Tools For The Trade: What Tools Do You Need?

motor, machine, mechanical

If you are serious about being In the automotive repair business, or just someone who likes wrenching in the driveway you need to start investing in some tools. One question that I get asked from time to time is, “what tools should I get to start out?” When it comes to automotive work there is a never ending list of tools for the trade. I can’t possibly explain every single tool you will ever need in your tool box that’s for sure, however in this article I will go over a few that every mechanic or DIY’er should own.

Whether you are a weekend warrior in the driveway, or a professional tech. Hopefully I can get you started on your way with this quick list of tools that are sure to come in handy for your next project.


Tools Are An Investment

You should look at your tool arsenal as a investment that will bring returns. There is much value in owning the tool you need to get something done without having to run out or borrow it. They never lose their value, a good tool is a good tool that can be passed down through the years.


a father and his child standing beside a green truck
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Time To Start Building Your Tool Collection!

Maybe you just got out of tech school and you landed a job at an established shop. This is great! Or maybe you just want to get a few things in the garage so you can do your own brake job and save a few bucks. Either way the next question is how do you start building up your tool arsenal.

So what are the basic tools for the trade? Let’s look at a few basic things the mechanic needs.


One Quick Note…

Quality tools are not cheap, a typical wrench set from Snap-on or Matco can be three or four hundred bucks easy. I’m talking 8mm to 19mm. Although very expensive you buy these once in your life, they are top line tools. If you just want to just build up a decent set for home however there are plenty of decent options out there, I do advise against buying the cheapest you can get. You get what you pay for is very true for tools in this trade.


silver and green screw driver
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If you are serious about this business, you need quality tools. I know the old saying “A wrench is a wrench” but this is not the case. Take for instance a 7/8 open end wrench, one craftsman and one Snap-on, both 7/8ths, both wrenches.

The difference can be seen however when these are put to the test side by side. For this example lets say we are performing an alignment, and we are trying to break a seized tie rod nut loose. If you use the open end of the craftsman wrench, you will see that at a certain point the torque will cause the end to open up and slip… bam….. rounded nut and possibly busted knuckles. Ask me how I know….


Now for the Snap-on, if you apply the same torque the open end will not spread open. The steel will snap before it stretches. The biggest reason for the huge price difference is the quality of the steel.

A cheap wrench will bend, a good one will snap before it bends. Investing in quality from the start ensures you have what you need to succeed in this business for life.


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For The New Aspiring Auto Tech…

I do not recommend going on the Snap-on truck and spending thousands of dollars on a new tool box and every tool snappy will let you put on your truck account.

Trust Scoot on this, they come around every week. Handing over 50 bucks plus every week starts to suck after a while. Building up a set of tools takes time and a lot of money.


tools for the trade automotive

I’m not saying you need all Snap-on or Matco tools, over time you will learn where to go cheaper, and where you need top notch.

Here Is The List Of Tools For The Trade…Let’s Start With Wrenches


I would start with a standard and metric set. Metric would include 6mm to 21 mm and standard would be 1/4 to 15/16ths. Keep in mind this is a starter set, you will be needing much more over time. Flex head ratcheting wrenches are real time savers too.

You will need a good set of metric and standard Allen wrenches, preferably with a ball end. A couple of larger wrenches are good to have, anywhere from 1” to 1 1/4 should get you started. Grab a pipe wrench if you will be doing any alignments for moving tie rods.


Stubby wrenches are great to have when you need to get into a tight area to make a swing on a fastener. Don’t forget to grab a large and small oil filter wrench. It’s pretty safe to say you will be doing some oil changes whether home or at work.

You Will Find Over Time Your Wrench Drawer Will Evolve As You Grow As A Technician.


It’s not a race, this takes time. A good rule to follow is , if you are borrowing basic tools more than twice, it’s time to buy one. Use the veteran techs as a baseline. Make a list and pick away at it slowly, remember if you are buying good quality tools they never drop in value.


Pliers

Ok next drawer, pliers. Start here with a typical set that is usually on the truck, standard pliers, side cutters, long needle nose, long angle needle nose, and regular needle nose.

