Top 20 Must-Have DIY Tools for Home Improvement and Maintenance
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.
This is a comprehensive list of useful tools that you can buy as you need them.
- Philips and flat screwdrivers
- Locking pliers
- Measuring tapes
- Wrenches (Spanners)
- Socket set
- Pipe wrench and water pump pliers
- Voltage testers
- Paint brushes
- Drill bits
- Metal detector and live wire detector
- Cordless drill
- SDS drill
- Utility knife with disposable blades
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
- 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 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.
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
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.
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.
- 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 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 113 model has this added facility. Fluke 115
- 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
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
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.
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)
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.
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.
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