This list of DIY tools originally started because someone asked me the other day what tools I used the most. Not my favorite, or the best, or the most expensive, but what tools I used every day.
This got me thinking about what I actually carry on me at work. At least half of the tools on this list are in my pockets all the time.
Hmm, I thought, this would make a great ‘top 10’ list of simple DIY tools for someone starting out.
This might surprise you, but my most used tools are rather humble. Perfect in fact for your first DIY tools. I’d have loved to fill this list with beautiful tools. Tools with fine pedigrees and yet, with the exception of the Estwing hammer, the tools I use the most are rather mundane.
You’d probably think I’d go for the fancy stuff like a powerful drill driver, or a fancy laser measuring tool. I do love my fancy laser measuring tool though… but no. Instead these ten tools are the real deal, the tools I reach for many times a day. The tools which do most of the heavy lifting as I go about my work. Building stuff, repairing stuff, improving stuff, maintaining stuff and even building stuff from scratch.
So, here are the tools, in no particular order (well, maybe a little bit…)…
Top 10 DIY Tools
 Pocket Knife
Nope, not a dirty great big Rambo style knife. But a small, tough little knife, perfect for everyday carry and cutting tasks. I prefer a small-ish blade under 3″ or 75mm in length. Anything more is wasted in my humble opinion in day to day use. You’ll be needing another, bigger knife if your daily travels mean you might run into a grizzly bear or two… (I can recommend the Swedish Fallkniven F1…)
- Choose a design which has plenty of grip, avoid smooth slippery ones as they’ll be hopeless in the cold or wet etc.
- Make sure it has either a clip for your belt or a hole for a lanyard. Knives are easily lost. (I know. There is a beautiful Boker rosewood handled gentleman’s pocket knife somewhere in the woods at Risenga near me if anyone goes looking… 🙁 ).
- Don’t bother with fancy serrated designs unless you spend a lot of time sawing ropes etc.
- Try to find a design which incorporates a finger guard to prevent your fingers from sliding down the handle onto the blade.
- Always, always always, buy a locking knife for work. Non-locking ones are dangerous and fold up at the slightest provocation. However, see next…
Knife carrying laws
Be aware of the strict knife laws most countries have these days. Basically you need a good, and valid reason to be carrying a knife (and self defence is not a valid reason!). Always make sure you leave your knives behind if you’re heading into town to pick up materials etc. Carrying locking knives is particularly problematic these days. (Despite the fact that cheap throwaway kitchen knives are used in a significant amount of knife crime, a debate for another time).
I use my knife for everything from opening dozens of IKEA boxes during a kitchen build to the endless sharpening of carpenters pencils. From opening bags of powered plasters or tile adhesives to bags of chicken feed. Sure, you’ll still need a craft knife/ box type cutter as well because a folding pocket knife is not good for cutting drywall or indeed any precision cutting against a straight edge.
Rough and ready is the theme here. This knife should be instantly available in your pocket or on your belt. Make sure you get one which you can open single handedly ( I like ‘liner locks’ for this reason). And yes, you might need to practice this; preferably when you’re alone, lest your family mistake you for some kind of weird knife obsessed potential nut job…
Although I do admit to a (small) feeling of satisfaction when I’ve mastered flipping open a new knife with a gratifying ‘snick’… (you have been warned)…
Oh, and practice closing it single handedly as well (much more tricky with some knives).
Paracord, oh paracord…
I like to make a short lanyard for my knives as this makes retrieval from a pocket quick and easy. Be aware though that making stuff out of paracord can get seriously addictive… Check out Stormdrane if the bug bites…
 Small Screwdriver
Arguably the most used and most versatile tool in my side pocket…
“But in its sheer variety this all purpose tool admits all manner of unfathomed possibilities; it, too, can expand our skills, if only our imagination rises to the occasion”
Richard Sennett “The Craftsman”
I get my small screwdriver habit from my father who always reached for his little blue screwdriver whatever he was doing. Even if it wasn’t really big enough for the job. I have followed suit with my very own little (red in my case) screwdriver. I like the electrical version as it gets used a lot for removing electrical covers and even live (don’t tell anyone) wires from the back of stuff when I’m too lazy to go and switch off the power (don’t try this at home kids…).
This small screwdriver also doubles up as a remover of paint tin lids, a short lever for small jobs like removing light switch fronts or opening up small plastic casings etc. It’s also poked into holes and used to piggle (technical term) stuff out of said small holes. It will even remove a Pozidriv screw in a pinch, if it’s not too tight…
 Measuring Tape
Since mostly stepping down from the heavier ‘new build’ side of construction, I now use a smaller 5m retractable measuring tape. Although I am in love with my laser measuring device, there is a slight trust issue (unfounded I might add). Physical tape measures are just reassuringly accurate.
