The 2008 MVT (Most Valuable Tool) List

One question I get a LOT is which tools a new renovator should get to prepare for their renovation projects. My general response is to buy tools for each project as you need them and try to rent as much as possible, because tools are expensive and that is money you will need for other things. But as it happens there are some things that I can assure you will be required, so you can safely go out and spend money on them -- or give them as suggestions for gifts to family and friends.

Safety Gear
I'm starting here because this is the most important stuff. Forget all the avoiding-liability language: this is important because without it you may seriously injure yourself in a way that will stay with you for life. At a minimum, you will need:

Hearing protection
Wanna end up yelling at your spouse to stop mumbling? Forgo hearing protection when you use noisy tools. Even ear plugs from the drugstore are better than nothing, but the ideal kit is a pair of muffs of the sort one gets at, of all places, gun stores. Don't underestimate the damage noise can do to your hearing.

A respirator with replacable cartridges (we always use the purple HEPA cartridges because it's easier to be safe than sorry) is a must for anything involving paint stripping, solvents, or cutting concrete. Get plenty of cartridges and have the respirator fitted at the store if you can. And always test to make sure it's sealed to your face before beginning work. And needless to say, beards and respirators do not mix.

Safety goggles
Like your binocular vision? Put on goggles before cutting anything, knocking down plaster walls, or spraying anything caustic. When you were a kid in shop class, goggles were for dorks. When you are an adult working on your own home, goggles are for anybody in the spray zone who likes having two functional eyes.

Several pairs of work gloves
I hate wearing work gloves. I always fumble things when they are on, and stuff falls into the wrist and gets all over my hands, and it's miserable. But I wear them as needed because they offer protection from splinters, rusty nails, and broken glass. You can go cheap and buy several pairs, or spend some more money and only buy a few. My experience is that barring the dog eating a glove, both methods cost about as much but the expensive gloves feel better. We experimented with buying a huge sack of cheap gloves, and the product that came was many times larger than could ever be useful to somebody my size. But if Paul Bunyan ever comes to work with us on a project, we have work gloves that will fit him. The other thing we bought was a box of non-latex medical gloves (non-latex because I have a severe latex allergy) to wear while handling chemicals like paint stripper or thinner.

Serious work shoes
Most workshops have rules prohibiting open-toed shoes. I add to this a thick, heavy sole (to protect your feet from puncture wounds) and a sturdy leather upper (to protect your feet from falling debris). I go back and forth on steel toes: on the one hand, they protect your toes from some things. On the other hand, a sufficiently heavy object dropped on a steel toe will chop your foot in half. So it depends on the work you are doing.

Kitt adds in the comments that climbing equipment is good, too. A stepladder that will enable you to touch the ceiling in any room is a good starting point, but depending on the size of your house and the height of your ceilings you may wish to add an extension ladder (we have a 35' extension ladder with stabilizer that we share with a neighbor) and some stepstools (assuming you don't already have some). For working in tall rooms, you can rent rolling scaffolding for relatively little, so don't buy it unless you have some professional need. You should see if your neighbors have any long ladders before buying your own -- people who have them are usually more than happy to lend them out, and that can save you a lot of money and storage hassles.

What's not here:
- sturdy, intact work clothes that will not get caught in machinery, because you should have clothes by now.
- hardhats, which will only be useful if you're doing something where heavy things might fall on your head. (But if you are, buy a hardhat!)

Hand Tools
Over time, you will accumulate many many many hand tools: enough to need a large storage device or two. But to get started you really don't need all that much, and it's pretty rare for everything you need to be included in a single tool kit. The hand tools we use most often are these:

I have five hammers, and could easily have more (for the record, a tack hammer, two carpentry hammers, a mallet, and a small ball peen hammer). You will need one carpentry hammer, and I suggest you spend the extra money and get one with an anti-shock head on it. Your elbows will thank you.

Hand saw
It's surprising how often we use hand saws, given that we have about a million power saws. But hand saws get in places power saws don't quite fit, they work for pruning trees (well, depending on the saw) or trimming ends, and most important, they are pretty cheap. My first handsaw was a hacksaw with a selection of blades for different materials. I then added a pruning saw, and now we have a pile of saws for various needs. Any general saw is a good place to start, but not too big.

