I was conversing with a friend of mine about some basic automotive tools today. I suggested a few different types of items and later on checked online to see what others recommended. I came across some pages that had some decent lists and a few that were poor. I’ll share a link to one of the poor ones for the humor. This page listed “tools every weekend wrencher should own.” So, not basic tools but still worth reading I thought. Ratcheting wrenches, voltmeter, ball drivers…those look good. But what is this? Plasma cutter? Abrasive cabinet? Clecos? I’m not sure what a “weekend wrencher” will do with a plasma cutter? “Hmm, I stripped this bolt next to the gas tank. I’ll fix it with the plasma cutter!” No. I don’t think so.
So, what do I recommend? Here’s my list. I might have missed a few but these should get you going for the basic items which you’ll always need. Most of the tools below aren’t specialized but a few are. If you’ve read my other posts, you know I prefer tools made in the US. I won’t suggest any specific brands. I have some I like but these days even cheap tools are good quality and come with a warranty. That being said, I’d avoid made in India tools. I’ve not been impressed by the ones I’ve seen and there is good Chinese stuff out there for about the same price.
Automobiles are held together with lots of fasteners. A lot of them are hex shaped nuts and bolts. There are two prevalent size standards: Metric and SAE. When it comes to vehicles, modern cars are entirely metric. So if you’re buying, go with metric sizes. Older vehicles were SAE and some have a mix of both standards just to annoy you.
The most basic of the automotive tools are sockets and ratchets. Some lists listed these separately which makes no sense cause one won’t work without the other. Sockets come in multiple sizes from very small up to massive. They have two main identifying numbers. The size nut/bolt they fit and the drive size. For automotive work though focusing on sockets that fit 5mm-22mm should cover 95% of what you’re likely to encounter. You may need some sockets above 22mm but you won’t need every socket above there. The second identifying number for the socket is drive size. This is the size of the square opening on the other side of the socket. For most automotive work there are three important drive sizes: 1/4″, 3/8″, and 1/2″. These drive sizes are used for metric and SAE sockets. I’ve found I use 3/8″ drive most of the time. 1/4″ drive is used for smaller sockets and 1/2″ for larger ones. There are larger drive sizes but you can ignore them for now. If you need them, you’ll know. Sockets also come in different lengths typically referred to as short or deep (long). Short are what I’d recommend at first. Lastly, there are extensions. Extensions fit between the sockets and ratchets allowing you to reach further. They come in different lengths but 3″ and 6″ are good ones to have at first. You can stack extensions as need. Seen below are an assortment of sockets, extensions, and ratchets. When it comes to starting out, pick up one of the large mechanics kits as they’re cheaper then if you bought everything separately.
The other classical tool is the wrench. Wrenches typically have a descriptive name before the word wrench such as combination, offset, etc. The most common type of wrench is the combination wrench which is sometimes shortened to just combo wrench. This type of wrench has an enclosed box end on one side of the wrench and an open end on the other. The box end is stronger and less likely to slip off the fastener than the open end. Sometimes you aren’t able to get the box end onto the fastener which is where the open end saves the day. Wrenches can be used on their own but also work well when holding the head of the bolt that you’re taking the nut off of with a socket and ratchet. Wrenches come in sizes like sockets do. Wrenches also get exponentially more expensive as the size increases. So, if you’re starring out, buy a set and add on as needed. As I mentioned before, there are other wrench designs but the combination is the go to first wrench.
Hex headed bolts and nuts are common on vehicles. There are also an assortment of fasteners with other head designs on modern cars. Some might have an inset hex shaped hole that requires the L shaped Allen keys shown below. Other fasteners have a star shaped hole known as torx. Ultimately, there are numerous types of fastener head designs. Still its a good idea to have a set of hex and torx sockets, keys, or drivers.
How tight should you tighten that nut or bolt? The manufacturer knows. To tighten it to the correct amount you’ll need a special kind of ratchet called a torque wrench. Previously, this would have been a more advanced mechanic tool due to price. These days they can be found cheaply. I’m not sure I’d want to build an engine with a cheap torque wrench (though others have) for tightening your lug nuts or random bolt it’ll work fine. Just be sure to treat it carefully and be sure to set it to the lowest number when finished using it. Also, don’t use it for taking anything loose.
