Top 10 favorite tools for a new DIYer

October 16, 2011

After I recently decluttered and rearranged some stuff, I moved some of the tools to the cabinets in the garage:

And some to the Craigslist dresser in the foyer:

Odd place for the tools, I know. But I’ve had a few in there for  a while now and it’s worked out great. I didn’t use that space for much else, so it’s now filled with gadgets and painting stuff. I LOVE IT.

While moving everything, I came across quite a few tools I know I couldn’t live without and I thought it was high time I shared my top ten tool list with you. These aren’t heavy duty power tools – just the basics. But they are the basics I use almost daily.

With these you can hang pictures (straight), install a light fixture, do some minor fixes around the house or even install molding on your walls.

In no particular order (because I can’t play favorites with my precious tools), here is my go-to list…

1. Screwdriver set.

There are two types of screwdrivers, and all you really need for the most basic of projects is a Phillips and a flathead:

image image

You can see by those pics that the Phillips has a “star” kind of shape to it, and the flathead is…well…flat. ;)

You’ll want a variety of sizes of both – but to get by, one of each will do. The Phillips version is for the most basic screws, and the flathead isn’t used quite as much. At least I don’t use it often – but it’s useful for the screws you find on outlet covers and the such. (Yes, I just said “and the such.” Wordsmith, I tell ya.)

The flathead is also good for opening paint cans. ;)

2. Hammer and nail set.

OK, talk about basic. If you don’t have a hammer, well – HOW DO YOU SURVIVE???

Kidding. (Sort of.)

The hammer is pretty self explanatory. The nail set is a must have for anyone who wants to try their hand at installing molding:

nail set

When you install trim by hand (with a hammer and nails – which I used to do!) you’ll want to use this to get the nails deep in the wood, so you can cover them with putty.

Even when I use the nail gun, I have to pull out my nail set pretty much every time.

Sometimes the nails just don’t go in quite right and this helps to drive them in. (Especially when they hit a stud and they won’t budge with the hammer!)

3. Tape measure.

Again, a basic:

But go for the good one when you get one. I like the longer lengths – they come in 12 or 25 feet (or higher), and I’d always go for the 25 feet. You think you’ll never need it that long…and then you do. ;)

And I love the ones that you can pull out and they stay put. The most basic tape measures retract unless you lock them manually. My faves lock by themselves, and then retract when you push a button.

And if you’re like me…you’ll lose them like you lose socks. For real…I’ve probably purchased 25 tape measures in the past five years. I have absolutely no clue where they go.

It drives me a teensy bit crazy. I have visions of them all hiding away, snickering at me every time I need one.

4.  Level.

I use a level ALL THE TIME. I use it when installing board and batten, beadboard or wainscoting. I use it when I hang pretty much anything, even curtain rods. I have a two foot level:

But they come in a ton of sizes. I also have a small one (about five inches) that I use for little projects, and a teensy one (about a inch wide), for checking pictures and art for level. I couldn’t live without them!

OK, I totally could, but everything hanging in our house would be wonky if I had to.

They tell you if something is straight across or straight up and down, based on the bubble:

When it’s right in the middle like that, you’re golden. ;)

5. Pry bar.

If you are going to remove baseboards, this is your tool:

crow bar

Our baseboards are CRAZY hard to get off the walls, and I couldn’t do it without this one.

I used the pry bar when I pulled up the laminate in our laundry room a couple weeks ago – you can get it into tight spaces by tapping an end with a hammer and wedging it underneath. It’s the power you need to deconstruct. FUN!

6. Wire cutter.

This one is a must have if you plan to change out a light fixture:

wire cutter

Which, by the way, isn’t hard – at all. I know it’s intimidating, but the basics of changing out a light are very simple. Someday I’ll do a post about it. When I can find a third hand to take pictures. ;)

This tool can cut through all kinds of tough stuff – I use it on much more than wires.

7. Miter box and hand saw.

This little box has transformed my home:

miter box with saw

This and a hammer and nails or glue is all you need to install molding throughout your home. For years this is all I used. With thicker wood it can be a workout, but it’s certainly doable.

You can do mitered (angled) cuts with it – it sets up the perfect angle for you. Listen carefully -- you do NOT need a compound miter saw and nail gun to install molding! It just takes a little more time and muscle with the miter box and hand saw. But muscles are good for you. ;)

8. Wrench set.

These come in handy all the time as well – when you need them it’s hard to find something else that will work just right:wrench set

Of course they are helpful for tightening things – but mostly use them when I’m trying to pry something apart or put it back together. So with wrenches, I recommend having at least two – they usually come in a set like you see here.

Finally, my two biggies! Hold on to your seats. It’s exciting. WHOO!!

9. Drill bits. and 10. Drill.

Told  you –- crazy exciting!