Assorted screwdrivers
You will need large and small flat head and Philips screwdrivers. We have an assortment that range from long to stubby, narrow to wide. We also have some interchangable-end screwdrivers, which are a good option when you're just starting out (you will inevitably lose an end somewhere; this is a necessary sacrifice to the house gods and should not be worried over). If I were buying a present for somebody who just bought a house, it might be a bouquet of screwdrivers. If you have a power drill (see below), get a box of screwdriver bits for it -- they wear out faster than you might expect.

You will need two kinds of pliers just about constantly: needlenose (for tight spots and detailed work) and your basic set of pliers that come in any cheesy tool kit. You use them for everything, from holding a nail in place so you don't hammer your fingers, to pulling out brads, to reaching down into that tight spot to grab something that fell.

Bullet level
You'll eventually want a bigger level as well, and maybe a laser level if you do a lot of new construction or build a deck, but every household should at least have a bullet level. You use this to level picture frames, to level molding, to adjust the leveling feet of your appliances, and so on.

Plumb bob
Plumb bobs help you find a line that is straight up and down. They will not be used every day, but they cost so little compared to their usefulness that you should just have one. They're especially useful for locating a row of pictures or installing a series of hanging shelves perfectly aligned: just find the place for the topmost hanger and use the plumb bob to place the one below. A cousin of the plumb bob is the chalk line, which we don't use nearly as often as we ought to. The chalk can stain, so it's a rough-surface tool only.

Tape measures
Small and large. We have maybe ten tape measures of various kinds, including a couple metric measures for those days when we're feeling all international and stuff. You will misplace them all the time, so never turn a tape measure down. Suggested sizes: 50' (this will be the hardest to find), 25', and 12'.

Utility knife
We have a few of these, retractable and not. The one that works the best is the non-retractable, which doesn't tend to retract when you wanted it to cut something, but for that very reason it is less safe (you have to remove the blade or embed it in something to make it safe).

What's not here:
- a stud finder -- this is one of those things you can get if you want it or need it for a project, but I so rarely use mine (it hasn't come out in more than three years) that I don't recommend it as a no-brainer.
- massive all-in-one tool sets, which usually have a lot of things you will never use and the ones you will use are much lower quality than you could get buying them separately.

Tools for Plumbing
You may or may not do your own plumbing -- that's a personal and financial choice. But if you are moving into a house you will have plumbing issues whether you are improving or not, and these are tools you will need to have.

Small and cute doesn't work. Get one large enough to cover the hole at the bottom of the toilet, for each bathroom. Also consider getting a couple of small sink-sized plungers for minor clogs. Wash them off after every use (because, you know). Spray them with bleach solution, as well, if you like. But have them on hand because I can guarantee the first time you need one all the hardware stores will be closed.

Drain snake
The day you become a homeowner is the day you stop using caustic drain cleaner (or perhaps you will wait to stop that bad habit until the day you have to replace your drain lines). Plumbing clogs get cleared with a snake, because anything else just makes it worse. If you have a teenaged daughter who insists upon clogging drains with her hair, let her snake the drains and understand why using the little drain filter is important.

Pipe wrench
You don't want to need it, but you will, so just buy it now. When your overuse of caustic drain cleaners catches up with you in the form of a hole in the trap, you will be using a pipe wrench to replace it (or you can call a plumber and pay $120 to have him replace it, but the pipe wrench is cheaper).

A five-gallon bucket is a useful thing to have around. Lots of them is even more useful. But you will also need a smaller bucket for when you have to bail out the bathroom sink to get the drain snake in there so you can remove the action figure/mousy toy/blob of dried toothpaste that has made its way into the trap.

Tools for Electrical Work
Most people don't do their own electrical work, and for a reason. It's dangerous, it can kill you, and it requires a certain amount of thinking ahead. That said, you're going to use the outlets in that house, and eventually you may replace a light fixture. So have these at hand:

Outlet tester
Use it to make sure your outlets are wired or grounded correctly. One of the first things you should do before you even move in is go around and test every outlet and mark the ones that are wrong. Even if you don't do your own electrical repairs, having an inventory of bad outlets will save your electrician some time (and you lots of money).

Current detector
This is a little pair of wires with an LED that will tell you if there is live current across a pair of wires. It will literally save your life. Never, ever touch a wire that has not been tested, and obviously, don't touch live wires once you have tested them.

