What to Look For in a Mechanic’s Tool Kit
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Tools aren't everything. Getting the job done relies on the muscle between your ears more than anything else. Though, it's not like you can bust ball joints, drive fasteners, and free frozen hardware with just your gray matter. A mechanic's tools are an extension of themselves and they rely on them for every project.
So much so that anyone who actually works on cars spends more time daydreaming about the perfect garage, stocked with every tool they'd need than they do cars. It's something that takes years to accomplish, but it's certainly achievable.
Getting started can be a bit confusing with the vast sea of tools laid out in front of you. Luckily, mechanic's tool sets are the perfect first step. Of course, there's no shortage of options to sort through. So even if the right kit makes starting your collection easy, finding it is something you need to put a good amount of consideration into.
That's something I've screwed up enough times to know what to look for. Rather than sending you off to make the same mistakes I have, I'll talk you through what you need to know to land the mechanic's tool set that'll shorten the road between you and your dream collection.
Most But Not All
One of the most important things to understand is that a mechanic's tool kit is just a starting point. By no means will it have everything you need to handle every single project you'll encounter. Not even the biggest, most expensive kit will cover all the bases. In fact, you'll likely have to buy a few more tools alongside a mechanic's kit just to start working on cars.
The perfect tool collection is a highly personalized thing that takes time to build. Not all mechanics, even those with the same kind of cars, take on the exact same work. As you take on more projects and build experience, you'll develop a custom tool collection that allows you to work fluently.
What a mechanic's tool set does is combine the tools that you'll rely the most on into one kit to simplify shopping early in your wrenching career. Rather than having to think through a long list of tools, potentially forgetting something, you can grab a good portion of what you need at once.
Your First Mechanic’s Tool Kit: Start Big
The first detail you need to take into consideration is the piece count, as it tells us a lot about what the kit is good for. However, you really need to be careful about factoring its relationship with the price into your decision
While you can save a little bit of money by buying a smaller mechanic's tool set, that's something you should only do under certain circumstances. For example, those who are going to work on highly specific or very limited projects won't need to go off and buy a big kit that's packed with tools they simply don't need. The same applies to a tool kit you might keep in the trunk for emergencies.
Those who are starting up a collection for a hobby or career of working on cars will benefit from investing in a more comprehensive tool kit. That's because moving to a higher piece count often brings down the price of the tools individually. If you buy too small of a kit, you can guarantee that you’ll end up having to buy individual pieces at much higher prices later on. By investing in a bigger kit now, you're saving money in the long run.
The other reason piece count is important is that it tells us a lot about how much work it’s equipping you for. And though what the tools are is important, there is a sweet spot to aim for when you’re starting out. For the most part, something in the 200- to 300-piece range is usually about right for beginner DIY sets. This range generally covers the bases for beginner to intermediate projects, while minimizing the chance of investing in tools you won't need.
That doesn't mean anything in that range is immediately perfect. There are a few things to think about. You want to make sure every kit includes at least the following:
- Sockets Standard and Deep
- Spark Plug Sockets
- Ratcheting Wrenches: 1/4-Inch, 3/8-Inch, 1/2-Inch Drive
- Drive Extensions
- Open End Box Wrenches
- Ignition Wrenches
- Adjustable Wrench
- Bit Driver and Bits
- Allen Keys
- Pliers: Slip Joint, Needle Nose, Tongue and Groove
For the most part, sockets, combination wrenches, and bits make up the bulk of your piece count. It’s important to look at what each kit offers in these areas and compare them to your needs to ensure you’re actually getting something useful.
It's far better to invest in something with a better selection of sockets and wrenches than bits at this stage of the game. Bits and bit drivers are generally more affordable than sockets and wrenches, and what’s included is typically going to be a general assortment that might not even prove useful for your application. That’s not to say they’re unimportant. Simply that it’s better to save on other tools if you’re forced to compromise.
Of course, it's also worth taking note of the range of fasteners the kit can cover. It's inevitable that you'll have to buy a large socket for something like an axle nut later on, but you want to make sure your kit is equipped to handle the bigger jobs you're bound to get into.
Without having much experience, it’s hard to determine what sizes you want your wrenches and sockets to cover. The good news is that a kit in the 200- to 300-piece range will cover the small sizes you regularly encounter. It’s the upper end of the spectrum to concern yourself with. I personally like to make sure any kit I invest in is at least capable of removing ball-joint bolts. While these aren’t always the largest fasteners on a vehicle, having the ability to handle that job means a kit is likely suited to handle any typical work a DIYer will run into.
Ratchets: A Special Consideration
Out of all the tools in a mechanic's tool kit, the ratchets are what you'll use most. They're the heart of the collection, and it's worth investing in a kit that features a quality piece.
The only problem is that everyone has a different take on what makes a good ratchet. Some mechanics like a tight swing arc. Others put strength above all else. Unfortunately, this is something you'll have to get a feel for over time, and you will ultimately invest in a long list of different ratchets because of it. But keeping a tight swing arc is almost always a good call as claustrophobia is the biggest obstacle to working on modern cars.
I know what you’re thinking. Durability is always a concern, but, thankfully you have little to worry about as long as you buy from a reputable manufacturer. Folks with heavy-duty applications are the exception here, but even then a breaker bar or impact wrench will likely be doing the bulk of the heavy lifting.
In other words, get a ratchet with a decent tooth count and treat it with respect, and everything will be fine. Generally speaking, something with a 72-tooth count or higher is where you want to be. The higher the tooth count, the tighter the swing arc, and the less trouble you’ll have working in tight spaces.
A Single Kit Simply Won’t Cut It
Again, a mechanic's tool kit only covers a part of the shopping trip. You still need to buy a good amount of specialty tools to be successful in the garage. The reality is that you're going to have to start working on things to find out exactly what you need in your collection. That means you’re going to have to pause a great many projects to run to the tool store in a panic to get whatever it is you don’t have on hand. You might feel like it’s only you, but we’ve all been there. It’s just how we learn.