It always happens. You’re home one cold Saturday, with a breath’s headroom between you and the bottom of the kitchen sink you’ve been meaning to fix, well, forever. On the floor beside you is your dusty old toolbox, the one you haven’t taken out since the last time you decided to play Mr. or Ms. Fix-it.
You open the latch and reach in. Will that tool you need be there?
For most of us, the answer is a definite maybe. Now’s the time to check out that tool box for ideas about Christmas gifts.
“It really helps if you have the right tools,” says Russell Spoerl, the tool guy at Franklin’s Hardware in Woodland Hills. “It’s a good idea to have the basics on hand. Sooner or later, you’ll need one of them.”
And as it turns out, that’s a very likely scenario these days for most of us. A majority of Americans will be reaching for a basic tool sometime this year, according to the Home Improvement Research Institute. The industry-sponsored research group has tracked a 20-year trend in the rise of American homeowners who are doing repair work themselves.
In 1970, roughly one-third of Americans called themselves “do-it-yourselfers” - people who have done at least one repair or home-improvement job in their house over a 12-month period. In 1996, that figure had risen to nearly 90 percent.
Contrary to stereotypes, not all of those do-it-yourselfers are men. According to the studies, as many as 15 million female homeowners are picking up hammer and nails.
“By the year 2000, virtually all Americans will be doing some kind of home-improvement work, whether it be painting or fixing the sink,” says Scott Bannell, vice president for marketing and advertising for Stanley Works, the New Britain, Conn., tool company. “More people will try projects in the future than ever before. They’ll obviously need the tools.”
There are a number of reasons for the trend. Professionals are expensive and, in some cases, harder to accommodate for busy, dual-income households, Bannell said. Studies have also measured a general tendency toward self-help, as evidenced by the plethora of home-improvement books and television programs.
So, in the interest of making sure that adjustable wrench is on hand next time you have to tighten a kitchen-sink bolt, here is some advice from the experts on what a wellstocked toolbox should have in its shiny red depths.
We asked them to name the 15 tools the average person absolutely could not do without, and they came up with a list they estimated would run between $100 and $150, depending on the quality of tools purchased.
Beyond the few basics that our experts agreed are necessary - a good hammer, a couple of standard screwdrivers, tape measure, pliers and a utility knife - their opinions varied on what else should go in the box.
Steve Nelson, manager of Rudy’s Ace Hardware in Woodland Hills, likes to have an awl - a tool with a long, sharp point - around for a variety of uses.
Terry Graham, the hardware manager at Sears in Northridge, says a flashlight may not be your typical tool, but it can be pretty handy when you’re crawling around in dark places.
And Wendy Allen, a hardware sales representative at Home Depot’s Santa Clarita store, says the tool she most uses is her socket set. But she doesn’t recommend it for everyone.
“I do a lot of automotive work and I keep a 75-piece set around,” she says. “When people come in and want a basic kit, I always ask them what they need it for. Is it for something like a regular hobby or is just a one-time thing?”
What you’re going to do with your tools is an important question our experts said you should ask yourself. Do you spend your weekends refinishing furniture or are you always under the hood of your 1970 Volkswagen? It makes a difference in terms of what tools you might want to include; tailor it to your needs.
When buying any tool, our experts recommended trying it out first by holding it in the store and seeing how it fits in your hand. A hammer should feel right to you; it shouldn’t be too heavy or unwieldy, otherwise the only pounding you might be doing is on your fingers.
“You want tools to be comfortable to use,” says Allen. “Something like a drill shouldn’t be too heavy and should be well-balanced. There’s no standard. Whatever feels right to you is what you should get.”
All our experts advised buyers to invest in quality tools, another aspect you can usually test while in the store. Well-made tools are nicely finished, have a fairly uniform feel and probably a lifetime warranty.
No matter what you decide to keep in your toolbox, our experts agreed the single most important tool you have is your head. Using common sense and basic smarts when using any tool is the best way to avoid breakage or injury.
“It’s probably a good idea to use protective goggles or gloves on certain jobs, but there’s nothing like common sense,” says Nelson, who also recommended a weight belt for heavy lifting.
That means also using tools to do the jobs for which they are intended.
“It’s very easy to use what’s next to you,” says Sears’ Graham. “For example, using a screwdriver as a pry bar. There are common uses where they might do the job, but if a tool is not used for its specific purpose, you could break it or injure yourself.”
xxxx THE BASIC TOOLS Here are the experts’ choices for the 15 basic tools no one should do without. We based the list on the most-mentioned tools. Hammer: A 16-ounce claw hammer with a wooden handle is recommended. It’s light enough to handle and hefty enough for most hammering jobs. Screwdrivers: For very basic jobs, get a -inch Phillips-head screwdriver and a -inch slot (or flathead) screwdriver. Pliers: A must-have. Get a basic, sturdy slip-joint pair. Insulated handles help for better gripping. Tape measure: They come in several different lengths and are reasonably priced (they are often given away as store promotions). An 8-foot tape is plenty for most people, but longer ones are helpful, too. Adjustable wrenches: Also called crescent wrenches, these are among the most versatile tools in your box. Utility knife: Simple, easy to use and very sharp. These can cut carpets, drywall, some plastics and cardboard. Crowbar: Great for taking things apart - walls for example. Hacksaw: If you can only have one saw, this is a good choice. It’s small and sharp and can cut fairly easily through metal, wood or plastic. Level: An inexpensive “torpedo” level (shaped like a torpedo) is particularly useful for hobbyists. Putty knife: Equally adept at filling up holes in the wall, scraping off wallpaper or even getting those stickers off your windshield. Vice-grip pliers: These are those pliers you can adjust and lock in place. Excellent for holding things when you need one hand free. Drill: They do make hand-powered drills, but if you have bigger jobs, a good power drill is indispensable. Staple gun: Our experts say this is one of those tools that will come in so handy, you’ll wonder how you did without it. Allen wrench set: Also called hex keys, which are hexagonal wrenches. File/rasp: Not the most obvious tool, but a handy item to smooth rough nails and/or screws on walls and furniture, or for detailed hobby work.