The Best Tools and Toolbox
After more than 300 hours of research and tests of more than 180 tools, we’ve put together the best tool kit for your home (and found the best toolbox to hold them all). To come up with these 22 recommendations, we consulted three carpenters with a combined experience of 36 years, got input from six leading tool experts, and had many, many conversations with tool manufacturers. After we conducted our initial tests and decided on the best tools, I used them to complete a major home renovation as well as countless other projects that have cropped up since my move into a 250-year-old home. After this much work, we’re sure these tools can handle just about everything your house can throw at you.
These tools are best for people who have already started dabbling with home improvement and want to up their game. Compared to the lower quality implements in the $20 basic tool kit we recommend for total beginners, the tools on this list offer better features, more capability, a higher degree of comfort, and pro-level durability. These are reliable tools that can take a lifetime of abuse—and if they’re treated well, they could even last beyond your lifetime. This quality doesn’t come cheap; purchasing our entire kit at once costs roughly $500. But you don’t need to get all these tools at once. Most tool collections grow slowly over months and years, so we’ve loosely organized the list in a descending order of importance. We’re starting with the most essential tools and finishing with the more task-specific tools you’ll need when you’ve got the basics covered and are ready to expand your capabilities.
Table of contents
- Why you should trust us
- How we picked and tested
- Long-term test notes
- Tape measure
- Utility knife
- Drill bit set
- Stud finder
- Torpedo level
- Hex wrenches
- Adjustable wrench
- Locking pliers
- Needle-nose pliers
- Adjustable pliers
- Putty knife
- Painter’s multitool
- Pry bar
- Precision screwdriver
- Combination square
- Non-contact voltage tester
Why you should trust us
I know a decent amount about tools. I have spent 10 years in construction: first as a carpenter, then foreman, and finally a supervisor running multi-million dollar renovations and helping to build some pretty unusual houses (like this one with a glass staircase). In addition to my work in the trades, I’ve been writing about tools since 2007, with articles appearing in Fine Homebuilding, Popular Mechanics, This Old House, The Journal of Light Construction, Popular Science, and Tools of the Trade, where I’m a contributing editor. In addition to all of that, I recently spent three and a half years completely gutting and rebuilding my 100-year-old farmhouse, and I have since moved into a 250-year-old colonial in need of updating. As the owner of old homes, I’ve become all too aware of the core group of tools necessary for general maintenance and repairs.
But no single person knows everything about tools, so for this guide, I also spoke with many of the country’s leading tool experts: Mark Clement, licensed contractor and co-host of the MyFixitUpLife radio show; Marc Lyman, editor of the tool and home improvement website HomeFixated.com; Rob Robillard, licensed contractor and editor of AConcordCarpenter.com; Clint DeBoer, editor of ProToolReviews.com, Stuart Deutsch of ToolGuyd.com; and Harry Sawyers, Sweethome editor and former editor at Popular Mechanics and This Old House. I also had conversations with the manufacturers of many of these tools such as Klein, Milwaukee, and Irwin.
How we picked and tested
The tools on this list reflect the needs of general home maintenance and repair, so we selected ones that bring the most benefit to the most people. This means these tools are capable of everything: smaller projects like replacing bathroom fixtures, leveling the washing machine, and wiring a thermostat and more complicated jobs like replacing a toilet, reglazing old windows, or installing storm windows. We also made sure to include tools that can help solve common house emergencies such as plumbing problems and electrical issues.
To keep the number of tools to a minimum, we went with well-rounded tools that provide the most functionality for general use. For example, needle-nose pliers are essential for electrical work, but they’re also useful for fishing a toy out from behind a bookshelf. Locking pliers are essential for rusted and stuck nuts and bolts but can also do things like keeping a garage door held up while replacing the springs. With this set of tools, you’ll be ready for all basic household jobs—and you won’t waste money on gear that’ll gather dust in your toolbox.
For hands-on testing and evaluation of the candidates, I enlisted the aid of two other carpenters: Aaron Goff, with 12 years of experience in high-end remodeling, and Mark Piersma, with 14 years experience. I’ve known and worked alongside these two for years and they are both very particular about their tools. Here’s how Aaron summed up his thoughts (and ours, when deciding on the quality level of tools to include in this story): “I use the best possible tools that I can, so that I can do the best possible job that I can. It’s just not worth it to use junk.” This is a good time to mention that this kind of quality often comes at a price.
