Top 20 Must-Have DIY Tools for Home Improvement and Maintenance - Dengarden - Home and Garden
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Top 20 Must-Have DIY Tools for Home Improvement and Maintenance

Eugene, an avid self-taught DIYer and engineer, has acquired 30 years of experience with power/hand tools, plumbing, electrics and woodwork.

A Guide to Names of Tools

So you want to start doing home maintenance to save money or you're fed up taking time off from work and waiting for tradesmen who don't turn up on time? Anyone can do basic DIY and whether you want to progress to more advanced DIY projects depends on how brave you are, your level of patience and if you are willing to learn by trial and error with a couple of disasters on the way! This guide identifies the most common tools required for basic home maintenance so you'll know what to ask for when you go to a store. Of course you don't have to buy them all at once! A toolkit is put together over a lifetime and tools can be bought as the need arises.

Essential tools for home maintenance.

Essential tools for home maintenance.

Tool Names

This is a comprehensive list of useful tools that you can buy as you need them.

  1. Hammers
  2. Philips and flat screwdrivers
  3. Pliers
  4. Snips
  5. Saws
  6. Locking pliers
  7. Measuring tapes
  8. Wrenches (Spanners)
  9. Socket set
  10. Pipe wrench and water pump pliers
  11. Ladders
  12. Voltage testers
  13. Torches
  14. Paint brushes
  15. Drill bits
  16. Metal detector and live wire detector
  17. Cordless drill
  18. SDS drill
  19. Utility knife with disposable blades
  20. Tippex marker

See below for more details.

Choosing Tools for DIY

These tools are sufficient for doing basic maintenance jobs around the home like tightening screws on cupboard doors, hanging pictures, tightening loose nuts, wiring mains plugs, tightening power sockets, cutting and fixing sections of timber and basic plumbing.

It's also a good idea to stock up on essential materials and fixings such as nails, wood screws, wall plugs, assorted nuts, bolts, washers and machine screws, insulating tape, spare blades for a utility knife, super-glue, epoxy resin and cable ties etc.

1. Hammers

  • A claw hammer is used for hammering nails, pulling them out and general bashing of stuff. A standard hammer head weighs 1 lb, however you can buy lighter hammers for use with smaller gage nails, e.g. a tack hammer.
  • A lump hammer or builder's hammer has a heavy head, useful for breaking bricks or blocks, driving large nails, using with a cold chisel for chopping concrete and any other application that requires brute force.
  • A sledge hammer is a heavy two handed hammer used for driving posts, breaking concrete and similar heavy duty jobs that require a large impact force.
Claw hammer (top) and builders (lump) hammer

Claw hammer (top) and builders (lump) hammer

2. Philips and Flat Screwdrivers

Various sizes of Phillips and flat head screwdrivers, large and small. There are a few options:

  • Buy screwdrivers individually or as set
  • Buy a screwdriver handle with a tip that takes various sizes of screwdriver bits
  • A cordless drill/driver combi with screwdriver bits

Sets of screwdrivers sometimes include an awl for making holes prior to driving screws or drilling. This looks like a screwdriver but has a pointed tip which is pushed into wood or plastic and turned to make a hole.

Various screwdriver sizes

Various screwdriver sizes

This screwdriver has a blade tip suitable for Phillips screws

This screwdriver has a blade tip suitable for Phillips screws

An awl is used for making holes prior to driving screws or drilling.

An awl is used for making holes prior to driving screws or drilling.

3. Pliers

Standard pliers for holding, pulling, bending, twisting etc. They can also be used to undo small nuts.

A long (snipe) nose pliers is better for reaching into places that a standard jaw pliers can't access. It's also used for bending ends of wires, holding parts and is a standard tool for electrical/electronic work.

4. Snips (End or Side-Cutters)

A wire snips is useful for cutting and stripping the insulation from wire when wiring plugs, socket outlets, lighting outlets. You can also use it to snip cable ties, tie wire or light gage netted wire.

From left to right, standard pliers, long (snipe) nose pliers, wire snips (side cutters)

From left to right, standard pliers, long (snipe) nose pliers, wire snips (side cutters)

5. Saws

  • A standard carpenter's hand saw for cutting wood (lumber). You can use it for crosscutting lengths of timber or for cutting through sheets of plywood or MDF
  • A tenon saw is smaller with finer teeth and better suited for neater cutting of e.g. architrave
  • A junior hacksaw takes disposable blades and can be used for cutting small pieces of metal, bolts, threaded bar, PEX and copper pipe
  • A mitre box is an inexpensive guide that you can use for making neat squate and angled cuts on the end of architrave, baseboard (skirt board) or other timber up to 2 x 4 in cross section
A hand saw is useful for cutting the odd length of timber, without the hassle of taking out power tools and an extension lead

A hand saw is useful for cutting the odd length of timber, without the hassle of taking out power tools and an extension lead

A tenon saw has finer teeth and gives a neater cut. When used with a mitre box, you can make neat cuts on the end of timber.

