The 10 Best Gifts for the Shadetree Mechanic
It’s a fulfilling pursuit to work on your own ride, and one greatly improved with the right set of tools.
Many among us have earned the title of the shadetree mechanic, i.e. we work in backyards, garages, or worst case, in the street being overlooked by the nearest spruce or oak. We use basic tools, wit, and guile to keep our ramshackle fleet of vehicles on the road which is often born out of sheer monetary necessity. Mechanics are expensive, and there is huge money to be saved if you can do a job yourself. As a bonus, working on cars is fun and you often learn a lot along the way.
Obviously, the success or failure of any DIY repair often hinges upon the tools on hand. Today, I've picked out what I have found to be some of the most important tools for those working on their cars at home. Some of these can make the difference between a successful weekend repair and a sad, oily disaster. Others are simply quality tools that feel good in the hand, and please you every time you pick them up.
In any case, if you're hunting for a gift for your shadetree mechanic—even if that's you—dive in!
Small utility knives like this one from Crescent Wiss are useful for all manner of craft and mechanical activities around the home. Whether you're cutting away a mess of zip ties or scraping off an old gasket, you'll want a nice sharp razor blade to do the job. Unlike retractable utility knife designs, I've found that this Crescent Wiss doesn't jam or slide in on you when the going gets tough, and the blades don't snap unless you're being really silly, either.
I used this very blade to build a whole-ass adult-sized box fort, and it's been with me ever since. The knife, not the fort. It's solidly built and feels great in the hand, and I smile every time I grab it out of my toolbox over the junky plastic crap I used to have.
As a bonus, you can open with one hand with a deft flick of the wrist, and everyone will think you're super cool. I considered it great value at $35 Australian when I got mine, but you can score one at Amazon for under $12 this winter.
Once upon a time, the shadetree mechanic had only spanners (Ed. Note: Wrenches, Lewin, they're called wrenches) and sockets with which to do battle with against the stuck bolts out there. Professional shops had their air-powered impact guns, but they were largely out of reach for the home wrench. However, battery-powered cordless rattle guns, or impact wrenches as they're more formally known, are now well within reach of virtually anyone now.
As a longtime user of Ryobi's 18V cordless tools, it was a simple decision for me to go out and buy the corresponding Ryobi rattle gun in my time of need. Indeed, I used this very tool to swap out the differential in my W210 Mercedes, where it proved invaluable in loosening the stuck axle shaft bolts. It's a useful thing to have around the workshop, and can be yours for $149 with a 4Ah battery and charger. If you've already got some Ryobi 18V gear kicking around, however, you can get the tool alone for just $95.
As tires are to driving a car, sockets and spanners are to working on it. Cheap out and you'll be slipping and sliding all over the place and headed for a whole mess of trouble. You want good sockets and spanners that aren't going to strip bolts, snap, or simply fail to get things undone at all. At the same time, few shadetree mechanics have the cash to throw away on top-of-the-line professional gear—that money's for parts, after all. Finding a balance is key.
The Neiko 1/2" drive impact socket set strikes a good balance between value and robustness. In fact, The Drive did a full-on review of this set earlier this year! This set packs in 58 sockets in half-inch drive, covering metric sizes from 10mm-24mm and most SAE sizes from 3/8-1-1/4". There's also a ratchet included as well as a few useful extensions. Unlike regular socket sets, these are impact-grade, so you can use them with the Ryobi impact you just bought without worrying about them shattering in your face. The 65-piece master set is available for $165.99, though larger sets that throw in some extra useful adapters can be had for a little more cash.
We've all had the experience of trying to undo a bolt crammed up behind the engine, right against the firewall. If you're lucky, you can get a spanner onto it and eke out maybe a quarter turn at a time to slowly turn it out. In these situations, a ratcheting wrench can be a godsend as they're perfect for working in tight spaces where you can't get a socket wrench in. These tools make many laborious jobs much faster, particularly on modern cars where space in the engine bay is at an absolute premium.
Be wary of skimping too much on such ratcheting wrenches; bargain-basement versions tend to have cheap and nasty ratcheting mechanisms that fail apart easily and pay close attention to the tooth mechanisms they use. This set from Crescent, however, is from a good brand and should get you started at just under $35 at the time of writing.
