Putting Together a DIY Auto Repair Toolbox

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Whether you’re putting together a DIY auto repair toolbox or a professional one the goal is to have everything you need for any given car repair. This is a lofty goal that isn’t easily obtained. In my personal experience after collecting tools for 35 years I still run into situations where I borrow a tool or buy it new to get through the job.

Here we’ll discuss building out your own tool collection while striking a balance between price and quality. We’ll talk a little bit about the famous brands in the car repair business and compare these to some off the radar options. Finally, I’ll share how much I spent on my own tool collection and throw some numbers around to give you an idea of how much it might cost you.

What Brand of Tools do you Recommend?

When I was young and first getting into the automobile business I was certainly a tool snob. I believed that I needed to have the brand with the word snap in it. However, I can’t say this was a complete mistake. The original toolbox that I bought when I was 18 years old is still in my garage today. There’s something to be said about buying quality tools and equipment.

wrenchAs time went on and I secured a job working at a dealership service department, we would receive visits from other high quality name brand tool suppliers. I found these competing companies offered high-quality tools at lower prices with the same lifetime guarantee. This is when I started to soften and allow other brands into my own personal collection.

After I purchased my first house and started doing repairs in the driveway as a side business I found it necessary to add a second and less expensive tool collection for home repairs. This way I wouldn’t have to drag stuff home from work every night. And no matter what tools I brought home, I would forget something and not have what I needed for the side job.

I started adding other brands that came in at half the price of the professional tools, yet still carried a lifetime warranty. These tools purchased from a Sears store appeared adequate, but the quality was certainly not up to the level of the professional set I used at work. In fact, let me share a story with you that proves my point.

We pulled the slipping three speed 727 automatic transmission out of friends 1970 Dodge Charger for an overhaul. I slid under the rear driveshaft where it meets the differential yoke. I put my craftsman 7/16 standard box end wrench on the driveshaft retaining bolts. They were stuck good, because the last time we installed the driveshaft bolts we applied a thread locking compound.

I pulled on the 7/16 wrench with all of my might and something broke loose suddenly. The wrench and my hand collided with the bridge of my nose. When I looked down at my hand, I could see that the box end of the wrench had a piece missing. This was the first time in my young life that I actually broke a wrench with my own muscles. My friend said don’t worry it has a lifetime guarantee so you can go to Sears and they will replace it. I wasn’t excited that I would get a replacement wrench, because not only did I break my nose, but I had to walk around with two black eyes for about three weeks.

It would be a while before I could bring myself to buy another craftsman tool, but as the years passed, I started to purchase them again and I never really had any other problems with them. To sum this section up about what brand of tools I recommend, this really has a lot to do with your budget. If money is no object then go for the top tier tools. However, for most DIY home mechanics you can go few steps down and still get the job done. Let me provide more details about where you can save money in your tool collection.

Husky Tools have a Lifetime Warranty

Sometimes when you buy a tool that has a lifetime warranty the problem is when it breaks how far we have to go to get a replacement. They use to have Sears stores all over the place, but this company is in contraction and the stores are becoming fewer and farther between. As for my Snap, Mac and Matco tools they don’t often break, but when they do it’s hard to find a mobile tool man in my area these days.

This makes Husky tools, available at your local home improvement store, an attractive offering. The big box store starting with an H certainly still does well and you can usually find multiple stores in a single town. The competitive price of the Husky tools even gives craftsman a run for its money on a socket by socket basis. As for the quality, I would also rate them on the same level.

Now that I have recommended this brand to friends and family and even added a few to my own collection I can say that the big box store has a no hassle replacement policy. They don’t ask you how you broke the tool or examine it for signs of abuse. This is a problem that I ran into with the top level tool suppliers. They always want to blame me and try to wiggle out of replacing the individual tool.

Back to the Husky line, I recently purchased a long handled quarter inch ratchet with a swivel head. I was struggling to get a bolt out of a lawn mower deck and slid a small pipe over the handle to add some leverage to my quarter inch ratchet. This is not recommended by the way. The ratchet gave loose before the bolt did and the ratcheting mechanism stripped.

I took it back to the home supply store and expected them to just replace the ratcheting mechanism inside the head. To my surprise the clerk reached down and gave me a brand-new tool instead of repairing the old one. Again, this was a no questions asked policy. He did not check for abuse or ask how and when it broke. Since the price and quality is a good compromise I recommend the Husky brand when you’re putting together your DIY auto repair toolbox.

