7 Tools You Basically Can’t DIY Without

Kyle Smith

I often think about the bare minimum number of tools required to do a job. Not the ideal tools. Maybe it comes from watching Saturday morning TV shows, where everything took 10 minutes and fit together flawlessly. Watching those projects take shape encouraged me to pick up tools and try my own. But what do you need to just get started? 

If we waited until we had a full toolbox to dive in, none of us would ever get anything done. We’d just be sitting around staring at tools. Instead, let’s take a look at the tools that compose the minimum kit required to safely and successfully tackle a project on a daily driver—or at least allow you to do most of a job and then rent or borrow any specialty tools needed for to complete specific tasks. These don’t need to be fancy tools; in fact, this might be a list of items that are best purchased at garage sales, flea markets, or secondhand stores.

Jack and Stands

Sure, there are a lot of projects that do not require lifting a vehicle, but sooner or later you’ll need to do it. I’ve done oil changes by putting the front wheels on a curb to get enough clearance to roll under and access the drain plug and oil filter, but that practice doesn’t work in all situations. A jack and stands do. These are the right tools for every job that requires lifting a vehicle. That’s why they are something to get early in your wrenching journey.


Applied properly, screwdrivers have thousands of uses. We would never tell you to use them improperly, of course, but in a pinch a screwdriver can be used for all sorts of stuff that might very well render them one-time-only tools that, for better or for worse, will get the job done. Screwdrivers also can last a very long time if well taken care of, so adding these to your toolkit early will make for a solid base that rarely needs replacing, which leaves you with funds to buy more specialty tools to grow your kit—or you might just get through a handful of jobs without buying anymore tools at all. That’s a great feeling.

Socket Set

There is a reason every “mechanics toolset” sold in parts stores or home centers has sockets and ratchets as its main component. Ratchets and sockets are a highly efficient method of removing hardware without damaging it. A basic kit is enough to get started, and you can easily add bigger or longer pieces as needed.


You thought I wouldn’t include the hammer? It’s an inarguable necessity. Judicious use will make for a better wrenching experience, but when force is required, a mass at the end of a stick is just the right tool for the job.


“If you can’t fix it with a hammer it’s an electrical problem” is a good joke, because occasionally it’s based in fact. Electrical issues are more common than ever as cars feature more and more sensors and connections. To be a mechanic and not a parts replacer requires diagnostic tools, and diagnosing electrical issues is difficult to do consistently with only your eyes and hands. A good multimeter—and understanding how to read it—is vital.

Drain Pan

Want to do an oil change? You’ll need to catch the used oil somehow. Even a makeshift catch pan is good idea, but many of the drain pans designed for automotive projects are affordable and have features that seem trivial, until you are without them: A pour spout makes emptying the pan easier, and the ability to seal the fluids inside for transport is helpful, too. An open container of used oil is just waiting to be knocked over. Or it’s a magnet for tools or parts or worse, a spark. A good drain pan makes jobs cleaner and safer.

Penetrating Oil

Cars are built from a couple dozen different materials and the vast majority of them are susceptible to corrosion. Penetrating oil helps limit the need for big tools like impact drivers. Is an aerosol can technically a tool? Maybe not, but a good can of penetrating oil should be something you reach for before grabbing tools, so we are going to say it’s a critical part of the toolkit. Besides, if you’re limited on tools, you want to be able to stack the deck in your favor, and that means trying to break fasteners loose using science rather than force.


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    Drain pan? Well, if you were raised in the city, maybe. Back in my mis-spent youth, I remember the adults draining the oil out by the back fenceline. Kind of kept the weeds down (and REALLY helped when it came time to burn the ditchbank that ran alongside the fence. Yes, I can sense the environmentalist parts of all of us clenching up at this concept, but on farms and ranches, “oil came from the ground and should return to the ground” was often the rule. Now, when I got old enough to be more sophisticated than those Old Timers, I sliced the top couple of inches off a milk carton (plastic jugs hadn’t made to my neck of the woods yet) and drained right into those. Sooner or later, there was a place to burn that oil (fire pit, used oil burner, etc.) – or there were some fenceposts or bridgeboards that needed “treating”. Draining oil out of an engine (or other piece of equipment) into a “drain pan” was an unheard-of practice for me until probably the 1970s!

