If You Want to Fix Things – You Are Going To Need Some Tools

I am going to try and give some guidance to those out there that do not have a basic set of tools. In this post I am talking about fixing and maintaining mechanical things, everything from your car to a lawn mower to a washing machine. First and foremost you need a set of screw drivers, some pliers and an adjustable wrench. This will let you do some very basic repairs and maintenance such as tightening loose screws, changing some filters and things like this.

My recommendation for buying these things are:

Screwdrivers – You need at least three sized of both slotted and Phillips. You can often get a package of 15-20 screwdrivers of different sizes and lengths for about $20 and this is the best value. Make sure it has Phillips sizes 0, 1, and 2. I don’t think you need the larger sets as you will get a bunch of items you will not use. In time you will find that you need special screwdrivers such as square or torx, but you can then buy them as needed. At this point I would avoid the driver with the interchangeable bits as it doesn’t work as well as a plain old screwdriver. You can add it in the future as you build your tool collection and it is a way to have the more specialized tools by just buying the bits.

Needle-Nose, Linesman & Grooved-Joint Pliers and adjustable Wrench

Pliers – I recommend a pair of needle nose, linesmen and arc or grove joint pliers. Again you can often get these in a set but the sets will usually include a set of slip joint pliers (which I consider useless) and pair if diagonal cutters (which you don’t need unless you are doing a lot of electrical work). A pair or two of locking pliers, commonly called vise grips, are also very handy. You should plan on spending $10-$20 per item, the bigger it is the more it costs. I want to caution against trying to go cheap on the arc or grove joint pliers, commonly called channellocks. The cheaper ones will slip out of joint when you are putting pressure on them which can damage what you are working on, or worse your hand.

Adjustable Wrench – This is commonly called a Crescent Wrench and is used for turning nuts and bolts. I recommend the 10″ size if you are buying one and a small 4″-6″ one if you want to get two or find a good deal on a set.


These tools will only let you do the most basic of repairs. To really take something apart to work on it you will need a set of sockets and combination wrenches. Most of the stuff I’ve worked on that has been made anytime in the last 25 years has been a combination of standard (inch) and metric sizes, so you will need both. If you can afford it spend $125-$200 and get a set that includes 1/4″, 3/8″ & 1/2″ drive sockets and ratchets. This will give you a large range of sizes so you can select the appropriate size for the work you are doing. If you cannot buy all three drive sizes as a large set, start with the 3/8″, then 1/2″ and finally 1/4″. Over time you can add specialty sockets as you need them for specific jobs.

Tools are an investment that everyone should consider. Good hand tools never wear out, there are many of my hand tools that I have had my whole adult life. The biggest problem is losing them, so make sure you get a tool box to store them in as well.

An Introduction to the Hand File

Using a hand file is a skill that anyone can learn with just a little guidance and some practice. The key points are:

  • Get a handle for your file.
  • The file should only be in contact with the workpiece during the forward cutting stroke.
  • Get a file card to clean the file.
  • Protect it like any edged tool.

A file has the advantage over a grinder for the beginner of not removing a lot of material quickly. Taking a right angle grinder to a shovel will quickly reshape the edge and reshape it badly if your hand is not steady. Also a file will not heat up the tool like a grinder will. Heating the tool metal can affect the temper of the metal and actually soften the metal making the edge not last as long.

A file works well for sharpening and cleaning up the edge of a tool. If you don’t wait too long you can clean up the edge of a yard/garden tool in just a few minutes, sometimes in less time than it takes to get out and plug in a grinder. I like the tactile feedback you get through your hands from the file. The only thing you feel using a grinder is a buzz. With a file you can actually feel when the metal has smoothed out or if there is still a bump, dent or burr. A file is not what you use to put the edge on something that must be very sharp like a knife or wood chisel.

The file only cuts on the forward stroke (assuming the handle is toward you) and you should lift it off of the work piece on the return stroke. I am right handed so I hold the file handle in my right hand and hold the other end of the file between the thumb and first finger of my left hand. The direction you file should be from the edge toward the back of the tool. Another way to describe the filing direction is to have the edge of the tool pointing toward you have file away from you.

Until you are an experienced metal worker I recommend following the original bevel or angle of the edge on the tool. How different angles are used on different tools is a topic for another, much longer, discussion. Don’t worry about matching the angle exactly, the beauty of using a file is you will not be removing metal fast enough to drastically change the edge angle of a shovel or hoe.

If the item being filed is not held securely you can get chatter, which is the piece being filed vibrating which can cause your file to skip or jump. A vise mounted securely to a workbench is ideal. With something like a hoe or shovel you can often times put some weight on the handle while is on the ground and do a quick clean up on the edge.

I urge you to buy a 8″-12″ fine toothed file and have a go at sharpening the edges your digging tools (shovel, hoe, pick…). You will be surprised at how much better they work.

Basic Blacksmithing Book

There is a very good book on making basic tools from such things as re-bar as well as coil & leaf springs. It is written for rural Africa so I’m not sure how many people will kill and skin a goat to make their bellows, but the other steps in being able to get up and running without much external support.

The book is titled “Basic blacksmithing” by David Harries and Bernhard Heer. A pdf is currently available here. I’m not sure of the copyright status of this book, but I was able to find a pdf several places on the internet so it may be pseudo public domain. The sub-title is “An introduction to toolmaking with locally available materials” and really is a book that starts with the basic blacksmith techniques and tells you how to use metals that can be scrounged from a junk yard.

Some items the book teaches you to make are:

  • Round Punch
  • Hot Chisel
  • Cold Chisel
  • Hot and Cold Sets
  • Tongs
  • Fullers
  • Hammers
  • Axe, Hoe & Knife Making
  • Carpenter Tools


Remember “It’s not the tools that make the Blacksmith, it’s the Blacksmith that makes the tools”.