Tools You Gotta Have

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by John Gunnell  More from Author

The Ultimate Rod and Kustom Tool Guide

Hot rodders and custom car builders use a wide range of tools to make their machines cool looking, hot performing and safe. There are basic tools you’ll see in every shop, like standard wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers and sockets. You do have to have these tools to do any type of work on a car, but that doesn’t make them “Gotta Have” tools.

The real way to spot a “Gotta Have” tool is to pay close attention when you visit other shops. After you visit several people with big collectors of modified cars and drop in at a few professional shops, you’ll notice that all of them have certain tools for going that extra mile in a build or restoration project Then, you’ll realize that those tools ar something you “Gotta Have.”

“Gotta Have” tools aren’t necessarily big or small – or expensive. Some of them, like sandblasting cabinets, can cost as much as $2,000. Others, such as hose clamp pliers can be found in the $30 range. If you buy a name brand tool, you’ll almost always pay more and get better quality. However, if you are not in the business of building cars every day, “clones” of expensive tools can be found in discount tool stores, at swap meets and on eBay. Most of these are made “offshore,” but they will work well for those building cars on the hobby level.

We also knew of one professional who bought some of the bigger imported tools for his busy shop. He immediately took them apart and replaced all the “offshore” hardware with American made nuts and bolts. After doing that, he swore they were as good as the tools they were copied from. Another way to save money today is to look for tools being sold by mechanics who are out of work. Due to the “Great Depression” the nation is in, many expensive tools are being liquidated through websites, classified ads and garage sales.

As tool junkies, there are many times that we would rather buy a name brand tool in used condition than a brand new knock-off. We have a compressor and a sandblasting cabinet that make it easy to clean the old S-K sockets and Snap-On wrenches that we purchase at swap meets for bargain prices. Just last weekend, at a swap meet in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, we bought a Snap-On wrench for $1. Needless to say, we went home feeling like the cat that ate the canary.

Here are a few of the “Gotta Have” tools we’ve seen lately either in use or displayed at the tool store. 

It Don’t Mean a Thing if You Ain’t Got that Swing

With a tight 30-degree swing angle, Chicago Brand’s Open-End Ratchet Wrenches can ratchet in about half the room that other wrenches need to start clicking. Their hot rod friendly “inter-active” design creates the prying action of a fulcrum that actually transfers the force applied to the handle as a gripping action on the fastener. These unique stainless steel tools also have small heads that fit in tight places. Four sets – two in metric and two in SAE sizes – are available.

Chicago Brand

Coolest Compressors Build Hottest Rods

Since 1979, C-Aire has designed, built and distributed conventional and custom air compressors that are perfect for rod builders. A cornerstone of the C-Aire design philosophy is to utilize a broad range of the highest quality components so every rodder, from a home builder to a pro, can find an air compressor that perfectly matches the job. All units are hand assembled and tested using top-line components, including domestic approved UL motors, steel belt guards, ASME hydrostatically tested air receivers and low rpm cast-iron constructed pumps. Since C-Aire pumps run slow, they run quieter, cooler and more efficiently and last longer.


For Nuts and Bolts with a Stubborn Streak

We use this Campbell Hausfeld Twin Hammer ½-inch Impact Wrench in our shop. Newer models look a little snazzier with their red, white and blue color scheme. This affordable tool (we purchased it at WalMart) produces 350 lb-ft of torque for fast removal of stubborn fasteners. Smooth, low-vibration operation reduces user fatigue, and the tool’s center of gravity is directly above the handle for better balance and stability. Other features include user-friendly controls like a push-button trigger and a rear integrated power regulator. It is perfect for home hot rod shop use.

Campbell Hausfeld

Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’

Metal fabricator Trent Lewis uses a Baleigh Industries BR-18E-36 Power Bead Roller in his Midwest Metalworks shop. The tool comes standard with a heavy-duty industrial grade motor and gear reducer transmission. With all-steel construction, this metal bead roller has a very generous 36-inch throat depth, making it perfect for a car builder or restorer. It can make rear deck lids, hoods, and roofs. The BR-18E-36 includes a heavy floor stand with a roll rack. Over 50 different roll sets are offered to fit most bodywork on cars, motorcycles and airplanes. This power bead roller comes standard with variable speeds. The foot-pedal controls make working large pieces of sheet metal a breeze.

