Christmas morning, 1957. Two little boys crawl out of their beds and tiptoe past their parents’ bedroom. They hurry to the living room to see what Santa has brought.
Prominently displayed under the tree is a bright blue wooden box about 3 1/2 feet long, a foot wide and 16 inches high. Taped on the box is a tag that reads "To Kevin and Billy, From Santa." What could it be? Bill opens the box and finds tools — not toys, but real tools.
We’ve been around tools all of our lives and became interested in them at a young age. Grandpa was a carpenter and Dad was a plasterer. It seems as if we never knew a day when one or the other wasn’t building something.
We stuck close to them in Grandpa’s workshop and would pick up a spare hammer or saw and try to drive a nail or cut a board while they worked. We guess Dad and Grandpa saw the interest and decided that we should have some tools of our own.
Our first toolbox, which Grandpa built, contained a basic set of woodworking tools. There was a hammer, a handsaw, a brace and bit (an old-time hand drill), a collapsible rule, a screwdriver or two, a pair of pliers, a block plane and a couple of chisels.
With the tools in that box we learned some of the skills we’ve carried with us our whole lives: How to drive a nail, how to saw a straight line, how to measure accurately.
We’ve never been tool junkies. We don’t pore through catalogs in search of the latest titanium this or laser that.
We do admit, though, that tools have improved exponentially since the blue toolbox showed up under the tree. Laser-guided saws are pretty cool and lithium battery-powered drills, saws and drivers are eliminating the hassle of extension cords.
But we still draw the line at using a sonic measuring tape to figure the area of a room. We’ll take a 25-foot Stanley and a clipboard any day. The math just isn’t that tough.
We’ve bought our tools as the need arose for the job required. Many of our tools are multitaskers. Utility knives mark wood, cut Sheetrock or sharpen a carpenter’s pencil. A power drill can drive a screw, drill a hole or mix paint. Rotary tools, such as those made by Dremel, cut, polish, sand and route, making them ideal for small jobs.
Two rules we try to live by when it comes to tools: buy quality and take care of them. Quality doesn’t always mean the heavy-duty contractor model. Look at the job you want to do and match the tool to the job.
For what we do these days, a 14-amp Craftsman battery-operated drill works just fine. But, back in the day when we were doing some pretty heavy building, the 1/2-inch corded Makita or Milwaukee was the only way to go. Our other firm belief is that if you take care of your tools, they will serve you well for many years — perhaps a lifetime.
With that gift almost a half century ago firmly in mind, we offer our view of what a well-stocked beginner’s toolbox might contain for 2011.
Carpentry tools are the heart and soul of our toolbox. They all do double or triple duty. Studs, floor joists and rafters are the bones of a wood-frame house. The tools used to build the bones are the same tools that open the way for plumbing, HVAC and electrical systems. Here are our suggestions for the essential carpentry tools you need in your toolbox:
Tool belt: Many a time we’ve been frustrated by having laid a tool somewhere only to have to go hunt it down to do a job. French cooks have it right. "Mis en place!" (French for "Everything in place!") That place is the tool belt.
We’ve worn out more than a few Sears specials over the years. Most tool belts come with a leather loop or a metal ring for a hammer. Also, pouches come without a belt and may be hung from an ordinary belt or to a separately purchased Web belt.
We’ve used 5-gallon plastic buckets to haul odd tools around the job site and to store them and keep them organized — plumbing tools in one bucket, electrical tools in another.
16-ounce rip hammer: Hammers come in many different weights, sizes and head configurations. Framing hammers range from 20 ounces to 32 ounces and have a smooth or a waffle head. Cabinet hammers are small and light with a smooth head. Handles may be made of wood, fiberglass, steel or titanium.
The 16-ounce rip model is the multitasker we’d have if we were limited to one. It’s heavy enough to drive a 16-penny nail, yet light enough to control when driving finishing nails. The claw is straight, allowing for both pulling nails and ripping into plaster or Sheetrock walls.
Choosing a hammer is a personal thing, though. Buy one that feels well balanced in your hand. Go for the fiberglass or steel handle. We’ve broken more than one hammer handle trying to pry something apart. The bottom line is to make sure the one you choose is heavy enough to drive a nail efficiently but light enough to control.