What's not here:
- a fish tape, because even though they are mighty handy when you do any kind of wiring, that's the first time they are required. If you're going to be running wires through walls, go buy one (buy one at least as tall as your house), but if not, you're not likely to need it.
- electrician's pliers, which you won't need until you're doing some wiring, and even then you can get along without them for small projects like installing light fixtures or replacing an outlet.

Power Tools
This is where people go totally overboard. You really don't need to buy a ton of power tools right away. When you do buy stuff, be judicious about it and only buy things you know you will use repeatedly, beyond the cost of rentals, because you can usually rent a higher-grade tool than you ought to buy. You can forgo electrical tools entirely, but these are the ones that are going to be useful to have around:

Power saw
At a minimum, I would say that you can do a lot with a circular saw and a jigsaw. If you're going to be doing major demolition, replace the jigsaw with a demolition saw (Sawzall is one brand name). We have a circular saw, a jigsaw, a sawzall, a job-site table saw, and a 4" table saw. You'll use power saws for most of your cutting work, hitting the hand saws only to clean things up. As an accessory to your saw, get a Swanson Speed Square. Most of them come with a little booklet showing all the ways it can be used. The primary way is to hold a saw square to the piece of wood you are slicing.

Corded drill
On the power drill front, cordless drills are generally worthless. Unless you have a whole flotilla of batteries, and the organizational skills to keep them charged and ready, a corded drill will offer a lot more power for your dollar, and it weighs less, too (important when you are installing drywall on the ceiling). We have one corded and one cordless power drill, and we almost never even want to bother with the cordless. You have the option to buy something called a hammer drill, but it's generally not worth it unless you are going to be drilling into concrete a lot. You can rent a hammer drill if needed.

Shop vacuums clean up chunky debris nicely, but if you are generating a lot of dust (say, removing dead plaster), use a HEPA filter or the dust will clog the motor and kill it (we found this out the hard way; fortunately the thing was still under warranty). I say get a fairly large vac with wheels, because larger means more time between emptying, but not too large, because you have to be able to lift it when it's full of debris (so about 5 gallons is a good size). You can also connect a shopvac to certain power tools to do dust collection, which is very nice when you are sanding or cutting. We have too Shopvacs: the massive one and a tiny one. Neither is quite exactly right, but the tiny one gets used most often.

Indoor/outdoor extension cords
We have two 50' extension cords, which is not quite enough for us to get into a lot of trouble, but close. As a bonus, we keep them on little plastic reels with handles, so they are easy to wind up for storage, or carry around as needed.

What's not here:
- a sander, of any sort. Wait until you know what you're sanding before getting a sander.
- a table saw. Useful only if you are doing a lot of finish carpentry or building furniture. VERY expensive. Likewise drill presses, jointers, and so on. Heavy-duty woodworking equipment can wait.
- a nailer, which you may not need -- we bought ours after owning the house for nearly six years. If you do decide to get a nailer, get a pneumatic one with a compressor (look for the largest compressor reasonable; ours is 135psi) because it will save you a lot of money on the firing cartridges that non-pneumatic nailers use. And get an extra-long hose, so the compressor can sit somewhere well out of the way while you do your work. If you're in California, it's worth knowing that clipped-head nails don't make shear and are essentially unavailable in the state, so buy a nail gun that takes full-round head nails (you can get full-round nails for a clipped-head nailer, but they are more expensive, and the irritation you will feel about getting them is not worth it).

Landscape Tools
I'm a severe minimalist for landscaping. OK, actually, I have a ton of garden tools, and keep adding to them. But it's best to get gardening tools as you go, because you're going to be adding enough tools to your life without adding a bunch of stuff you're not going to even use. This is where I'd start:

The bare minimum is your basic shovel. You will want to dig a hole somewhere, somehow, and this will get you there. But I admit that the first shovel we used on our house was a flat spade, which we used to scoop plaster off the living room floor, and to pry up flooring from the illegal pantry bathroom. You can get more and different shovels as you need them for projects indoors and out, but I guarantee that you will use a plain shovel if you own any kind of land at all.

For carrying weeds, filling with water to soak bare-root plants, or sitting on while weeding. See above note in plumbing tools; a bucket is one of those tools you will need everywhere and anywhere. I find a 5-gallon bucket invaluable in the garden.

Elaine rightly points out in the comments that a hose that will reach beyond your furthest fence from the spigot is good, too. You can use it for watering the landscaping, of course, but also for washing your car off, filling buckets, and rinsing items that need outdoor rinsing (we wash our catbox on the lawn when we change the litter). Get a good professional rubber one (or a couple of hose repair kits if you get a cheap vinyl one) and a hose reel if it's longer than 20'.