Once we had decided on our kit’s 22 finalists, I used them exclusively throughout the final phases of the three-and-a-half-year full gut and renovation of my 100-year-old farmhouse. During this second round of testing, which lasted about eight months, I used these tools to hang doors, install toilets, adjust knobs, and rework old windows. I also wired dimmer switches, put in faucets, and connected radiators. I’ll spare you the full list of everything these tools helped accomplish at home—let’s just say they’ve all got some miles on them.
Long-term test notes
Since we originally published this guide, I’ve moved into a 250-year-old colonial saltbox, and for the past six months I’ve continued to use the tools on a consistent basis, both for setting up the house and for doing general repairs and updating. The tools all continue to function properly, and we continue to stand behind our selections.
After loading up seven toolboxes with tools and inspecting hinges, latches, and lids, our three carpenter testers chose the Milwaukee 13-inch Jobsite Work Box ($30) as their favorite. We’ve been carrying our tools in it exclusively for eight months; we’re convinced it’s the best box available.
What sets it apart is that the Milwaukee is the only one designed to hold tools vertically, keeping them organized and easy to get—other toolboxes in the $15 to $40 range have a single large storage basin and a cluttered pile of tools. Once we got used to the uber-efficient Milwaukee, it was frustrating to dig through a jumbled heap of tools. Here, specific spots hold small, medium, and large tools, and the vertical storage gives the box a small footprint. Bonus: With the lid on, it becomes a seat that puts you at the perfect working height for making door knob adjustments or installing a towel bar.
We have plenty more information, and a runner-up pick for apartment dwellers, in our guide to The Best Toolbox.
After dropping, extending, and scrubbing the blades of 17 different tape measures with 60-grit sandpaper, we found that the best one is the classic 25-foot Stanley PowerLock Tape Measure ($10). We were most impressed by the durability of the blade, which is the weak point of any tape measure. In addition, the thumb slide locks in place without any excessive effort, and the tool is comfortable to hold and to clip to a belt. It is also one of the least expensive tapes we looked at. Learn more about how we (and our experts) rated, tested, and selected these tape measures—and why we think the Milwaukee 25 ft. General Contractor Tape Measure ($18) is a worthy upgrade for serious DIY work—in our full guide to The Best Tape Measure.
After testing 21 different utility knives on all kinds of cutting jobs, we found the Milwaukee Fastback II ($20) to be the best—it impressed us with its efficient, one-handed opening ability, the comfortable (and safe!) handle, and the onboard storage for one extra blade. It also has a nice belt hook and a gut hook that lets you cut small objects like string without even opening the knife. Many utility knives use a sliding thumb switch to expose the blade, but the Fastback II folds up like a pocket knife or opens one-handed—and locks in the open position—which makes it safer to use and easier to store. Other folding utility knives we looked at all needed two hands to open, which is slow and tedious. The speed, safety, and overall superior ergonomics set this one apart from the rest. To hear more about why we picked it—as well as how we tested it against the competition—read our complete guide to The Best Utility Knife.
After interviewing two carpenters and testing nearly a dozen hammers head to head, we’re sure the best hammer for most homeowners is the Estwing E3-16C ($25), a 16-ounce hammer with a well-earned reputation for quality. The tool is one single piece of steel from tip to tail. It is basically indestructible, especially compared to wooden or fiberglass-handled hammers, which can break, splinter, or have the head connection come loose.
This tool’s comfortable, shock-absorbing grip is easy to hold, and its nice balance makes it easy to aim and swing. Like many contractors, I’ve used a metal Estwing as my primary hammer for a decade of construction work and it’s still going strong—if you don’t lose this, it will be in your family for generations. Our expert carpenters confirmed our findings and offered some alternate picks for both lighter-duty and heavier-duty work in our full guide to The Best Hammer.
We took 16 drills, drove 1,669 3-inch screws, and bored 345 1-inch holes, and we’re now convinced that the Bosch PS31-2A 12-Volt Max Drill/Driver is the best drill for around-the-house needs. Although it was the lightest, most compact drill we tested, it was also among the most powerful, consistently driving long screws completely flush with the wood and hardly struggling while going through dense knots. It also ran far ahead of the pack in battery life, drilling twice as many holes as the second-place drill and almost 50 percent more screws. This superior performance comes with a price tag that’s easily comparable to that of the competition, too.
