Best basic tool kit (for the home)

If someone were to ask me to recommend a basic home tool kit, I would tell them that Home Depot's 76-Piece HDX Homeowners Tool Set is the way to go. It provides a solid combination of tool selection and tool quality, and at a bargain basement $20, the price is right. We've got a more premium kit, too, but keep in mind the tools in these kits won't approach the quality of higher end tools you would buy separately.

Who Needs a Tool Kit?

You don’t need to own a home to need a home tool kit. Anyone who is going to hang a picture, tighten a loose leg on a chair, or try to assemble some impossible Hasbro product is going to need a basic selection of hand tools. A carpenter or a hardcore do-it-yourselfer will opt for individual pro-level tools for their durability.

Let me be straight: The tools in these kits will not approach those level of tool quality.

For everyone else, there is a wide range of all-inclusive home tool kits available. These kits are designed for the simple tasks that occur around the house or apartment; things like tightening a hose to a sillcock, adjusting a stuck cabinet door, and upgrading your towel bars.

They’re not made to survive a 30-foot fall from scaffolding, but they should be able to hold up to intermittent use over a period of many years.

Home tool kits are sold at a value-oriented group price. They’re not made to survive a 30-foot fall from scaffolding, but they should be able to hold up to intermittent use over a period of many years.

It’s entirely possible to cobble your own kit together by purchasing one and supplementing it with additional tools. This approach creates a literally endless number of configurations. That said, I looked at these kits “as is,” keeping in mind that they’re made for the non-tool user who is looking for a one-stop purchase to handle their basic needs right away. As tools succumb to time and use, they can be replaced by hardier individual tools, making them an ideal starter kit for a set that will last a lifetime.

The Journey Begins

There are quite a few websites dedicated to tool reviews, but they’re mostly devoted to power tools. When they do cover hand tools, it’s typically the ones designed for the full-time tradesmen. Basically, reviews of homeowner level hand tools are as scarce as unicorns. So there was no published work to guide me in my research. To narrow down the sets, I had to rely on the opinion of a couple tool experts, as well as my own background: 6+ years writing about tools, 10+ years in construction, and my track record of owning decrepit old houses that seem to be in a continual state of severe dysfunction and repair.

First I put together a list of available tool kits. For this initial pass, I checked Amazon, Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Ace as well as some smaller regional retailers like Menards. I also looked at the big generic box stores like Wal-Mart and scoured the sites of tool manufacturers, such as Stanley. I found about 40 to 50 kits ranging in price from $20 to $98.

Don’t be dazzled by the number of pieces that the manufacturer says are in a kit.
There are a few things I learned early in my research. First, don’t be dazzled by the number of pieces that the manufacturer says are in a kit. The Denali 115-piece set fluffs the number with 50 screwdriver tips, 13 nut driver tips, 18 drill bits, a 6-piece combo wrench set, and 15 Allen wrenches. The discontinued Husky 123-piece kit contains a whopping 73 different driver bits, 16 Allen wrenches, and a 19-piece socket set. So yes, these kits do technically come with 115 and 123 pieces, but in reality each kit has about a dozen or so individual tools.

I spoke with Mark Clement, tool expert, licensed contractor and co-host of the MyFixItUpLife radio show and he expressed similar thoughts. “An over abundance of nut-drivers and esoteric screw-driver tips is a sure sign lots of items will never leave their blow-molded bondage. Put another way, if there are lots of bits in there that look like they’d be more use ripping down a men’s room stall at the airport, they’ll be of little use in your home.”

Timothy Dahl, tool blogger, writer and founder of Built By Kids and Charles & Hudson agrees, “the more tools a kit has doesn’t necessarily make it better. You’ll find 50-piece tool kits that count sockets or bits to simply inflate a number so a buyer feels like they are getting more bang for the buck—but instead they are getting a tool that they might not ever use or know how to use (like a socket wrench) or small screw driver tips that can get lost.”

Secondly, there is a great variety in tool selection among the kits. A basic alpha group appears over and over; tape measure, hammer, screwdriver, some sort of wrench, a set of pliers, and usually a torpedo level. Beyond that it’s a free-for-all. The Denali kit comes with a hacksaw and drill bits (but no drill); a few kits come with scissors; the Olympia kit offers wire strippers; and the Pittsburgh set sold by Harbor Freight, has a spark plug socket. Even the pliers selection is varied. Depending on the kit, it could be linesman pliers, slip-joint pliers, water pump pliers, or locking pliers.