Baleigh Industries

It’s a Blast Learning to Blast

How did we ever get along without one of these? We’re on a learning curve with the Eastwood blast cabinet in our garage. It’s a blast to remove rust, dirt and old paint with a wave of the magic wand – err, nozzle. The large, dual-side-opening-doors cabinet is made of 16-gauge welded steel with steel legs. It comes with a dust collector. For rod parts, we find that we need the large 60-inch high by 62-inch wide by 35-1/2-inch deep model. It features a 90 cfm dual-filtration dust collector, a 13x46-inch acrylic plastic window, a 20 cfm at 80 psi ceramic air jet nozzle and a foot-pedal-controlled gun. Replacement peel-off lens covers are optional.



U-Tube Tool

If you want to bend a piece of tubing into a nice U shape, Eastwood’s Triple Head 180-Degree Tubing Bender is the tool you need in your shop. You can use this under-$40 tool to make accurate and kink-free radii and bends up to 180 degrees in 3/16-, ¼-, 5/16- and 3/8-inch tubing. This a must-have tool when making brake lines for your hot rod. It also comes in handy for bending fuel or transmission lines.


Spin and Polish

Eastwood’s ¾-hp 2-Speed Buff Motor puts the spit and polish on all kinds of hot rod parts. The unit provides versatility and allows a user to change buffing speeds without changing buff motors. This powerful high-speed motor allows for selection of 1800 rpm or 3600 rpm operating speeds. It features a sealed case design for maximum durability. The extended shaft design allows you to reach areas that other buffers can’t get into. It operates on 110 VAC with a 6-foot power cord.


Top Choppers Friend – The Cut-Off Wheel

We can’t tell what brand of cut-off wheel Mark Seidler is using to slice into a Model A door post, but thanks to computerized photo enlargements, we can tell you it was made in Taiwan. Since Mark’s Phoenix Machine LLC is a top-notch professional metal fabrication shop, the message here is you don’t have to spend a fortune on this particular air tool. Our friends at Campbell Hausfeld have a good one that you can buy at WalMart, so you know it can be returned should a rare problem occur.

Campbell Hausfeld

Old School Hole Maker

No rod building facility is complete without a drill press. A vintage Stanley drill press that’s in nearly mint condition does the trick when it comes to making holes in metal at Trent Lewis’ Eau Claire, Wisconsin shop, Midwest Metalworks. Today, this particular power tool is no longer in the Stanley Tool Co. line up, but Delta, Craftsman and Jet Tools make popular models that would work well in the garage where you build your custom cars and hot rods.



Jet Tools

Nice and EZ Does It Every Time

EZ-Driver is a bearing and components installation system for installing bearings, gears, sleeves, seals and hubs. It is designed for ball bearings and tapered roller bearings, but also does much more. With a suggested retail price of $610, this tool system is not for every home builder, but it’s well worth the price if you do a lot of rod and custom car building. Arizona Transmission Machine, Inc. is the maker.


Power Plant “Planters”

If you have a lot of projects going at once in your custom or hot rod shop, chances are pretty good that you’re tripping over a half dozen or more engines that you rebuilt or are rebuilding. “Planting” them in engine stands is one answer to this dilemma, but these are sometimes so bulky in design that you wind up with more obstacles in your shop. Phoenix Machine LLC is attempting to combat this situation with its tubular engine stands that take up very little shop space. Different models are available for small- and big-block engines, plus there is a design made exclusively for the Ford flathead V-8.

Phoenix Machine LLC

Planishing Point

We first ran into Mittler Bros. metal shaping tools in racing, but there’s a definite crossover between racing and rodding. Mittler Bros. offers two planishing hammers to use for any metalworking you plan to do. The 12- or 24-inch throat models both come with a set of nine radius dies to fit most applications. They are excellent beginning hammers to shape steel or aluminum. Planishing hammers speed up custom sheet metal fabrication. The rear adjuster on both models sets the load force and allows for fast tooling die changes. Both feature the same rugged tubular construction. The radius dies include flat, ¾-, 1-1/2-, 2-, 3-, 4-, 6-, 8- and 12-inch versions. The hammers make 4,600 hits per minute at 100psi.