We also still like our previous pick, the Porter-Cable PCL120DDC-2 Compact Drill Driver, which is now our runner-up. This model isn’t as powerful as some others, but it is loaded with convenient features such as a belt hook and onboard bit storage. It’s also priced lower than most competitors, making it a great value.
We have additional recommendations for more aggressive DIY-oriented work. Read about these items and see the full explanation of our research, testing, and selection methods in our complete guide to the best drill for common household projects.
Drill bit set
In late 2015, Ryobi discontinued our pick, the 90-Piece Drilling and Driving Accessory Kit and replaced it with the nearly identical 90-Piece Drill and Drive Kit. After testing this new version, we’re switching over our recommendation. The main difference is that the general-purpose drill bits are now coated with black oxide rather than titanium. Technically, titanium is preferable, but after using one of the new bits to drill 175 holes (through both wood and aluminum), we are satisfied with the durability of the black oxide.
The Ryobi kit has, by far, the largest selection of useful pieces, without being bogged down by items that will never be used—Clement’s advice is to stay away from kits that offer “every bit in the world” —and for around $30 for all of this gear, we think it’s a steal.
The kit includes three full sets of drill bits (general-purpose, wood, and masonry) as well as a set of paddle bits and a hole saw—which no other kit had—for drilling four sizes of larger diameter holes.
But the Ryobi kit offers a lot more than just drill bits. It has a full selection of driver bits and other useful pieces like a countersink and a set of depth stops. The overall selection in the kit is so complete that both Goff and Piersma said that they’d purchase one for themselves.
The general-purpose bits are now coated with black oxide and not titanium. Titanium is generally seen as the better material, but in a drill bit test that appeared in The Family Handyman, a tester used a black oxide coated bit to drill “75 holes in pine, 40 holes in oak, 20 holes in aluminum tubing, and 20 holes in medium-density fiberboard.” After that he drilled about 25 holes in 3/16-inch steel before the bit started giving out. Granted, the titanium bit lasted longer, but the tester concluded that, “If you’re a less-than-160-hole-drilling do-it-yourselfer, working mainly in wood, you can get by with any of them.”
To satisfy our own curiosity, we used the largest Ryobi bit (⅜-inch) and drilled 100 holes into a two-by-four, 25 holes into a 1/16-inch-thick aluminum, then another 50 holes in the two-by-four. After all of this, the bit wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
For more information on how we picked this kit and the other ones we tested, see our guide to the Best Drill Bit Kit.
For hanging heavy pictures, mirrors, or shelves, you need to know where your wall studs are. The best tool we found for the job is the C.H. Hanson 03040 Magnetic Stud Finder. This affordable magnet-based stud finder doesn’t exactly locate the studs; it locates the screws that hold the drywall to the studs. No batteries, no calibration—just a simple, effective tool. While the other tested magnetic stud finders have only one magnet, the C.H. Hanson has two, which doubles the scanning area and reduces the time it takes to get a hit. This model is also the most durable one we looked at, by far—breaking it would take some serious effort. Included is a small level that you can rotate either vertically or horizontally depending on the orientation of the tool, a feature that helps with locating the stud as well as leveling a picture or mirror. We have more details about our work on this topic—and a more expensive (but very capable) electronic stud finder pick—in our guide to the best stud finder.
A small torpedo level is invaluable for everything from picture-hanging to deck-building. After researching the topic and testing four top levels, the one that impressed most is the Sola PH 22 Flooring Level ($15). It’s designed for the needs of a flooring installer, but our carpenter/testers all agreed that it works just as well for a homeowner. Most importantly, it’s a very easy level to read (much more so than the other ones we tested). The top face of the level vial has a slight magnification, making it readable from arm’s length, and it has a slight glow to it that is great for low-light installations. Our testers were wary of its plastic construction at first, but they were convinced of its durability after handling the tool (and abusing it a little). Plus, this was the only tool we tested with a square edge, which makes it easier to check for level or plumb in tight corners. To learn more about the Sola and the other levels we considered, see our guide to The Best Torpedo Level.
*At the time of publishing, the price was $17.
