7 Great Gifts for the Apartment-Dwelling Mechanic
Space is a premium, and so is keeping things clean.
Living in an apartment and owning a car can be a difficult predicament. Ask me how I know. Space is at a premium, and if you have something small like a roadster—say, a 2008 Saturn Sky Redline, just to throw out a hypothetical example—it's hard to store the tools to work on your car in the car itself. Things that get dirty are going to need to be stored somewhere, and if you're anything like me, private garage space is a pipe dream.
Over the course of the last year, I've been buying tools to work on my car, and I've found a few to be good buys if space is at a premium. My list is nothing groundbreaking, but if you occasionally change your own oil, spark plugs, or install things like sensors or filters, these will probably work for you. One of them might be a little controversial, but I think you may get where I'm coming from. All are things I wish people had bought for me—and with this gift guide, now you can actually make that happen for the apartment-dwelling mechanic in your life.
A Compact Socket Set
Sockets are going to be your best friend when it comes to saving space while still getting the job done. I ordered this DeWalt set from Amazon a few months ago and it's been good to me so far. It's a 3/8-inch drive which will be good for most under-hood work, but it also has a 1/4-inch adapter for smaller stuff. The sockets are both metric and imperial which is vital, and they are in a wide range of sizes, from 5/32 of an inch at the smallest the way up to 7/8 at the largest. The metric sockets are from 5mm to 19mm.
The box set itself is slim (2.1-inches thick), tightly secured shut in four places, and has a carry handle. It also has a transparent top, which I like because I can see what sizes I have to work with without having to open the case itself. It comes with a single extension, but I have since bought several more and a few swivel joints as well. If you're trying to save space, it's best to buy extensions and the like individually so they don't come in a big bulky case. It's easier afterward to buy a bin or a bag to stash them in.
Being able to measure things precisely will save you a lot of time, and since my college days, I've been buying and losing the same exact set of digital calipers over and over again. It's this particular unit from a company called iGaging. Now, there are other products you can buy that will effectively be the same thing, but the iGaging one I like for a few reasons.
The first is that it uses a larger battery than competitive calipers. I have always lost these things before the battery ran out, and they seem to have an auto shut-off feature. Don't worry, though, these calipers will remember when your measurement was even if the device is turned off. In fact, you can turn them off, adjust the calipers, and it will still have the new measurement ready.
The caliper's jaws are made of hard steel, so they're especially hard to bend out of shape. They can measure anything up to six inches, which is typically within the realm of what you're going to need, especially when it comes to measuring things like fastener lengths or bolt head diameters. Best of all—although this is definitely not unique to these—they can easily switch between metric and imperial, in fraction or decimal form. Trust me, a set of digital calipers, even if they aren't these, will be the best ~$20 you'll ever spend on your mechanic friend.
A Lightweight Floor Jack
A floor jack is a must if you want to change your own oil, swap out a set of wheels, or do something like brakes. If you need to get under the car or lift it for any reason, you aren't going to want to depend on the cheesy little screw jack the manufacturer provides, even if it is compact. Those are weak and definitely not designed for extended use. What you want is a floor jack, and what you really want, since you likely won't have a garage, is a light one.
A bunch of companies make lightweight floor jacks, however, it was hard for me to find a relatively nice one that didn't break the bank. I also didn't want to go as cheap as possible because, well, that would've defeated the purpose of buying an upgraded jack in the first place. As a result, I went with this one from Jegs.
It does a few things well. It's very low-profile, so it can get under a small roadster like my Sky. Its wheels are also quiet as far as floor jack wheels go, so there's no harm in dragging it down a hallway by its handle. You'll be able to do this because the handle can lock into the base of the jack with a screw that is, in a very smart design decision, captive. It will never fall off and roll into a storm drain, and it also has a large knurled head so it can be turned easily with your foot. The two-piece handle is also padded on its lower section so it won't spoil your rocker paint, and the two halves are held together by a spring detent, not a screw that will disappear into a sea of asphalt.
Lightweight is a relative term when it comes to floor jacks, but this one is mostly aluminum and features a set of two carry handles on its sides which balance the mass of the jack pretty well. I weighed mine at roughly 32 pounds, so it can be carried up a few flights of stairs or across a garage with relative ease. With a two-ton capacity, it's also all the jack I'll ever need. I would've enjoyed a smaller, lighter jack, but this one is good for what it can do.
Of course, to go along with a good jack you'll want a good set of jack stands. Frankly, many of them are very similar, however, you should absolutely stay away from Harbor Freight. They were proven to be dangerous, and according to many reports, the company's planned fix hasn't actually worked. They might be fine now, but I wouldn't chance it.
