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Tooling Up for Do-It-Yourself Car Care

By Larry Carley copyright

Before you can start saving money doing your own car maintenance and repairs, you first have to buy some basic tools.

Professional mechanics earn their living fixing cars so they need an extensive tool collection. Many spend upwards of $25,000 or more on their tools. Most of these tools will be expensive top quality brand name tools such as Snap-On, MAC, Matco and others. Such tools are made of the best grades of steel and will hold up to heavy daily use year after year.

Fortunately, you do not have to invest that kind of money in a basic DIY tool set, nor do you have to buy the most expensive professional grade tools unless you plan on doing a lot of maintenance and repair work.

Most auto parts store and hardware store brand tools should suffice for the kind of work you will be doing.

Avoid buying cheap quality diecast and low grade steel tools that are sold in discount stores, bargain bins and online stores because they will not hold up to even occasional use. You are throwing your money away on this kind of junk!

Basic Tools: hat You Need and What You Don't

For basic preventive maintenance work and light repairs, all you need are a few simple hand tools, a couple of specialty tools and a tool box to keep them in. Your total investment should easily be under $100, perhaps less if you already own some of the items we're about to list.

Basically, you will need a set of combination wrenches (metric and/or SAE depending on the type of vehicle you own), an adjustable wrench, a couple of regular and Phillips screwdrivers, three pairs of pliers (regular, needle-hose and adjustable) and a few assorted special purpose tools such as an oil filter wrench, a funnel, a catch pan, a feeler gauge (or spark plug gap gauge) and a tire pressure gauge.

For DIY auto repair work, you will need a basic assortment of hand wrenches in metric and/or SAE sizes.

Wrenches & Sockets

For simple maintenance jobs, you'll need a set of open end/box end wrenches (also called "combination" wrenches). If your car is an import or a late model domestic, it will have metric fasteners. Older American makes such as Ford, GM and Chrysler will use mostly SAE fasteners, but some will also use a mixture of SAE and metric fasteners depending on the engine and other components.

A set of wrenches ranging in size from 10mm through 19mm should handle all of the nuts and bolts you're likely to encounter. For domestic vehicles with SAE fasteners, you will need a wrench set ranging in size from 3/8-inch to 3/4-inch.

ratchet socket set
Work faster with a ratchet wrench and socket set. Six-point sockets are strongest and less apt to slip and damage bolts.

A 3/8-inch and/or 1/2-inch drive socket set and ratchet is not necessary, but is a nice addition to any tool box because a ratchet wrench and sockets can remove and tighten fasteners much more quickly than open end or box end wrenches. A couple of extensions and a swivel can increase the set's versatility tremendously. A 3/8-inch drive socket and ratchet set is the most versatile for light maintenance and repairs, while a larger 1/2-inch drive set is usually needed for engine and suspension work.

Wrenches and sockets should be drop-forged tempered alloy steel, plated or coasted for corrosion resistance and backed by a lifetime guarantee.

Another tool in the nice to own but not absolutely necessary column is a set of metric and/or SAE box end ratcheting wrenches (such as those made by GearWrench). These also speed up the removal and installation of many fasteners.

To loosen brake hoses and other plumbing connections that have large flare nuts, a set of flare nut wrenches will make the job easier and reduce the risk of rounding off a flare nut.

A one-size-fits-all adjustable wrench (also called a Crescent wrench) is a handy addition to your tool set because you can use it on a variety of different sized fasteners.

Allen wrenches (small six-sided L-shaped wrenches in metric and SAE sizes) are required for some fasteners, but probably not ones you will likely encounter for most basic maintenance or light repair work.

Screwdrivers in various sizes and lengths for DIY auto repair work


For a variety of jobs you'll need at least two different sizes of regular (flat tipped) and Phillips (cross-tip) screwdrivers. The cheapest way to buy screwdrivers is to buy them as a set that includes a variety of sizes and lengths. Plastic or wooden handles are okay but make sure the handle offers a good grip and does not slip if your hand is sweaty, wet or greasy. The blade tips should be hardened tempered steel and the screwdriver should be plated for corrosion resistance.

Many late model vehicles use "Torx" fasteners that require a special type of screwdriver head to remove. These may be found on some headlight and taillight covers, seat belt anchor bolts, fuel system components and electrical components.

Different types of pliers are useful for a variety of auto repair jobs.