Drill bits are used in the drill, and I explained about the different types of bits here:

drill bits

For the most projects you’ll just need a basic drill bit set. It will drill holes into drywall and wood easily. I seem to use my bits and drill at least once a week, if not more.

I explained more about the differences between cordless and plug in drills in that post as well. I have both, but nine times out of ten, I use my cordless drill:


It’s all you need most of the time. I only pull out the cordless when I’m drilling holes or screwing into something really thick, like a door or dense wood. The cordless is just easy to use – no need to worry about an outlet or extension cord when you need it.

So there. you. go. My top ten tools for any DIYer – beginner or otherwise! With the screwdriver and wire cutter, you can change out a light or install a dimmer switch. With the miter box and hand saw you can make your own vintage-looking trough thing. And with the pry bar and a wrench, you can rip the carpet and tack strips off your stairs. ;)

So did I miss any must have tools? Is there one you can’t live without? I’ll do a post on the bad boys (the power tools) sometime soon – they deserve their own individual posts. They are just that cool. :)

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  1. Will I ever conquer my fear of power tools?? I know I will be much happier if I do! A drill seems like a good place to start. Can't wait to see your floors- so happy they are finished!

  2. One thing that is almost indispensible for any furniture rehupolstering (sp??) is a staple gun with several different size staples. Plus a glue gun for work with fabrics and such. And one thing we all should use and usually don' glasses!!

  3. This was perfect timing for a tool post for me. I was just wondering through the tools at home depot earlier trying to figure out which tool does what and which ones I'm going to need for upcoming projects.

  4. I'm a total pile-er! I keep a basket by the stairs to corral the things that go down stairs

  5. Love the tool guide! I never know what I need to buy - thanks for sharing your favs!

    xo Allison
    Spicer + Bank

  6. The top of our basement stairs also used to look like yours, with stuff that needed to be put away in the basement, until I had an idea. I put a large plastic bin in a downstairs closet and used it for basement items that needed to be put away. So if I had something from the basement that I was done with and I didn't want to walk down to the basement right then and put it where it belongs, I would just stick it in the basement bin. Then every so often I would take the whole bin downstairs and put everything away all at once. You should try that! By the way, I love your blog so much! I read it every day. You are so hilarious!

  7. My tape measures must have found yours, and they're having a party - laughing at us trying to measure longer things with a ruler. Seriously... where DO they go!?!?

  8. I can't live without my 5 in 1 tool. That thing opens up paint cans, scrapes wood putty, fulls holes, pries off tile, and the possibilities are endless!!

  9. Hey! That's the same drill we have! My hubby asked for it for Christmas the first year we were married. :) I probably use screwdrivers the most -- the normal size ones, and the set of smaller ones for things like sunglasses and battery-operated toys...

  10. Some of the things brought up in the comments section had me thinking "oh yea, those too". . .it's hard to just come up with 10, huh? I was going to say painters tape. Not just for painting, but to put anything on the wall (samples and such) that you don't want the wall ruined. And for marking things -- corners, nail holes, etc. Maybe that would go under "consumable" but it's something that I keep handy! Can't wait to see your floors :)

  11. I am also a piler. I'm looking at the piles on our kitchen sideboard right now and cringing a little bit (a lot). I'm pleased to say we own all of those tools (and the compound miter saw!), but that's because T is a tool guy. I can use a hammer and and a screw driver, but my skills stop there. I need to remedy that!

  12. Thanks sharing! I have pretty much everything except for a couple of items. I have to start putting my Miter box and hand saw to use!

    ~Mrs. Delightful

  13. I think I'll be investing in a drill soon! Thanks for the tips about tools


  14. This post was so helpful. I have a few of these, but we are not very handy around my house, but would like to be. It helps to know where to begin. BTW, I love your blog and read it everyday. And I feel even more bonded since I'm a piler too!

  15. My tools are scattered everywhere so when I want to start a project, it takes me forever to get started because I've got to locate all my tools! I need to get organized too. BTW: what is the name of your beige wall color at your front entryway where the black dresser is? It looks so good with the black. LOVE your blog!

  16. I bring a tape measure with me wherever I go. The other day in Homegoods I was using it and someone asked me to borrow it.
    Have a great day!

  17. Oh, Sarah! Think of how much fun you'll have decorating for Christmas in your 'new' space! Wahoo, excited for you!

  18. I think a sander is pretty important... I'm constantly borrowing my dad's. I have the tools you mention, but I have a mile-long list of ones I want too. :)

  19. Excellent tool roundup! Unfortunately I'm another gal that just can't quite get over my fear of tools - luckily hubby hasn't gotten fed up with *my* DIY projects that involve *his* skill with tools just yet!

    Can't wait to see the floor reveal!