Tool Selection

I considered my own home owning experience and made up a list of ten tools I feel should be present in a basic kit. Clement and Dahl were nice enough to do the same. I compared the three of our lists and they were nearly identical. Put together, my new master list consisted of:

  • Hammer: for hanging pictures, pounding in the irritating sock-ripping nail that keeps working its way up, “persuading” the gate latch to line up
  • Tape measure: for measuring for window blinds, figure square footage for painting a room, for spacing pictures on a wall
  • Screwdrivers: for tightening hinges and door knobs, straightening electrical plates, fixing loose chair legs, assembling furniture and toys
  • Allen wrenches (SAE and metric): as Clement said, “Allen keys are critical for the modern world we’ve built up of knock-down furniture. The more choices you have in Imperial and metric, the better off you’ll be. They’re must-haves for anyone with a bike, too. Adjust your seat, rack your handlebars straight after the crash, even fix your BabyJogger. They’re also key for various home upgrades with set-screws like toilet paper and towel holders.”
  • Level: for hanging pictures, adjusting the legs on an appliance, leveling furniture
  • Needle Nose Pliers: for small and delicate tasks like repairing jewelry or gluing tiny pieces of a broken coffee mug; also helpful in tight places, like the inside of a motorized kid’s toy or getting melted crayons out of the floor register ducts
  • Utility Knife: for breaking down boxes for recycling, linoleum repairs, trimming a rug pad

Also:

  • Adjustable wrench
  • Slip-Joint Pliers
  • Vise Grips

I’ve separated out these last three tools and Clement explains why: “I also like options for turning nuts, whether that’s a kids bike, my bike, a play-set tighten-up or changing a lawnmower blade. Ratchets are cool to be sure, but a decent set of wrenches—or even adjustable-plus-locking pliers—can get most jobs done from tightening up the rake-head to the handle to loosening the garden hose.”

His point is solid and to take it one step further, a home tool kit should have some way to handle a nut/bolt situation. This means that it needs two similar wrench/pliers type tools; one to turn while the other secures. Some examples of situations when this comes in handy are tightening two hoses together, assembling a backyard playset, and fixing an under-sink drip. So of the above three tools, you really only need two of them. You could also get away with a socket set as one of the two, but it’s less than ideal because it can’t grab around something like a pair of pliers can. All of these tools have different subtleties, but they are all capable of handling this specific task.

To get a sense of cost, I priced out the tool list at Amazon. I selected high-end tools that are in my own carpenter’s tool bag or that I know are construction site ready. The list came to just under $200. Given that context, $20-50 is a reasonable price to pay for a case full of standard hand tools.

Hands On Time

I checked my master tool list against the kits and found a number of them that covered all or most of the bases. I got my hands on four finalists; the 76-piece HDX, 52-piece Craftsman Evolv, 115-piece Denali, and 130-piece Harbor Freight. Because there are no reviews, hands on time was necessary to make a final verdict.

Having years of construction experience, I could tell a lot about the tools just by getting a look at them. Each one has certain tells that indicate quality. For example, the wobble in the lower jaw of a crescent wrench, the amount of flex in the pliers handles, and how far the tape measure can stand out unsupported. Beyond the look and feel, I also tested for durability. I dropped just about everything off an 8-foot step ladder onto a concrete floor. I used the hammers to drive 3½-inch framing nails into a pressure-treated 6×6. I hand-turned 3-inch drywall screws into pre-drilled holes with the screwdrivers. I tightened down sill bolts with the wrenches and I used the cutting edge of the pliers to clip 14-2 Romex electrical wire until my hands were sore.

Overall, the tools held up very well under the duress that I put them through and almost everything survived repeated drop tests. There were some red flags though and thats covered below.

Why the HDX?

With one exception, the tools have a nice look and feel to them and they proved durable enough for light duty use.
After research and testing, it became clear that the Home Depot HDX set has all of the right tools with little additional chowder. With one exception, the tools have a nice look and feel to them and they proved durable enough for light duty use. The set has all of the items in the master list and on top of that adds a pair of scissors, four small spring clamps, diagonal cutting pliers, and a four-piece precision screwdriver set. Of the additional tools, only the scissors seem out of place. The clamps can help with small glue-ups. The cutting pliers can snip wire ties, trim guitar strings, and clip picture hanger wire. The precision screwdrivers are perfect for eyeglasses and the teeny set screws on the underside of the TP holder.