Screwdrivers are another standard tool. They can be found with a wide variety of tips. The two most common tips are the + shaped Phillips and the – shaped slotted. While useful for automotive work they probably won’t see a ton of use. Mostly they’re used for interior work and a few clamps. Slotted has fallen out of favor though Phillips is still used some. Torx tipped drivers are also useful. Screwdrivers aren’t prybars. So, don’t do that.
One of the basic automotive tasks is changing the oil. If you’re going to do this you’ll need a specialized tool known as the oil filter wrench. They come in various shapes and sizes. You’ll probably end up with more than one. Not because you need them all…but because you had to buy several to find one that worked. The cup shaped ones fit on a ratchet and are the only things that work on one of my cars. The band shaped one works on its own and is needed on one of my other vehicles. The plier looking oil filter wrench is good for getting a stuck filter off or crushing it accidentally.
Another common line of tools are the pliers. They too come in a variety of shapes. The pointed ones are good at grabbing small things or picking up that dropped nut that you can’t reach. Regular pliers and adjustable pliers are useful for loosening hose clamps or other spring loaded things. They’re not as useful as wrenches and sockets but are required from time to time.
Service manuals are great. If you plan to do light work on your vehicle, pick up one of the cheap Haynes or Chilton manual. These manual cover how to do basic maintenance up to completely tearing the vehicle apart. They also contain torque specs for use with your torque wrench. If you’re serious about working on your vehicle, step up to the factory service manual. These phone book sized sometimes multi-volume manuals contain invaluable information on the hardest part of automotive work: diagnosis. Figuring out what is wrong is often tougher than replacing it. This is where the factory service manual shines over the cheaper manuals. The service manual will have to be purchased at a dealership or online. Look around online first though. Some manufactures offer them for free or you might find a digital copy online on a forum. If you have an older vehicle, service manuals can be found cheaply on ebay. A warning on service manuals. In the manuals on older vehicles they often detailed how to identify a problem using common tools and relatively simple techniques. The newer manuals heavily reference the hand held factory service computer which won’t help you diagnose a problem since you haven’t dropped $5k on their tool. Still, all the manuals aid in the steps required to replace a part. There’s also a wealth of information on forums and Youtube.
If you plan to work on your vehicle you’ll need to get it up in the air so you can climb under it. To do this you’ll need a jack. To keep it from crushing you, you’ll need jack stands. Sold in sets, these adjustable stands are used to support the weight of the vehicle while you’re under it. A hydraulic jack uses pressurized oil to lift the vehicle which could leak and drop the vehicle unexpectedly. Jack stands come in different heights and load capacity as seen below.
There’s not a lot of light in an engine bay and under the car so you’ll need to provide your own. There are lights for this purpose commonly called trouble lights. I’m not sure if it is because they are used when there is trouble or because they cause it. Older lights used incandescent bulbs but newer ones are florescent or LED. They too come in different shapes and sizes. Some come with clips and hangers. This is a good thing as they often seem not to fit where needed or only seem to shine in your eyes.
Another tool that is pretty much required on modern vehicles is the multimeter. This digital meter is able to measure voltage, resistance, amperage, and other items depending on the model. How’s your battery? Alternator working? The multimeter can tell you. It is useful for testing sensors, checking for electrical signals, finding shorts, finding current drains, and probably 100 other things. Much more basic than the multimeter is a the circuit tester. It’s basically a wire with a light but can be used in some places where you wouldn’t want to use a multimeter or where you don’t need to know specifics about the electrical circuit. Multimeters can get very expensive but can be had for a minimal amount if you shop around.
There are probably some other tools that I’ve left out but these should get you off to a good start. Tools aren’t like your cell phone They don’t wear out after years or even decades. So, look around at garage sales, flea markets, pawn shops, and Ebay. There are tons of used tools out there and good ones can be found for much less than new ones. Tools can be abused though. Be sure to avoid bent, broken, or heavily worn tools.