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Tooling Up: A Rookie's Guide on What to Buy

September 03, 1989|CHARLYNE VARKONYI | The Baltimore Sun

Even if you are the kind of person who is better at banging your thumb than a nail, tools are as essential as a first-aid kit. You never know when you might need them to hang a painting, tighten a door knob or put together a fan when the air conditioning breaks.

Some of us are lucky enough to have a parent who sends us out on our own with everything from nuts and bolts to a power drill. Others inherit the tool kit along with a mate.

But for some, it's difficult to know where to start and how to get what you need for the smallest investment.

"A cheap tool is false economy," says Michael DiMenna, owner of Schumann Hardware in Baltimore. DiMenna, who grew up working in the store when his father owned the business, operates one of those old-fashioned places where customers ask for advice and get the right answers about their home repairs.

"Up to a point the cheaper tools are OK," he says. "They perform to a relative degree of proficiency, but then one day they just won't do the job anymore. The better tool will go the distance."

What you are paying for in a good-quality tool is the steel, he says, and good steel means a hammer that won't break when you pull out a nail or a screwdriver that has the right stuff to keep on tightening years later.

Many of the top-quality tools have a full replacement guarantee if the tool fails in normal use. Look for a "guaranteed forever" warranty.

Although the good-quality tools may cost a little bit more, they should last a lifetime in normal use and will allow you to be more accurate and efficient. Safety is another consideration. You are more likely to get injured with a cheap tool because of handles that can break or blades that are dull.

The following is a list of what should be in a basic tool kit based on an interview with DiMenna and research information from "The Home Hardware Handbook" by the editors of "Mother Earth News" and "The Complete Illustrated Guide to Everything Sold in Hardware Stores" by Tom Philbin and Steve Ettlinger.

A basic toolbox should cost in the $150-to-$175 range, depending on quality of tools selected.

Toolbox: Some experienced repair people prefer a fabric sack to tote around their tools, but DiMenna says the best bet is a solid box that can be stored easily in a closet. A 14-inch plastic box is suitable for renters; homeowners might consider a 19-inch metal version. Expect to pay between $6.98 and $15.98, depending on size and material.

Hammer: Finding the right hammer is like falling in love: You'll know when it's right. Pick up several hammers and see how they feel. You should feel a comfortable balance as you lift it to swing.

Many tradesmen prefer Fiberglas hammers with plastic grips, but a wooden handle is perfectly acceptable. Look for a cast rather than forged-steel claw hammer of smoothly polished steel in a 16-ounce weight, the ideal size for most carpentry. Price: About $19.

Screwdrivers: It's a good idea to buy a cheap screwdriver for all the messy jobs, such as prying open cans. But look for good-quality steel in your workhorse screwdrivers. Square shank models can be gripped with a wrench for jobs that require added turning power. Either buy a basic set--a one-point and a two-point Phillips head and a quarter-inch and three-sixteenths-inch flat head--for about $4.50.

If you want to save space, look for a ratchet driver with interchangeable heads, at about $9. Some people who do a lot of home projects prefer the cordless power screwdrivers with four tips, but they aren't essential and cost $18 to $20.

Slip-joint pliers: This is the exception to the "buy the best you can afford" rule, according to DiMenna. Unless you expect to be doing a lot of heavy work, select an inexpensive pair of 10-inch pliers for $3 to $5.

Curved-jaw locking pliers: Often called by the brand name Vise-Grips, these pliers appear to have a double handle. The jaws can be opened and set solid with a screw on the back of one of the handles. They work like a clamp or a small vise and can be used to free frozen nuts or to just hold something in place. Select the 10-inch size and expect to pay $6 to $12.

Needle-nose pliers: Some experts consider these as optional, but they are good to have around to reach into tight spots or to hold or bend wire in electrical work. Look for the best-quality 5- or 6-inch size you can find, preferably with insulated handles and a straight-jaw design. Most models have a built-in wire stripper. People who don't do a lot of wire cutting can buy just this tool and forget the diagonal wire cutter. Price is about $7.

Diagonal wire cutters: These are used for everything from cutting wires and cotter pins to snipping dry flowers for arranging. Select a 5- or 6-inch size, depending on the size of your hands. Expect to pay between $8 and $12.

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