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Essential Auto Repair Tools You Should Own

by Larry Carley Copyright

Want to do your own car maintenance and repairs to save money? To work on cars, you need some basic automotive hand tools. Some people can take anything apart with a pair of vice grips and a screwdriver, but for serious do-it-yourself car care you need the right tools.


Like a professional mechanic, you should buy top quality tools backed by a lifetime free replacement guarantee. You don't have to spend a fortune on your tool collection. Your total investment could easily be under $150, perhaps less if you already own some of the following items.

Basic hand tools include a set of combination wrenches, a ratchet wrench and set of sockets, an adjustable wrench, a couple of regular and Phillips screwdrivers, several pairs of pliers and a few assorted special purpose tools such as an oil filter wrench, a funnel, a small floor jack, a pair of safety stands, a catch pan or bucket for oil and coolant changes, and a tire pressure gauge. You may certainly add more but these are the minimum requirements.

automotive wrench set


For simple maintenance jobs, you'll need a set of open end/box end wrenches (also called "combination" wrenches). Most late model cars and light trucks have metric fasteners. A set of wrenches ranging in size from 10mm through 19mm should handle all of the nuts and bolts you're likely to encounter. Buy a wrench set that has both open and closed end combination wrenches (or a set of open end wrenches and a second set of closed box end wrenches).

For older domestic vehicles, you'll need a standard SAE wrench set ranging in size from 3/8-inch to 3/4-inch.

To cover all your bases, you should probably have both a metric and SAE wrench set since some domestic cars use a mixture of both kinds of fasteners. For example, the engine may have metric fasteners while the suspension may use standard SAE size fasteners.

When you buy wrenches, buy them in a set. You get more for your money that way. Look for name brand wrenches that are made of drop-forged tempered alloy steel, plated for corrosion resistance and backed by a lifetime written guarantee. Sears Craftsman (also available at K-Mart) is a popular brand with a good reputation. Stanley, Crescent, ACE brand, Husky and GearWrench also make good tools.

automotive socket wrench set


A 3/8-inch or 1/2-inch drive socket set and ratchet wrench is also nice addition for your tool collection. A ratchet wrench is much faster at removing most fasteners. Buy a wrench set that has six point rather than 12-point sockets. Six point sockets are less apt to round off a rusted fastener than a 12-point socket. A couple of extensions and a swivel can increase the set's versatility tremendously. But quality socket and ratchet sets can be expensive, so if you are on a limited budget, you can put off the socket and ratchet set for now. As with wrenches, you may need SAE, metric or both.

When you do buy a socket and wrench set, do NOT buy the cheap made-in-China socket sets that typically sell for less than $15. They are absolute junk and will likely break the first time you use them.

flarenut wrenches . crescent wrench


To loosen large flare nuts or to hold one end of a bolt while you tighten a nut, a set of flare nut wrenches and/or an adjustable wrench (often called a Crescent wrench, or a "monkey" wrench) can be helpful. Get one with a wide jaw opening that can handle nuts up to an inch in diameter.

screwdriver set


For a variety of jobs you will need at least two different sizes of regular (flat tipped) and Phillips (cross-tip) screwdrivers. The cheapest way to buy screwdrivers is usually in a set. A set will often include an assortment of long and short handles which gives you more versatility. Plastic or wooden handles are fine but make sure the handle offers a good grip. Plastic handles with rubber liners may look like they'd give a good grip but once they become greasy the rubber sleeves slip. The blade tips should be of hardened steel and the screwdriver should be plated for corrosion resistance.

Depending on the kind of vehicles you own, you may also have to buy a couple of "Torx" head screwdrivers. Torx head screws have a six-point star-shaped recess in the head (Torx head bolts have a gear-like head and require special Torx drive sockets). You'll find them on many headlight and taillight covers. Torx fasteners are also used on seat belt anchor bolts and some fuel injection assemblies to discourage tampering. Torx head screws are used because they're more resistant to stripping than slot, Phillips or Allen head.

pliers . Vice Grips pliers


A pair of regular pliers and a pair of long needle-nose pliers are a must for any tool box. A pair of interlocking pliers (often called waterpump pliers or ChannelLock pliers) are very useful to own.

Pliers should be of tempered steel and plated for corrosion resistance. Grip is also extremely important. Some pliers come with plastic covers on the handles. The covers look nice and help protect both the pliers and hands. But if the covers don't fit tightly, they'll slip off when the pliers become greasy. As with other hand tools, buy quality name brand tools backed by a warranty. Avoid the cheap China tools (they break!).

Vice Grips are a must addition to every tool box. These are adjustable locking pliers that can grip almost anything. However, if this tool is misused, you may damage fasteners. Always use wrenches or sockets to remove nuts and bolts. If a fastener has a rounded-off head, then use Vice Grips to twist it loose. Buy the brand name Vice Grips, not the copycat knock-off products.

If you think you'll be going beyond basic maintenance and light repair, a pair of snap ring pliers will be necessary. The needle-like tips on these pliers are needed to remove snap rings from parts such as master brake cylinders, U-joints and starter drives.

oil filter wrenches


For changing oil, one item you can't do without is an oil filter wrench. Make sure the wrench is the correct size to fit the oil filter on your car(s). You may have to buy several different filter wrenches if you own several cars that have different sized oil filters.

Oil filter wrenches come in various styles. The ones that work best are usually those that have a metal band that wraps all the way around the filter. If access to the filter is limited, you may have to use a filter wrench that fits over the end of the filter like a socket.