    I was raised to dump oil out along the fenceline as a kid. Oil recycling was far less accessible than it is now. Living less than a thousand feet from the lake, which supplies our drinking water, I recycle it (except the residual cooking oil left over in a pan after draining it, which I add soap and water to and bring to a boil, but that’s just an ounce or less).

    My Dad use to do a similar thing. It was his go to weed killer for the driveway that was not paved or wherever weeds might grow like a fence line. Even back then I knew as a kid it was wrong.

    But more than likely back then….telling your Dad he was wrong, went over like a lead balloon. Or maybe it was just my Dad?

    People usually don’t get their ground water from the fence line out back though, so in most cases, it should be okay…especially if there’s weeds!

    That small-minded mentality of doing harm because you “think” it’s OK is what is wrong with this world. You are not an expert. Don’t pretend to be.

    Amen. Thank you from A-Fellow-and-his-stick Civic and almost octogenarian inline eight dragon w/ overdrive.

    That is literally the most ignorant thing I’ve read in a long time. I’m no eco warrior, but I know better than to dump oil where I live. Might not taint the water in your lifetime, but if you care about your kids or grandkids, the small “inconvenience” of taking it to your local auto zone is worth it.

    Indeed sir. If you pour oil into the ground and pump water out, what do you expect. There was a video of someone who had been complaining about his polluted ground water. They showed him running a pan full and then lighting it.

    We lived above an aquifer that supplied drinking and irrigation water to 1000s of acres. Including our own well water. Not a great idea!!!

    I drained the oil of my Datsun 1600SSS in a field across from my parents’ home. It was stupid. But I was 19 in 1975. Young and stupid. I’m glad that environmental conscience has improved although not quite sufficient yet.

    talking about bad ideas…i remember as a kid reading an article in the magazine popular mechanics where they gave the specs for an underground drain pit. the hole was dug so deep, then filled with 1″+ rocks, then a separator plate with pipe, then topped off with dirt up to the level of your lawn’s sod. a cap would be on top of the pipe. although i never made one, thought what a cool idea. sure, it was (and is) a very bad idea. but then, at that time, i was just a kid!

    Do you know how long it would take for 5 quarts of oil to contaminate my ground water that is provided by city water pipes from the Lake Michigan water plant? What happens when the road department install “chip & seal” roads in our area? They first put down a layer of tar that is produced from oil. Our blacktop roads are made from oil. So we should go back to road bricks to save our ground water????

    Hope you didn’t strain a muscle with all those mental gymnastics there. I think you are making an apples to oranges comparison. Remember, tar used in asphalt and chip and seal hardens and doesn’t run off like oil does when it cools, so it is not the same thing as you claim.

    Simple fact is no, one person a single time probably might not hurt things, but a group of people or the same person over years of the same practice absolutely will, it’s a matter of time. If it didn’t matter, why is it that so many old shops need major environmental remediation when the land gets used for something else….

    I am not an eco nut and I’ll convert to an EV only when I am forced to, but we have advanced in our understanding of how the world works and this is the automotive equivalent of wiping with your bare hand, not washing then settling down to eat a sandwich. Statistically you are not guaranteed to get ill, but it’s possible and still disgusting.

    I agree dumping used oil on the ground is an antiquated and bad idea but have you ever seen a freshly tarred or paved road after a rain storm. The runoff is just a rainbow of colours

    One day they will dig up my old house and think they hit a new oil field- sheeesh it was the 60’s and 70’s and we did oil changes for everyone before Jiffy Lube lol.

    I’ve read that people in cities would simply park over storm drains. I remember my dad religiously changing oil every 3K but I can’t remember what happened to it. Might have put it in a sealed container and thrown it in the garbage.

    We burned it in an oil furnace in the garage.

    I know a guy who had to pay a $25,000 in remediation and fines when a buyer found oil contamination in the top soil.

    Probably shouldn’t admit it, but I’ve done that (drain into a storm drain). But it was many decades ago, I was young and stupid, and the city this was in had already had its river catch on fire a couple of times.

