Well-stocked toolbox key to a job done right

By Andrew Caffrey
Globe Staff / March 13, 2011

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Few new homeowners are likely to set up a workshop right after moving in, and new tools are probably well below furniture and appliances on the shopping list.

But a well-equipped toolbox is crucial for the repair or renovation projects that will soon be screaming for your attention. Without knowing it, the ambitious do-it-yourselfer will soon be paging through tool catalogs like a kid drawing up a Christmas list. It’s tempting to want one of each, but that’s a sure way to waste money and clutter up your workspace.

One general rule of thumb is to not buy a tool, particularly a big, expensive power tool until you need to use it. But there are some essentials any aspiring handyman or woman will need. First, before you forget, get safety equipment: Goggles or other eye protection; dust masks, or better yet, a respirator for working around sawdust and plaster; and if you really are going to use power tools, hearing protection.

Basic kit — Most homeowners generally have some basics: screwdrivers, hammer, measuring tape, utility knife, maybe pliers. If you have only lightweight versions, break down and get grown-up tools: a good, 16-ounce curved claw hammer, a 16- or 25-foot tape measure at least three-quarters of an inch wide, and mid- to long-shaft screwdrivers that can stand up to the torque of stubborn screws.

The same goes for wrenches, pliers, and cutters. Buy tools with heft to them. Spend the money on good ones — it’ll be obvious which ones are better. You only have to buy them once, and they’ll keep for decades. A good slip-joint pliers, wire cutter/stripper with sturdy handle, and a simple set of wrenches, and one or two adjustable wrenches, will cover a lot of ground. An adjustable groove-joint pliers, say 10 inches or so, is absolutely necessary for the inevitable day you find yourself twisted underneath a sink trying to fix a clogged drain.

Clamps act as another pair of hands, holding some awkward piece in place while you contort yourself to nail, glue, stitch, or saw. Will Beemer, director of the Heartwood School for Homebuilding Crafts in the Berkshires town of Washington, suggests clamps with grip handles and triggers, such the Irwin Quick-Grip. Tremendously handy, and “a safety item, too,’’ Beemer said, they can prevent potentially dangerous incidents during sawing, for example.

Close to the most fun you can have fixing something in your house is when you destroy it first — er, that is, removing the older material. The pry bar will be your close friend in this adventure, lifting moldings and other secured wood, removing nails, teasing open tight spaces, chiseling away failing plaster. Pry bars — slim flats of steel with a sharp edge at one end and a flange or hammer-type claw at the other— come in many sizes, with the smaller 8-inch to 10-inch versions a good first purchase. As your ambitions increase, you’ll want a bigger bar.

Sooner or later, you’re going to need to cut something, making a handsaw obligatory. A short toolbox saw will cover many eventualities.

Amping up — The first power tool every homeowner should buy is a cordless drill driver. You will use it over and over again. It drills, it drives screws, and in a pinch, you can use its heavy butt to bang something in place when you’ve left the hammer too far from your perch up on a ladder. Justin Fink, senior editor and tool tester at Fine Homebuilding Magazine, said the best choice is a 12-volt lithium ion battery-powered drill, with a spare battery, charger, and keyless chuck.

A power saw is also a necessity if you see a lot of work ahead, but which to buy first? Fink said modern jigsaws will appeal to most amateur do-it-yourselfers because they’re “safer and less scary’’ than bigger power saws. “They’re very powerful, cut cleanly and are pretty easy to control,’’ he said.

The Heartwood School’s Beemer said when his wife Michele teaches a carpentry class to women, the students inevitably rave about how easy and fun a jigsaw is to use. However, the jigsaw has its limits. The short blade can cut only so much, and if you’re dealing with studs and other framing lumber you will inevitably tax its limit.

The more burly circular saw is a big step up. It’s loud and looks fearsome, but can be mastered. It can cut most anything the average homeowner will encounter. Enterprising handymen can learn how to use it for long cuts, in plywood for example, or paneling, that are typically done on a table saw. One great virtue is that the circular saw is portable.

A terrific tool for finishing off wood projects is a random orbital sander. They easily remove gnarly coatings on furniture you’re refin ishing. Two things to consider when shopping for a sander: One is the dust collection system. Does it look flimsy? Is the bag or collection box firmly attached to the outlet, or can it come loose too easily?

The second factor is how it feels in your hand. You’ll be holding it for stretches of time, so find a grip that doesn’t stress your hands, with power switches and adjustments within fingertip reach.

If you’re this far along, you have to invest in a few more tools to make your work straight and true: a framing square for marking right angles, straight lines, and edges, a level, and a combination square and chalk or plumb.

You might be soon so far gone that “one of each’’ doesn’t sound so crazy. What’s next? Table saw? Air compressor with nailing guns? How about a reciprocating saw? Once you see how those blades cut through pretty much anything, you might be asking your neighbor if he has anything that needs cutting.

Andrew Caffrey can be reached at