6 essential hand tools for every DIY toolbox

Kyle Smith

These days, it’s never been easier to get into performing your own automotive work at home. Walk the aisles of just about any home center or parts store and there will be tidy, credit-card-swipe solutions that can quickly transform you from tool-less to fit to be dangerous. Such tool kits mainly comprise of sockets and ratchets, combination wrenches, allen keys, and screwdrivers, which sets you up to do a lot. When push comes to shove you’ll need more tools to safely and correctly complete most jobs though. Here are six important hand tools we think are essential purchases for and aspiring mechanics and veterans alike.

Line wrenches

Maybe you already have a set of basic combination wrenches, the base of any tool kit. A set of line wrenches are their trade-school educated older brother. Specialized for one task, line wrenches will save you many headaches when working on vintage cars with flared fittings. Corrosion often sets in on the threads of these flared fittings, and the two-flat engagement of a combination wrench on the soft material is far from ideal. Round off the fitting and you not only have a tough piece to remove, but also a line that you will need to cut and re-flare to replace. Line wrenches are shaped to give extra bite, despite the opening for the line to pass through, ensuring more secure contact that won’t cause damage.

Breaker bar

There are a multitude of DIY tasks that call for high torque application to break loose mechanical fasteners—and that is before you factor in the rust and corrosion that render nuts and bolts chemically stuck. While you could put a cheater pipe on your ratchet to break stubborn items loose, sooner or later you’d probably also obliterate the mechanism inside your ratchet. Get a good strong breaker bar and use it often. It’ll save your ratchet, not to mention your knuckles. That’s a win-win.

Medium-sized hammer

While a hasty internet search may indicate a big hammer and adjustable wrench are all you need for a full restoration, the reality is quite a bit more complicated. At the bare minimum, a large hammer’s usefulness (in my opinion) is greatly exaggerated. Yes, there are times you need some real force to knock things apart, but the vast majority of the time you are better served by a medium-sized ball-peen hammer that you can fit into tighter spaces with better control. Even better, a medium ball-peen hammer can then tap things together with an easy wrist action or provide sizable blows swung from the elbow. Accuracy comes with time and experience, so having a five-pound sledge in novice hands is asking for trouble.

Pry bars

Screwdrivers are not pry bars, no matter how often you might use them that way in a pinch. A small set of pry bars is often quite affordable and will keep your screwdrivers from breaking and otherwise becoming mangled. That means screwdrivers that last longer and are less likely to be bent in a way that round off or damage a fastener.

Punch set

A punch set is something you can probably get by without for quite some time, but once these handy items arrive in your toolbox you will find yourself using them all the time. If you are on a really tight budget, go to your local hardware store and pick out a selection of three-inch long or longer grade-eight bolts in various diameters. These can serve quite well as punches in a pinch, but by the time you mangle one or two of them to the point of replacement you might just wish you’d gone with actual punches from the get-go. Use them for knocking things apart and for alignment during assembly.

Gasket scraper

Go as fancy or a simple as you want here. I received this Motion Pro gasket scraper as a gift a few years ago and was initially unimpressed, but as of late I have been using it a lot and changed my tune. It’s a fancy-looking aluminum handle with interchangeable steel or brass edges. This tool could perhaps be replaced by a simple razor blade for most situations, but the razor requires more careful use and attention to prevent damaging the gasket surface you’re cleaning. If you are working on vehicles—modern or vintage—you will inevitably need to do some scraping on an area where deftness and care are essential. A dedicated tool that gives better control for it is a wise spend.

Oftentimes the tool set grows alongside one’s skills and confidence so, these six tools are just the start. As anyone with a crowded toolbox will tell you, this is a deep rabbit hole. Think we missed a must-have hand tool? Leave it in the comments below.

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