Channel locks. Small, medium, and large are a must. Vise grips as well, any variety that seems useful, I suggest staying with original brand vise grips. We also need some small mini pliers, fine needle nose for smaller tasks.


A good set of line crimping pliers are great too, these help with removing hoses etc while trying to minimize fluid loss. Get a good set of electrical pliers as well with a good stripper and crimper. Cutting pliers are a must, hands down the best made are the Knipex brand cutters. I highly recommend them.


Electrical Diagnoses

You need to know electrical systems and diagnostic strategies. I will cover this in depth soon, but for now let’s start with a good multimeter. Hands down one of the best is the Fluke 88 Multimeter without question.

I have had mine literally since I started, over 20 years ago. I’ll be honest, they are a little expensive but this is one where I say spend the money once. The meter has multiple features and is built to last.

You can record data overnight to check battery draws and much more. I will have a article just on this subject later on.


Another must is an inline circuit breaker to protect any circuit that you are jumping power to for testing purposes.

Ok here comes a little Scoot story. Many years ago I was working on a E30 BMW, long story short I was trying to see if the main relay was bad.

I jumped power from terminal 30 (constant power) to what was supposed to be the ecu power………Well when you look at the relay it’s confusing sometimes as to what terminal is correct, guess what! I jumped it incorrectly with no breaker inline to protect the circuit……And watched the harness burn up all the way to the ecu. Enough said, they are cheap insurance.


Get some good jumper leads, and a good test light. For the test light you can go a little cheaper, such as this OTC model.

The second major tool besides the Fluke meter is a power probe. This is another must, click the link to read my full in depth review of this must have tool. Hands down this one is a major time saver and diagnosing gem.

It also allows you to send power or ground to a specific circuit with just a toggle switch. These are critical for electrical system diagnostics.


Screwdrivers

This one should be pretty obvious but we will hit on it. You need screwdrivers, everyone has screwdrivers. You need Phillips and flatheads, small and large. It seems like you can never have enough screwdrivers and pliers. It’s just one of those things. Make sure you get different lengths as well.

Torx head and some plastic trim tools are also a must. A good pry bar is also very handy. Spend the money on the truck for the biggest pry bar they have. If you are a weekend warrior check out this 3 Piece prybar set, trust me you will use it.


Sockets And Ratchets

Again here is a drawer that you can never put enough in. Start with standard and metric, shallow and deep sockets. Get the same sizes in impact rated as well. You need these in 1/4 drive, 3/8 drive, and 1/2 drive to start.

Ratchets come in all sorts of lengths and configurations, get a few flex heads and longer handles. As I said with the pry bar previously, buy the biggest 1/2 breaker bar they have.


Impact swivel sets are a must, 3/8 drive for sure, make sure to grab adapters, these step up or down drive sizes. We need Torx and Allen sockets as well.

This drawer evolves with you, there are a million different sockets and swivels out there, you will know what you need as you progress. Over time you will have a ton of sockets if you are staying in the automotive trade. If you are just looking to get some tools for home the ones mentioned above should be enough.


Hammers, Punches, Etc.

Get good ball peen hammers in a few sizes to compliment your hammer drawer. Definitely get a very small one as well. Mine is one of my favorite tools.

Do not use a carpenter’s hammer, the steel is different and may produce sparks when hitting certain metals. Find a good set of round punches in steel, also get at least one 1/2 diameter punch in brass. Brass does not produce sparks and has a much less chance of marring metals.

Add a seal puller and installer kit in this drawer as well. Finish with a mini sledge and some sharp chisels.


Keeping Your Tools In Your Toolbox


Now is a good time to talk about an engraver. I have had the privilege of always working with top notch guys, people I would give the key for my house to and not even batt an eyelash.

I’ve never had to worry about someone stealing tools in my shop, but everyone’s situation is different. Engravers are so cheap it’s just crazy not to have one.

Regardless of your situation these tools are expensive. Engrave your name in them! Good and deep. Remember this is an investment, no need trying to prove to some idiot that the hammer he found is your hammer and not his.