We tested out 11 different hex wrench sets and found that the best for towel bar-installin’, IKEA-furniture assemblin’, and door knob-tightenin’ is the TEKTON 25282 26-piece Long Arm Ball Hex Key Wrench Set ($17). Most of the actual wrenches we tested were nearly identical to one another, so the difference really came down to the quality of the storage. In that department, the TEKTONs were substantially better: The case opens like a book, with the larger and smaller wrenches on either side, making even the tiny wrenches easy to remove and replace. Wrenches don’t fall out, yet they can still be easily removed. On some other cases, we needed pliers to pull the wrenches free. For more information on how we picked and tested, including our recommendation for a folding hex wrench set, see our guide to The Best Hex Wrenches.
If you’re only going to own one wrench for assembling ready-to-assemble furniture, tinkering with the bicycle, or doing any number of small plumbing repairs, it should be the 8-inch Channellock Wide Azz ($25). After nine hours of research in which we tested 13 different wrenches, we liked the Channellock the most because of the extra wide jaw opening (about a half-inch wider than similar tools), the comfortable handle, and the smooth, precise adjustment. The jaws of the tool taper to a thin point, making it ideal for work in places where space is limited. And unlike cheap adjustable wrenches, this one’s movable lower jaw doesn’t unexpectedly wiggle, wobble, or work its way open. To learn more about why we chose this wrench, what we tested it against, and what other experts had to say about it, read our full guide to The Best Adjustable Wrench.
With their ability to grab and twist small objects in tight spaces, needle-nose pliers are the cornerstone of electrical work, but with their long reach and narrow tips, their uses go far beyond the trades, making them ideal for any time your fingertips are too big, bulky, or weak to get a grip. Our three carpenters tested 16 different pairs of needle-nose pliers; the favorite was the Klein J203-8N Heavy Duty Journeyman Pliers ($35). The Kleins were the only pliers we found to combine three features: very comfortable handles, perfectly parallel cutting jaws, and a smooth and solid pivot point. At over $30, they’re one of the more expensive items on this list, but our testers all felt the cost was worth it, given the exceptional quality of the tool. But not everyone is willing to invest so much in a hand tool, so we also like the much less expensive Stanley 89-870 FatMax Long Nose Pliers ($15) as an option. They are similar to the Kleins in a lot of ways, but the padded handles are loose at the end, the jaw has an uneven resistance, and the nose is fatter. To learn more about how we picked and tested, see our full guide to The Best Needle-Nose Pliers.
After considering at least 50 adjustable pliers and spending hours testing eight of them on radiator fittings, water heater connections, and plumbing clean-outs, we liked the 10-inch Irwin Groovelock Adjustable Pliers ($15) over the rest due to their durability, comfort, and quick push-button adjustment. Plus, the price is a steal. The Groovelocks have 15 different jaw sizings, a lifetime warranty, and with a maximum jaw opening of over two inches, they can handle all of the most common plumbing connections in your house. Compared to other pliers, the push-button adjustment on the Groovelocks is large and easy to use, even with gloves on. The jaws can be tightened without needing to press the button, which helps in tight spots like behind the washing machine. It also has a self-locking ability, allowing you to put your energy into turning and not gripping.
In researching this guide, we also found a tool that we consider the absolute best available (even if it comes at a price not everyone would want to pay): the 10-inch Knipex Cobras ($40). With these, you’ll be getting a far subtler adjustment mechanism, handles that are off-the-charts comfy, and a flawless self-locking ability. To hear more about how we tested these tools and the models we also considered, see our full guide to The Best Adjustable Pliers.
Whether you’re replacing a rotted deck board or building a science fair project, you’re going to need a handsaw. After three carpenters spend hours cutting wood with seven saws, we determined that the Shark 15-inch Carpentry Saw ($30) is, without question, the one to get. To say that this pull-stroke-cutting saw works quickly is a gross understatement. None of our testers, with their combined 36 years of carpentry experience, had ever seen a saw cut like the Shark. As an example of its cutting power, the Shark cut a line 1¾ inches deep into a piece of ¾-inch thick pine on a single blade stroke—almost 30% deeper than the second-place saw. The ample cutting ability is the result of the thin blade design, the tooth geometry, and the fact that the Shark cuts on the pull stroke. For a saw that cuts so aggressively, it also cuts cleanly. Even when we sent it through delicate veneered birch plywood, there was only the slightest bit of tear-out along the cutline. We also like how the Shark has a removable and replaceable blade in case it gets damaged. There’s a lot more to say about which saws we tested and how we tested them—see our full guide to The Best Handsaw.
