We’ve been asked many times about “What are the most essential tools for your shop?” Well, that’s a hard question, because frustration and wailing are the result when the right tools are not available. We need a lot of tools for fabrication, and for one job over another, different tools are essential.
What tools do I need in the shop? What are the most important tools for my shop? Great questions, but let’s look at the whole picture first!
Most Important Is Priceless
Let me start with the First and Most Important. It’s not really a “Tool” as such, so it isn’t in the list, but the most important tool is you. Your knowledge, your skill, your creativity, and your good judgement. We work a lifetime generating and sharpening our “Brain Tool”, so keep learning, keep trying new things, and keep a smile on!
Along with the Brain, your other tools — Fingers, Eyes, Ears, Arms, etc.. are priceless. Yes, there are a lot of eyes and fingers around, but only a limited number are attached to you. In my book, they are a big step above “Essential Tools”. Please, keep you safe — all of you.
Next, Learning is priceless too, so feed your brain. Enough said. Let’s get on to the list.
The List of Essential Tools
So I tried to make a simple list, but failed because each big item on the list requires some ancillary extras to really make it work. For instance, what good is a drill without drill bits? So, my essential tools list also includes the supporting bits in the discussion.
That said, in the context of a DIY shop working with metals, here’s my list.
Zero – Basic Essential Hand Tools
I’m starting with Zero because basic hand tools are a statement of the (almost) obvious. They are essential hand tools, but even more than that. Yet, this answer is not the true spirit of the question about “What are my essential tools.” It’s just that the others in the list don’t make much sense if you don’t have the basics first.
I think everyone should have these no matter what. (Is that too assumptive?) A good basic tool set is one of my favorites to give as a wedding gift. Everyone needs these sometime. You can have more or less, but the basics (in my mind) should include all of these:
Hammer, Pliers, Snips, Screwdrivers, Wrenches, Sockets set, Allen Keys, Hand Saws (wood and metal — like a hack saw), Files, Tape Measure, and a few other odds and ends. And should I mention a little knowledge on how to use them without hurting yourself?
So, starting with these basics, let’s get into the list of what I think are the DIY essential shop tools.
1st – A Tough Drill
For the sake of argument, a good hand drill will accomplish a lot, but if you’re serious about essential tools in a DIY shop, a drill press is on the list. I personally think bigger and more capable is better. Not like “Tim The Tool Man Taylor” but seriously, I’ve had cheap and smaller-ish drill presses, that don’t drill straight all the time, or don’t have enough torque.
My current drill press is a 3-HP, 3-Phase monster with automatic feed. It’s an old industrial unit from a closed machine shop. You can see it in videos like Drilling Matching Bolt Holes. The beefy table does not deflect with large items, like a beam. It’s also easy to configure for big jobs or small. I love it for a thousand reasons, but it’s big, and heavy, so that has it’s drawbacks. Yet, size and power matter with metals. Since there are some good beefy drill presses available, I recommend getting the biggest one you can fit/afford.
Important features include multiple speeds, high torque, super sturdy table and long drilling depth.
In addition, a good hand drill is a must. These are together as essential tools because they are so similar. When you can’t take the part to the drill press (like here), a good hand drill becomes the essential tool. Electric or pneumatic doesn’t matter, but good quality, adjustable speed, and high torque are important. As always, different tools for different applications. A small drill for delicate times as well, but it’s beyond essential tools to have several.
Oh, and don’t forget the drill bits, extra attachments, table vise, cutting fluid . . . . That’s what it takes to fill the drills full twisted purpose.
I list drills 1st as essential tools because they are easily the power tools I use most.
2nd – Layout Tools
We agree, these are not near the top of most lists of essential tools. Sure, we all have some, but being specific to DIY, the kinds of layout tools are important. If you’re in my shop, these tools are treated with extra respect because we rely on them to do our work well.
First the Scribe. I highly recommend something with a really sharp carbide tip. When we mark on metal, especially steel, we want to see it. Then, when drilling metal, you need the Center Punch and hammer to give you a guide. The Straight Edge, Speed Angle and Sharpie all assist in getting you the right cuts, and the right drill holes.
A Sharpie is included as well, partly because it can make good marks, but I also use the sharpie to highlight a scribed line. Basically I make a first fat line with the sharpie, then an accurate sharp line through the sharpie ink. The sharp line shows up easily through the black ink.
Add in a good tape measure for longer parts, and don’t forget the calipers for the moments when precision matters.
Do you have a favorite layout tool? There are so many, and they all have a purpose.
