©By: John T. Blair (WA4OHZ)
Originally written: circa 1989
Last update: June 30, 2001 - fixed link back to index
Many people are just coming into the automobile hobby or are finally deciding to try to do some of the work on their cars themselves. With this in mind, I thought I'd discuss getting a tool box together.
Over the years I've managed to accumulate a fairly well stocked tool box. Working on old British, modern Japanese, and medium aged domestic cars has necessitated some of this. Each of these vehicles uses different types of nuts and bolts. The older British use Whitworth, the Japanese use metric, and the domestic use standard and metric. As a young buck of 18, I started with a small tool box and as I grew older, my requirements for a tool box grew. Today I have 5 of them filled with various tools.
Most people who work around the house have some sort of small tool box usually consisting of a couple of screwdrivers, an adjustable wrench, a pair of pliers and a hammer. To maintain or restore a car takes a little more than that, but you'd be surprised what you can do with a good set of hand tools. You don't need a lot of big ticket items. If you don't already have a good tool box - you'd better start building a tool box or go find a different hobby! Instead of sending your car out to have it worked on, you can save a lot of money by doing most of the work yourself and purchase the tools as the jobs require them. But you say you don't know how to repair a car. The know how can be gained by reading the technical articles published in club newsletters, by talking with people who do their own work, and by getting friends to teach you what you need to know. Just like acquiring the knowledge, you can build your tool box up gradually. Tools make great presents and if you need the tool for a particular job, buy it, but there is an old adage "You get what you pay for". This is especially true with tools. As a rule it doesn't pay to buy cheap tools, however, you don't have to spend an arm and a leg for professional tools either (unless you happen to be a professional mechanic). Most of my hand tools are Craftsman - the quality is pretty good, Sears is convenient, the life time guarantee is great and I have a Sears charge card!. I broke 3 pairs of diagonal cutters restoring my 65 Morgan, and they replaced them free. To get started, the first thing you will NEED, is a tool box! This is the one thing I hate to spend money on. They are quite expensive and it seems to be such a waste to spend all that money on just a box to put your tools in! If you really plan on restoring a car, I suggest putting this money (these start at about $150)) towards a larger, roll around tool box with a upper and lower box. The upper tool box should have at least 4 drawers (preferably more) and a roll around lower cabinet with at least 2 drawers. Sears has a good selection and locally Kmart has had the STACK ON tool boxes for a reasonable price. Expect to spend about $80 for each piece. There are also middle sections and side cabinets that can be added on.
Filling the drawers ends up being very easy. Tool boxes are like computer memory and disk space, there is never enough room. The most used tools you will have are socket sets and wrenches. You will end up with at least 3 different size socket sets, a 1/4" drive, a 3/8" drive and a 1/2" drive set. (For those newcomers who don't know what this means, the size is the measure of the square shaft that will fit into the socket.) A socket set consists of a collection of sockets - the sizes and number vary depending on the size and cost of the socket set. In addition to the sockets, you want to look for the following accessories to the socket set. A ratchet - a handle that attaches to the sockets and allows you to turn the socket some, then back up and turn some more. These are very useful in tight spaces where you cannot turn the handle a complete turn (360 degrees). The extensions - these are just bars that fit between the sockets and the ratchet and come in many different lengths. There is a universal joint - this attaches between the socket and extension bar and gives the extension some flexibility. This allows you to get at the nut or bolt at an angle and not just straight on. A tommy bar - a handle longer than the ratchet gives more leverage, but it will not allow you to back up unless you remove and rotate the socket. These are used when you need more torque to undo a nut or bolt. (The principle here is - the longer a lever is the less effort you have to exert to move something.) I suggest the first socket set you purchase be the 3/8" drive (either standard, metric or both depending on the cars you play with). I find myself using this set more than the others for 2 reasons: first the 3/8" drive tools fit in many places the 1/2" drive socket will not fit. Secondly, the ratchet and tommy bars are shorter than those for a 1/2" drive set, consequently you develop less torque and are less likely to break or strip a nut or bolt.
