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.


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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    Hand grinder and cutting wheel. If you work with steel at all, you need one of these. With lots of cutting discs.

    A 1/2″ x 9/16″ ratcheting box wrench. With this you can just about take a 60’s GM car down to the frame!

    Totally agree, Roger. 1. Heated garage 2. Welder 3. Drill Press 4. Arbor Press 5. Air compressor with 13 CFM at 80 psi 6. Good Torque Wrench (and use it!)

    I have all but the drill index. Also, two lifts in two separate garages/shops. I also try my best to clean up after each workday. That makes it easier to start again the next day. cleaning the bench is s chore but I try to organize it in such a way that I at least can see what is there.
    I agree with the commenters above, each is very necessary, a good air compressor that is quiet, extension hoses in place for it, a split unit AC/heater for all season work. Though not mentioned, a good tablesaw and cutoff saw is valuable.

    A battery powered impact wrench is the best tool I’ve bought. Prevents stripped bolts and makes work fast and easy. So much better than doing it by hand.

    I got a max jax lift about ten years ago and it changed everything. My ceiling isn’t high enough for a full-height lift. I can sit on a rolling stool and do all the under-car work. Suddenly all sorts of major suspension work became easy to do. Even doing simple things like brakes is easier when you can sit and work at a comfortable height. I have seven cars in my family and haven’t spent a nickel at a repair shop in ten years, besides for alinements.

    The lift was life changing and is what allows me to keep working on cars.

    Regarding work bench space – never enough and sometimes too much. I have a couple of dedicated work benches and I supplement them with folding plastic banquet tables. Mine are 30″ x 72″ and cost under $50 each. I set them up as needed and then store them in very little space when not needed.

    Even with a 35′ x 75′ shop, you still run out of room at some point.

    A good tire inflator that plugs into the wall or the cigarette lighter plus is handy. One, you can use it in the garage if you like and don’t have an air compressor but you can also take it with you to go.

    I’ve found a heat gun to be invaluable. They’re inexpensive and much better for shrink tubing than a lighter and indispensable for removing decals and stripes.

    Best thing I have ever bought for working on my cars is a lift. I got the 4 post so I could also store a car, and I have two lift jacks I can move to jack up the front, rear or both at the same time. Worth every penny.

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