3rd – Power Saw(s)
In the DIY shop, we are always cutting something. Wood, metal, plastic, rubber, . . . you name it. While it all sounds so easy, many of these things require a special saw. In the article about DIY Ways to Cut Steel, we discuss lots of options.
A Chop Saw like this Evolution is just awesome. I love mine, and it’s a ton better than a similar abrasive saw. Though I prefer a band saw — a monster that basically cuts by itself — they are just so big! And, they take a lot of precious space for most DIY’ers. The Evolution with it’s carbide blade does a great job cutting and there isn’t much mess.
A similar chop saw, or compound miter saw for wood is also on the list of essential tools. Seems like we cut a lot of wood when working with metal.
Next some kind of rotary, abrasive saw. I prefer the abrasive saw as the hand-held as it’s usually the delicate and artistic work we do with that. Mine is just a blade on my high-speed pneumatic rotary tool (die grinder), but other options work just as well.
Keep the saw blades rolling, and keep your fingers far away. This may be one of our essential tools, but we use it OH SO carefully. My shop teacher was missing fingers because of one second lapse of thought, and I don’t want to do that say. Please be careful in your shop, too.
4th – Clamps -Lots of Them
Kind of like the layout tools above, Clamps tend to be a supportive tool. And yet, you just can’t be very productive with out them. I use them with almost every project. So, Clamps of all sorts and sizes are easily on the list of essential tools.
The image shows a bunch of different kinds and sizes of clamps — and that’s not all of them. Sure, C-Clamps, Scissor Clamps, Bar Clamps, Ratchet Bar Clamps, Spring Grip, Plastic, Steel, Wood, etc.. I also use the long Pipe Clamps relatively often, and I use ratcheting tie-downs for clamps a lot as well. Even with all the clamps, with big projects, there never seems to be quite enough.
When you have many, you also need a great way to organize and store them. This is one Storage Solution for Clamps published as one of our Solutions! articles.
Along the same lines, a vise fits the “Clamp” paradigm for me, and my big vise is absolutely essential with tools. The 6″ bench vise works for most things, but once in a while I have to rig something to handle the big stuff. And, don’t forget a good table vise for the drill press.
Then, there are all the little wood blocks to go with the clamps. I personally hate seeing clamp marks or vise teeth marks on finished pieces, so I have a bunch of random wood blocks around to go with the clamps and vise.
5th – Welder
One way or another, in a DIY fab shop, there’s going to be a need to join metal. Sure, you can do a lot with bolting, but some things are best welded. Even when we want to bolt things, we often weld on a flange for the bolts. So, the 5th item on my essential tools list is a welder.
The kind of welder is another story. My favorite is a TIG, but I don’t actually own one because they are not as useful with the things I usually build. Things like trailer frames are so much faster with a MIG welder, so that’s what I have. There are lots of options for welders as we discuss in the article about Which Welder Should I Buy?
I’ll leave the rest of the discussion about welders to the other articles like this one about sparks a flying!
6th – Grinders
Is this an odd one to throw in? Unfortunately, for this list, it’s not just one grinder. A Bench Grinder, Angle Grinder, Die Grinder, etc. When you’re cutting and welding, then you’ll probably be grinding as well.
It sounds kind of funny saying it, but metals are not always as precise as we think. So, grinders are the way to fudge things into submission. Maybe it’s a big or poor weld that needs to be cleaned up . . . . Maybe it’s a part that just almost fits . . . . Or, Maybe it’s smoothing something so it looks good . . . . Maybe it’s removing an edge for deeper weld penetration. Or, cutting something that’s hardened or doesn’t fit in the saw. Whatever the purpose, we find that our grinders get used a lot.
If I had to pick one that can do most things, I’d pick the angle grinder — and a way of holding it stationary. (Great things can happen when the grinder stays still and the workpiece moves.) That devise with it’s many different types of blades is a very functional tool. I’d pick a 4.5″ preferred, or a 6″.
But what about the die-grinder? Yeah, that’s a tough one, because we use one of those a lot as well. Especially with the thin blade, it’ makes a quick cut-off or forming tool. We also use it a lot with a rotary rasp for steel (but that get’s into the 7th group of essential tools).
Well, I’ll leave the choice to you. I think they all have a place, and I’d miss it if didn’t have one of these. What do you really like?
7th – Metal Work Files
Indeed, a whole collection of files — for wood and metals, rough and fine, round, flat, curved, triangle, etc.. While grinders are great for really removing material, files have so much more finesse. And, files can get in little spots where grinders can’t.
To us, files — especially metalworking files — are essential. So essential that we wrote a whole article about them. Check out The Right Tools – Metal Working Files. It’s worth the read to understand why we say Metalworking files are essential tools.