I personally bought these Big Red branded stands, which have the classic locking pawl as well as a captive key that ensures nothing is going anywhere. Besides that, it's a pretty standard jack stand that feels solid and hasn't let me down, needless to say.
At around $33 for two of them, they're a good deal as well. As usual, I would've liked something lighter/more compact, but most jack stands of this sort are basically the same, and these work well enough.
A Few Good Adjustable Wrenches
Having a set of wrenches for situations where sockets just don't do would be really nice, but honestly, it would be a bit much for me to have a whole set of them. I barely have the room to store the tools I have, so instead of getting a big wrench set, I have so far only found the need for a few adjustable wrenches. Importantly, I didn't get these on Amazon. I went to a hardware store. This is the one I bought, to be clear. I'll certainly have to get bigger ones in the future.
When it comes to adjustable wrenches, they all are definitely not made equal. Some have tighter tolerances and hold a measurement much better than others. If you're going to go this route, buy a nice set. Get ones with padded handles and finely-fitting worm gears, test a few out and get a few lengths. You can also get locking adjustable wrenches. Those are good tools, too.
A 3D Printer
If you've ever needed something simple like a washer, a spacer, or a tiny bracket to hold a tube or some wiring, a 3D printer is your best friend. Though it requires a little more creativity, it's an extremely versatile tool that can make working on your car a lot easier. 3D printing is also not just limited to making custom parts, you can also make little tools to hold things in place, or templates to cut/drill parts.
I wouldn't be including this on the list if 3D printing hadn't come so far in the past decade. There's a variety of filaments available now that have very unique properties. Forget the days of printing brittle plastics, as now there are flexible filaments—like TPU—that are perfect for making things like tiny gaskets, and sturdier filaments like nylon which could very well form the basis of a permanent component in an engine bay. For a car like my Saturn Sky which, of course, doesn't have parts support anymore and has notoriously brittle cupholders, printing a replacement is quite literally the only reasonable option. CAD software like Fusion 360 is also widely available and easy to use, and there's a whole universe of parts and makers online who could also lend you a hand.
The best part is if you're anything of a tinkerer you'll be able to assemble and operate a 3D printer. It really isn't complicated and it's a lot of trial and error like anything else. I recently bought a new printer—thanks to an unexpected security deposit return—and it's been comforting to have the capability I do. The one I bought, a Flashforge, also has dual extruder heads, so I'm able to print solid plastic parts with integral rubber gaskets. It's really cool.
My printer was $650, which is amazing for what it does, but still a little pricey in the grand scheme of things, Luckily, though, modern printers are always getting cheaper. A simple machine without an enclosed build area like an Ender 3 can be had for under $200. They won't be able to print complex parts with integral seals or especially sturdy filaments like Nylon right out of the box, but they can still be a big help.
A Screwdriver Set
This one will be obvious—screwdrivers are essential in any sort of toolkit—but I would like to call out a particular set and sort of driver which I like a lot. The kit is one from iFixit, typically more suited to things like working on computers or electronics. As well as conventional Phillips and flatheads, it has a wide range of exotic bits which are becoming more and more common on new cars. It also has an adapter to be able to fit these smaller bits into a regular drill or hex driver.
The quality of the screwdriver itself is also high in the iFixit kit, with a knurled body and a rotating butt which translates into comfortable usage. Likewise, it comes with useful attachments like a flexible extension, and a magnet. It's a good kit for interior work and an especially good thing to have around an apartment in general. The case is also compact and has magnetic closures, which tickles me deeply.
That brings me to a driver, which, just skip the malarkey and get a T-handle hex driver of some variety. Make sure it fits all of the standard quarter-inch hex bits you likely have at this point and get one with a long shaft and a comfortable handle. Trust me, don't just get a drill and be done with it. If you live in an apartment and multiple people use these tools, I personally guarantee you the charger for your drill will get lost, the company that makes your drill will stop making the sort of battery it uses, and you'll have to buy a whole new one. I'm not saying don't buy a drill, I'm saying buy a T-handle driver as a backup for when you still need high torque on something in an engine bay. Or if you're assembling Ikea furniture.
A Bin or Bag (you have to recommend something specific)
Once you have all of these tools, you're gonna notice something; they get dirty and they need to go in places like a bedroom, kitchen, or just a plain studio area where other things also have to happen, like eating or sleeping. You need to separate this mass of dirty tools from the rest of your life. I personally have a bin for most of my stuff, and it keeps the rest of my apartment clean. Get something that isn't going to shatter if you get a bin, and get a bag that's made of a sturdy material if you take that route. A duffel bag like this one would work well, although a bin is good too. These are both good things to go to the store and buy to make sure they are of high quality and the right size. If you don't have to buy more than one, don't.
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