As with the socket sets, you will need several sets of wrenches. A set of open end wrenches - both ends of the wrench are open, like a U. A set of box end wrenches - both ends of the wrench are closed. (These look similar to a very thin socket on a stick.) A set of combination wrenches - one end of the wrench is open and the other end is a box end. A set of ignition wrenches - these are the very small wrenches usually below 7/16" and come in open, box and combination styles. These wrenches will require a significant investment. (Especially for me with the American standard, Metric, and Whitworth.) Why so many different sets of wrenches? For starters, many times you'll need 2 wrenches, one to hold the bolt and one for the nut. Most ordinary people (but not us "car" people) use an adjustable wrench for undoing just about everything. However, for undoing old, rusted nuts and bolts, you want to grip the entire head of the nut and bolt to prevent stripping the flats off of either the nut or bolt. Therefore, you should use either a box end or a socket. For a nut that is loose, an open end wrench is easier to get on and off the nut as you need to reposition the wrench in tight places.
The next most used item will be your screwdrivers. A set will consist of different size screwdrivers and different types. There are 3 basic types. The flat blade screwdriver for the usual slotted screws. A Phillips head and Reed & Prince head for screws with the X slots in them. I like the screwdrivers that have the square shafts. When trying to free a really tight screw, a wrench can be attached to the square shaft to give you more leverage. There is also a manual impact screwdriver. This is used to loosen very tight screws, by hitting the top of the impact handle with a hammer. The shock from the hammer blow and the twisting motion help undo the screw. If anyone is still a hold out and hasn't bought a cordless screwdriver you ought to be committed. These are the greatest thing since sliced bread (I bet you thought I was going to say sex)! I've gone through 3 of them. I had one of the inexpensive inline ones (less that $20) by Skill. (Inline means that it is one straight line, like a screwdriver and not like a drill.) I used it to disassemble my 65 Morgan when I restored it. While it worked all right, I really didn't like it that much. By the time the car was torn down, the screwdriver had had it. The next one I purchased was the large inline Craftsman (about $40) with a clutch. This one really got a work out when I was reassembling the Morgan. This one I really like! and want to get another one. While it is still around, it has seen its better days. I also have another Skill that looks like a drill (costs about $40). This one works great and has 2 speeds, 300 and 600 rpms. In addition to working on the cars, I've used it to screw 3" drywall screws into 2x4s when I was putting shelves up in the attic and to assemble one of the 9x10 foot metal garden sheds. The drill type screwdrivers are all right but for some reason I prefer the inline ones. The only drawback to these three cordless screwdrivers is that the batteries are not economically replaceable. The screwdrivers with replaceable batteries are very expensive - usually about $130 (which is what I paid for my Makita 3/8" variable speed wit a 2 speed transmission, keyless chuck, and reversible). Additional battery packs cost from $20 to $50 depending on the brand name.
While we are talking about drills, a 3/8" Variable Speed Reversible (VSR) electric drill is essential (about $40). These have many uses and with the variable speed can be used as a screwdriver. Ultimately, a drill press is nice to have, but they are relatively expensive ($125 up). An interim solution is to purchase drill press stand for your 3/8 drill for about $40. While it is not as good as a drill press, it does help fill the void.
Now for those tools that no real mechanic should ever use, but always does, the adjustable crescent wrenches. Notice the plural wrenches, there are at least 4 generally used sizes: 4", 6", 8" and a 12". The size here means the length of the wrench. As the length increases so does the width of the jaws - meaning they will fit a larger nut or bolt.
In the general category of pliers, there are several different types: slip joint or channel lock pliers, long or needle nose and wire cutters (usually called dikes - short for diagonal cutters). These can be purchased individually or in sets. The sets will include several different types and sizes. It should be obvious that the smaller the pliers, the smaller the job they were meant to work on. Several pairs of locking pliers like Vise Grips are a must. They have a hundred uses from holding something in place, undoing a nut or bolt after the head has been rounded, to helping keep a flare wrench from opening and slipping on a bolt. These also come in various sizes and styles including long nose.
