You may have noticed that we're hard at work returning a busted 1988 Toyota Land Cruiser back to some semblance of awesome. We call this Sisyphean task The Build. But before we started the project, we had to set up a garage. After all, Brooklyn, from whence this greasemonkey adventure sprang, ain't California. We have cold winters and lots of wet weather, so it's good to have an indoor space in which to wrench.
But even if you have to work outside—as I am usually forced to do—you'll need a few tools to get you going. Sure, you can try fixing your car or truck with an adjustable wrench and a set of worn-out screwdrivers, but the amount of time you'll save using the correct tools is priceless.
Luckily, places like Harbor Freight Tools—where we picked up much of our inventory on the cheap at a “tent sale,” as the photos on this page demonstrate—offer decent tools for very low prices. Some people complain that they break, but we have yet to see a Harbor Freight-derived implement that can't be replaced with only minor damage to the ol' bank account.
You'll need other things, of course, but this is a good primer for any budding automotive enthusiast's garage. If it seems like a lot, never fear. You can start with only the tools you need for a particular job, and build on that assortment. By the time you die or are hauled off to the home, your heirs will have a handsome pile of greasy old crap to get rid of.
On that note, good luck and happy wrenching!
You should really wear safety glasses when you're working on cars. If there's going to be rust and metal flakes flying every which way, invest in a pair of safety goggles as well. You'll want to get a few pairs of mechanics’ gloves as well, in case you handle parts that are hot, sharp or otherwise threatening to your baby-soft hands. If you're prone to dropping things, better get a pair of steel-toed shoes, too. Even a bruised toe can take you out of the shop.
Get a full assortment of flat- and phillips-head screwdrivers (also known as slot- and star-head). You can usually get a set of many different sizes in a package deal. There should be large, small, long and short ones. Using a screwdriver of the incorrect size can damage screws and make removing parts impossible. It's not a bad idea to add a set of Torx drivers to your collection, too, especially if you plan on wrenching on GM vehicles.
You'll need a variety of combination wrenches, which are open on one end and closed on the other—everything from small (8 mm or 1/4-inch) to large (24 mm or 1-inch). If you have some extra loot, get a set of wrenches with ratcheting ends, as they're a huge time-saver. You'll also need several sizes of adjustable wrenches.
It's a good idea to pick up both SAE and metric sizes. If you're working on older American cars, all the fasteners come in SAE sizes, but I've found that many of these cars have had new, non-factory fasteners added here and there over the years, and those tend to be metric. Newer American cars, as well as vehicles from Japan, Korea and Europe, all use metric fasteners.
No tool set is complete without a good ratchet set. Again, get metric and SAE, just so you won't have to run to the tool shop in the middle of your job when some unexpected size pops up. At the very least, you'll need a 3/8-inch-drive ratchet and matching sockets. If you have the extra scratch, get ratchets and sockets in the larger, 1/2-inch-drive and smaller 1/4-inch-drive sizes, too. If you're going to be working on axles, make sure you have the appropriate-sized large socket (32 mm, 36 mm, etc.) in your collection. Get adapters to facilitate drive-size changes, plus swivels and extensions, too. Different combinations of length, size and angle will be lifesavers when you're trying to get at something tricky and sticky.
If you're working on anything more advanced than a Volkswagen Beetle—hell, even if you're just working on a Beetle—there will be times when you need to tighten fasteners to a factory-specified torque level. For this, you'll need a torque wrench. A cheap one will work (and is what we're using) but for higher-end machines, you might want to splurge a bit.
To go along with your 1/2-inch drive sockets, you'll need a breaker bar, too. That's the long-handled bar that can be used to turn difficult-to-crack nuts and bolts. Do yourself a favor and get a ratcheting one, too, as breaker bars are a pain to turn once you've cracked the fastener loose.
Pry bars are essentially giant screw drivers, and can be of great assistance when you're separating old, crusty parts or trying to line up uncooperative bolt holes. Get an assortment of sizes. You won't regret it.