Where to Save Money on Certain Tools

In my 35 year career as a mechanic I got involved with working on some heavy-duty fleet vehicles that included yellow iron. These are commercial vehicles that don’t actually need to be yellow in color. They include forklifts, bulldozers, backhoes and other construction type equipment.

wrench setWorking on these kinds of vehicles requires a different set of tools when compared to working on an automobile. For the most part the bolts are bigger. Buying large wrenches is expensive. I guess it makes sense since they use more metal to make the tools, they’ll cost more money. I can see why a 9/16 wrench would be half the price of a 1 ½” wrench. Since I didn’t know how long my career would last in this heavy-duty industry I decided to buy tools from Asian manufacturers.

The first thing I bought was a Sunex wrench set. It was a seven piece set from the size 1-5/16” through 2”. The set came in at $90 including tax and shipping. This was cheaper than just a 2 inch wrench from the tier 1 name brand suppliers we discussed above. After using these wrenches for a couple of months they seemed just a strong as any other. In fact, working on the yellow iron I did some things to these wrenches that you probably shouldn’t do. I coupled them together for extra leverage and in one case I slid a metal fence post over the end to get the leverage needed to break loose a rusty 2 inch bolt on a bulldozer blade.

With the success of the large wrench set I decided to go for half inch and three-quarter inch socket sets from the same company. Again these came in way under budget and held up to the extreme forces I applied to them with a 3/4 inch impact gun. In some cases I would use a step down adapter to put a half inch drive socket on my three-quarter inch air-powered impact gun. Again I have yet to break one of these large impact sockets.

What about Specialized Tools and Equipment?

When it comes to adding specialized tools and equipment to your DIY auto repair toolbox you need to be a smart shopper. The reason is that you might buy a special tool you’ll only use once in your entire life. If this is the case there’s no reason to spend big money on a name brand tool that has a lifetime guarantee. Even equipment like a coolant pressure tester may only get a few uses. Using the pressure tester as an example, you can buy a professional kit with all of the adapters to fit every car on the planet, but this will cost five to $700.

On the other hand, you could purchase a Stant 30 pound cooling system and pressure cap tester for around $75 that fits most cars and trucks. If you do come across an automobile that it doesn’t fit you can buy the adapters as needed for about $15 a piece. If you went with the complete automotive coolant pressure testing kit you would find that you wouldn’t use about 75 percent of the included adapters.

When it comes to buying tools that are considered specialized I do have a go to brand that’s inexpensive and found in most auto part stores. This brand is Lisle tools. The quality isn’t as good as the other tools we discussed in this article. However, the price and the range of equipment they offer are hard to beat. Let me give you an example of some of the Lisle tools in my collection. I bought their flywheel turner, the adjustable fuel lock ring tool, the broken spark plug remover and the handy bearing packer.

All of these tools together came in at less than $100 and I’ve had them for more than 10 years without any problems. I would like to send a special thank you for the adjustable fuel lock ring tool. A lot of times mechanics will try to live without this device and use a brass punch and hammer to loosen the fuel tank lock ring. The Lisle device has a locking slide that adjusted to fit any size fuel tank.

Since it applies even pressure to opposite sides of the retainer you can often reuse the original lock ring instead of hunting down a replacement after you beat it to death with a hammer and brass punch. Sidebar: The reason mechanics will use the brass punch is because it’s not a good idea to create a spark when you’re working on a fuel tank.

How Much will it Cost to Stock a DIY Toolbox?

It’s really hard to post an accurate dollar figure when putting together a DIY auto repair toolbox. The main reason is because a good collection is never finished. As long as you live you will find a way to add additional items to your toolbox. There’s also situations where new technologies come out requiring new tools to work on them. A good example is when they went with rear disc brake calipers and used a rotating piston to operate the emergency brake.

All of a sudden we had to go out and buy a tool to twist the rear caliper back into its bore when replacing the brake pads on the rear wheels. With that said, I can tell you how much I’ve spent on my professional set of tools. So far I have about $40,000 invested. A large portion of this we shelled out on the toolboxes and the tools I bought as a young man, because I was a tool snob. Now that I have a family to take care of and money is more important than brand names I’ve learned to spend my dollars wisely on tools.

Before I leave you to put together your own collection, I wanted to make you aware of a method that you can use to get a professional set of tools that someone else collected. This allows you to spend pennies on the dollar compared to the person that purchase these tools individually. It also pushes your collection up to a level that may take years or decades to achieve.

Car mechanics are retiring in record numbers. The job is hard, it doesn’t pay well compared to other trades and it takes a toll on the body. When these mechanics retire, they realize they might not have the need or place to put their professional tool set. You can find these complete collections on your favorite auction website. In addition, you’ll find mechanics selling top-tier hand tools at drastically reduced prices on auction sites as well.


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