thread repair. Sure, you can do conversions to an SAE or metric size and have it be “good enough,” but are you really going to settle? For the money, you shouldn’t.

Have an addition to this list? Leave it in a comment below.

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Comments

    Funny to have read this article after spending all day yesterday doing bench-cleaning duty. I’d just tossed some project “leavings” on two workbenches over the last couple of months, and once it became time to pull things inside for winter storage, it was evident that I needed to “find” the benchtops. So, I fired up the coffee pot, put on some tunes, and started re-organizing and putting things in their proper places. As I did, I discovered a project that I’d kind of pushed aside and covered up. So today, now that there is space on the main bench, I’ll brew another pot of java and complete that leftover task. 😏

    Building a good garage to do the work in. A good garage is a tool.

    One I use weekly and often and it saves time and work. My Master Blaster AIrforce 8 HP drying blower.

    Some folks use compressed air and leaf blowers but they really do not do a great job. My blow dryer was expensive and I hesitated to buy it. But I can dry faster with no weepers and it save time and I no longer drag a towel over the paint.

    The blaster blows hard and it will warm the air to make for fast effective drying. If you keep a good car or bike it is one of the best tools you can buy.

    I have many other good tools but non are what I use at the least once a week or multi times a week like I do the dryer.

    Great idea! I never thought about air dryers until now. It works for the drive through car washes after all, and hand drying is a pain.

    Welder and plasma cutter are definitely at the top of the list

    Benches – benches are like storage units. The more of them you have, the more you stick in/on them. I have failed to date to stay ahead of the bench race and I still have to clear stuff off to have a flat place to work

    Drill press – I got one off of a buddy who was downsizing and there are definitely things you just can’t do to appropriate quality and precision without one

    Sawzall – I don’t use it often, but when I need it, I’m glad it’s there

    Porta-band – I have a buddy who has one, so I haven’t actually pulled the trigger and bought my own – but if not I would

    as long as i can remember, finding an open flat place was always a struggle. i built a huge bench but it is always full. bought two roller chest/cabinets, one with a wood top and the other in stainless. still never an open spot. it would help to finish a project before starting another but where is the fun in that?

    Top five tools I wish I had bought sooner:

    1. Hardware (nuts and bolts) organizer – Being able to find that m8x1.0 nut in 5 seconds sure beats spending 30 minutes sorting through a box of random nuts and bolts dumped onto the floor.

    2. Headlamp (the kind you wear on your head) – Nothing I hate more than working in the dark. What a revelation to see what I’m doing!

    3. 1/2″ cordless impact – Tire rotations no longer inspire dread.

    4. A high quality, low profile floor jack – Hard to imagine anyone going back to a scissor or bottle jack once they’ve enjoyed the use of a nice floor jack.

    5. Oxo paper towel holder – Always some mess to clean up, and pulling off a paper towel with one hand is a wonderful luxury.

    “Hardware (nuts and bolts) organizer”.

    This right here. I was fortunate to stumble across a hardware store going out of business and bought their entire metric fastener section on the cheap. Racks, bins, bolts, nuts all of it. It is a godsend to be wrenching on something and have (almost) any bolt size I need within 10 paces.

    The problem with the organizer is the organizing part. I don’t know how many people I know that have organizers where every drawer has the same random assortment of hardware as the other 99 drawers

    I discovered the Noco Genius 10 battery repair/charger last week. It’s a game changer for me. It took a 2 year old battery from dead and not accepting a charge from my old fashioned charger to fully charged in a few days of “repair” and charge cycles.

    The charging part is nothing that special, except it ramps the charge voltage a lot like the tide on a beach comes in and out. Noco’s engineers must know a thing or two, as the old chargers just push at a steady voltage.

    The “repair” function is where the real innovation comes through. It’s almost like magic, with their proprietary undulations actually reversing damage that goes by fancy chemist terminology like sulfation and acid stratification.

    This ain’t your grandfather’s battery charger! It’s a game changer. As a car collector with 5 cars and growing, the Noco Genius 10 has already paid for itself. I consider it one of my top-10 must-haves.

    One of the most used tools in the crib. Buy a good set not as cheap one. You’ll thank yourself a 1000 times over. Don’t forget to chase any new aluminum heads etc before installing.

    I would add to this list a good vise, anvil, and a bench grinder with grinding wheel on one side and a wire brush on the other.

    Agreed, Roger – those are definitely some of my favorite and most-used tools. I have a vise on every fixed bench (3) here at the ranch, and a 4th one on a rolling welding/fabrication table. One bench grinder in the barn, and another on a stand (welded to a tractor wheel for stability) in the shop. Only one anvil – the one in the barn where the farrier uses it when shoeing, as I’m not much good at that. But the vise on the rolling table has a very long and well-shaped ‘anvil’ on it that I use for most of my metal-bending.

    I bought my Craftsman floor model drill press when I was 20 (1970). It was old then but didn’t have a mark in the table. I still have it today, along side a CNC Bridgeport (1964 vintage). The drill press is twice as heavy as anything from Harbor Frt.

    An assortment of good quality battery powered lights ( drop lights ) as well as bright well spaced ceiling lights. No more working in a cave.

    Be careful using incandescent bulbs. A friend of mine got caught under his care working on his fuel tank when the light dropped and broke igniting the fuel. He was scared for life and almost died trying to get out. A very sad day. Just saying

    Yes! And battery powered LED lights are amazing. No heat, lots of light, and long-lasting on battery power.
    After I built my dream garage, I replaced each of the builder’s wimpy 60 watt bulb fixtures with a 43 watt LED shoplight, and wow, plenty of light everywhere.

    I’ve accumulated almost all of these tools over the years. BUT, the best tool I have is a drive-on lift I purchased about eight years ago. At my age, crawling under a car on jack stands is nearly impossible for me. I can clean under the cars and even clean and polish the wheels, do a complete brake job, exhaust replacement and wheel bearing change out while standing comfortably.

    I have nearly all the tools too. At 71 and starting my first “real” project (64 Chevy Nova) I just bought a MaxJax. What a joy.

    I must agree. I too have all the tools listed in the article and the comments, and more, including a lift in a well lit heated garage. There is also an Autozone near me and with their free tool loan, if I have a one-time use for an expensive tool, they likely have it on their shelf.

    Jack stands are good, but if you can afford the space and the cost, a lift is much better. For doing work on a car including suspension work – a 2 post lift (or 1 post, but those are a tough install). For easier work where the car/truck can stay on it’s wheels a 4 post. I don’t want to sound like I’m advertising, but they’re even available in 110v these days.

    Having done a long and complex car restoration (almost finished), if I was starting again, in order of importance – a car lift – a lathe – a rotisserie – a compressor – a vapour blaster

    The nut and bolt thread gauge I have one mounted on my wall just like at the hardware store. it allows me to get the correct size (Metric or SAE) nut or bolt needed, choose the correct tap or die needed or know what I need from the hardware store without carrying a pocket full of nut and bolts with me

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