A pair of regular pliers and a pair of long-nose pliers are a must for any tool box. A pair of adjustable pliers (also called water pump pliers) are also handy for gripping and removing things like hose clamps, hoses and other odd-shaped objects. Adjustable locking pliers (such as Vice-Grips) are extremely handy for holding and gripping various fasteners and damaged fasteners. Pliers should be of tempered steel and plated for corrosion resistance

Another type of specialty pliers that may be needed for some repair jobs is snap ring pliers. The needle-like tips on these pliers are designed to remove snap rings from parts such as master brake cylinders, U-joints and starter drives.

oil filter wrenches
The type of oil filter wrench you will need depends on the size of the oil filter on your engine.

Oil Filter Wrench

For changing oil, one item you can't do without is an oil filter wrench There are a variety of different designs from which to choose, but the ones that work best are those that have a metal band that wraps all the way around the filter or the adjustable plier type. The size of the wrench will depend on the diameter of the oil filter on your engine. There are also socket style oil filter wrenches that are designed to grip the fluted end of the oil filter can. These tend to slip off if a filter is really tight. For newer vehicles that use drop-in cartridge style oil filters, a large hex socket that fits the top of the oil filter housing will be needed to remove the cap.

Funnel, Catch Pan & Safety Stands

For do-it-yourself oil changes, you will need a large plastic funnel for adding oil to your engine, and a catch pan (at least 6 quart capacity) to catch the dirty oil as it drains out of the oil pan. The same plastic funnel can also be used for other fluids such as antifreeze, power steering fluid, automatic transmission fluid and brake fluid provided it is cleaned between uses to prevent fluid cross-contamination.

Another recommended item for do-it-yourself oil changes is a pair of sturdy safety stands (jack stands), and a hydraulic floor jack. Never trust a jack alone to support your vehicle when you are underneath it. Always use a pair of safety stands to support the vehicle. The rear wheels on your vehicle should also be blocked with a pair of rubber or metal chocks, large blocks of wood or bricks to prevent it from rolling while the front wheels are off the ground.

We do NOT recommend steel or plastic car ramps for raising a vehicle as they have a bad reputation for slipping while you are trying to drive up the ramps, and for the vehicle rolling off the ramps when it is elevated.

feeler gauge and spark plug gauges
Any of these is a must have tool for measuring spark plug wear and checking or adjusting electrode gaps.

Feeler gauge or Spark Plug Gauge

Spark plugs in late model engines typically last up to 100,000 miles or more, so this is a tool that will not be used very often. A feeler gauge or spark plug gauge is used to check/adjust the electrode gap on the end of the spark plug when new plugs are installed. New spark plugs are supposed to come pregapped from the factory, but on some applications the preset gap may not be correct for the application. So you need to measure and adjust the gas as required for proper ignition performance.

A feeler gauge may also be needed to adjust mechanical valve lifters on older vehicles, but almost all later model vehicles use hydraulic valve lifters that do not require any adjustments.

Tire Pressure Gauge

A tire pressure gauge is 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.

Actually, a tire pressure gauge is a very necessary tool to own and use.

You need it to check and maintain the inflation pressure in your tires. Tire inflation pressure is important because it affects fuel economy, tire wear, handling, braking, traction and safety. Late model cars have Tire Pressure Monitor Systems (TPMS) to warn you if a tire is low or leaking air. But some of these systems do not tell you which tire is low. You have to figure that out yourself by checking each tire with a gauge.

assorted auto tools
Any of these are useful additions to your tool collection for DIY auto rep[air work.

Other Handy Tools To Consider

A deep well spark plug socket is a necessary item for changing spark plugs. The size required will depend on the spark plugs in your engine.

The most common spark plug size on late model engines is 5/8-inch (16 mm), although some are 14 mm. Older vehicles often have 13/16-inch plugs.

For rotating or removing tires, a four-way lug wrench gives you much better leverage than the flimsy lug wrenches found in most car trunks.

A trouble light (corded or cordless) can improve visibility when working under the hood or under the car.

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 are essential if you need to jump start a dead battery. A good pair of jumper cables will use heavy gauge (size 4 or 6) copper wire (not aluminum), and have well-built clamps. The cables should be long enough to reach from one end of your car to the other.

Other helpful battery tools include a post puller (for prying battery cables off battery posts without damage to either), a battery post cleaner (for cleaning battery posts and cable clamps), and a battery carrying clamp (if your battery lacks a carrying strap).