Used for everything from measuring blinds before cutting them down to size, right up to setting out new walls. Measuring stuff to see if it fits the space you have, or more exciting stuff like setting out new cabinets in a kitchen re-fit.
Oh, and don’t think that one is enough. If you buy just the one, you’ll constantly be looking for it. I have 6 or 7 and I still end up rooting around for one more often than you’d believe possible.
 Flexible Scraper
It takes time to create a perfect scraper, not money. Even a cheap scraper has the potential to become a very useful thing of beauty, once worn in from countless hours of use. The thin edge on mine is so fine it can scrape up the thinnest of things and get into the thinnest of gaps. It’s not quite as sharp as a knife but it’s pretty darn close and has nicked me a couple of times when I wasn’t quite on the ball!
 Pozidriv or PZ2
Pozidriv or PZ2 is just about the most common fastener on the planet. Arguably it should have gone straight into the top spot on this DIY tools list because it’s simply everywhere. From mechanical things to woodwork. However, star drives are slowly but surely pushing pozidriv to the side, so this entry might change completely one day to a T20 screwdriver! That said, pozidriv is still going to be around for a very long time yet.
Used where ever you see the cross shaped hole with the tiny little flutes in between the main cross. Remember to clean out any debris in the hole and press down really quite hard into the screw before applying the turning force (they slip out easily). Remember also, “lefty loosie; righty tighty” as I taught my kids…
 Claw Hammer
It’s hammer time! (showing my age now, google it if you were born after 2000 or so). I love my Estwing hammers. When new they are works of art, after 25 years, meh, not so much. But still excellent, nay, unbeatable hammers. Perfectly balanced and pretty much unbreakable.
Arguably, cheap ones work just as well, if a little ‘head’ heavy. One tip, don’t get one too heavy to start with. A 16oz or 450g hammer is sufficient for nearly everything except heavy framing work. If your budget allows, your second one should be 20oz or around 570g.
Used predictably enough for hitting stuff, and also for levering or removing stuff. Hammer your nails in (and screws if you’re a monster) with the blunt head or use it to tap things into place. Always avoid hitting the working ‘face’ directly, or you’ll leave unsightly ‘half moons’ dents in the surface.
The other side, or claw part is primarily for removing nails. It is also pretty useful for levering off small trims and such like. Remember to use a small piece of scrap wood behind the claw to protect surfaces you don’t want damaged though.
Keep the face of the hammer clean by rubbing it with a fine sandpaper once in a while. This helps prevent the hammer ‘slipping’ off nails etc.
 Pry Bar (thin and wide type)
Finding this type of pry bar was revelation. Thin enough to get in nearly anywhere. Getting behind stuff with the thinnest of gaps is now easy. Regular pry bars, crowbars, wrecking bars or whatever you want to call them, are big, heavy things with thick ends. These are great for levering out big, rough stuff, but useless for small trims such as skirting boards or architraves.
Use the slim bars to carefully remove stuff. Lift stuff up to slide things underneath etc. Plus of course removing smaller nails (they have 2 or 3 different ways incorporated usually). Tap the opposite end with a hammer to drive the slender flat ends behind stuff with no gap at all. Be a little gentle with these smaller bars though. They are thin and you can bend the prongs if you really go at it like a crazy guy.
Pliers, what can I say about pliers? A poor mans spanner (not really, don’t do this unless you’re stuck in the desert and no help is coming…) general wire cutter and a very useful ‘grabber’ of things. Some designs even allow you to strip cable sheathing with the cutting part of the jaws, (but there are better tools out there for stripping wires).
Used for cutting things like wire (and twisting any multi strands together) or excess cable tie ends. You can bend thin metal back into shape using the jaws or bend stiff wire into whatever shape you need.
Use pliers to hold anything sharp or hot which would hurt your soft and squidgy fingers. Use them also to get a good grip on something prior to pulling. They have infinite possible uses (like the small flat screwdriver), limited only by your imagination…
 Heavy Duty Bead Lifter
I had to stop and think for a moment before including the bead lifter in this top 10 DIY tools list. Why? Well it is probably the only ‘special’ tool on the list. You might even need to search to find one. But I figured you’ll be glad you made the effort as the heavy duty bead lifter is one of those rare tools where you’ll wonder how you managed without it.