Mittler Bros.

For Hose Jobs

Snap-On Tools’ 9-1/4-inch Swivel-Jaw Hose Clamp Pliers is a neat tool to have in any shop, particularly when you are building a hot rod and planning the design of the cooling system as you go along. Instead of constantly draining and refilling antifreeze, you simply clamp off the hoses. The pliers keep the coolant in the system without damaging the hoses. They can be used to clamp off heater hoses up to 1-1/4-inch in diameter. The swivel-jaw design promotes parallel clamping action.

Snap-On Tools

Press On Regardless

A 20-ton bottle-jack press purchased for $179 at a Harbor Freight outlet store has been used by one hot rodder to press bushings into leaf springs, straighten suspension parts, fix a pintle hook on a friend’s 4x4 truck and press out an oil pump shaft. He thinks machine shops would have charged more for these jobs than the press cost him. There may be a Harbor Freight store near you, in which case you can save on shipping, or you can order them over the phone or online. (Caution: Beware of buying tools with Harbor Freight brands like Chicago Electric and Pittsburgh through online auctions at prices higher than the company stores charge.)

Harbor Freight

Rivet Your Attention on This Tool

It’s hard to hang or attach sheet metal panels on a custom or rod without a good rivet gun. Stanley Tool Co.’s MR77C Swivel Head Riveter sets rivets at a right angle or straight on and it takes only a simple twist of the rivet head to set them. The tool’s rugged die-cast metal construction gives it a long life. Extra nose pieces and a wrench are conveniently stored in the handle of the tool. A long handle design makes the riveter easy to squeeze. The MR77C uses 1/8-, 3/32-, 5/32- and 3/16-inch diameter steel or aluminum rivets. The swivel head allows it to set rivets in hard to get places.

Stanley Tools

Tube Tops

If you’re building a hot rod chassis, a racing roadster roll cage or new taillight shapes for your 1957 Ford custom, Mittler Bros. tubing benders and tubing notchers will come in handy. These tools top the competition in many ways. The Ultimate Tubing Notcher shown here was on display at the Lefthander Chassis trade show. This tool has been a favorite in metal fabrication shops for many years. Its operation is simple. You just clamp the tubing in the calibrated swivel vise (which gives accurate and repeatable positioning at any angle). A compound feed table advances tubing into the milling cutter, producing a perfect notch and a perfect fit every time. The notcher is now available with variable speeds. A one-horse 115V motor is standard. It runs at 130 rpm. Variable-speed machines are 1.5 hp 115V and run 75-250 rpm. A chip tray is included to contain the mess.

Mittler Bros.

“Wheel” Alignments

When the stars are in alignment and the sun comes out at midnight, you may be ready to purchase an English wheel for the shop where you create your rods and custom cars. It seems like the English wheel is a tool that every fabricator wants…someday. Many talented car builders make their own English wheels to try to save money. Whether you go that route or order a store-bought wheel from companies such as Eastwood or Harbor Freight, you’ll find it an invaluable metal-shaping tool.


Harbor Freight


Speedy Spinners for Rapid Rods

They are extra long for better leverage, but the best feature of Craftsman’s Elbow Ratcheting wrenches is a pivot joint that allows you to lock the fine-tooth ratcheting box end in any one of 13 different positions. You can also unlock the pivot joint to move the wrench like a piston and speed up tightening or loosening nuts and bolts. These wrenches come in 7-piece metric or SAE sets for under $100. Available online from Craftsman, or just stop at your local Sears or Kmart.


A New Twist in Wrenches

Craftsman’s Cross-Force™ wrenches have a kind of twist in the handle that leaves the claw end vertical when the box end is horizontal. This improves torque loading, relieves stress on your hand, increases comfort and gives you a more secure grip. Ratcheting and static (non-ratcheting) sets are available.



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