Changing oil will also require a catch pan to catch the oil, a storage container to store the oil for recycling later (most auto parts stores will take your old oil for recycling), and some means of raising you vehicle so you can get underneath it to change the oil.

NEVER use a bumper jack or a sill jack for changing oil. These are for changing tires only, and are not the safest type of jacks to use. Buy a small portable floor jack and a pair of safety stands that have a rated lift and support capacity for your vehicle (a 2 ton rating will usually handle most cars and light trucks). Don�t waste your money on ramps either. They are difficult to drive onto, they slip, it�s easy to overshoot the ramp and drive off the other end, and the ramp may not clear the nose of your vehicle.

For more information about floor jacks and safety stands, Click Here,

feeler gauge & spark plug gauge


Most spark plugs come "pre-gapped" from the factory, but the gap may not be correct for every application the spark plugs fit. Refer to the emissions decal under the hood on your vehicle for the recommended spark plug gap. Then use a feeler gauge or spark plug gauge to check and adjust the electrode gap on the spark plugs when replacing spark plugs.

tire pressure gauge


Here's a tool that many people own but seldom use. Once bought it is often tossed in the glove box and quickly forgotten. They make great toys for the kids because they love to pull the little plastic indicator stick in and out of the housing.

Believe it or not, this tool is a very useful and necessary one to own, even if your vehicle as a Tire Pressure Monitor System (TPMS). Tire pressure should be checked at least once a month when the tires are cold. Refer to the tire inflation decal in the glove box, door jam or your owner�s manual. Do NOT use the maximum inflation pressure on the side of the tire. Most passenger cars typically require 32 to 34 PSI.

assorted automotive tools


If you own an older vehicle, or a truck that has grease fitting on the ball joints, tie rod ends, control arm bushings or U-joints, you will need a grease gun for lubricating these suspension and driveline components. Most use a grease cartridge and work like a caulk gun. You squeeze the grip to lubricate the joint.

If your socket wrench set does not have a deep well socket that will fit the spark plugs in your engine, buy a spark plug socket that will. Typical sizes are 5/8 or 13/16-inch. A spark plug socket usually has a rubber insert that helps cushion the spark plug so you don�t accidentally break it during installation.

For changing and rotating tires, you will need a four-way lug wrench. Or, if you have the bucks, buy an electric impact wrench and a set of impact sockets. You should also buy a torque wrench for tightening the lug nuts when you remount the wheels.

A trouble light comes in handy when working under the hood or under your car. Flashlights are okay for emergency use but chances are your need for light will outlast the batteries. Both 110-volt and 12-volt trouble lights are available. You can also buy cordless trouble lights that use multiple LED lights or a fluorescent tube for illumination. Some of the LED trouble lights are not very bright, so try it out if possible before you buy it to make sure it produces enough light to be useful.

A pair of jumper cables is another item you'll eventually acquire if you live in the Northern states, or if you've found yourself stranded because of a rundown battery. You don't need jumper cables for routine maintenance or repair work. But they sure come in handy if your battery goes dead. Buy a jumper set that has heavy gauge (size 4 or 6 gauge) copper cables. Small cables may overheat or not carry enough amps to start a vehicle with a dead battery.

In addition to jumper cables, you might find some other battery tools fairly useful. These include a post puller (for prying battery cables off battery posts without damage to either), and a battery post cleaner (for cleaning battery posts and cable clamps). Most no-starts and many dead batteries are due to corroded battery terminals. A wire brush can be used to clean the posts but a post cleaner is faster and works better for cleaning out the inside of the clamps.

You may find yourself in need of a battery charger at some point to recharge a low or dead battery. But unless your car has a charging system problem, an old battery or you let it sit for long periods of time without driving it, you may have little use for a charger. The money would be better spent fixing the problem instead of treating the symptom.

If you do buy a battery charger, get one with at least a 6 to 10 amp charging capacity. The little 2 and 4 amp trickle chargers are too slow. It's also nice if the charger has a "boost" feature for winter jump starting.

scan tool


If your Check Engine light is on, you will need a code reader or scan tool to diagnose the problem. The tool plugs into a diagnostic connector that is usually located under the dash near the steering column. The tool displays any fault codes that are causing the Check Engine light to come on. The tool won�t fix your problem, but it will give you an idea of what might be wrong. Further diagnosis is usually necessary to figure out which part needs to be replaced.

For more information about scan tools, Click Here.

If you buy a scan tool, get one that sells in the $100 to $150 range. These will give you the most features without breaking your budget. Professional grade scan tools can cost thousands of dollars, and require annual updates. A basic DIY scan tool will not have all of the features of a pro tool, but they can read fault codes, display OBD II monitor status, and read out sensor data and other information. You can also use the tool to erase codes and turn off the Check Engine light.

Other diagnostic tools that are handy to have include a 12-volt test light (for checking continuity and voltage), a volt-ohm meter or multimeter (for measuring voltages and resistance), a compression gauge (for checking engine compression), a vacuum gauge (for checking intake vacuum), and a fuel pressure gauge (for checking fuel pressure).

For checking the strength of your coolant, buy an antifreeze tester. The least expensive type use floating balls to indicate the freezing protection of the coolant. The more expensive and sophisticated coolant testers use a needle indicator or a calibrated hydrometer to measure the strength of the antifreeze.

An air compressor is a handy addition to any garage, and allows you to not only fill tires but to also use a wide range of pneumatic air tools such as an impact wrench, air ratchet, grinders, drills, chisels, etc. Better buy some ear protectors too, because most air compressors are extremely noisy when they are running.

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