A tenon saw has finer teeth and gives a neater cut. When used with a mitre box, you can make neat cuts on the end of timber.

A junior hacksaw can be used for cutting copper and plastic tubing, bolts and other light metal parts

A junior hacksaw can be used for cutting copper and plastic tubing, bolts and other light metal parts

6. Locking-Pliers

A locking pliers (also known by the brand name "Vice Grip" or "Mole wrench") can be used for holding nuts, bolts, bars or anything to prevent it turning. It can also be used as a general purpose clamp for holding two parts together.

Using a locking pliers to hold the body of an outside tap while undoing the top

Using a locking pliers to hold the body of an outside tap while undoing the top

Junior hacksaw and locking pliers (vise grips)

Junior hacksaw and locking pliers (vise grips)

7. Measuring Tapes

  • A 6 m (20 foot) measuring tape is perfect for general purpose use
  • A smaller 3 m tape is small and compact and you can slip it into your pocket for measuring stuff while you go shopping for furniture or building materials
Tape marked with inch and centimetre graduations. A 3 metre (10 foot) tape is nice and compact and fits in a pocket. A 6 or 7 metre tape can be used for longer measurements

Tape marked with inch and centimetre graduations. A 3 metre (10 foot) tape is nice and compact and fits in a pocket. A 6 or 7 metre tape can be used for longer measurements

8. Wrenches (Spanners)

Wrenches, known as spanners in the UK, are used for tightening nuts, bolts, taps, plumbing fittings, wall fixings and anything else that requires a nut to be tightened.

You can buy either open ended wrenches or combination wrenches. The latter are open at one end and ring at the other end. The ring part makes for quicker tightening of nuts without having to take the wrench off the nut or bolt head and put it back on again. Ring or combination spanners can also be used for situations when a nut needs to be undone but the threaded section of the bolt extends too far beyond the nut to fit into a socket.

For domestic work, sockets or wrenches don't need to be greater than 3/4 inch AF (across the flats) or about 22 mm in size.

You can use an adjustable wrench with jaws that can be adjusted to suit the size of a nut or bolt head. However unless you buy an expensive version, there can be a certain amount of play in the jaws when tightened, which can round the corners on a hex profile fixing if they're used often. They are useful however for dealing with large nuts/bolts when a fixed size wrench would be expensive.

Combination spanners (wrenches)

Combination spanners (wrenches)

Combination spanners

Combination spanners

9. Socket Set

A socket wrench and socket does the same job as a wrench but the ratchet action makes things quicker and easier because you can just pump the handle to tighten or release a nut or bolt. With a wrench you have to continually remove and replace the jaws of the wrench onto a nut/bolt head. A socket wrench is often used in conjunction with a standard wrench, the wrench for holding a nut and the socket wrench for releasing/tightening the bolt (or vice versa).
The disadvantage of a socket wrench is that you can't use it to tighten nuts on long bolts or threaded bar because a socket mightn't be deep enough. You can always use a ring spanner in this scenario or a through socket and wrench.

Buy a 6 point set. These are less likely to wear/damage the corners of nuts and bolt heads or the socket itself than 12 point sockets.

10. Pipe Wrench ("Stilson") and Water Pump Pliers

If you're going to do any home plumbing, these are useful tools to have for dismantling taps, radiator valves, unscrewing and tightening pipes and plumbing fittings and large nuts (which would normally require a very large wrench). The jaws and handles of a water pump pliers aren't in line, so it's easier to access and turn nuts on e.g. a radiator valve without the handles being obstructed by the wall.

Pipe wrenches or "Stilsons"

Pipe wrenches or "Stilsons"

Tightening a nut on a compression fitting with a water pump pliers and vice grips (locking pliers).

Tightening a nut on a compression fitting with a water pump pliers and vice grips (locking pliers).

