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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    Even a small compressor will allow you to use a smaller spray gun. What a great way to spray parts etc. Way better than a spray can. I graduated to big 240 v compressor in the garage because I got a great deal on a close out but I did lots of work with a smallish roll around before I got the big one. Now, I spray everything that needs painting. Just sprayed house shutters by thinning the water based paint and using a big tip on an HVLP sprayer. Maybe add torque wrench? Not absolutely necessary but you get some confidence when reassembling. And a Harbor Freight digital caliper….. I got one on sale a few years ago. Not sure if I’d assemble a moon rocket with it, but for precise measuring of most stuff, nice tool. Lights…..

    Light, light, light. You can never have enough light when working on this stuff. As you get older, even MORE light.

    Some of the replies have been about lifts for home and how great they are. I agree and would love to have one but they are expensive. Perhaps you guys could do an article on them?

    I’d second that. I’m in the market for a four post lift with a lift jack to allow brake and suspension work. I can’t figure out if there is a clear market leader in this category, let alone be certain I’m shopping for the right options.

    I bought a Hunter scissor lift with a front and a rear air jack to raise the vehicle from the lift. They are spendy, but there is a ready market for them in commercial repair. With a few options, they become a Hunter alignment & ADAS service. Yes, I was thinking of the day when old age says it is time for a different hobby.

    The 18″ long 3/8″ ratcheting breaker bar from Harbor Freight is possibly the best 3/8 ratchet I’ve ever bought. Enough length to get leverage for stubborn bolts *and* reversible. Inexpensive, too. They also have 1/2.

    I would love to have a conversion chart for incandescent to LED auto light bulbs. The websites that sell LED lights have drop down boxes to pick year, manufacturer model. Have not seen one yet that has a Citroen 2CV-6

    Best lighting possible and this includes multiple drop lights that can hang/hold with a magnet. And if it’s measured in feet then it should come off of a good-quality reel. Drop lights/extension cords/air hose/water hose/ plus an IV coffee drip!

    Have all mentioned, but a GOOD QUALITY tap & die set, like ‘Deane said… CLEAN hardware always fits better. Air compressor for sure, but got a spring wound hose reel for it – beats hell out of having to wrap the hose up all the time. …and EITHER an anvil (priced one lately? Holy geez) or a large flat HEAVY piece of iron for beating upon. Oh yeah, “Vise Grip” type clamps for welding – they’re the THIRD and FOURTH hand you always need when building or putting back together something.

    Oxy acetylene torches are a must for heating up stubborn nuts and bolts. Also for cutting metal such as exhaust parts or for making or repairing hangers, brackets etc. You can braze thin metal for body repair or hard solder many different things. Also, You can weld pieces together if you don’t have an electric welder.
    You can fabricate all sorts of special tools or jigs for your repairs. I would not be without my torch set.

    I can add one small, cheap thing that has really made a huge difference for me, and that’s a #2 JIS (Japanese Industrial Standard) screwdriver. The one I bought is made by Vessel and called a Megadora Impacta. It has a built in impact function. The JIS tip looks a lot like a Phillips, but it’s different enough that it locks into the head of the screw and doesn’t slip out and strip the head. I use that screwdriver every time I’m working in the garage, on anything that needs a Phillips, as well as the Japanese motorcycles I rebuild. Amazon will sell you one.

    A bowl of change ,If you need a washer and you don’t want to stop what you’re doing, and go to the store just drill a hole in a Nickle, dime ,or quarter for the perfect washer. They don’t rust either.

    Have it all and am very thankful. Still remember those days working outside in the cold and crawling around in the dirt and under the cars and making do with what I had

    Of this list, only missing the drill press. Had one for a while, but it was only on loan. And yes, it is sorely missed.
    Most recent tool I now have that I wish I had sooner? A manual tire changer that I modified with a homebrew duckbill attachment. For years it used to kill me to have pay to have tires mounted only for lack of a machine that I’m probably more adept at using than the people I’m paying. Space is at a premium here though so never wanted to give up that footprint.
    Set up the manual changer so it bolts to the floor and id tucked away in the corner when not in use. Essentially works the same as a “European style” machine, just a with some manual grunt required.
    My labor is free, and I can only blame myself if wheels get scratched (which they don’t).
    Biggest item on my wishlist right now is one of those cool little bench top lathes. One of these days I’ll pull the trigger on that.

    After 40+ years of working in mud & gravel driveways … # 1 on my list was a heated garage.(radiant heat in floor) # 2 was a 2 post lift. & OBTW: First thing I built with my welder was a welding cart from an old bedframe! LOL

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