Bead lifters have a very thick blade, much thicker than the thickest of paint scrapers and the blade goes all the way through the tool. Arguably they don’t even have a proper handle, just thick leather slabs riveted to the sides of the metal.
The main advantage of a bead lifter over a paint scraper is its ability to withstand hammering. This makes it perfect for tapping into non-existent gaps in between parts (originally, by design for removing glazing beads from windows, hence the name). The thick blade also means you can use it for light levering, which is brilliant as it’s so wide it spreads the load, preventing the tool from digging in like a pry bar or an old screwdriver would.
I often use the bead lifter to remove skirting boards, architraves, trims, beads etc. I also use it to protect surfaces when levering against things I want to keep. Slide the thick blade into a joint and then follow it with the claw of my hammer or the pry bar. Lever against the blade and it’s extra width protects the frame etc. I want to keep.
 Spirit Level
Pretty self explanatory you might think, but a spirit level has several uses and is an absolute must have tool even though it looks like it only just scraped onto this list of top 10 DIY tools.
Start off with a small one (I’d forget the ‘boat’ or 9″ or 225mm size for now) go for one around 14″ or 400mm. This is big enough to be useful but still small enough to go in your tool box.
Levels have at least two bubbles, one to check level and the other to check plumb or vertical. Ideal to use for:
- Checking stuff is level (big pictures, mirrors, cupboards, cabinets, shelves, door frames, walls etc.).
- Checking stuff is flat (bases, bottoms of kitchen cabinets, foundations etc.). Turn the level both ways on something, i.e. 90 degrees to check.
- Checking stuff is plumb/ vertical etc.
- Useful for checking things are straight. Hold against things and look for gaps, bumps etc.
- Useful as a dead straight edge for marking out, cutting straight lines etc.
- Handy for extending a line, such as when using a carpenters square. Put the square on the workpiece and slide the level up against the blade of the square.
Okay, that’s the end of the top 10 DIY tools I use the most every day, although it was tough to choose just 10…
A few DIY tools which almost made the list…
I really wanted to include my lovely little Stanley block plane which is razor sharp, and my beloved wood chisels; but if I’m honest I don’t use them every day, so they fell by the wayside for this top ten DIY tool list.
It took a lot of juggling to choose just ten tools. The following tools should definitely have been in the top ten really, oh and maybe a wood saw and a hacksaw for metal (you see how hard this is?). But 10 is 10 and that’s that. Maybe I should have gone for top 20 DIY tools?…
Small carpenters Square
I know most folks have the larger 12″ or 300mm one but I have both and find that this one gets used waaay more than his big sister. Most of the timbers I’m working with are under 100mm wide, making this little fellow perfect. It also doesn’t fall out of my tool pouch which the larger one can do on occasion.
Small Flat File
It’s a bit battered this little flat file, but it still gets the job done when something needs a quick touch up to restore a bright metal finish. Used to file away the rough threads on the end of a bolt I’ve just cut with a hacksaw to putting a rough cutting edge on my lawnmower blade or billhook.
Now this might be because I’m soon to be an old codger, but I’m finding myself reaching for this guy more and more these days. I’m blaming these very short, dark, Nordic winter days!
Perfect to get into those spaces where you can’t quite see properly to work or take a measurement etc. The magnetic back makes locating this handy light easy when servicing the truck for example. It also has a fold out hook to make hanging it up easy.
Plus of course you’ll need pencils, all the other screwdrivers and spanners and a pair of trestles to work on and so on and so on….. Oh, it’s so difficult, so many DIY tools to play with!
DIY Tools End Notes…
The keen eyed among you might remember I put together a list of basic tools a while back. This list differs slightly. Mostly because then I tried to cover everything instead of thinking what tools I actually reach for the most.
I urge you to gather together a few favorite tools yourself. Abuse them if you must, but also look after them, cherish them, fiercely guard them. Don’t leave them behind or lose them. Have a special place in your work trousers, or at the very least store them in a safe place, so you’ll always know exactly where they are should you need them.
True, they are not fancy tools, but I love them all the same, because over time, they’ve come to fit my hand like an old glove. Particularly the scraper, because time and use has honed the edge to perfection; it could lift up a gnats footprint from a piece of glass…
But the real conclusion about DIY tools is that you don’t need a bunch of fancy ones to make a start with DIY. Jobs such as fitting those fancy switch fronts you wanted or adjusting that sagging cupboard door or scraping up that patch of paint the previous owner left on the wooden floor. It only requires the simplest of DIY tools and a few minutes thought or research to accomplish. You’ll be so glad you did.
Let me know what your top ten DIY tools are and what you use them for in the comments below…