You’ve undoubtedly seen those tool chests pulled around by NASCAR and other professional teams. They weigh as much as a truck and lack only sleeping quarters. They also cost tens of thousands of dollars. Heck, even the massive chests you see in dealership service departments can cost between $5,000 and $10,000.
Matco and Snap-on are the big names among the professionals, as is Sears’ Craftsman line of chests. They’re premium products with well-deserved reputations. But if you’re more of a weekend wrench turner, who won’t be slamming the drawers shut five days a week, we’re here to tell you there are more affordable alternatives. In fact, if you’d rather not invest more than you paid for your project car on a place to store your tools, don’t worry – you can buy quality tool chests that offer plenty of room, for a fraction of the cost of the massive and most expensive chests.
Brands such as Kobalt offer high-value tool chests with amenities such as ball-bearing drawers – a must-have feature on our list – which can be had for a few hundred dollars. Keep a lookout and you’ll find good deals on Craftsman pieces throughout the year. Buying a chest on sale is the key, because they happen all the time. We’ve found great deals at the warehouse club Costco.
For the average enthusiast, a tall, roll-away chest for big, bulky items and a smaller chest on top, for sockets and wrenches, is a good setup to start with. A good combo, with the ball-bearing drawers and drawer liners, can be had for less than $500.
A tool cart may seem like a luxury to some, sort of like heated seats in your car, but just like that comfy feature, once you’ve tried it, you’ll wonder how you got by without it.
The tool cart saves immeasurable time by allowing you to load up the tools needed for specific projects, such as a brake job or removing an engine, while also offering a place to temporarily store fasteners and parts once they’ve been removed.
There’s no great mystery to selecting a tool cart, which range from about $50 to $100. You just want one that’s sturdy enough for the projects you plan to tackle; and some will support the weight of an engine block. The only downside to a tool cart is the real estate it takes up in smaller, one-car garages.
Besides screwdrivers, a socket set may be the most elemental component of your tool collection. There’s more to it than just a standard set in a tidy plastic box. To tackle most of the jobs associated with project vehicles, you’ll want to set yourself up with:
- Socket wrenches in ¼-inch, 3/8-inch and ½-inch drive sizes, including long- and short-handle wrenches
- A set of standard 6-point sockets for ¼-inch, 3/8-inch and ½-inch drives
- A set of metric 6-point sockets for ¼, 3/8-inch and ½-inch drives
- A full set of deep-well sockets in standard and metric
- Swivel-head drive adapters in all drive sizes
- Speedwrench and T-bar drive handles
Don’t skimp by buying only single sockets when needed, such as a 5/8-inch deep well. Buy the whole set. It’ll be cheaper in the long run.
When it comes to socket wrenches and the sockets to use with them, it’s an area where spending more money on the premium parts from Craftsman or Snap-on will make a difference in performance and durability. Indeed, this is an area where you get what you pay for, as the ratcheting mechanism in cheap wrenches can break or wear down, while cheaply produced sockets can break at the most inopportune moments. Again, we’ve had good luck with the mid-priced Kobalt tools, too.
Bottom line: Don’t skimp on your socket set.
Torx-Head, Allen-Head and Ball-Head Drivers
Complementing your socket set should be drive sets for the alternate fastener types, including Torx-head (also known as star-head), Allen-head (also known as hex-head) and Ball-head. These fasteners are common on vehicles built in the last 20 years (although they were certainly used earlier). It doesn’t cost much to invest in complete sets of these drive sets and having them stashed in your tool chest will save the aggravation of a run to the store when encountering an unexpected Torx fastener – or worse, encountering it late at night, when the store is closed.
No wrench turner worth his ratchet should be without a torque wrench in the tool box. Sure, you can’t assemble an engine without one, but it’s necessary for countless other tasks. Heck, even lug nuts should be tightened to a prescribed specification.
If most of your work with a torque wrench will be on engines, you’ll want one with a half-inch drive that that reads to at least 150 lb-ft. You may also want to augment your pound-foot wrench with a smaller one for inch-pound specifications (up to 250 in-lb). Also, later-model vehicles – and especially anything with a GM LS engine – will require a torque wrench that accommodates torque-to-yield fasteners, which are tightened to a specific angle.
When it comes to cost, the most basic torque wrenches can cost as little as $65 and soar into the hundreds of dollars. For most at-home enthusiasts who rebuild one engine every year or two, or have to perform a head gasket change every now and then, a ft-lb torque wrench in the $100-$120 range should work just fine. If you’ve got unlimited funds and want nothing but the best, Snap-on’s digital-readout wrenches, which incorporate everything from inch-pounds to torque angle readings, are marvelous tools.