We like the hand files, of course, but sometimes power tools are the right trick. So, as mentioned above, some files like the Rotary Rasp, provide a function that only comes with power. (Functionally, some can be done with a bit in a drill, but something higher speed, like a die grinder, is very desirable).
8th – Floor Jack and Jack Stands
In our opinion, every good DIY shop needs something to lift with. That might be an overhead gantry crane, or it might be an engine style hoist, or something else. We think the essential tools list must include a good Floor Jack — with jack stands.
Yes, I know that seems so automotive, but that doesn’t matter. A floor jack is just the right tool for a lot of jobs. When you’ve got to lift something, and need a power source, so many times you can finagle a floor jack to do the job. For example, we use one as part of the trick for weighing a trailer in this article. With the right creativity, you can find ways to move a lot of things using a floor jack. With that said, please be careful as we don’t want you injured. Just like Safety With Cranes, common sense is necessary.
Along with the good jack, jack stands go right along with it. We often use wood blocks or metal chunks as supports when the load is not lifting very high, but when it get’s up a little, jack stands are the way go. Easily adjustable stands that hold way more load than the jack is capable of . Use them for stability, and for safety.
9th – Multimeter
OK, this is way out of character with respect to the other tools listed here, but it really is essential for a host of things you can’t do in other ways. Things like troubleshooting connections or double checking everything is working as specified on the Trailer Wiring Diagram. Trust me, the multimeter is much better than your finger to see if the shop power is hot! (Yes, that’s speaking from experience.)
There are a bunch of nice meters out there, but most are overkill for the DIY shop. You need the basic functions of Voltage (AC & DC), Resistance (or continuity check), and maybe some current (Amps) measurement. The rest is fluff (unless you know how to really use them).
Fluke makes the one shown in this image, but there are a ton of knock-off’s that are just as good (for our purposes.) I’m one of those that doesn’t go cheap for tools I depend on, but you certainly don’t need to buy the most expensive ones.
The Ones That Just Missed “Essential”
In making the above list, there are several tools that I want to mention, but they don’t quite fit the “Essential Tools” category. These are tools I am quite addicted to, and tools that I wouldn’t want to live without, but there are ways around them. For instance:
Air Compressor and Air Few Tools — A workhorse in our shop, but there are all sorts of manual ways to achieve the jobs without a compressor. This one is really close to the essential tools list, however, because there are a lot of things that the compressed air makes much easier. Though not technically “Essential”, it’s highly recommended.
Gantry Crane, or maybe an engine hoist style. I use the gantry crane a lot, and when I sold my smaller one to build a bigger one, I really missed having it. It’s not the tool that you use every day, but when you need it, not much else will do. I have never owned an engine hoist style lift, so I don’t know about that. I do it all with the gantry. However, I can image it would serve most of the same purposes. The kicker for me has always been that the Gantry is much more convenient, and it stores standing up and ready to use.
Press. Like the crane, when you need a lot of force, there’s not much to substitute for a press. Honestly, that’s why we designed the shop presses we have in the plans store. An arbor press or a hydraulic press. It’s close to essential, and here’s our take on the tool as a whole.
Soldering Iron. Is that out of the blue? We almost listed it as an essential tool. Building often requires electrical things — like lights on a trailer — so you might as well have the tools to make the connections good. Sure, crimp joints can substitute, and that’s why this is not “essential”, however, it’s pretty close.
Big Wrenches. Again, when you need them there’s really no substitute. Everyone once in a while we run into something that requires a big wrench. For those times, I have a 3″ capable adjustable wrench — which is a monster — but it’s interesting how often that comes in handy. Here is a fun story about finding the right tool for the job. It’s funny, but it’s not. I probably won’t need one again, but it was absolutely in the category of essential tools at that moment.
Essential Tools Summary
Your list might be a little different than mine, and that’s OK. While we do have a bunch more tools, these are the things we use most. One thing we didn’t list, because we’re not quite sure where it goes, is Safety Equipment. It’s really more than “Essential”, but it’s kind of in a different category than “Tools”. Either way, Safety Glasses or Face Shield, Ear Plugs or Muffs, knee pads, and a First Aid Kit should be in the shop and easily accessible. Something to think about.
Also couldn’t decide if a Tool Box or the Workbench or the Shelves are tools. In a broad sense they are, but we decided to sideline those for the sake of argument. They do deserve this mention, however.
I’m interested to know your thoughts on what is essential and what is not. Please take a minute and list things that are different in your essential tools below.