What's not here:
- lawnmowers, because you may not need one depending on your site. If you have a lawn, get one.
- leaf blowers, because they make your neighbors hate you with the heat of a thousand suns.
- any and all kinds of garden gadgets; those things are useful, but they are not universally so. As you do projects outside, get yourself the tools you need or want. Try to try things out before buying them (neighbors are great sources for tools to try out, especially power tools).

So what would you add to an MVT list?

posted by ayse on 06/17/08


In the gardening category, I would have to add my Fiskars weed puller -- our community recently decided to ban herbicides and pesticides. Since we have dogs, we've never used them anyways, so I always turn to my weed puller to rid ourselves of those pesky dandelions.

As for hand tools, I couldn't live without my ratcheting wrench (with various-sized socket heads in metric and imperial units). And, living in Canada, a full set of Robertson screwdrivers -- Robertson screws were invented by a Canadian in the early 1900's and have a square-shaped tip with a slight taper. Hence, you don't have to hold the screw with one hand while driving it with the other and the screwdriver doesn't slip out of the screwhead.

Great list! I really do need to get an outlet tester and current detector.

I would add good sharp pruners, a digging fork (great for gently loosening soil, especially if it's rocky and a spade won't go in), a post-hole digger (I use mine for planting; makes perfect holes and moves the dirt more easily than a shovel) and a big rubber mallet (for pounding in stakes, posts and edging, and for crushing ice for the margaritas afterward).

Also a stepstool (2- to 4-foot), stepladder (6- to 8-foot) and extension ladder (20- to 40-foot).

For gardening, I'd add a pitchfork for breaking up the dirt. Also, a wheelbarrow with solid (not inflatable) tires. A rake. A leaf rake (else you trash the dirt when you just want to lightly rake up debris). If you plant flats of tiny things, a tablespoon for planting tiny things and a trowel for other things. Felco pruners for delicate stems and woody twiggy stems. Loppers for recalcitrant stems. A straw hat (file under safety gear) or baseball hat (same). A hose that is long enough so that you can be holding an end of it while leaning on your farthest fence while it is connected to the spigot and running.

A couple of painters' tarps (canvas) are good. If you're going so far as to talk about doing electrical work and so on, you are probably talking to the demographic that paints their own house. Plastic tarps are evil. They bunch up and when the paint is dry, the tarps shed paint chips all over. Plus, they wind up in the fossil record.

Good suggestions, all, but more along the lines of stuff you would get as you needed it, especially the gardening things (a surprising number of people I've given variations on this list to don't garden at all and protested my inclusion of the shovel). And nobody in the US is going to have enough use for a square-drive screwdriver to buy one right away, unfortunately, because I agree that they are superior fasteners.

Though, actually, a short ladder and a long hose are both good ones: we had to go out and buy a hose the first day we were in our house. I will add them to the list in a mo.

I love my respirator! They are so much nicer than those little paper masks in almost every way. buy one!

One tool I would add would be a pair of nippers
(like these:

They're hard to describe, but indispensable for pulling little things like nails with broken off heads, or carpet staples. It takes a few tries to figure how hard to squeeze and not cut what you're pulling, but from then you can grab the smallest nub and just rock to the side to pull it out. They were probably our most used tool.

A tetanus shot. Better in advance than running around at 8 pm looking for an open late walk-in place. And they last 5-10 years. Although if you get a puncture wound, you probably want to get antibiotics as a preventative, one of the few times that's a reasonable thing to do, imho.

Do you sharpen your tools yourselves? I am clueless about that, but I envision everyone else with magic sharpening things that they know how to use.

A recent dishwasher installer had a magnetic level, someone's brilliant idea.

I can't believe how many years I wished I had a power saw for heavy pruning but didn't from fear of whacking off one of my own appendages. Then someone told me about sawzalls. My life has never been the same.

I second various things in the other comments, but esp. a pitchfork for breaking up hard ground. Much easier than starting out with a shovel.

Want to cut down tall grass or weeds without getting covered in bits of sticky greenery and without using electricity or gas? Behold:

I too have been driven nearly to the edge of homicide by leaf blowers. I used to have a neighbor who used one daily.

one of those combination paint scraper tools has been one of the most useful tools i've purchased. i remember standing in the hardware store thinking, "that tool looks cool, i wonder if it's worth $7 to have one of those? if i buy it, will i use it?" well, i've used it almost every day and usually not for it's intended's definitely my favorite hand tool.

