Now that you’re spending nearly all your time at home, you may be noticing little things around the place that require your attention — a door that won’t close right, or a loose handrail. If you can’t wait until quarantine ends to take on these projects (or if a wobbly hinge is driving you nuts), you can tackle most home repairs with a set of basic tools.
As a staff writer at Wirecutter, my job includes evaluating and testing the infinite array of tools available and figuring out which ones are best for around-the-house use. I’ve been using tools on a near-daily basis for more than 20 years, including a decade working in construction as a carpenter, foreman and site supervisor. If you’re starting from square one, I recommend getting a basic and inexpensive tool kit and slowly upgrading certain items as you take on more advanced projects and gain more skills.
A basic tool kit should have all of the essentials and minimal filler. Such kits tend not to have additional features or conveniences like padded handles, and are usually under $50 — which isn’t much considering how many tools you get and that an upgraded screwdriver alone costs about $25.
After testing of 11 of these kits, the Anvil Homeowner’s Tool Set, which is sold exclusively at Home Depot for about $40, emerged as our favorite. It isn’t a flashy collection of tools, but it covers the basics, including a tape measure, a hammer, a screwdriver, wrenches, a utility knife and a level. You also get clamps and a pair of scissors. Nothing else we found offered a better selection of tools at a decent quality level for as low a price.
The screwdriver I use most often for tightening hinges, assembling furniture and swapping out toy batteries is the MegaPro 13-in-1, which sells for under $30. We’ve tested almost 30 screwdrivers, and none come close to matching the distinct features of the MegaPro. The six double-headed bits — all you could ever need for around-the-house work — are stored in a spinning carousel that pops out of the back of the handle. The teardrop-shaped handle fits snugly in the hand, and the storage cap at the end spins freely so you can bear down on the screwdriver and still turn it — a big help for loosening a stuck or rusted screw.
Tape measures are essential for spacing pictures on a wall, measuring a room for painting or checking if a piece of furniture will fit. A good tape measure is accurate, easy to read and designed with a durable blade, which is always the first thing to break. The Stanley PowerLock Tape Measure, a classic of the genre available for less than $20, excelled in our tests. Not only is it the cheapest, but it also offers the best combination of accuracy and durability. Even after scrubbing the blade with 60-grit sandpaper, we could clearly read the measurements.
Cheap hammers with wood or fiberglass handles can break, or the head can loosen over time. The Estwing E3-16C, which sells for around $30, is a single piece of steel from tip to tail, making it virtually indestructible. The curved claw is great for nail-pulling, and the padded handle is grippy but not squishy like some others. I’ve relied on Estwing hammers for decades and can attest to their longevity: The one I use most is almost 20 years old and hardly shows any wear.
Wrenches really shine for bathroom upgrades such as replacing a leaky shower head or installing a new bidet. Cheap wrenches loosen as you use them and can strip the corners of a nut. They also have minimalist handles, which make it difficult to lean into a stuck bolt. The Channellock 8WCB WideAzz 8-Inch Adjustable Wrench, available for about $25, is an upgrade in all respects. The smooth and easy adjustment holds over time, the handle has excellent padding and the jaws come to a point, so the Channellock can fit in tight spots. It easily cradles the end of a garden hose, something that most similarly sized wrenches can’t do.
To avoid disaster, you should hang heavy items, like a set of shelves or a big mirror, on a stud. Finding those studs isn’t always easy. Electronic stud-finders are notoriously unreliable and require a fussy calibration each time you use them. I’ve always had much better luck with small, inexpensive, magnet-based stud finders such as the C.H. Hanson 03040 Magnetic Stud Finder, which sells for less than $10. This little tool, hardly more than a plastic covering over two powerful magnets, finds the screws that are in the stud holding up the drywall.
Cheap hex wrenches come included with knockdown furniture, unassembled toys and towel bars — you might even have a few loose ones in the kitchen drawer. Nicer ones, such as those in the Tekton 25282 26-piece Long Arm Ball Hex Key Wrench Set, are longer, easier to use and sold with a carrying case for about $15. The Tekton wrenches have a rounded end so they still fit the fastener at an angle, which helps with adjusting a loose doorknob, for example, or tightening a toilet paper holder. The folding case holds the wrenches snugly but not so tightly that we needed pliers to get them out, as we did with other sets we tested.
Some projects, like putting up curtain rods or hanging closet shelving, simply need a drill. But don’t be put off by the massive tools that contractors use. Smaller, 12-volt models are lighter and easier to handle, and they have more than enough power for around-the-house work. The DeWalt DCD701F2 Xtreme 12V Max Brushless ⅜ in. Drill/Driver Kit sank more than 100 three-inch screws into solid wood in our tests, and it has the most comfortable, form-fitting handle we’ve ever used on a drill. It sells for about $100 and comes with an LED light that illuminates the front of the drill for when you’re putting up that closet shelving.
Once you start collecting your own tools, you’ll need a place to store them. Most toolboxes hold only a jumbled pile of tools, but the Milwaukee 13’’ Jobsite Work Box, which sells for about $100, stores tools vertically so they stay organized and easy to grab. Because of the taller design (it’s roughly the size of a five-gallon bucket), the Milwaukee is easy to carry, and with the lid on it doubles as a seat — a good thing to have when you’re working on a door handle or a cabinet hinge. The box has a relatively small footprint and a flat top, so you can easily store it in a hall closet and pile things on top of it.
Repairs and upgrades typically require precision, and you can’t achieve that in low light. Unlike flashlights, headlamps offer hands-free lighting that is always directed where you’re working. (It’s also easy enough to hold a headlamp like a flashlight when you’re inspecting under-sink plumbing, say, or looking into a crawl space.) The Vitchelo V800, which costs about $15, is a bright, easy-to-use headlamp that can emit a red or white light, and the two-button interface lets you easily ignore the red one, unlike on a lot of other models.