A hammer
Michele Lee Willson

Hand Tool Must-haves

Every homeowner (and renter) should have a few basic tools on hand for household projects and maintenance. Hanging pictures, tightening screws, assembling furniture, and even properly cutting a piece of wood all require the correct tools.

Here are our suggestions on the eight items you need to properly stock your toolbox.

A hammer
Michele Lee Willson


There are more varieties of hammers than you think. All you need is a 16-ounce curved claw hammer. It's got enough weight to handle most nailing jobs, but it's not so heavy your arm will wear out after the ninth nail.

Use your full forearm and the weight of the hammer to fuel that swing. You get much more momentum and force by doing it that way. Practice hammering with this technique. You might miss the nail many times at first, but it won't take long before you perfect your aim.

The hammer's claw is used for more than just pulling nails; it's a great demolition tool. The blades of the claw can bust through drywall pretty easily and give you a "starter hole" for tearing down the rest of the wall. Or the claw can function as a lever when you need to pry off wood trim or baseboard.

An assortment of screwdrivers
Michele Lee Willson


There are so many battery-powered screwdrivers available, you'd think the manual screwdriver was as outdated as petticoats and corsets. But you still need one -- because there will be a time when a big ol' power drill-driver is too big for the space you're working in.

Plus, the screwdriver can perform many roles in home repair dramas. It can pry off lids, pry behind wood baseboard or trim, or poke stiff, unruly wires back into an electrical junction box (power off, of course!).

Go for a model that has interchangeable magnetic heads. That way you can easily switch from a Phillips head (looks like a +) to a standard or flat head (looks like a –).

Tape measure
Michele Lee Willson

Tape Measure

A 25-foot tape measure is a good basic model for your tool kit. When the blade is extended on a 25-footer, it'll stay stiff up to 6 feet. Why does that matter? Because when you're measuring up the side of something, like window casing, it's nice if the blade doesn't collapse down on you.

On most tape measures, 1 inch is divided into 1/16-inch increments. All those little lines make for tricky reading at first. Just know that the longest line dividing each inch is the 1/2-inch mark. The next longest lines are the 1/4-inch marks, then the 1/8-inch marks, then the wee, little, need-your-reading-glasses-to-see-them 1/16-inch marks. There are even some tape measures that go way down to 1/32-inch marks. Gimme a break! Anything that needs to be cut with that much precision can beat it.

There's an old carpenter's saying about measuring: measure twice, cut once. Take this to heart. If you've bought some fancy, expensive wood trim for a window or door, you don't want to waste a piece. Measure twice, cut once.

Michele Lee Willson


Pliers are like extensions of your hands; they grip onto things good and tight, so you can use the grips as leverage to turn, pull, or crimp something. Needle-nose pliers are a favorite because the long, slender jaws work for lots of different things.

Slip-joint pliers will put you in good stead if you're leaning toward plumbing repairs. The jaws adjust to varying widths to grab onto different-sized nuts and fittings.

Power tools
Michele Lee Willson

Power Tools

Use all tools mindfully. Using tools isn't like running the vacuum where you can space out while working. You need to focus on what you're doing and give it your full attention.
Keep the following tips in mind:

- If you're using electric power tools, don't get tripped up by the cord.
- If the cord is frayed or worn, don't use the tool.
- Don't use electric tools near water.
- Make sure your grip is steady and firm and that you're not over-reaching to perform a task.
- If you're cutting, be sure the wood is held firmly in place before you start.

It's overconfident, cocksure familiarity that will trip you up with power tools. The minute you don't pay attention to what you're doing is when accidents happen.

A power drill
Michele Lee Willson

Power Drill-Driver

It's a drill! It's a screwdriver! It's both! Every power-tool manufacturer makes a combination "drill and screwdriver" that enables you to drill holes, and, with a simple change of the bit, drive screws.

An example of an application for this two-fer tool might be installing a drapery rod. You'd use one bit to predrill the holes for the screws. Then you'd use a screwdriver bit to secure the brackets. Same tool, two jobs.

Drill-drivers can be electric (corded) or battery operated (cordless). The batteries on cordless tools do need to be recharged, but you don't have a pesky cord getting in your way.

When drilling, you want to approach the surface at a perfect 90-degree angle. This can take some practice. To help you, some drills come with level bubbles that indicate whether you're steering straight on or heading off course.

Drill bits
Michele Lee Willson

Drill Bits

A discourse on drills isn't complete without a bit on bits. Bits are fitted into the drill's chuck. When you turn the chuck to the left, it opens the jaws to accept the bit. Turn it to the right to secure the bit.

Most drills will come with a bit for driving screws, but you'll have to invest in a couple more to complete your collection. If you're going to be drilling into wood, buy a "pilot point" drill bit set. These are the bits you'll use whenever you see instructions for "predrilling a hole." Use a size slightly smaller than the fastener when you're predrilling. A good quality set of bits will cost around $20 to $25 and will include a variety of sizes.

Power saws
Michele Lee Willson

Power Saws

Before you attempt using a power saw, which can be dangerous, learn how to use a power saw responsibly and safely.

Power Saw Safety Rules:
- Always wear safety glasses.
- Make sure your workpiece is stabilized and anchored before making your cut.
- Don't operate the saw with it directly in front of your body; keep it to either your left (for southpaws) or your right.
- Keep the cord out of the way.
- Keep the base plate firmly planted on the work surface.
- Don’t wear jewelry or loose-fitting clothing that could get caught up in the tool, and if you have long hair, tie it back.

A power saw
Michele Lee Willson,


The jigsaw will be a snap to master if you've ever worked with a sewing machine because these tools have similar operating principles.

When you sew fabric, the needle moves up and down and you move the material around as needed. With a jigsaw, the blade moves up and down and you move the tool around the material as needed.

A power saw
Michele Lee Willson

Power Hand Saw

True to its name, the Navigator has sailed through tasks as varied as pruning tree branches and slicing into gutters. It won't give you an elegant, crisp cut such as you'd need for finish carpentry, but for general, all-purpose versatility, this saw rocks.

From "Joanne Liebeler's Do It Herself, Sunset Books

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