11. Ladders

  • A step ladder is virtually essential for interior and exterior maintenance. You'll inevitably need to clean windows, cut hedges, water hanging baskets, paint, clean cobwebs or clean low-level gutters. A step ladder is safer than standing on a chair or stool because you have a top bar to hold onto to prevent losing your balance
  • An extension ladder allows you to access top gutters, paint your house, clean the outside of windows, cut limbs from trees etc

12. Voltage Testers

  • A digital multimeter (DMM) can be used to measure voltage, current, test continuity of fuses and wires and check batteries
  • A neon phase tester can be used for detecting whether a cable or other electrical parts are "live". The neon bulb in the tester glows when mains voltage is detected. It's essential to use one of these to double check power is definitely off after switching the power off using the MCB at the electrical panel

What Multimeter to Buy?

When asked, Fluke, who are a leading US manufacturer of digital instrumentation, recommended the Fluke 113 model for general purpose use in the home or for car maintenance. This is an excellent meter and can measure AC and DC volts, resistance, check continuity and diodes. The meter is auto-ranging, so ranges don't have to be set. It is also a true-RMS meter. It doesn't measure current, so If you need to measure AC and DC current, the Fluke 115 has this added facility.

Fluke 113 general purpose true RMS digital multimeter.

Fluke 113 general purpose true RMS digital multimeter.

Phase tester for checking whether power is present at a socket outlet

Phase tester for checking whether power is present at a socket outlet

13. Torches

  • High powered LED torches are now available that produce a lot more light than traditional types that used an incandescent bulb. LEDs also last practically forever and don't break if you drop the torch.
  • A head torch is extremely useful, I use one for all sorts of maintenance around the house when I need my two hands free
LED torch with zoomable beam. Runs on a single AA cell. Much brighter than a double AA Maglite.

LED torch with zoomable beam. Runs on a single AA cell. Much brighter than a double AA Maglite.

A head torch keeps your hands free so you can use your tools more effectively  in badly lit locations

A head torch keeps your hands free so you can use your tools more effectively in badly lit locations

14. Paint Brushes

At some stage you might decide to try your skills at painting. The 4 most useful sizes are 1/2 inch, 1 inch, 1 1/2 inch and 2 inch. For painting walls, a larger brush about 5 to 6 inches wide is needed.

You can also use a roller for painting internal walls and external flat render.

15. Drill bits

You're going to need these for making holes

  • HSS bits for drilling metal or plastic
  • Wood bits for timber. There are several choices: Flat bits, lip and spur bits, auger bits and hole saws for large holes
  • Masonry bits for drilling concrete, breeze blocks, bricks and stone

See my guide "Choosing the Right Drill Bit for Metal, Wood, Tiles, Glass, or Masonry" for lots more info

Drill bits - From left to right masonry bit, lip and spur bit and HSS bit

Drill bits - From left to right masonry bit, lip and spur bit and HSS bit

16. Metal Detector and Live Wire Detector

This tool is for finding metal in walls and live wires before drilling

17. Cordless Drill

A cordless drill is an essential power tool if you need to drive a lot of screws. A combi drill is used for drilling and driving screws. Most 18 volt drills can be used for drilling holes in concrete if you need to insert wall plugs for fixing stuff to walls, but an inexpensive corded SDS drill is faster and more powerful for drilling large holes.

Cordless drill / screwdriver

Cordless drill / screwdriver

18. SDS Drill

You can buy a corded or cordless version. A corded version is a lot cheaper, but obviously has the inconvenience of a trailing power cord.
SDS drills have pneumatic percussion action so they can rapidly drill holes in masonry for wall plugs if you need to fix cupboards to walls. You can also easily drill larger holes in concrete when running plumbing tubing or cables.

For more info on cordless and corded drills see my guide:

A Complete Beginner's Guide to Power Tools (Drills, Sanders, Grinders, Multitools, Dremels & Saws)

An SDS drill

An SDS drill

19. Utility Knife With Disposable Blades - (Stanley Knife)

These are sometimes referred to generically as "Stanley knives" from the name of the manufacturer. Disposable blades are now a standard size for all manufacturer's knifes and readily available from discount stores. The most common type has a retractable blade, but folding versions are also available that stowaway the blade safely into a hollow slot in the handle. When not using your knife, keep the blade retracted into the casing to prevent accidental cuts.

Carpet knife or "Stanley" knife

Carpet knife or "Stanley" knife

20. Tippex Marker

Yes, I know they're used as correction pens, but a Tippex marker is great for marking dark surfaces. If you use a pencil or felt tip marker, it can be difficult to see the mark, but a Tippex marker produces a white line that's really prominent.

Marking roof cladding with a correction marker

Marking roof cladding with a correction marker

Collins Complete DIY Manual

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Eugene Brennan