It’s the classic DIY dilemma: will it be worth it to try it myself after I buy all the tools I need and spend twice as long as pro? In many cases, the answer is no, especially if you think you need the tool designed especially for the job. But saving money isn’t the main reason to do-it-yourself. Indeed, all but the most handy and experienced would find that if they kept track of time spent doing preliminary research and the cautious trial and error approach of the inexperienced, less cost of materials, their hourly rate as a handyman would not compare very favorably. In other words, don’t quit your day job.
The reasons to do it have more to do with having an interest in figuring out how things work: after spending a day taking apart and reassembling a clock, you come away with a deeper understanding of an object you see every day and a respect for the clockmaker.
Waste is a concern too. You might be able to go down to the big-box store and get a shiny Made-in-China plastic-bodied device, nestled securely in petroleum- wood-based packaging, and show the wisdom of the purchase on a balance sheet. But if all that was necessary to bring it back to life was the removal of a few screws, some compressed air and a little solder, like so many electric-powered household items, many people feel the thing to do is extend the life of their stuff and delay its trip to the landfill.
You can do most anything you’d want to attempt with a good toolbox. Let’s assume you’ve got the basics—screwdriver set, hammer, pliers, flashlight, cordless drill (if you don’t this is the place to start). Here’s what to get to go to the next level:
1. Multimeter: Use to determine if a wire is live and, if so, how live. Indispensible for diagnosing automotive, appliance or home electric issues. If you follow the steps in the manual, you’d be surprised how often you’re asked to 1. disconnect any electrical connection in the neighborhood of your project; 2. measure the input or output of a device to determine if that’s the problem. If you don’t have one, you’re taking your chances. A good multimeter can be had for under $20.
2. Soldering Iron: It used to be no Main Street was complete without a few little repair shops: radio, television and appliance. For most, the economics don’t work for that model anymore (with the notable exception of automobiles). It’s cheaper to throw out the old and get a new one. But often the problem with a device that just quits one day—coffee-maker, toaster, guitar, headphones wire—is just a loose wire or a dirty connection.
3. Wire-strippers: Sticking with the electrical theme, this tool completes the trifecta. Try as you might there’s nothing else that efficiently and evenly strips an insulated wire.
4. Durable tape measure: Tools aren’t handbags: you’re really never paying for a brand-name. That means the more expensive, the more durable and long-lasting the tool. The utility of a tape-measure is obvious. You need it for everything from picking out furniture to building a bookshelf. Get a good one at least 20-foot-long with enough backbone to stand up without buckling when extended 10-feet.
5. Level: Another cheap and essential tool whose uses run the gamut from new construction essential (building furniture or pitching a drain pipe) to little changes that make a big difference (leveling all wall decor, tables and stoves).
6. Dremel tool: A rotary tool that makes up for its small size with its blistering RPMs, there’s really only a few cases where the Dremel tool is the best tool for the job. But its sheer variety of bits gives the tool an unmatched versatility. It can cut, sand, sharpen, polish, engrave, grind and carve. I knew a guy who used his Dremel tool to create a sunroof in an old Volkswagen Rabbit. It certainly wasn’t the tool for that job. I forget how long he spent propped over that little car, patiently applying the tool like a misplaced dentist. But it worked.
7. Utility knife: A no-brainer, right? Maybe, but too many people don’t keep a durable, sharp utility knife in their toolbox. Are you using the one that came with the Junior-Toolset dad gave you when you were 16, the one you’ve used to open every box since? It’s probably time to invest in a good one. You’ll need it if you want to produce quality straight-edge cuts on drywall and paneling.
8. Vise-Grip: No must-have tool list would be complete without vise-grips. To risk hyperbole, locking-pliers are perhaps the greatest tool ever created. When in doubt, reach for the vise-grips. That goes for stripped-screws, anything that’s rusted together (you can set the pliers then bash them with a hammer), holding together any two items (as when letting glue set), replacing a lever on a lawnmower or dirt bike, securing loose cables and countless other undreamed of applications in which nothing else will work.