    Yes,it was a different time. My dad used to drain his oil 2 blocks from our house onto what eventually became another street. But don’t forget that in many rural areas, the Highway Department routinely sprayed oil on dirt roads to keep them smooth and dust free. Also, before the advent of high tech underlayment for asphalt, the oil in the asphalt would slowly drain into the ground below. It’s good that we’ve learned, but be careful judging yesterday’s actions by today’s standards. Things you’re doing today could be labeled evil 50 years from now.

    What you don’t mention is that used motor oil also contains toxic cancer causing byproducts of combustion. Oil that municipalities spray down gravel roads with is not even motor oil. Apples and oranges.

    Your last two sentences “It’s good that we’ve learned, but be careful judging yesterday’s actions by today’s standards. Things you’re doing today could be labeled evil 50 years from now.” are not only words to live by regarding oil changes and wrenching back in the day, but for virtually ANYTHING in life.

    I used to drain the oil onto my dirt driveway. Kept the weeds down. It was about 1970 that I bought a drain pan from Montgomery Wards.

    The Exxon Valdez dumped some 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in 1989, horrifying the country. I read an estimate that Americans had dumped 8-10 times that in the ground during the same year. I’m so glad times change…

    On OUR farm in KS, we used it to provide anti-rust on the plow and disc blades. It also preserved the hedge posts we used for fences. i.e. it was NEVER “thrown away” or wasted… We also found that it kept the dust down on the road into the “farmyard”, and an old boy down the road, had a “used oil” heater in his milkhouse… worked swell. I’m way more careful now, and always recycle the drained stuff to a local AutoZone or the like, but yeah… only them city slickers didn’t REUSE it.

    Always used a drip pan. Took the used oil and used it as chain oil for the chain saws. Reuse is always more economical than recycle.

    It’s hard to believe you would joke about dumping used oil on a public forum, Not funny……

    Interesting, similar to the fence line, farmers use to spread used oil around the foundation of their house and barn to keep bugs and rodents out.

    I do have penetrating oil around, but I mostly use it to lubricate my air tools. For actual penetrating purposes, I tend to use either ATF or an aggressive detergent spray (e.g. spray nine). I’ve never been convinced that penetrating oil actually does much penetrating, and these things actually do

    I think some work better than others. Project Farm has some really good and scientific videos about which ones work and don’t, if I remember correctly, ATF was tested. Personally, I had GREAT success with Kroil just yesterday on a stuck throttle shaft on a small engine carb.

    Liked ATF, I use Brake Fluid on rusted chains for cycles, and such, one full day of soaking
    And it looks new again

    I would not recommend brake fluid since it is hygroscopic.

    en.wikipedia.org › wiki › HygroscopyHygroscopy – Wikipedia
    Hygroscopy is the phenomenon of attracting and holding water molecules via either absorption or adsorption from the surrounding environment, which is usually at normal or room temperature.

    Thank you, Ralph. This is why most of us with vintage cars and others not having ABS use DOT-5 silicone brake fluid. Regardless of branding, all is made by Dow Corning.

    I found a mix of 50 – 50 ATF and Acetone is thin enough to penetrate stuck spark plugs. The example was a small 2.7 liter Chrysler V6. I left it soak 4 hours wiggling the spark plug left and right until it came out of the aluminum head.

    Penetrating oil is not a substitute for air tool oil. It doesn’t create a strong enough fluid film barrier between moving metal parts. Same reason we don’t use varsol instead of motor oil in our engines.

    I too am a tool repair tech. I own Tool Service Co. in Georgia. Never use motor in your air tools. I recomend either ATF or Marvel Mystery Oil.

    Rechargeable flashlight. Plenty of shop towels. Something to lay on (creeper, old cardboard, old rug.) Safety glasses. Flexible/extendable magnet. And using the CORRECT item to hit with those hammers…

    You forgot the oil dry, hazmat suit (With approved pocket protector) and OSHA code manual Tony Tom.

    Those Sears Craftsman screwdriver tops were pretty tough! The old wooden one not so much lol!

