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My First Tools: A Gear Guide for Wrenchin’ Rookies

From where I’m sitting, working on cars is one of the best parts of car culture. You get to learn new skills, invent new words and find solutions to problems you never imagined you’d have to face. Also, you get to better understand what makes your car tick. The major road block? You have to have tools to work on your car. Jumping into the world of tools is intimidating and can get expensive fast. Sure, you could finance your way into a full professional tool set, but that’s probably not the best route for a hobbyist who isn’t using their tools to make money.

With that in mind, here’s a place to get started: a guide to your first tool set, along with some extra goodies you didn’t know you needed.

You’ll need some sockets. How many depends on a few things, like what you plan on doing in your home garage, drive or rented shop space. With so many options out there for socket wrenches and ratchet handles, diving in without a guided tour is overwhelming. Just doing a little research will peel back the curtain of the various price points, features and manufacturers.

What I suggest: Buy a set. Buying sockets piecemeal, even entry-level tools, will cost an arm and a leg. Even looking at sets, there are a handful of paths you can take. You can buy complete sets in the three main drive sizes: quarter-inch-, half-inch- and three-eighths-inch-drive tools, or you can opt to find a huge set with a ton of pieces that encompasses all of the above.

Buying a comprehensive set from Craftsman, GearWrench or your various private-label big-box store is the most affordable and sensible place to start. I took a different path, buying a high-quality three-eighths-drive set, and opted for more affordable tools in quarter- and half-inch. While more expensive, it did render me with mostly complete runs of all the main tools I’d ever need.

You also need to take into account what you plan on dragging into your garage. Considering I mostly work on older domestic vehicles, I could probably skate by with having only fractional tools; if you primarily work on imported or modern vehicles, you’ll want metric.

Modern tools have a handful of features that didn’t exist on older tools. The big one with sockets: off-corner engagement. Virtually every decent socket has some variant of off-corner engagement that has a branded, trademarked and easily advertised name attached to it. For example, Snap-On calls it Flank Drive, SK Tools calls it Suregrip and GearWrench calls it Surface Drive. You get the point.

The Craftsman VersaStack Mechanic’s Tool Set comes with just about every basic hand tool you’ll need to get started. The 216-piece kit comes with sockets, ratchets, Allen keys, Torx bits and more. The compact kit also makes for a great in-car tool box if you plan on upgrading down the road. This tool set is also baked into Craftsman’s VersaStack pack-out system, which could make it handy for those on the road.

This GearWrench set features the full gamut of 3/8-inch drive sockets, deep and shallow, and in metric and fractional. Essentially, it’s a small stepping stone to a complete socket set, with high-quality imported tools. This set also features a standard-length 3/8ths drive 84-tooth ratchet and a stubby length 84-tooth ratchet. These single-pawl ratchets have a thin head and help you get access in tight spaces. The downside: You’ll have to spring for similar sets in quarter- and half-inch form when you venture into smaller and larger projects.

Tekton tools might not be a household name like Craftsman yet, but it seems like it’s headed that way. This 3/8-inch drive socket set includes both metric and fractional sockets, in shallow and deep depths. It’s also stuffed with six-point sockets, a breaker bar and a few extensions. Oh yeah, and it has just about just about every 3/8ths drive socket you’ll ever need to work on your car.

This SK Tools set might be more expensive than the rest, but it’s made right here in the good ol’ USA. While you’re paying a slight premium for the domestic manufacturing, you’re also getting genuinely high-quality tools that should last you a lifetime of wrenching. (Full disclosure: This is the first socket set I purchased and have no regrets.)

This is somehow even worse than sockets. Sure, there are fewer ratchet handles that you need, but you’ll probably be tempted by features, designs and creature comforts available in different ratchets. If you opt for a big set, you’ll likely get some bog-standard, normal-length ratchet handles in the standard sizes.

Most sets are including fine-tooth ratchets, which are becoming more and more common. For that reason, I’d suggest not dipping below a 72-tooth ratchet design. You might not need a flex head ratchet right off the hop, but you’ll need one eventually—and it will make your life easier.

Comfort grip handles are another feature that some enjoy. Personally, I’m not a big fan of comfort grip handles because the soft material will deteriorate over time, whereas a chrome handle will wear like, well, a chromed chunk of steel.

There are also various ratchet designs. The two big players: round-head and pear-head ratchets. Round-headed ratchets are bulky, but some people prefer them. Myself? I’m in the pear-head camp.

While you could start with a handful of low-tooth-count, hand-me-down ratchets, you might run into some problems in the tight areas found in more modern cars. These 120-tooth flex head ratchets from GearWrench give you a 3-degree swing arc, which means in a perfect world the next tooth engages every 3 degrees. This set includes the three most common sizes you’ll find in the automotive world, as well as a stubby 3/8ths drive ratchet to get into those tight places. The stacked pawl design on the 120 XP ratchets does make the head a little bulkier than single-pawl ratchets, which is something to consider.

Focused even more on your budget, these non-flex-head ratchets from Tekton feature 90 teeth. For those at home counting, that’s 4 degrees in the swing arc, so slightly worse than the GearWrench, but still much better than the 36-tooth ratchet you sometimes use as a hammer. These ratchets are also a single-pawl design, which helps the head be slimmer than those above.

The legendary SK round head ratchet. This 3/8ths drive ratchet is made in the USA and features a 40-tooth round head design. This ratchet is an older design, and a proven commodity, but its low tooth count and large head might not make it your go-to ratchet. That being said, SK does have a high-tooth-count drop in replacement mechanism for this ratchet, which might help it become an ace in your back pocket.