    Take care,

  20. Nipper pliers are a must for pulling nails out of wood or baseboards. We always used pliers to get those nails until we had a carpenter that showed us those. They have a curved head and make it so easy to remove nails! We use them all the time now!

  21. Hi, Sarah!! Thanks for sharing your Top Ten Tools!! I am eagerly awaiting your tutorial on how to change out a light fixture (Hint, hint...I'm so subtle).

    Judie S

  22. You can get a free level app on your IPhone. I have one and use it all the time.

  23. Great list! Definitely the most essential tools for the DIYer. I love using a drill, too. If someone out there hasn't used one yet, take care not to touch the bit right after drilling. It's extremely hot. I accidentally bumped my hand against mine for a brief second and am sporting quite the burn because of it!!!

  24. I have those tools inside the house so I can grab them quickly without having to go clear across the house to the garage. I also have different glues, and my glue gun. These are important tools to have and everyone should have them. I'm looking forward to seeing your floors, and I'm so glad the floor is done. I can imagine how tickled pink you are.

  25. If it's any consolation, my extension ladder has become part of my family room decor, it's been there so long. I'm going to get it out soon though, I promise! :-). I cannot WAIT to see your floors!!!

  26. along with the future post on the electrical, I would be curious exactly how to use the miter saw, like how the angles are supposed to be cut properly! thanks!!! Good post.

  27. Hi Sarah,
    Am new to your blog but I love it! You're very funny and your blog is very informative. Love the before and after pictures. Been a scary cat DIYer. But you give me hope! Thanks for the tips and belly laughs!

  28. You should try the Bosch Digital laser measurer..a bit pricey but love it. We are using it during our remodel

    Thanks for all your great ideas..

  29. Great list! When hanging pictures, I cannot live without a level. Of course, I've figured out that when you level pictures you end up realizing that other wall items are not level, such as light switch plates and base boards!

  30. If your house is old and not square, a super-long level (at least 4 feet) is super helpful. A short level may trick you into thinking something is flat when over a longer distance it curves or bends slightly. You can also use a laser or string level for really long distances, but I like my giant level.

    On the other hand, don't buy more than one tape measure over 25 feet. You're so right that 12 feet isn't enough, but longer isn't always better - the long lengths get really heavy. How many rooms do you have over 25 feet anyway?

  31. I can barely stand the wait for the floor reveal!!!!

  32. My first experience with a Mitre Box was a few months ago when made over my kitchen and added crown molding to my cabinets

    After that experience I think I'm now ready for power tools (smile). An excellent list of tools on your list. Thanks for sharing.

  33. I am so excited about this post. I know you do a lot more (and a lot more hard-core) DIY work than I do, so I was BURSTING with pride when I realized that I own almost every tool on the list! We just moved into our very first home that we own, and each time I go to the big orange store to pick up another couple of cans of paint, I have told myself I am allowed to buy ONE inexpensive tool that I am 100% sure I will need shortly. So I've recently bought a wonderbar (I'm counting that as a pry bar - a wonderbar was better suited to my project, getting the awful faux-tile waiscoting off the kitchen walls). And a level, since I know I will need it when I hang wallpaper. And a steel tape measure, after I returned the one I had borrowed from a friend for waaaaay too long. I don't have is an electric drill, but I do know how to use one. I've been agonizing over whether I want to spend the money to buy one of those or a compound miter saw (I can make do without the drill - I pre-drill screw holes by nailing in a nail slightly narrower than my screw). I didn't think about buying a miter box saw, because I figured they were very expensive too, but I just looked up the one you posted and it's only $14.98!!!!! Guess what's coming home with me when I start color-matching my green paint color this weekend?! (Because my house is so old, a pre-set miter at 45 degrees might not be as helpful as one I could set exactly, but at $14.98 including a saw it will certainly be worth the purchase.)

    MY top ten tool list...I might skip a few of my newest acquisitions and include others instead. Moving out of a 1907 rental and into an 1898 home, the biggest issue has been plaster repair, one of the few things I already knew how to do. So a paint brush, can of oil-based primer, box of plaster of Paris (I graduated from the pre-mixed stuff!), roll of seam tape (not just for seams! GET THE EXTRA-THIN - YOU WON'T REGRET IT), and putty knife are key. (I also have a painter's multi-tool and love it.)

  34. I do not own a pry bar yet. I would not be able to do without my staple gun for upholstery.

  35. Where can I get a level that comes with a Wii? LOL! And a miter box!! That would change my world! thanks for the list.

  36. I stumbled across your site while doing endless research before remodeling my bathrooms. It's nice to read a female's perspective amidst the male dominated posts! Anyway, I found this 15-in-1 tool...don't know what the listed 15 uses are for it but I know that it has been the handiest thing! It even has two screwdriver bits and a hole in the handle for them! My other must have is a pair of vice grips...when all else fails they are a life saver! Thanks for the posts!


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