Speed square: Just as all roads led to Rome in the ancient world, virtually all building begins with the 90-degree angle. You’ve got to be able to draw one. The square (a triangle) is used for marking lines between zero and 90 degrees on a piece of wood. It’s made of aluminum, so it’s light. We prefer the 7-inch version because it fits easily in a tool pouch.
Tape measure: We’ve found a 25-footer with a 1-inch-wide blade to be the most useful. It’s long enough to measure pretty much anything we’ve needed to measure and the 1-inch width allows the blade to extend up to 8 feet without buckling. This comes in handy when you are working alone. A 16-footer usually comes with a narrower blade and has proven to be too short and the blade too flimsy.
Level (or spirit level): A must-have for hanging pictures, marking the run of a chair rail or for marking a plumb line as a guide to hang wallpaper. The longer the level, the more accurate the line. We’ve found a 4-foot level to be a good size, with 3 feet being the minimum for hanging doors or plumbing walls and the like.
For smaller jobs, such as leveling short pieces of wood or metal a line level comes in handy. One side is usually magnetized allowing it to stick to metal your working with allowing free movement of the piece without trying to balance the level on the piece.
Circular saw: This power tool is a staple in any carpentry toolbox. The right model should be powerful and efficient. A circular saw can be used for cross cutting a 2-by-4 or ripping a piece of plywood. A straight rip can be guaranteed by attaching a straight edge to the board with a pair of clamps or vice grips to guide the saw.
Circular saws vary in size from small battery-operated models to the powerful worm gear-driven Skilsaw 77, the staple of framing carpenters. For home use we suggest a saw that takes a 7-inch blade equipped with a carbide tipped combination saw blade. Make sure the guide is adjustable from 45 to 90 degrees so that bevel cuts can be made. Also choose one light enough to handle easily.
Handsaw: Before power saws there were handsaws and there are times when this is still the best tool for the job. Trimming the bottom of a doorframe and jam when installing a new tile floor in place of the old vinyl is just one example. When you need to make a cut with optimum control, without overcutting, the handsaw is the tool.
Super bar (Wonder Bar): This flat steel bar can be used for a variety of jobs, from demolition to gently removing door and window casing.
Wood chisels: These tools are especially handy when precise woodworking is required — mortising a hinge, for example. Get a set of three in 1/2-inch, 3/4-inch and 1-inch sizes.
Miter box and backsaw: This hand tool allows you to cut moldings, baseboard and door casings from zero to 45 degrees. Here’s where a power tool has it over a hand tool. Spend a few dollars more and buy a compound miter saw. For $100-$200 this tools provides unbeaten versatility.
Block plane: This tool is good for fine-tuning. It’s ideal for removing a little wood from a sticking door. The 6-inch version is a good choice.
Chalk box: Draw the string tight over a surface and snap it. The chalk leaves a line. Great for marking a straight line longer than a few feet.
Router: Over the past few years routers have become very reasonable. For around $70 you can get a router with an integral work light. Various bits make it a true multitasker.
We’ve recently dressed up the edges of cabinet doors with a 1/4-inch roundover bit, installed laminate on a countertop using a panel-trimming bit, and made short work of mortising hinges into a door. For $70, and an additional $5 to $10 per bit, our work was made easy, fast and good-looking.
Pliers: These tools come in a variety of designs. Channel lock pliers are adjustable, lineman’s pliers are also wire cutters and vise grips do double duty as clamps. Start with a common pair and add the specialty ones as you need them.
Every toolbox should have some basic plumbing tools. There’s nothing worse than when a pipe springs a leak and you don’t have the tools to stop it.
Our first piece of advice is to learn how to shut off the water and gas to the house. In a temperate climate, the main water shutoff is usually located where the water line enters the house. The valve is usually located below a hose bib and it has a round handle.
The shutoff is called a gate valve. No tools are required to shut off the water; simply turn the handle clockwise.
Where winter freezes occur the shut-off is inside — either in an interior wall behind a panel or under the house.
The natural gas is shut off at a valve located where the gas line enters the gas meter. The valve is on the inlet side of the meter just before the flying saucer shaped regulator. It has an oblong metal piece that can be turned with a 14-inch crescent wrench. When on, the bar is in the direction of the pipe. To turn the gas off, turn the bar a quarter turn so that the bar crosses the flow of the pipe.