A battery charger is another item that may be needed if your battery needs to be recharged. If you buy a charger, get one with at least a 10 amp capacity. The little 2 and 4 amp trickle chargers are too slow for automotive batteries. Also, a "smart" charger that varies the charging rate will recharge a battery more quickly than a basic charger.

Tools for More Advanced Repair Work

Torque wrench
For tightening critical fasteners such as lug nuts, cylinder head bolts and other engine and suspension fasteners, you will need a torque wrench.

For more in-depth engine, suspension and brake work, as well as tire rotations, you will need an inexpensive torque wrench. The beam indicator type is the least expensive (usually under $30) and is accurate enough for most applications. The scale should show both standard (pounds-foot) and metric (Newton-meters) torque values. Click-style torque wrenches are more accurate and faster to use, but do require periodic calibration and adjustment.

diagnostic scan tools
You can't troubleshoot a Check Engine Light without one of these. A basic scan tool can provide a wealth of diagnostic information.

A basic scan tool is a must tool for diagnostics on 1990s and newer vehicles. You do not need an expensive professional grade model for basic troubleshooting. You just need a tool that can display trouble codes, basic system data and can clear codes. Basic scan tools typically sell for $50 to $150.

Another hand held electronic device that may be needed to troubleshoot electrical and electronic problems is a Digital Volt Ohm Meter (DVOM). Such a tool can be used to check your battery, the charging system, wiring faults, ground connections, etc. An inexpensive basic DVOM can be bought for less than $25.

Digital Volt Ohm Meter
A DVOM allows you to measure volts, resistance (ohms), continuity and current (amps).

General Tool Safety Precautions

A tool is only as safe as the person who uses it. The following list of tool precautions is included along with some general suggestions on repair safety. Please take a few minutes to read through them carefully -- especially if you're a novice with respect to auto repair. Working on your car need not be any more dangerous than changing a light bulb provided you use good common sense and observe these rules. When accidents do happen, they are often the result of carelessness or ignorance. Do not let that happen to you!

* For general auto repair safety tips Click Here.

* Before starting any kind of repair work, dress for the part. Remove all jewelry such as rings, watches and bracelets, and do not wear loose-fitting clothing, ties, scarves or jackets that might become tangled or caught. If you have long hair, tie it back or tuck it under a hat.

* Eye protection provided by safety glasses, goggles or a face shield is highly recommended whenever you are using a hammer and chisel, when drilling or grinding, when working under the car, when working on the car's battery or when servicing the air conditioning system.

* Use tools for their intended purpose. Screwdrivers make lousy chisels and pry bars, just as pliers and Crescent wrenches make poor hammers. Socket extensions are not designed to double as punches, nor are ordinary hand sockets designed to withstand the abuse of an impact wrench. Vice-grips are great for holding but they can also damage nuts and bolts. Use your tools the right way and they'll serve you well.

* Avoid breathing dust from brake linings or clutches. Wear a dust mask to protect your lungs when doing anything that generates dust.

* Wear nitrile or rubber gloves to protect your hands when working with fluids, chemicals, motor oil, gasoline or diesel fuel. Toxic substances can absorb into bare skin and cause irritation, burns and possibly even caner with long term exposure.

* Treat a running engine with respect. Keep tools, fingers, hands, hair and clothing away from all moving parts such as belts, pulleys and fans. Avoid touching HOT engine parts, especially the exhaust manifolds and exhaust pipes.

* Do NOT touch any ignition component (spark plug wires or ignition coils) while the engine is running because of the potential shock hazard.

* On hybrid and plug-in electric vehicles, do NOT touch any part of the high voltage battery or powertrain system whether the system is on or off. The cables are usually color coded ORANGE. Special thick insulated gloves and tools are required for this kind of work because voltages may be as high as 300 volts or more (enough to kill you!).

* Do NOT smoke while working on or near any part of the fuel system.

* Never run an engine inside a closed garage! Carbon monoxide fumes can build up to lethal levels in minutes. You can't see it and you can't smell it.

related articles Related Articles

How to Remove Stubborn Nuts & Bolts (without damaging them!)

Torque Wrench (how to use)

Floor Jacks & Jack Stands (How to Safely Raise Your Vehicle)

Scan Tools (How to Choose One that is Right for You)

To More Technical Info Click Here to See More Carley Automotive Technical Articles

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