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Everyone should have access to a basic set of hand tools. Tools allow us to do things for which nature has not equipped us, such as tightening bolts, pounding nails, and turning screws. Man has been dependent on tools since the Stone Age. If you do not have a basic set of tools, you are crippled in a technologically advanced society.

Tools are designed to give you some mechanical advantage to perform superhuman feats of strength. Most tools increase your leverage and provide a sturdier surface than your fingers to grip or pound objects. Others increase the amount of precision you can apply to your work. All of them make your work easier.

A basic tool set can be purchased from any hardware store such as Home Depot or even Sears for less than $100. These are usually made of molded plastic with depressions where the tool snaps securely into place. They will often claim to have over 100 pieces, but most of these are actually the various sizes of sockets for the wrench and bits for the screwdriver. There will be less than a dozen different types of tools. It will generally come with the following:

Claw hammer

A claw hammer is the most common type of hammer. It is used for driving nails or hitting chisels. Do not ever use a hammer to hit anything not specifically designed to be hit by a hammer, it will likely bend, break, or mushroom, and could send chips or shards flying. Driving nails takes practice to avoid hitting your thumb. First, hold the nail upright with your off hand against the work piece. Then gently tap the nail a few times to drive it slightly into the piece so it can stand by itself. The trick now is to drive it into the work piece with as few blows as you can manage without losing control. The fewer blows you use, the easier you will be on the work piece. If the nail is not hit square, it may bend. A bent nail is weakened, do not bend it back and continue driving it, pull it out and throw it away. The claw end is used to pull nails back out of the work piece. Slide the V shape around the nail to trap the head, and use the rounded shape of the hammer's head as a lever to pull out the nail. The claw is not designed to be used as a general-purpose wrecking bar. For some reason, most people who don't have any other tools have a hammer.

Tape measure

A tape measure is a thin strip of metal (called the "blade"), usually between 12 and 35 feet long, conveniently rolled up in a case by a spring mechanism, and marked at regular intervals. They will typically have a lock to prevent the blade from retracting while it is being used. The blade will usually be bent in a slight U shape to give it enough strength to cantalever a few feet. The markings on a tape measure are sometimes finer for the first few inches than they are for the remainder of its length, because after 1 foot you typically aren't being precise to the 64th of an inch. In addition to the foot and inch markings, the tape measure also shows marks every 16 inches and mysterious black diamonds at weird intervals, which most people do not use. The highlighted 16 inch marks (6 in an 8 foot length) are for spacing wall studs. The black diamonds are set slightly farther apart for spacing things 5 per each 8 foot length. 8 feet is the standard length of a sheet of plywood or drywall. The metal tab on the end of the tape measure should wiggle back and forth slightly, this is normal. It does this to adjust for the thickness of the tab when measuring with the tab pressed up against a surface or hooked around an object.

Slip-joint pliers

Pliers are great for getting a strong grip on something without hurting your fingers. Slip-joint pliers have two settings at the hinge for gripping larger or smaller objects. Do not use pliers to turn nuts or bolts, or you will round the corners off. Use a wrench instead.

Needle-nose pliers

Needle-nose pliers have a thinner gripping surface for reaching into tight places and gripping small objects, and are generally not adjustable. Most needle-nose pliers have a wire cutter built in near the hinge.

Screwdriver set, or screwdriver with interchangeable bits

There are various kinds of heads on screws and various opinions on which are better for what application. Generally you will need to have both flathead and Philips head (or cross head) bits available, as these will get you by 99% of the time. In Canada, you'll need a Robertson screwdriver in the set as well. A better tool set may also have torx style and hex style bits, although these are generally used when the manufacturer doesn't want you removing the screws. Using the wrong size or style of bit will damage the head of the screw (generally not the tip of the bit), rendering it difficult to remove or finish tightening. To avoid this problem, push very hard on the screwdriver while turning, even when unscrewing. Do not use a screwdriver as a chisel unless it has been designed for this purpose (identifiable by the metal shield on the end of the handle) or you may crack the handle. Do not use a flathead screwdriver as a pry bar. Do not use non-insulated screwdrivers on live electrical equipment. Do not jury-rig a screwdriver to be insulated by wrapping it in electrical tape. Do not work on live electrical equipment in the first place.