    That was one thing that always puzzled me about the Redline Rebuild videos. Davin never seemed to use any penetrating oil. I recall watching him beat the pistons out of a nailhead block and telling myself that I would be soaking those holes with PB Blaster if I had to do that job.

    Part of that is the editing process. Having been in the shop a few days during the week (it was certainly not a one day process!) when those Nailhead pistons were evicted, I can confidently say there was plenty of penetrating oil used!

    Could you comment on using safety jack stands on carbon fiber car. My Alfa 4C tub has only so many hard points.

    I’d get drive-on ramps. The manual should show jacking points, but I wouldn’t risk it with a floor jack.

    There are some subtleties to keep in mind. Screwdrivers are more specialized than you think, flat blades can be tapered or hollow ground and “Phillips” might actually be JIS or Pozidrive.
    Also consider 6 point versus 12 point sockets.

    I remember my first encounter with a recessed “Phillips” adjuster that actually required a Pozidrive head to get through the recess opening. Luckily I had a Pozidrive tip around, without even knowing it.

    Just had to get a couple #2 JIS bits for the Honda motorcycle. Using a regular Phillips ruins the fasteners if their tight. I know 1st hand.

    This was great. Add: An electric impact. Inexpensive. Great for taking things off and apart like wheels. (Do Not use to install…) An Inch-pound torque wrench. It will make you feel like a hero.

    A headlamp. I spent too many years squinting at things in dim light. Stuff comes apart and goes back together way better if you can actually see what you’re doing. LED headlamps are cheap on Amazon. Buy two, and use one and recharge one for long jobs. Mine last about two hours.

    Headlamps are the single best thing I discovered used for on fixing anything. I now have several around the house, garage and each vehicle. Trouble lights are just that, TROUBLE.

    Headlamps? That’s what kids are for to hold the flashlight lol- my son is almost 40 and he still remembers our flashlight arguments, great memories.

    My dad always yelled,” hold that damn flashlight steady!” I wish he bought better than a damn flashlight, I might know allot more about fixing things if he did ;)))

    Never work on a car now without my head lamp. But I learned from my dad how to fix things by holding the trouble light for him. Always keep the light on the work and angled out of his eyes. I saved thousands doing for myself what he taught me and what I picked up later. My vehicles seldom need to go to a shop for repairs. And it all started holding a light.

    An angle grinder. Great invention. Useful for removing exhaust system parts and bolts that are stripped or stuck. Absolutely necessary to wear eye and face protection. Watch where the sparks are going and never use near flammable material.

    Along with ratchets and sockets, extensions and universal joints (at least two of each drive of ratchet used). I have tackled repairs that experts say require the removal of other components, like the engine on a Subaru dx in order to set the valve gap, without removing the “required” (according to the expert) components by using a ratchet, correct socket, two or more extensions and two or more universal joints. Also a good set of combination wrenches when there is not enough space for a socket.

    Where are the end/box end wrenches???? Now days you need both SAE and metric. Needed way more than PB blaster or a drain pan!

    Agree. There are a lot of jobs that are impossible, or at least much more difficult without an open-end wrench. Just try to get a socket on a brake line, for example.

    Right on Marvin!
    During my apprenticeship (in the UK) we used open ended wrenches often. In the UK they also had a “ring wrench” that had a box end at both ends. . . somewhat useful
    It seems that the “combination wrench” is more popular here in North America. These are a “must have” in anyone’s toolbox. . . I would say even before sockets’
    Useful for tight bolts? . . put the box end on the bolt and hook another combination wrench on the open end and you have a fantastic torque advantage!
    I once worked at a Caterpillar dealership where often there were a group of mechanics working on the same machine. . . what a mix-up with whose wrench was whose at clean-up time! I painted all my combination wrenches RED. Easy to spot at quitting time! Some of my wrenches in my tool box are still tinged with red paint. . . Love those combination wrenches!

    Kyle, on a related topic I would like to suggest an article on what you would choose to carry in a tool bag in the trunk of your classic vehicle. I seem to remember something along these lines, so maybe it’s already been done.

    Yes, I also get that message and I rarely post. Some people post multiple times every single day.

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