 The HDX has a lot of screwdriving ability, coming with a driver handle and 30 driver bits. The bit set is a selection of slotted (5), Philips (10), Torx (5), Allen (9), and a ¼-inch adapter for a socket set. This variety was standard throughout the tool kits and covers every screw that is likely to exist in a house or apartment. Slotted bits are essential for old homes and door hardware. Philips are just everywhere. The Torx, also known as “star drives,” are the strangest of the bunch and are used for decking and home electronics. The Allen heads serve the same function as Allen wrenches, but on the end of a screwdriver, they can access tight areas differently.

There is also a wide selection of traditional Allen wrenches: 11 metric and 11 SAE, which is more than most sets. These are invaluable for bikes, door hardware, and pre-fab furniture like Ikea.

The handles of the HDX tools have a soft grip and are comfortable to hold. The crescent wrench is particularly impressive. It has a large handle for leverage and the jaw can open to just over an inch, so it can tighten most plumbing connections in case of emergency. The hammer is small but durable and the 12-foot tape measure has a rubberized sheath around it to absorb any falls. The HDX set includes a small case with 5 additional utility knife blades. It’s a nice touch, but they also added them to the total tool count of the kit which, let’s be honest, is pretty lame.

Granted it’s not a professional grade set but it’s plenty for the DIY guy. You won’t find a better set for the price.

The weak point of the set is the level. It’s a little plastic thing that you can actually twist in your hands. Levels are all about vial stability and one that you can tweak like this is going to have accuracy issues. I checked it against my 4-foot Sola level, a high end pro brand, and it was 1/16-inch out of level over 9 inches. This translates to just over 5/16-inch across 4-feet. Given the quality of the other tools and the kit’s overall rock bottom pricing, I was willing to overlook this dud. Most picture hanging is done by eye, and if you’re trying to mark a level line across a wall, you can measure from the ceiling and double check it off the floor. When I spoke to him, Clement didn’t even really feel that a level was necessary in a home kit.

The HDX case opens up like a book with tools pressure fit into both sides. Each tool has a specific spot and can’t fit anywhere else. This style of case eliminates the option of adding tools later, replacing tools with different brands, or storing a few picture hangers. When I  compared it to other similar designs, this one at least kept the tools in place and I could still easily remove them. The discontinued Husky kit locks the tools so securely that at times it took two hands to get them out. At the other end of the spectrum, the Harbor Freight case held the tools in place with the grip of a two-year-old, causing some to fall out as I tried to close it up.

Because there is no overabundance of additional tools, the HDX case makes for a compact package ideal for closet storage. It measures 3-inches wide, 10 ¾ inches tall, and 13-inches across. It takes up just over 419 cubic inches of closet space, about the size of a chubby laptop. In contrast, the Harbor Freight case is 22-inches long and consumes almost 640 cubic inches. Denali’s duffel has the benefits of being crushed into place, but even at its smallest, it’s still about 720 cubic inches. The Craftsman Evolv’s tackle-box case takes up 557 cubic inches.

Because Home Depot just rolled out the HDX line of tools last year (a little background here), there is very little to go with regarding customer reviews and feedback. Since there are no reviews of this specific kit, I expanded my comment search to include all HDX hand tools. Info is still scarce, but the reviews I found were mostly positive. The most negative ones were associated with a screwdriver kit and said that the tips stripped after very little use. This issue is sidestepped by the HDX set because the screwdriver in the tool kit is just a shaft with removable bits. This not only reduces the number of screwdrivers needed in the kit, but it also places the wear and tear on the small tip piece that can be easily replaced. Regarding the durability of the tools, my experiences were more in line with another reviewer who wrote, “Granted it’s not a professional grade set but it’s plenty for the DIY guy. You won’t find a better set for the price.”

The HDX tools have no warranty attached to them, so other than Home Depot’s initial return policy, you’re on your own. With so many tools at such a low price, this didn’t affect the recommendation. Beyond the level and maybe the scissors which are also mostly plastic, if the tools arrive undamaged, they should hold up to casual use.

The Step Up

Also Great
If you can afford to spend a bit more on your tool kit, this Denali kit will serve you well with a more heavy duty set and an extensive collection of tools
*At the time of publishing, the price was $55.
If you were interested in a set with a larger selection of tools geared more towards heavy duty use, then I would say that the Denali 115-Piece Home Repair Tool Kit is for you. It costs just over $50, more than twice that of the HDX, but testing revealed that the tools are heading in the direction of pro quality.