Here are a few more general tools to help fill that tool box. An awl - a sharp metal rod with a handle. These are used to scratch metal to mark where something was positioned. A center punch - a short, sharp metal rod used to make a dimple in a piece of metal. This dimple will help hold a drill bit in place when starting to drill a hole in a piece of metal or wood. (Note: the center punches come in manual - you hit the with a hammer, or automatic - you simply push on them, they have an internal hammer.) An Inspection mirror - a mirror on a stick, used for seeing in tight places. A ballpeen hammer - instead of having the normal claws for pulling nails on one end, it has a 1/2 a ball. This is used to peen (bend) over threads on a bolt to keep their nuts from coming off.
Something that everyone should have is a tap and die set. A tap is a rod or shaft used for cutting or cleaning threads in a nut. A die is a disk with a hole in it and is used for cutting or cleaning threads on a bolt. Anytime a nut and/or bolt is removed from a car (or anything for that matter), it should be oiled and have the threads chased (cleaned). When they get put back, they will work very easy and the next time they must be removed it will be a lot easier, which makes it a pleasure to work on something. No more busted knuckles. A good set of taps and dies are quite expensive and a cheap set can be more expensive if the tap breaks off in an engine block. I suggest purchasing quality taps and dies one at a time, say one a week. Every time I need a new tap or die, I go purchase both the tap and the die. While their cost varies with their size an average of $3.00 each is to be expected. To find out what size a nut or bolt is, you will need a micrometer and a thread pitch gauge. The micrometerr looks like a small "C" clamp, but the shaft is measured in 1/1000" of an inch and is used to measure the diameter of the bolt.(Note: a local fastener store had a great gauge they sell for about $1. It has a ruler for measuring the length of a bolt, holes from #8 to 1/2 to size bolts, and stalks to measure the diameter of nuts. These are great!) A thread pitch gauge looks like a collection of tiny saws. Each metal blade has a different number of teeth per inch. Simply lay each blade on the nut or bolt until the teeth mate. Along with the tap and die set, I'll include a set of EZ outs or screw extractors. These items are used to help remove a screw after the head has been broken off. The extractor has a very course reversed thread. To use them, you drill a hole in what is left of the bolt or screw, and push the extractor into the hole. Then put a wrench on the end and try to unscrew the bolt. (This doesn't always work) Be very careful using an extractor, if it breaks off in the screw, it is much harder to drill out.
A few more items should also be in the tool box, a pair of scissors, a razor blade knife (packing box knife), a pen knife, a hack saw and blades. A set of allen wrenches, several putty knives, a couple of chisels (1/4" and 1/2"), a battery terminal cleaner, and a pair of dividers will all come in handy. This is a very good start on the general hand tools for working on a car.
Now for 2 life savers (literally). While they don't exactly fit in the tool box, they sure make life in the garage a lot easier and safer. A good 1-1/2 to 2 ton floor jack is a necessity and they run between $80 and $100. I know a lot of people that have purchased the cheap (under $40) jacks. They are all right for occasional use and to throw in the back of a truck, but they just don't make it around the garage. They don't have the height and they are a pain to use. The other item is a couple of pairs of heavy duty jack stands. These two items making getting a car off the ground a breeze and safe. I know of several people who have been killed working under a car that was supported by cinder blocks. The cinder blocks collapsed and the people were crushed. So please, if you are going under a car, think safety! The heavier the vehicle the stronger the set of jack stands must be. I might be getting paranoid but when I put a 3500# car on jack stands rated for 3 tons, I keep the floor jack under the car also.
Here are a couple more items that don't really fit in the tool box. A trouble or drop light - preferably with the reel retractor for the cord. I haven't used one of the fluorescent ones, but they are worth looking at. The standard incandescent ones give off a lot of heat. The one thing you don't really need on a hot summer day. An extension cord, and a shop vacuum are almost necessities.
Continue on to Part 2
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