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DO-IT-YOURSELF : Basic Tool Kit Is Sound Investment That Can Save Time--and Money


Even if your idea of fixing something around the house starts with picking up the phone and calling a repairman, there are a few tools you should have tucked away. You may need to make an emergency repair before someone can get to your house, and there are numerous minor fix-its you can do yourself with the right tool to save time and money.

A good tool kit is versatile and should contain some basic staples that will get you through some of the most common problems and projects around the house.

"Probably the most important tool you should have is an adjustable wrench," says Rod Albright of Albright Plumbing & Heating Supplies in Los Alamitos. "It should be at least 12 inches, large enough to turn off your gas supply in case of an earthquake, and it's one of those tools that should be easily accessible."

Generally, a combination wrench isn't as strong as an adjustable wrench, but because it will fit numerous sizes of nuts, it's an invaluable tool, especially if you're not interested in buying a collection of combination wrenches for your kit. It's probably best to spend a few dollars more on a good quality adjustable, since the jaws on cheaply made wrenches are notorious for being chewed up after a few uses.

A related wrench that you should have around to handle any plumbing problems is the trusty old pipe wrench. This works like a heavy-duty version of the adjustable wrench. Its jaws clamp down on a piece of pipe as you turn it. "An 18-inch pipe wrench is a good size to have," says Albright. "A 24-inch is a little big and the 12- to 14-inch wrenches are too small for most jobs."

Slip-joint pliers grip small objects and have an adjustment to help them hold onto things of various sizes. It's possibly the most misused tool in the home. "A lot of people use a pair of pliers in place of a wrench," says Jeff Klamath, a contractor from Anaheim. "They're great for removing small nails when you don't want to damage the wall, or bending metal. You should also have a pair of needle-nose pliers to handle small repairs; look for those that have a wire-cutter at the base of the jaws."

Locking pliers, which grip and hold onto the object you're working on are versatile since they can be used as both pliers to hold onto something and as a clamp.

"They're really very handy when you're trying to remove a rounded-off nut or bolt," Klamath says. "You adjust it to fit, squeeze it on and turn, it'll work almost every time."

Probably the most common tool you'll use in the home is a screwdriver, although in many cases you're probably using the wrong one for the job. "A lot of do-it-yourselfers use the wrong screwdriver and tear up the top of the screw," says Mike Delaney of Fullerton Hardware. "Ideally, you want to have two slotted screwdrivers, with blades that are 3/16- and 1/4-inches long. You'll also want two Phillips-head screwdrivers, sizes 1 and 2."

If you want to avoid the confusion of four screwdrivers scattered around your tool kit, you can get a good quality four-in-one screwdriver for about $10. The various blades have magnetic shafts that fit into the driver's steel base, and when not in use, the blades are stored in the handle.

"They're great to have when you're on a ladder or under the house and you find you need more than one screwdriver. It eliminates the need to have to go back and get it," Albright says.

If you have any reason to drive a nail, remove a nail or pound something into place, you'll need a claw hammer. "A 16-ounce hammer is the perfect all-purpose size. It's generally heavy enough for most jobs and light enough for anyone in the house to handle," Delaney says.

A good rip or crosscut saw will help you in countless projects, from heavy-duty tree pruning to doing almost any type of woodworking. However, if you're determined to keep your tool collection small, there's another option: "If I were to have just one saw in the house, I'd get a hacksaw," Delaney says. "Hacksaws are designed to cut metal, but they will also cut a piece of wood. A rip or crosscut saw won't cut metal."

Ideally, you should also think about investing in a few power tools that will expand your ability to work around the house. "No one should be without a drill," Klamath says. "They're easy to use and can get you through some tough spots. Even a cheap electric drill is better than a hand drill. Just make sure you buy good general-purpose bits. Cheap ones will rust and wear out quickly."

Adds Delaney: "There are some great cordless drills available. The battery technology has advanced to the point where they can be used 50 or more times in an afternoon before recharging. And a cordless is a big advantage when you've got a project you're working on outside or up in the attic and you don't want to worry about the extension cord."

Cordless power screwdrivers are a big advantage over hand-driven drivers, especially when dealing with screws that are locked on. "Power screwdrivers will also accept quarter-inch hex drill bits, so you can drill pilot holes for your screws with it," Delaney says.

To store your tools, use a sturdy plastic or metal container, preferably with a handle so it can be easily moved to your work area. Most importantly, be sure you put your tools away after using them. "That's got to be the most frustrating moment when something breaks," Klamath says. "You look for the tool you need to fix it and it's not there. Take good care of your tools, and put them back where they're supposed to be. You never know when you'll need them again."

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