Air Tools

Air tools are a staple item in any technician’s toolbox. You need a impact wrench 1/2 inch drive and 3/8, it needs to be good quality. Compliment this with 3/8 and 1/4 inch air ratchets.

As you progress in this field you will learn that time is money. It’s like drag racing, every second counts in one way or another, this is why your tools are so important.

Imagine a surgeon with a dull scalpel trying to perform surgery, or a surgeon that can’t find what he needs when he needs it. Not a good look.


You will also need a good die grinder, and air hammer. The air hammer is key , you can do so much with them it’s crazy. Make sure you get air hammer bits, and the arbor for the grinder. Blow guns are a must as well, short and long.

Definitely a digital air chuck and angle grinder as well.

Keep in mind the tool guys are usually really cool guys, bust their chops a little, have them give you a better price, or that air hammer bit for free when you buy the hammer. Just remember they need to make a living too. Don’t take it too far. Again, I realize you may not be a mechanic full time, see what you can find on sale in the stores there is always some good clearance tools for the trade hiding on a shelf.


Battery Powered Tools

By far the best and most used tools in my box are the 1/4 and 3/8 inch battery powered ratchets, you can also get impacts and many other tools that are battery powered. When it comes to speed there is no substitute for these guys.

Battery powered tools serve a great purpose. I would recommend starting with air powered first though, you need to develop a “feel” for torque that I believe comes better with air tools.

Always remember that battery powered tools can not be used in flammable situations. It can and will ignite vapors.


Lighting

You need good light! There is no way around this one, don’t be the guy working in the dark with some crappy light. Spend a few bucks and get a light that is bright and reliable. It will more than pay for itself very quickly.


Other Needed Tools

Of course this list does not cover everything you will ever need, however it covers many of the basic needs of anyone looking to wrench. Below are some other things to check out.

  • Impact driver and bits
  • Brake piston retraction tool
  • Good quality C clamp
  • Slide hammer set
  • Tap and die set
  • Coolant pressure tester is an absolute must, this allows you to pressurize a cooling system to pinpoint leaks, make sure you get a top quality one with plenty of cap adapters
  • Fuel pressure gauge set
  • Hand vacuum pump, this allows you to check for leaking vacuum operated components.
  • Feeler gauge set
  • Torque wrenches, this is a big one especially if you are in the European arena. A 1/2 inch and 3/8 to start out. I suggest a 3/8 digital with angle torque, and a 1/2 inch click type. Eventually you want a 1/4 digital for valve body torques etc.

Of course there are a ton more things you will need over time, like I said earlier you and your toolbox will evolve.


Which Brings Me To Tool Storage

You will need a tool box . There are a few options here. You can go with a cheaper model such as a husky or something from harbor freight. This may be a good option if you are starting out and not sure if you want to do this forever.

If you plan on staying in this field I suggest you bite the bullet and get into a Snap-on or Matco box. Depending on your needs these things are huge money but they are a life long purchase. I personally have two Matco boxes.

My Matco 6s

I have had Snap-on boxes as well, both are top quality. It’s really a matter of preference and what deal is rolling around. The good thing is they hold value well, when you want to step up you should get good trade-in money.

I reccomend investing in a decent rool cart as well to move around when needed.


One last thing I want to touch on quick is organization.

If you are going to invest in tools and take this business serious as a technician your tool box should not be a jumbled pile of tools everywhere. If you want to be productive you need to find what you need when you need it. Even if you are just looking to do some work around the house on a weekend looking for tools sucks.

When it takes you 10 minutes to find one simple socket you need to finish a job it becomes frustrating as hell. This can often lead to aggravation and a deep hate for ever doing work on your car again.

Your tools should be cleaned and put away every night. If I showed you every one of the techs tool boxes in my place they are organized perfectly. They know where their tools are, always.

I can go forever with this list, comment below if you would like to add to my list.


One last thing I would like to bring up.

Make sure you get good safety glasses, hearing protection, and gloves for certain tasks. I love cars, I love this business, it’s not the most gentle on the body. Protect the best tool, yourself.