Minor plumbing repairs require only a few tools. Here’s our list.
6- and 14-inch adjustable crescent wrenches: Crescent wrenches adjust to fit most nuts and bolts. The larger size gives more leverage and the smaller size fit more easily into tight places.
Channel lock pliers: Channel lock pliers are adjustable and are used for tightening or loosening nuts on waste lines and traps.
4-in-1 screwdriver: This versatile tool is designed with four screwdriver bits — a large and small flat head bit and a large and small Phillips head bit. Bit changes are easy and it fits comfortably in the tool belt.
Basin wrench: Sooner or later you will have to change a water faucet in the kitchen or bath. When you do, this inexpensive specialty tool is used for detaching water supplies from underneath a sink.
14- and 18-inch pipe wrenches: We include pipe wrenches for those readers who have galvanized water lines or who might want to push the envelope and extend gas for a barbecue or a hot tub.
Accidents happen. The wind blows a door open, the doorknob hits the wall just right and arghh! — a hole in the drywall. Not to worry. With the right tools the fix is easy.
Utility knife: This all-purpose cutting tool has any number of uses, but one of the most common is scoring and cutting drywall. These days the utility knife is available in two configurations — the old standby where the blade retracts into the handle and the new kid on the block where the blade folds into the handle like a pocketknife. They’re inexpensive so try one of each and use the one you like the best. Buy extra blades and a sharpening stone if you’re tackling a bigger Sheetrock job.
Punch saw (drywall saw): A short narrow blade with coarse teeth makes this saw the right tool for cutting through Sheetrock to make way for an electrical box or to remove a damaged section.
4- and 6-inch drywall knives and tray: The tools you need for taping and texturing the patch.
Add-ons that quickly become must-have tools
Even though we buy tools only when a job requires us to, we have managed to acquire quite an arsenal over the years. We try to have an eye to efficiency that we balance with the cost of the tool. When the time savings outweigh the cost, it’s time to buy.
When Kevin built his house, he sprang for a compressor and a couple of pneumatic nail guns. These tools, though they cost him hundreds of dollars, saved a ton of time and countless swings of the hammer.
Alternately, we’ve laid a lot of tile over the years, but neither of us could ever justify forking over $800 for a tile saw.
To fill out your toolbox, these are a few "must haves" in our book.
Reciprocating saw (Sawzall): This tool is a keyhole saw on steroids, used for heavy-duty rough cuts. Not for precision cutting, but it can get into places other saws can’t and make quick and efficient cuts.
1/2-inch power drill: Spend a few extra dollars here and buy the top of the line. You’ll appreciate the extra torque when trying to drill an especially tough hole.
Extension cord: Time to power up. Fifty feet with 14- to 16-gauge wire is the right size.
18-volt Lithium Battery Driven Combo Kits: Available from about $250 to $500, these kits include a 5 1/2-inch circular saw, a reciprocating saw, a drill driver and usually a flashlight — all battery-powered. These kits provide versatility, but they may lack in power for big jobs.
Drill bits: Start with a set of twist bits and be ready to add to your collection as the need arises.
Voltage tester: Unless you are comfortable working with electricity, we suggest that most home electrical work be left to the pros. But the homeowner can handle some small fixes. Before working on any electrical circuit make sure the power is turned off. Use the voltage tester to double-check that the wire is not hot.
The blue toolbox
Although our father never wanted us to make our living with our hands, he did want us to be handy.
He felt this way because after a life in the plastering trade he knew firsthand the wear and tear construction work visits on a body. We remember his words, "Get a good education, and you won’t have to be doing this the rest of your life."
The key words are "have to." We heeded those words. We don’t have to earn our bread with the sweat of our brow as we approach our 60s. But we do know which end of a hammer to pick up. We think we have the best of both worlds.
That half-century-old blue toolbox sits in Kevin’s garage in Idaho, holding what it did that Christmas morning — tools, including the original brace and bit.
Did we miss anything? Is there a tool in your workshop or garage that you can’t live without? E-mail the Burnett brothers at firstname.lastname@example.org.