Money and the right equipment are often two things on short supply to the shadetree mechanic. A stripped bolt that would be a minor hurdle to a professional shop can derail a weekend or more for the home mechanic. Thus, it's key to avoid damaging fasteners wherever possible. Hex-head bolts, or Allen bolts, depending on where you come from, can be particularly fraught. It's all too easy to strip out the head with a cheap key made of soft steel, or by using the wrong size.
Hex keys from Wera are available in both imperial and metric sizes for under $50 and they're well made with Wera's special Hex-Plus profile to minimize wear on socket-head bolts. These were quite literally the talk of the office when someone brought them into my last engineering job. With straight-taper heads on one end, and ball-ends on the other, they're good at both freeing tight fasteners and undoing them quickly once they're loose. They're also remarkably good looking for what is, fundamentally, a very simple tool.
If you're doing anything more than just changing the odd flat tire, you'll need a decent jack. A simple hydraulic floor jack like this Pro-Lift model for under $70 will do fine. It's low profile, so folks with lowered or track cars are served too. There's no need to spend a lot here but safety is important and you should never work on a vehicle that's only suspended by a jack. Which leads us on to...
The mark of the true shadetree mechanic is the size of the job they pulled off in their driveway or backyard. When you start getting into big suspension mods and full-on engine swaps, you know you've really made it. However, you'll need to put your car up on jack stands really any time you want to work underneath it; real shadetree mechanics dream of owning a hoist but never get to use one.
These 6-ton capacity stands from JEGS will do fine at around $55 at the time of writing, though you'll want two sets if you're intending to do bigger jobs that require all four wheels off the ground. As a bonus, the recognizable brand name will give your family peace of mind that they aren't cheap, and sometimes deadly, pieces of kit.
Cars are full of flammable liquids and if things go really wrong, you can end up with an inferno on your hands. All it takes is your cousin cutting out the wheel arches while you're working on a leaky fuel line and, suddenly, your car is ablaze.
Having a fire extinguisher on hand could save not only your car and garage but your house and marriage or partnership too. FWIW, significant others don't exactly like living in motels because you were too cheap to spend $22 on a fire extinguisher... Remember your wife's college boyfriend, Gary? You hated that guy. But Gary bought a fire extinguisher, and his house is still standing. Apparently, he's taking her and the kids out to the zoo on Friday. Meanwhile, you're on the phone begging your insurance company to cut you a check. Don't let it happen to you!
Whether you're installing a stereo or fixing broken power windows, you'll need to remove some interior trim. If you want to do this without wrecking everything and snapping every single delicate plastic tab, a trim tool is key for taking out those fasteners. If you're working on an older car, too, many of those fasteners will likely crumble in the process. Luckily, this set combines a trim removal tool with a set of replacement fasteners for less than $10. Sure, you could keep futzing around with a screwdriver and pliers, but you'll spend three times as long doing it and you'll make a mess of your interior while you're at it. Get the right tool and move on.
Every shadetree mechanic has, at one time or another, left a car to sit around just a little too long. The old-fashioned way of dealing with this was dragging out some jumper cables and a spare battery from the garage to get the hooptie moving again. However, technology has moved on, and now a little compact jump starter box is all you need to get even a hefty engine going.
The NOCO Boost Plus GB40 was the pick of the bunch from The Drive's exhaustive testing, and it's less than $100 to boot. It'll handle up to 6-liter gas engines and 3-liter diesels. Alternatively, the NOCO Boost HD GB70 can handle up to 8-liter gasoline engines and 6-liter diesels, with the uprated model coming in at $199.95 at the time of writing.
For those working on cars from 1996 and newer, it's impossible to deny the value of an ODB2 scanner. These essential little computers will spit out diagnostic codes that help you figure out what's wrong with your car, and will usually let you clear the check engine light that's been plaguing your dashboard once you're done fixing the problem. And at just $23.85 at the time of writing, this MOTOPOWER scanner will take the guesswork out of chasing down ignition, fueling and all manner of other tricky problems on your more modern-era fuel-injected cars. Alternatively, it makes a great gag gift for the old-school curmudgeons you know who refuse to drive anything built after the 1973 oil crisis.
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