The Denali set contained a number of tools over and above the standard list; combo wrenches, stubby screwdriver, hacksaw, locking pliers, and loads and loads of driver bits.
The Denali comes with a full-sized 16-oz rip hammer. These are equipped with straighter nail pullers and are useful for demolition and prying. Most other kits come with curved head claw hammers which are better for pulling nails. The level was also notable because it was the only one with even a lick of metal in it. The i-beam aluminum construction offered stability where the others offered mush. It also read dead-on accurate when tested against the Sola. Of the kits tested, the tape measure had the furthest tape stand-out, the most useful markings (fractions of an inch), and the longest length at 16-feet. The utility knife had a tool-free blade change which is a feature of the pro models. You need a Philips screwdriver to replace the blade on the HDX knife.

The Denali set contained a number of tools over and above the standard list; combo wrenches, stubby screwdriver, hacksaw, locking pliers, and loads and loads of driver bits.

But this kit isn’t perfect either.  The screwdriver is ratcheting but doesn’t feel very solid in the hands. It survived all of the drop tests, but someone uploaded an image to Amazon of their broken one. The problem here is that if the screwdriver handle fails, the entire system goes down and the bits are all rendered useless. (Granted, you can get another driver to replace it, you shouldn’t have to.) There is also the duffle storage bag. While it solves the issues of the suitcase-style cases, it creates the problem of epic disorganization. The inside pockets are so small that only the driver bits and Allen wrenches can even fit in them. Everything else just sits in a jumbled pile at the bottom of the bag.

Another unusual aspect to the Denali set is that the company kinda sorta doesn’t seem to exist. They have no website and their tools are only available at Amazon and, at a much higher price, Sears. The question has been raised online, (hereherehere, and here), about where the tools come from, but the answer remains a complete mystery. I called Amazon customer service to try to get to the bottom of it. The customer service rep that I spoke with just ended up searching online for a manufacturer’s site and had the same luck I did, which is none. One thing he did clarify was the issue of a warranty. The Amazon site says that the tools have a 30-day warranty. Because the kit and other Denali tools, are sold directly by Amazon and not a 3rd party seller, the 30-day warranty is applied by Amazon and not the manufacturer. This is Amazon’s standard warranty that they place on all items coming out of their warehouses. I was told that most of the time there is a manufacturer warranty that exceeds this initial one, but in this case there isn’t, similar to the HDX tools. So who actually is Denali Tools? The closest thing to an answer, even though it’s just a shot in the dark, is nikkwood’s comment at the Fine Homebuilding message boards, “I’m guessing that the Chinese manufacturers might have a contract with one of the main line brands, then extend the run, and market them to places like Amazon under another brand name like Denali.” I thought this was an interesting theory, so I checked Amazon for magnetic torpedo levels. The aluminum i-beam portion of the one made by Empire appears to be identical to the one from the Denali kit.

But the real answer is that we don’t know for sure.

The Competition

The Craftsman Evolv 52-Piece Set offers a basic set at a relatively high price ($50), particularly when compared with what you get for two dollars more from the Denali. The tackle box case makes for easy organization with an interior shelf and compartments on the top of the lid for small bits and additional picture hangers and fasteners. The face of the hammer easily dented when I pounded in the framing nails and the screwdriver handle doesn’t even directly accept bits. To use it, you have to add the ¼-inch socket piece and then add the bit to that. This leaves you with a screwdriver that has a wobbly end. Overall, the look of the tools is slick and stylish, accompanied by a comfortable grip style on the needle-nose pliers. They’re certainly the most fashionable of the bunch. But it’s a lot to pay for some bling that’s going to sit in the back of your closet most of the year.

They’re certainly the most fashionable of the bunch. But it’s a lot to pay for some bling that’s going to sit in the back of your closet most of the year.

I also tested the Harbor Freight Pittsburgh set. In the tool world, Harbor Freight holds a unique spot. They are known for selling non-name brand tools at absolute rock bottom prices. There is a lot of online real estate devoted to the ups and downs of their inventory. One site even lists nicknames for the company such as “Bottom of the Harbor Freight” and “The Chinese Cheesecake Factory.” The general consensus seems to be that some of it’s good and some of it’s not so good. Within minutes of using the tools, the finish started falling off the socket handle and the same is true for the screwdrivers. Not a good sign. The crescent wrench has a ton of play in the jaw and the hammer is sized for one of the munchkins from Oz. The tape measure only goes to 10-feet and it cracked during one of the drops. The kit doesn’t come with a level.

Aside from the Evolv and the Harbor Freight, other kits were missing basic tools. The Kobalt 22-piece didn’t have Allen wrenches, the Stanley 65-piece set only had SAE sockets and no metric, and Apollo’s 39-piece set was missing the metric Allen wrenches. All of these kits sell for a higher price than the HDX.

