10 Tools for the Non-Handy Person's Toolbox

I’m not handy. I wish I were, sometimes – I’d love to craft a bookcase, patio bench, or computer hutch with my hands, or even fix a busted electrical outlet. But I can’t – somewhere along the line I missed out on developing that talent, and at this point in my life learning to be more handy is simply too far down on my list of priorities to be very likely.

Still, work must get done. It’s neither practical nor even possible to call in a specialist every time I need something done – not to mention the cost! Most of the time, I can figure things out given enough time and the room to make a few mistakes – whether it’s a toilet that runs all the time or a set of shelves that need mounting on the wall.

Having a broad set of tools helps. If you’re not particularly handy and rely more on trial-and-error than on know-how to get things done, having a bunch of different tools can be helpful simply in suggesting things that might work. And of course, that one tool that you might never guess you’d need might well save the day!

Below are some of the tools I have in my tool chest. They’re the “extra” tools – that is, not the basics that everyone should have. If you don’t have any tools, you’re going to want a decent hammer, at least two screwdrivers (one each, Phillips head and flat head), an adjustable crescent wrench, a handsaw, and a couple pairs of pliers (needle-nose and adjustable). Once you have those, look into adding these to your collection. They’re listed roughly in order of usefulness – but of course, that’s subjective.

1. Power drill

Mine’s a Black and Decker 18-Volt rechargeable drill, and it rocks. It’s easily the most useful and more often used tool I own. It cost less than $50 and runs for quite a while on a single charge.  It came with a handful of accessories – a few bits and some screwdriver heads – but I also picked up a huge set of accessories for around $20: a range of drill bits but also concrete bits, torx and hex screwdriver heads, socket wrenches, and so on. I’ve used it to install shelves, build a work surface into a walk-in closet, hang curtains, and replace a smashed rear view mirror, among other tasks. Once you have a power drill, you’ll start looking for tasks to do with it – there’s nothing more satisfying!

2. Laser level

Laser Level and Stud FinderAnother tool I use all the time – far more often than I would have expected, is my laser level. Mine’s the Black and Decker pictured here – it’s actually a combination laser level and stud finder, but I rarely use the stud finder. The laser level is awesome, though – it comes with a pair of pins you push through the center hole to hand the unit on the wall, allowing gravity to pull the lasers level; twin lasers come out of either side and trace a line along the wall (and around corners for a short distance). Then you just hammer your nail, drive your screw, or measure out your mark along the laser lines. It’s so fun, it almost feels like a toy!

3. Dremel rotary tool

A Dremel is a rotary tool that relies on speed to cut, grind, drill, and polish (unlike a standard drill, which relies on power to do it’s thing). I’m not proud of how I decided to get one – I saw one of those late-night infomercials singing its praises and went to a Wal-Mart the next weekend and bought one. But I’m glad I did – I’ve used it to trim closet rods, cut too-long nails or screws down to size, de-rust tools, sand the inside edge of holes, and cut drywall. One quirk I’ve found is that, because the head is spinning so fast, it’s almost impossible to cut in a straight line; my cuts always veer in the direction of the spin. But for tight jobs and a whole range of sanding and polishing jobs, it’s really the best. Some people even use them to cut their dogs’ nails! This is another one that once you own it, you’ll find yourself seeking ways to use it.

4. J-B Weld

Dangerous. Powerful. Toxic. Messy. What could be better than J-B Weld? J-B Weld is an epoxy adhesive that comes in two tubes – you have to mix it together to activate it, and then it dries as solid as steel. It’s awesome – it bonds to just about everything and hardens water- gas-, and oil-proof.

5. Socket wrench set

A good solid socket wrench set will save your life. That’s in the Bible!* You can likely share all the wrench and screwdriver heads with your drill, but a socket wrench fits places that are totally impractical for a power drill, like tight corners of your car’s engine compartment. Very useful to get leverage on a stubborn bolt that’s too stuck for your power drill’s motor, too.

* Not actually in the Bible.

6. Leatherman Multitool

Although a Swiss Army Knife takes pride of place in my pocket, I have three or four Leatherman Multitools – one in the kitchen drawer, one in my tool chest, one in my car’s glove compartment, and one in my desk drawer. Two are knock-offs, and one is one of the baby ones, but the concept is the same – sturdy, solid tools folded into a portable form. This way I have some basic tools handy when I’m feeling too lazy to take down my big tool box and dig around for something.

7. Tape

Duct tape, of course, but also electrical tape (for quick and dirty wire splices), plumbing tape (which isn’t really tape, but a kind of plastic gauze that goes around a pipe fitting’s threads to create a leak-free barrier), painting tape (for masking off areas you don’t want to get oil or WD-40 or anything else on), and whatever other kind of tape you see around. Tape is cheap, and you’ll almost always find at least one job that you can take care of with whatever kind of tape you’ve wisely stocked up.

8. Putty Knife

Putty Knife

Intended, as the name suggests, to spread putty (for example, while sealing a bathtub), putty knives come in various shapes and sizes. I like to keep one or two handy for things as random as spreading spackling over a screw hole in the drywall to scraping stickers off of glass. They’re cheap, so grab a couple.

9. Precision screwdriver set

A set of tiny screwdrivers (like this one) is a must-have accessory for geeks, who often must remove dozens of itsy-bitsy screws while changing a hard drive, opening a PDA, or swapping RAM into a laptop. They’re also super-useful for tightening screws on glasses!

10. Silver marker

And finally, folks, the silver marker. Not just for teachers, teenage girls, and scrapbookers! In fact, the silver marker is perhaps the single most important piece of equipment available to today’s Homo technologicus for one simple yet vital reason: AC adapters are almost always black. And they’re almost never marked in any useful way to show you which one goes with what gadget! Silver marker shows up on black, and is permanent, which means you can mark each and every wall wart, power convertor, and adapter with the name of the gadget it goes to. I also mark the top side of black USB cables so I can tell which side goes “up” when I plug something in. I’m sure there are dozens of other uses for silver markers – throw a pair in your toolbox and just see how many uses you come up with!

So those are the 10 tools that round out my tool box. What tools do you rely on?

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