Buying screwdrivers on a budget is an interesting adventure. While truck brands like Snap-On, Mac and Matco offer great screwdrivers at a high cost, they aren’t the only players in the uber-nice screwdriver game. If you plan on using screwdrivers as intended, it’s worth springing for a set of higher-end hand drivers. Ratcheting screwdrivers and electric screwdrivers are handy but will push your tool budget a little higher than just a standard set of drivers.

The big advancements in screwdrivers over the years have been special tips to help prevent damaging the fastener, and grips. Ergonomic grips might be overblown, especially in the automotive world. That being said, my favorite screwdrivers have both special tips and ergonomic handles.

These Wera Kraftform screwdrivers aren’t cheap, but they are good. This six-piece set features ergonomic handles to help you deliver torque to the fastener most effectively. Wera also serrates the tips of these drivers to better bite the screw and prevent cam-out. Far from the most expensive screwdrivers, these are some of my favorites.

One of the industrial arms of Snap-On, these J.H. Williams hard-handle screwdrivers look shockingly like their more expensive counterparts. These drivers are USA made, and there’s about every commonly found automotive size in this set.

If you’ve never had a chance to use an acetate-handled Craftsman screwdriver, you’ve never used a screwdriver. The acetate-handled drivers are one of Craftsman’s staples, and they’re priced low enough to not have to keep them under glass. These drivers don’t have ergonomic handles or special tips, but they’ll still get screws out.

PB Swiss screwdrivers might not be household staples like the Craftsman drivers above, but these Swiss-made screwdrivers are some of the best you’ll ever use. Priced accordingly, you might not want to dive into these as your actual first set, but it never hurts to expand your horizons.

If you buy one of the big starter tool sets, you’ll get a smattering of budget-minded wrenches. Most of the time, these wrenches aren’t bad, but they are far from high-end. This might sound cliché, but investing in a good set of combination wrenches should last you a lifetime. Of course, good is relative—and generally relatively expensive. While I’m a huge fan of snagging a set of combination wrenches with an aggressive modified open end, that could result in marring or damaging a fastener.

Just like buying a socket set, you need to consider what you’ll be working on because that directly affects how much you’ll need to buy. You also need to factor in the country of origin, if that matters to you.

Like the Tekton socket set, these Tekton wrenches are budget-friendly, but far from cheap. This 30-wrench set has just about every combination wrench you’ll want working on your car in fractional and metric sizes. No, there aren’t any jumbo-sized wrenches, but you won’t need those until you, well, really need them. These Tekton wrenches don’t offer a modified open end, which means they’re safe to use on chrome and polished fasteners.

Like the Tekton set above, this is a solid set of spanners that should get you through just about any project. Unlike the Tekton set above, these wrenches have six-point boxes, opposed to the Tekton 12-point boxed ends. While that technically makes life harder if you need to position the boxed end of your combination wrench in a tight area, it does help give you a more secure hold on the fastener.

Like their sockets, SK Tools makes a helluva combination wrench. These American-made tools should last you a lifetime and have enough left over to help your grandkids, nieces, nephews or neighbors dismantle a car after you’re gone. They also have a 12-point design, which gives more versatility in tight areas. These also feature a smooth open end to help keep your fasteners unmarred. This 15-piece set covers metric fasteners ranging from 8 mm to 22 mm. SK also offers a fractional set for those who work on older American iron, too.

These Wright Tool wrenches are maybe my favorite wrench. If you live in the Rust Belt, or deal with stubborn fasteners, these wrenches are the ticket. Well, for hard to reach fasteners where you can only use a wrench, anyway. These Wright tools feature a modified open end, which Wright calls Wrightgrip 2.0. This translates to serrations in the open end of the fastener that help bite the work while you’re taking it apart. This does damage the fastener, but it also gets stubborn pieces apart without slipping or spreading the tool’s jaws. For the money, yep, these are my favorite modified-open-end combo wrench in the game. Oh yeah, these are made in the States, too.

You don’t know how much you need a good set of pliers … until you need them. While there are a million different types of pliers, the staples you’ll need while working on cars include a pair of needle nose pliers and slip joint pliers. Tongue and groove pliers (also known as Channellocks) can help make life easier, but they’re not an absolute necessity. There are also a handful of semi-essential tools like locking pliers, but you can start collecting those as you go along: Remember, buy as you need. If you don’t plan on diving too deep into a project, you probably won’t need a good set of snap ring pliers, for instance. But, if you’re taking random subassemblies apart or diving into a transmission, you better have some snap ring pliers on hand.

This Channellock set won’t be the cheapest bunch of pliers you’ll find, but you are saving some money by buying a set. Sure, you don’t need the tongue-and-groove pliers right off the hop, but the slip joint pliers and the needle nose units are as good as any. The set also includes some diagonal cutters, which come in handy for those necessary zip ties and for any impromptu prying you have to do while removing cotter pins. Oh yeah, and Channellock makes these tools in the USA.

If you don’t want to spring for a whole set of pliers—and I can’t blame you—snagging a pair of these Tekton slip joint pliers isn’t a bad move. Like the Channellock set, these are made in the U.S. and feature robust and sharp teeth. You’ll find a lot of use for these when you remove spring clamps or, well, anything you need to remove by any means necessary.

German company Knipex is known for making some of the best pliers in the world. These long-nose pliers are no different. While these might be a tad pricey for a rookie, these will help you get the job done whenever you need a long-nose plier.

Post time: Jan-19-2020