If you are mechanically inclined and possess basic car maintenance skills, you can save yourself a handful of cash and get to know your vehicle better at the same time. Getting to know all of the vehicle’s little idiosyncrasies and how to dismantle and reassemble parts of the car is a massive advantage if something unforeseen does go wrong at the roadside.
But before you can get going, you will have to build up a basic set of tools. All you really need is a basic kit, just enough to get you by. The trouble with tools is that it can be tempting to buy the odd tool or piece of equipment here and there, but a lot of the time you can get by without an extensive range of implements.
Try to avoid buying special tools, such as a wheel bearing replacement tool, unless you will need them again. The likelihood is that you won’t need the tool again and you can often find a way to do the job that avoids the use of a special tool.
Carrying out maintenance is basically an investment in the future and you should never forget that you are buying tools to avoid having to pay someone else to do the work for you. If the price of the tool exceeds the cost of a repair, then you have to ask yourself if the investment is worth it.
Where it really makes sense to invest, is in tools that are needed for recurring tasks, such as filter changes or spark plug replacement etc. The cost of standard tools is nearly always worth it, a good set of screwdrivers, for example, can be also used around the home.
But what is essential and what is nice to have? The following list should help you to make informed choices when building up your toolkit.
- Vehicle jack
From changing a wheel to replacing a drive belt, most of the maintenance work you will ever do will require a jack. It is difficult to spend too much on a good quality jack. The best type for quick and safe lifting is a trolley jack. Trolley jacks are usually very robust, have wide wheels and lift the vehicle quickly. Whatever jack type you purchase, make sure it has sufficient load capacity.
- Axle stands
Essential, just like a good quality jack. Good quality axle stands must be used to secure the vehicle as soon as the wheels leave the ground. Never leave a vehicle supported by the jack alone! The vehicle can slip off the jack or the car might sudden lower due to the valve not being closed properly or the hydraulics failing. Nobody wants one and a half tons of motor vehicle resting on their chest, so, if the vehicle has to be lifted, always place the vehicle on axle stands! Only buy stands that have been tested and are approved.
- Magnetic inspection lamp
The magnetic inspection lamp is an essential item, because much of the work in the engine bay or under the vehicle is in places where daylight does not reach. You will be surprised just how much easier some repairs become when the parts you are working on are properly illuminated.
You cannot maintain a vehicle without a decent set of spanners, comprising at least the standard 8 – 19 mm sizes. Vehicle manufacturers are increasingly using quick-release couplings or clips where previously a nut and bolt were used, nevertheless, without a set of spanners you have no chance. The most useful type is the combination spanner, with an open-end at one end and ring-end at the other. The more you spend on quality spanners, the better. Cheap spanners will not undo very tight fasteners and can even be dangerous to use, due to the spanner jaws spreading or snapping under load!
You cannot perform car maintenance unless you have a good selection of screwdrivers. A comprehensive set includes slotted, Posidriv, Torx and Phillips. Always buy screwdrivers with hardened tips. If your screwdrivers do not have hardened tips, as soon as you encounter a screw that is properly tight, you will end up with a twisted screwdriver tip and could get stuck in the middle of a repair, unable to finish it.
- Socket set
If you intend to take on any serious maintenance or repair work, you cannot do it without a comprehensive socket set. Preferably, you should purchase standard reach and deep-reach sockets comprising at least the standard 8 – 19 mm sizes and a good quality ratchet.
- Breaker bar
Another essential item in your arsenal. A good quality breaker bar cannot be replaced by any other tool, full stop. Even a good impact wrench can let you down, but more often than not a breaker is the only tool than can loosen an extremely tight fastener; especially where access is limited. Here again, you get what you pay for and only very few are actually up to the job.
Pliers are another essential for basic maintenance. The most useful pliers for general use are:
- long-nose (or needle-nose pliers) for difficult to reach areas
- slip-joint pliers – extremely versatile as they can grip items of different sizes
- combination pliers – which usually include side cutters for wire and cable cutting
- side cutters – to quickly and cleanly cut cable ties, steel wire and copper cable
- Locking pliers
Nice to have: locking pliers are usually known under the trademark ‘Vise Grip’. The ‘grips’ can hold things in place or be used to hold a part when you want to remove something i.e., loosen a part that is seized in place. Locking pliers are not intended as a substitute for a spanner or socket because locking pliers can damage the fastener.
- Drain bowl
A proper drain bowl, whether it is used for coolant, gear oil or engine oil is a great help because you can catch and dispose of the fluid properly. Drain bowls are normally designed to reduce splashing and also have a separate drain so that used fluid can be simply poured back into its original container and returned for safe recycling.
- Dead blow hammer
Use of a hammer should be kept to a minimum when performing maintenance or repairing a vehicle as it is easy to do untold damage with just a single hammer blow. A dead blow hammer or rubber mallet can be a useful tool, for example, when a bolt is seized in position.
- Mini socket set
Mini socket sets have been on the market for a few years now and are excellent for light work; especially working on the vehicle interior. Mini socket sets fit in your pocket and usually include Posidriv, Torx, slotted and Phillips bits for undoing screws and ¼ drive sockets for hex-head fasteners, such as trim screws.
- Torque Wrench
Another essential, as most vehicle fasteners have a specified tightening torque which is stated by the manufacturer. Tightening brake components, wheels nuts, steering components etc. to the correct torque is a safety critical part of any repair because a ‘guesstimate’ just isn’t good enough.
Nice to have: depending on the complexity of the maintenance or repair work you want to tackle. A multimeter is a great piece of kit to check battery voltage, voltage supply, resistance across a component, etc. As soon as the car develops an electrical fault, you will need a multimeter.
- Magnetic parts tray
An extremely useful item, just remove a clip, nut, clevis pin, etc and put it in the tray. You will no longer need to spend what seems like an eternity searching for tiny lost parts on a grubby floor or in the engine bay. A magnetic tray will help you to keep all of the ferrous parts stored safely in one place.
- Impact wrench (battery-powered)
Nice to have: unless you regularly perform major jobs.
Do not buy an air impact wrench unless you want to invest in a compressor and have air lines snaking around the floor. Nowadays, the more flexible solution is a high-quality battery impact wrench. A modern, high torque battery impact wrench is great for removing wheels rapidly and making light work of other fasteners.
- Jump leads
Nice to have: for the event that the battery just refuses to start the vehicle. Always practical because “you never know”, but if you keep an eye on the battery and replace it in good time, it is unlikely that you will ‘need’ a set of jump leads.
There are several factors to take into account when deciding what to buy and how much to spend. Firstly, do you intend to maintain your vehicle on a regular basis? Secondly, which jobs does it make sense to tackle yourself and which ones do you leave to the professionals? Once you have answered those questions, you have a good basis upon which to make the economic case for spending more or less money.
A further consideration is how well you expect the tools and equipment to perform, as there are vast differences in tool quality. The more complex work you take on, the greater the emphasis you will have to place on quality of the tools you use. You do not want to be in the situation where you have broken a cheap tool during disassembly, the vehicle is immobilised and you are unable to reassemble the vehicle.
The greater the safety relevance, the more money you need to invest. Often it is better to buy well looked after, used tools than cheap modern tools; especially if a mechanic or garage is winding up their business up and selling off professional-quality tools.
The saying “you get what you pay for” isn’t always true, but branded tools are usually the better choice and the difference between a cheap set of spanners and a more expensive set can be worth it after just one job.
When deciding what to buy, look at your needs beforehand and spend your budget wisely. It is often better to buy fewer tools, but good quality than lots of cheap tools, as you can always add tools at a later date.