Archimedes said, “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world.” He might well have been talking about using a breaker bar to hold a serpentine belt tensioner in order to install a new belt, loosen the retainer nut on a harmonic balancer or break loose the head bolts on a filthy core engine.
Leverage is what the breaker bar is all about, giving you the power to do more jobs in tight confines – especially when you don’t have a buddy’s extra pair of hands to help. They’re cheap, have unlimited uses and take up little space in the bottom drawer of your tool chest. If you don’t have one, buy one right now.
A multimeter – also known as a multitester or volt/ohm meter – is an electronic measuring instrument that combines several measurement functions in one unit. A typical multimeter may include features such as the ability to measure voltage, current and resistance. You’ll need it for countless troubleshooting tasks, such as confirming whether your alternator is truly drying and checking which wires in a factory harness should be spliced into when hooking up a nitrous system.
For your garage, you need a simple, handheld multimeter. High-quality examples can be had for about $40-$65. Expensive ones will have more features, but for most garage uses, the basic models work great. We’ve got a few Actron meters in our garage and they’re available at most auto parts stores.
Floor Jack and Jackstands
Like a socket set, a floor jack and jackstands seems like a very basic set of tools, but make sure you’ve got a high-capacity jack and sturdy stands – not to mention enough jackstands. Most jackstand sets are sold in pairs, but ideally you want four stands to support the entire vehicle. Some enthusiasts will hold the front of the car with stands and simply hold up the rear of the car with the jack, but that’s not a safe way of working. Use four jackstands to hold up your vehicle.
Although you can get away with cheaper and smaller floor jacks if you work on nothing but Chevy Vegas, you’ll want at least a 2-ton or 2.5-ton jack, while a 3-ton jack will help if you ever have to work on a heavier truck. Go with 2-ton stands, too. Investing in a heavier-duty jack and stands costs only a few bucks more than the basic models and will offer greater peace of mind when lying beneath your project car.
Air Compressor and Air Tools
This is a serious step up in the roster of garage equipment, but there’s nothing like the power and convenience offered by air-powered tools. They’re especially helpful if you plan to do body work, where a grinder, DA or air chisel will be used prominently. But before you make that leap, keep these guidelines in mind:
- You’ll need a compressor that produces at least 90 psi to operate most air tools.
- The compressor will need to generate at least 5-6 cfm to operate tools like air sockets, die grinders and DAs.
- Air compressors range generally from 1.5 horsepower to 7 horsepower, with the higher-powered models more expensive.
As long as the compressor produces 90 psi and provides up to 6 cfm to run your tools, the horsepower size is pretty optional. A mid-range model will provide the power and capacity you need at a reasonable price.
When it comes to air tools, aim for the middle in terms of price, unless you plan to use them all day, every day – in which case, splurge for the best. For occasional use, mid-priced tools will do fine. Stay away from the cheapies, though. With air tools, you get what you pay for. Check out the Ingersoll Rand tools at toolbarn.com.
Timing Light and Distributor Wrench
A basic tool for basic tuning, the timing light – a stroboscope used to check ignition timing marks on a rotating crankshaft damper – should be one of the first items to fill your tool chest. They’re inexpensive to buy, easy to use and you’ll always have it on hand when you need it. Even if you’ve never used one before, it takes only a couple of minutes to get the hang of it to make timing adjustments.
As for the distributor wrench, it’s a specialized tool, to be sure, but one that comes in handy on vehicles with rear-mount distributors that don’t afford much maneuvering room at the back of the engine compartment.
We wouldn’t normally include such a large, bulky specialized tool on our list – especially one you may use only once or twice a year – but a couple of factors make investing in an engine crane smart. First, because of the proliferation in off-shore (Chinese) manufacturing, they’re incredibly cheap – often less than $200 at outlets such as Harbor Freight. Secondly, models with fold-up legs allow you to store an engine crane in a corner of your garage, so that it takes up hardly any space.
Although we’re not crazy about endorsing cheaply manufactured parts like this, which all but ensure the elimination of a manufacturing economy in America, the attractive prices cannot be ignored. Considering the cost and hassle of renting a crane whenever you need one for your home garage, it makes sense. And you’ll be surprised at the number of other uses you’ll find for it. Spend the extra $25 and buy a load leveler, too.