Serious work shoes ... a sufficiently heavy object dropped on a steel toe will chop your foot in half

Urban legend... Pretty conclusively debunked on MythBusters. Discussed on Snopes.

One other benefit of stiffly-soled (perhaps even steel-shanked) work boots: they make standing on the rungs of a ladder for hours on end a lot more comfortable, because of the platform they create for your feet.

hardhats, which will only be useful if you're doing something where heavy things might fall on your head.

Or if, like me, you're tall enough to hit your head on the stuff hanging from the ceiling when working in the basement... Pipes, electrical conduit, fluorescent light fixtures, etc. I've gotten some nasty bumps on the head in spaces like that when not wearing a hardhat, and been saved from some nasty bumps when I was.

I second the paint scraper; I would suggest one metal and one plastic, the latter for scratchable surfaces, and the former for when the latter won't get the job done.

In the "as you need it" plumbing category I would add a closet (as in water closet) augur, also known as a toilet auger, for when the plunger just can't get it done. In my experience, way easier for toilets than a regular snake.

Also, in the advice-for-new-homeowners category: Get under the house _yourself_ (ideally before you buy) so that you understand at least at a minimal level where the pipes, ducts, wires, etc. are, where they go and what shape they're in. You think the inspector will tell you about all potential issues? Hah.

I can't believe you are down on cordless drills. I think the cordless drill is perhaps the greatest invention of the 20th century. Well, maybe second to oral contraceptives.

I picked up a cordless circular saw for my last project and oh man am I in heaven.

The greatest problem I've found with cordless tools is not keeping batteries charged, it's that they keep changing the battery specs and thus make it damn near impossible to replace the battery on my nine year old drill!

I double plus agree on the safety goggles. Much like bike helmets, it only takes one close call to make you a life-long believer.

Ah, where stuff is - learn where the whole house shutoffs are for the water, gas, and electricity, and permanently tie a shutoff tool to the base of the gas shutoff, so that when a flood or earthquake or whatever happens you aren't wondering where that tool is.

And follow the house inspector around with notepad and pencil.

I find it weird that people tell me the steel-toed shoe thing is debunked when it happened to somebody who was standing five feet away from me (steel girder slipped and dropped and smashed the guy's right foot after gashing his leg pretty seriously, too). It's not the sort of thing that would happen around my house, given the materials of construction on this particular site, but I have seen it happen, so no, it is not debunked, although there's no newspaper report to verify it to Snopesian levels. And yes, I do realize how silly it is to have that sort of accident make my wary of steel-toed shoes rather than steel girders as tall as me.

Karen Anne, I will do a post on tool sharpening sometime this summer -- I was just sharpening my pruners a bit ago and thinking that probably a lot of people who are more generally gardeners don't really know much about that.

And Jim, I am down on cordless drills because if you are going to spend an entire weekend, 9am until after dark, using the drill to screw up drywall (in more ways than one!), you'd need five batteries and then by the end of the day your arm is exhausted from the weight of the thing, plus the stupid drill would be underpowered so the whole process takes longer than it should. But I will agree that a cordless circular saw sounds pretty nice, since my most common-near accident with the saw is nearly slicing the cord for some reason or another.

I'm with Jim- I couldn't live without my cordless, but to each his own. I find they work best if you have a spare battery or two, so you can keep one on the charger while working with another- kind of a juggling act at times, I admit. As for replacing old batteries: if you can't find the right pack anymore, you can get the old one rebuilt. They're just a plastic case that can be disassembled, containing a bunch of NiCd cells. Find a good battery store (around here it's a chain called BatteriesPlus) & they'll take care of it. Doesn't save much money compared to buying new, but if you can't find new it's better than replacing the whole durned drill.

A screwgun is a lot better for putting up drywall, you don't have to worry about over driving screws. It's not the first tool you'd buy. If you're on a budget, a corded drill is going to be better, since you need to spend quite a bit for one with enough power. 2 batteries is usually enough.

Derek, I'm thinking we will be getting a screw gun if we do any more drywall (and judging by a recent planning discussion we had vis a vis the lowered ceiling in the hallway, I believe we will). You're right that it's not a beginner tool, but it's on the list for major drywalling projects, along with renting a drywall hoist.

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