There is also another tier of tool kits which are sold at and above $75. Each of the box stores has their own mid-level brand of hand tools. For Home Depot, it’s Husky and for Lowe’s it’s Kobalt. The Husky set on the Home Depot site has been discontinued, but I did get my hands on one out of curiosity. The fit and finish of the tools are more in line with pro quality, but the level is still a flimsy piece of plastic. One thing that does set these kits apart from the rest is the warranty. Similar to the legendary Craftsman hand tool warranty, both Lowe’s and Home Depot stand behind these lines 100%, and offer a hassle-free replacement for the life of the tool. (Note that the Craftsman Evolv line of tools only has a limited warranty).

Black & Decker also sells a few kits that come with drills. Judging from the rest of the contents, it’s clear that they’re meant for a more experienced user. Spade bits and hole saws aren’t going to be of much use to the apartment dweller.

Wrapping it Up

Once the dust had settled, it became clear to me that the Home Depot HDX 76-piece set is the way to go for most. It has all of the right tools in a small package at a really good price. Aside from the level, which isn’t worth the plastic it’s made of, the tools should have no problem withstanding the occasional use for small repairs. These kits aren’t anywhere near high end. But for a few bucks, they’re a great way to make sure you have what you need, when you need them.

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Sources

  1. Mark Clement, MyFixItUpLife
    “An over abundance of nut-drivers and esoteric screw-driver tips is a sure sign lots of items will never leave their blow-molded bondage. Put another way, if there are lots of bits in there that look like they’d be more use ripping down a men’s room stall at the airport, they’ll be of little use in your home.”
  2. Timothy Dahl, Built By Kids
    “the more tools a kit has doesn’t necessarily make it better. You’ll find 50-piece tool kits that count sockets or bits to simply inflate a number so a buyer feels like they are getting more bang for the buck—but instead they are getting a tool that they might not ever use or know how to use (like a socket wrench) or small screw driver tips that can get lost.” - Dahl also founded Charles & Hudson.
  • http://www.joncole.info/ Jon Cole

    This would be a pretty hot deal at $20, but looks like it was a sale price at the time of posting and now it’s $30. Meh.

    • jaquer404

      It still shows up as $20 for me, and that was the price at the store too (just bought one today).

      • http://www.joncole.info/ Jon Cole

        Here’s a screenshot, $29.97 as I said. And that seems to be the online price, not a store-specific price. Unless state pricing is different from national, I don’t really get it.

        • Doug Mahoney

          I just checked around and it looks like Home Depot loads a regional price to their website so there is some fluctuation. It seems like most places have it at $20, but some places, particularly urban areas (like NYC) sell it at the higher price of $30. Even with the higher price, I still stand by the recommendation. The other contenders were in the $50ish range and they all had their faults. It’s a full-on steal at $20, but still worth it for $30.

          • http://www.joncole.info/ Jon Cole

            Thanks for the response. One thing I’ll say is that between The Wirecutter and now The Sweethome, I’m fully prepared to shell out for something of quality (which these sites capture handily) rather than cheap out just to be cheap.

  • http://allthebuttons.com All The Buttons

    Unfortunately neither of the main recommendations are available outside the USA.

  • DavidBeegle

    This was a good one. I have lots of tools already though. Every toolbox (tool box) I find is crap though. Any recommendations there?

    • maddmatt05

      Snap-on makes the best toolboxes in my experience. I come from an 18-wheeler shop, where durability is put to the test. I bought this (http://buy1.snapon.com/catalog/search.asp?partno=KRA2407PBO&search_type=part&store=snapon-store) and a top box used. After 6 years its still as good as new, and showing no signs of wear.

      • DavidBeegle

        Nice! Thanks for the tip!

    • John Gooch

      Same here. I’m really looking for a tool bag to consolidate the tools I have from 4 ( yes 4 ) home tools sets into a single bag with everything I need. There is always something missing from the pre-made kits that you need, which leads you to having a number of tools floating around because they don’t have a home. buy bag. put tools in bag. close bag. take bag with you when you work. simple.

  • The Workbench Life

    What a great find. And Mark Clement knows his stuff–you can read him at TheWorkbenchLife.com.

  • eaadams

    I swear by my toolkitpeople (KJ Tool Kits) box. My dad gave it to me when I rented my first house. The #1 feature is a small one, it has empty space. So when you end up picking up that stud finder and soldering iron and coax crimpers, you have somewhere to put them.

  • Nick Gardner

    Well, looking at the reviews on home depot now, I see that 2 of the 3 say the screwdriver broke on the first use, so I’d really steer clear of these.