A putty knife is essential for repairing walls, whether you are patching cracked plaster or filling nail holes before painting. We spoke with a painting contractor with 30 years of experience and then applied putty to what felt like a million nail holes to find that the Craftsman 1½-inch Flex Stainless Putty Knife ($6) is the best. Properly prepping a room for paint can take hours—above all else, a putty knife should be comfortable to hold. The Craftsman’s padded handle delivers. It’s also longer than normal, which gives good leverage while smooshing wood putty into a nail hole. The 1½-inch width is small enough to get into tight corners but large enough to easily fill a big plaster crack. The corners of the Craftsman’s blade are nice and crisp with no irregularities, and the metal cap at the end of the handle is perfect for banging down the lid to paint can or bucket of joint compound. It also has a lifetime guarantee backed by Sears. You can read more in our full guide to The Best Putty Knife.
A small pry bar isn’t exactly a home toolbox essential, but it is quite handy. You may need it to open a stuck window, remove a piece of baseboard, or pull up nails. After interviewing two tool experts and having our three carpenters use five pry bars to pull nails and separate boards, the last one standing was the Stanley 55-116 8-inch Nail Puller ($7). This tool has a thin cat’s paw nail puller at one end and a wide prying fin at the other, a two-in-one functionality that can pull out buried nails and pry off anything from baseboards to floor registers. Other tools were more polished, but this one separated boards with the least damage to the wood. The prying end also has a more dramatic curve than the competition, so the tool gives more lift on a single pry, and unlike others, the prying end has a notch that works as a second nail puller for small fasteners. At around $7, the Stanley also costs less than the competition. For more on how we picked and tested, see our guide to The Best Pry Bar.
Working under a sink or behind a washer/dryer, it’s tough for a big work light to beat a headlamp. We picked the Black Diamond Spot ($33) after comparing it against 24 other headlamps because it has a long battery life, strong overall durability, and convenient features. For example, it can cast a spotlight with a large central LED or a flood with two side lights, and the lamp pivots so you can aim it right where you want it (especially useful in spots where it’s too tight to wear it on your head). To learn more why we chose the Black Diamond and what we compared it against, read our full guide to The Best Headlamp.
Precision screwdrivers have extra small bits to open the battery compartment of a toy, rewire the thermostat, or tighten up a pair of sunglasses. The best that we found is the Maxcraft 7-in-1 ($5). It’s about as basic as they come, but it offers everything you need: convenient onboard bit storage, a knurled shaft for easy gripping, several of the most commonly used bits, and a little pocket clip, all of this for the bargain price of $5. It’s not a fancy tool—you can pay big bucks for a set of pro-level precision screwdrivers—but for most people, it’s an infrequently used item, and making a big investment doesn’t make sense. But we do have an upgrade pick for anyone who wants a bigger, better (and pricier) kit in our full guide to The Best Precision Screwdriver.
If you’re getting a saw, you’ll also need a way to mark a straight line. The best option for this is the Irwin 1794469 12-inch Combination Square ($11), which marks a line parallel to a board edge, perpendicular to it, or at a 45-degree angle. We liked the Irwin because you get a lot for a relatively low price of $11: the zinc body and stainless steel ruler won’t rust or corrode, the ruler slides easily, and the knurled drawbolt that locks it in place is simple to access and use. Plus, the base has a slightly textured powder-coated finish and the edges are broken with a nice, even chamfer. At 13.3 ounces, the thick-bodied Irwin was the heaviest square we tested, and this added weight and robust design give off a strong vibe of durability. Simply, put, the Irwin felt the best in the hands. There’s more to say about the Irwin and the other models we tested—see our guide to The Best Combination Square.
Non-contact voltage tester
A non-contact voltage tester can detect whether or not an electrical connection is live just by getting close, usually either by putting a probe near a wire or by sticking it into an outlet. After researching the topic, talking to an electrician, and spending hours testing seven leading models, we recommend the Klein NCVT-3 ($25). The NCVT-3 has a very intuitive indicator light, a nice on/off button, and an onboard LED flashlight that works whether or not you’re using the voltage detection function. This is a great feature—often, when you’re checking wires for voltage, the lights aren’t working. It also has a battery-life indicator and a durable body that protects its sensitive electronics from a fall of up to six-and-a-half feet. For more on how we picked and tested voltage testers (and an explanation of how they work) see our guide to The Best Non-Contact Voltage Tester.
Originally published: February 16, 2016