You can never have too many of these. You should have "normal" pliers, needlenose pliers, long needlenose pliers, hooked long needlenose pliers and adjustable pliers—in several different sizes. Adding some specialty pliers (snap ring pliers, for example) is also essential. Make sure you have a set of small wire cutters, too. These are useful for all kinds of things, and not just their intended purpose.
These are essential, but they should be used wisely, as clamping a pair of vise-grips onto something usually means you might not ever use that part again. But locking pliers are indispensable in the never-ending battle against rusty parts. They also make great window-crank handles when you're too lazy/cheap to buy the correct part.
First and foremost, you should have a good-sized ball-pein hammer, for whacking the shit out of things that need "persuasion." If you can get a set of different sizes for cheap, all the better. It's also great to have a brass hammer, which allows you to whack steel things without damaging them (brass being the softer metal), and a dead-blow hammer or two. Those have heads filled with some kind of buckshot that make your hammering action more powerful. Never underestimate the power of the dead-blow hammer. It is simple, but no less amazing for it.
Jack and Jack Stands
If you don't have access to a lift—and even if you do—you'll need a hydraulic floor jack to raise your vehicle off the ground. Since you should never get under a vehicle that's supported only by a hydraulic anything, a set of jack stands is necessary to keep the vehicle in place when it's not resting on its tires and wheels. Do not jack up a vehicle if you don’t know what you’re doing, lest you get crushed because you didn't support it the right way. If you only have one end of the car jacked up, make sure you chock the wheels that are still on the ground to keep the vehicle from rolling off the jack stands.
If you don't have a place to store a big, heavy floor jack, there are portable ones available. The smaller jacks tend to work best on cars and smaller trucks. Full-size pickups and SUVs usually call for bigger jacks and jack stands.
Picks and Magnets
Picks, which look a bit like those tools dentists use to scrape the moss from between your teeth, are indispensable. Using them is like gaining extra length and delicacy of movement for your normally fat, clumsy fingers. A telescoping stick with a magnet on the end is also a must-have, for two reasons. First, if you drop a fastener into a difficult-to-reach spot, a magnet will help you retrieve it. You can also use a magnet, along with a pick, to get out-of-the-way nuts and bolts started on their threads.
Lights and Mirrors
Working on cars is a lot easier when you can see what you're doing. Unfortunately, the many nooks and crannies presented under the hood and under the car make for a lot of obscure, shadowy regions. That's where cheap, battery-powered LED lights can come in handy. Mirrors, again like those ones dentists use, are great for seeing around blind corners and into tight spaces.
Files, Chisels and Punches
Get a set of files: flat ones, an angled one and a round one. They're cheap, and you may need to file things to smooth them out. Chisels and punches may help you get fasteners out when they don't want to move, and can be necessary for removing and installing steel pins that hold things together.
Tap and Die Set
Every mechanic should have one of these, with both SAE and metric thread sizes. The taps are used to clean out and/or repair the threads in bolt holes, and the dies are for doing the same to the bolts themselves. Threads that are in good condition and free from debris are essential for accurate torque readings.
Catch Pans and Buckets
Every mechanic has to drain engine oil, coolant and other fluids at some point, and you'll need a place to put it. Get a couple of different-sized catch pans for the draining, and a lidded five-gallon bucket or two for storage and transport to the recycler.
Rags, Paper Towels and Hand Cleaner
Have a robust supply of rags and paper towels handy, because you're going to make a mess. I like to use paper towels until they're absolutely saturated, in order to reduce waste. Get some of that gritty hand cleaner that smells like oranges. It's magic when it comes time to strip off the thick layer of grease and oil that's caked in every crevice of your hands.
You'll need to keep your tools organized, because lost and misplaced tools mean time wasted. If you're going to be on the move, it may be a good idea to get a few portable boxes. The hinges on the steel ones last longer, but the plastic ones are cheaper and won't rust. If you have the room, a rolling cabinet is always a clutch play.
Parts Storage Bins
Getting into a big project, you'll need to keep parts and fasteners organized. Pick up a set of plastic bins in several different sizes, ideally clear ones. You can use a labelmaker or a marker and masking tape to keep things straight. Get plastic bins practically anywhere.