Set of wrenches, or socket wrench with a set of sockets

Wrenches are the only tools which should ever be used to tighten nuts and bolts. Other tools, or the wrong sized wrench, can round the corners off of the nut. Normal wrenches typically have an open end and a round end. The round end is more convenient if you have the space to twirl it all the way around, but the open end is generally the one you'll be forced to use due to space restrictions. Socket wrenches are handy because they spin freely in one direction and grip the nut when turned in the other direction. Which direction this is (tighten or loosen) can be set by a switch on the head of the socket wrench. Socket wrenches cannot be used if the bolt protrudes too far past the nut or if the end is not accessible to slide the socket over. A set of sockets or wrenches will usually come in both standard and metric sizes.

Adjustable wrench

An adjustable wrench (also known by the brand name Crescent wrench) is useful because it has a small worm gear which adjusts the grip to any size nut, standard or metric, up to its maximum size. If you have several different sizes of nuts that you need to adjust, this is usually more convenient than lugging around a set of sockets or wrenches. However, adjustable wrenches are known for slipping off their set size, which can sometimes result in bruised or scraped knuckles when it slips off the nut.

Pipe wrench

A pipe wrench should never be used to adjust nuts or bolts. Its serrated jaws are for gripping smooth black iron or lead pipe, or electrical conduit, and screwing it into a coupling, elbow, or other attachment. Pipe wrenches are usually adjustable in a similar manner to adjustable pliers. Don't forget the Teflon tape or pipe dope if you're working with pipes for gas or water, they provide the seal and lubrication you need to do the job right. A pipe wrench will damage thin-walled plumbing found in the bathroom and kitchen.

Box cutter or utility knife

These are very useful cutting tools with short, strong, very sharp, removable blades. The blade is also usually retractable and should always be locked when in use so it doesn't slide around. Most box cutters have long blades which snap off in sections. Snap off or otherwise replace the blade at its first sign of getting dull, blades are inexpensive and dull blades are dangerous because they can slip. Utility knives generally use razor blades which are held in place by the same screw holding the handle together. Never cut toward yourself! Always cut away from your body and away from the hand which is holding the work piece. If the blade slips it could easily slice a long, deep gash in your soft flesh before you can so much as blink.

Compartment for spare nails and screws

Usually a small plastic box with a lid the snaps shut for keeping small parts secure.

This is of course by no means an exhaustive list of tools the average person may find handy. Additionally, a wood saw, hacksaw, Vice-Grips, permanent marker, T-square, level, and dozens of other special purpose tools may come in handy from time to time, and we haven't even considered power tools yet. This list should get you through most basic jobs, though. But do not compromise by adapting the wrong tool for the job, or you could break your tool or hurt yourself. If you need it, buy it or borrow it.

Additionally, you should purchase safety glasses. Do not ever take chances with your vision, you'll miss it when it's gone. Wear them whenever you are doing anything that could result in flying chips or debris. You may also want to invest in a pair of work gloves, hand injuries are the most common type of injury when using tools, and you never realize just how much you need your fingers until they're bandaged up, or worse, missing.

Respect your tools and take care of them. Damaged tools are dangerous to use. Tools used improperly or for the wrong application are dangerous to use. Do not fit a length of pipe around the handle of any tool to increase your leverage, they are designed for the leverage they are built with and you may break the tool. Tools kept in good condition and used properly are safe and will serve you well for many years. Keep joints lubricated, keep blades sharp, wipe off grease and dirt when you're finished with them, and put them away when you're done. A messy work area is dangerous, and putting your tools away keeps them safe and lets you find them when you need them again.


momomom says This is one of my favorite gifts to give to youngish adults and oldish teens.
Heartily agreed! A boxed set of tools is something everyone should be able to appreciate.

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