What good is an engine crane without an engine stand to place the engine, right? You’ll need it when reassembling your engine, too. For most iron-block V-8 engines, a 500-pound stand will work, but you may need a heavier-duty 750-pound or even 1,000-pound stand if you’re building a big-block. Figure on spending about $75 to $100 for a good stand.
Shop lighting is like pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving: There’s no such thing as too much. And with so many sizes, shapes and types of lighting out there, we won’t even attempt to narrow down the choices. Here’s what’s worked for us: a dual-head halogen lamp unit for the floor – they’re bright as all get-out – and an LED or fluorescent underhood lamp. We like the LED lights, because the light is intense, but the unit itself doesn’t get hot. Keep extra halogen bulbs on hand, too, because they burn out at the most annoying times, which would otherwise leave you in the dark.
Trim Fastener Remover
For about $6 you can save yourself untold aggravation and time when trying to remove interior parts and those plastic push-pin fasteners that seem to hold on just about everything on cars these days. This simple tool slides under the fastener head to release it in the correct way. It’s available at auto parts stores. Nothing beats the right tool for the job – and this is it!
If your car is immobile due to a removed engine, a set of GoJacks (and their generic equivalents) makes it easy to push around your project. Essentially, you place the caster-equipped dollies under the wheels, allowing you to easily push the car around your garage. They also enable you to push a car into the tightest corners for storage that frees up more garage space. How the hobby worked before they were invented, we just don’t know. Prices range from as little as $120 for lower-capacity generics to about $500 for 6,200-pound-capacity genuine models from GoJack.
For about the last 30 years, vehicles have employed some sort of electronic control system, with onboard diagnostic systems that record anomalies in the programmed operation parameters. Those anomalies are recorded in the system and are retrievable via scanners that display codes identifying each problem. And while scanners used to be the domain only of professional technicians, scanners have come down dramatically in price in recent years, allowing DIY enthusiasts to check the codes themselves. The scanners don’t repair the problems, of course, but they identify where they lie. Scanners can be had for about $100 or so, with some manufacturer-specific models available for less.
The automotive uses for the hand-held, high-speed Dremel are unlimited. We’ve used the versatile machine to buff out small stainless parts, trim plastic components for a better fit and grind off stubborn, rusty fasteners. Your garage isn’t complete without one. Kits for the Dremel 300 series start around $65, while the heavier-duty 400 series will cost about $100. There is also a dizzying array of accessories, which can ratchet up your outlay.
Battery Jump Box and Battery Tender
If you’re like us, you’ve got at least one or more cars that don’t get driven daily – whether it’s your restored classic or in-progress project. Invariably, you go to start the car and the battery’s charge is too low to get the job done. A portable “jump box” is the answer to the problem, as it’s much easier to use than trying to finagle a set of jumper cables between vehicles, especially if your classic is parked in a way that impedes easy access with conventional jumper cables.
Do your homework and find the best-rated, most powerful jump box you can afford. We’ve tried budget jump boxes and were frustrated by the lack of power to turn over a V-8 engine. The PowerStation PSX has worked well for us and we’ve come to use its built-in air compressor to solve the other problem of dealing with cars not driven constantly: low pressure in the tires. It’s offered through a number of online outlets, while we found ours at Costco.
Finally, you can counter the likelihood of a dead or low battery with a simple battery tender, which trickle-charges the battery to always keep it charged. We’ve had great experience with the CTEK chargers (www.ctek.com) and have a couple in our garage right now.
There’s not much to say about the Sawzall that its name doesn’t already imply. To be clear, the Sawzall is the trade name for the models produced by Milwaukee Electric Tool Company, but it’s become a generic term for high-power reciprocating saws, such as the Makita model shown here. You can get basic models for less than $100, but models like the Sawzall 6520-21 12-amp monster will run only about $150-$175 – and it’ll cut your car in half.
Your spouse may pass out at the thought of a vehicle lift in your home garage, but it’s not such a crazy idea. In the last decade, a number of surprisingly affordable lifts – roughly between $2,000 and $3,000 – have brought the ultimate professional tool into the home garages of average enthusiasts. Rather than the old-school lifts that featured huge hydraulic rams anchored in the ground, these are floor-mounted post models. Some manufacturers will deliver and assemble the lift, then push them into place in your garage. It couldn’t be easier. And besides the capability to raise your vehicle to work beneath it, the four-post models enable you to store a pair of cars, one over the other. Just make sure you’ve got sufficient roof clearance!