Having quality tools is the first step to creating quality work. Every type of making has its own unique set of tools, almost like a fingerprint. Stepping in to any workspace you can see what its users do just by the tools: leather-working, auto-work, electronics, or any other type of making. The tools are what define how you can make and the ways that you can make it. This list will cover a set of tools that have applications in a large range of different spheres of making but certainly not every sphere. Rather, these are the ten tools that I find the most flexible and useful to have/obtain when creating a workspace. This list will not cover consumable tools, which are certainly indispensable, but instead will focus on tools that will be the permanent foundation of a workspace.
When it comes down to it, tools are just applied physics devices, often at the simplest level. After all, what is Making except manipulating the physical properties of a material until it forms into what we have imagined (or at least something that resembles it!)
Hammers are great for… well pretty much everything, as long as you need to apply force to something else. The essence of a hammer is a mass, the hammer head, on the end of a lever, the handle. When swinging a hammer you are combining the gravitational potential energy of the hammer head with the kinetic energy of the swing that is being multiplied by the lever (handle). Having said all of that it basically means hammer = hit stuff good.
There are all different types of specialized hammers, lighter heads, different head shapes, extra tools attached to the head, different head/handle materials, and different hammer materials. The most commonly seen is the claw hammer, and for good reason, it is a great general purpose hammer, it occupies the Goldilocks zone of hammers, not too big, not too small, not overly specialized. The claw is another tool attached to the hammer head which utilizes the lever of the hammer handle to help pull out nails, or when swung, depending on the angle of the claw, can be used as a sharp hammer. I thought there was a tool for that, can’t quite think of the name, an a… no, beats me. Anyways, when searching for hammer to be used as a general purpose tool for your making endeavors, other than shape and type, the most important factor is to be sure that it is a good weight and fit for you. A hammer is only as effective as your control over it and a hammer that’s too heavy can quickly become frustrating, fatigue your arm, and even lead to injury.
“Saw” is certainly an extremely broad category. Hand saws alone have seemingly endless variety of size, tooth, and construction. The saw you opt for really depends on what its main use will be. A hacksaw is perhaps the most adaptable saw as the blade can be cheaply replaced. However, it you are cutting through wood, say 20 2x4’s you definitely want a rip saw.
When it comes to power saws there is also a huge range, but for a starter you can’t go wrong with a hand held circular saw. The speed and dexterity that an older guy who has been in construction for 25+ years is downright worrying. It makes you question if you have any right to wield the same mighty tool. But, they had to start somewhere too (except for EssentialCraftsman, legend says he was born with a circ saw in his hand). Compound Miter saws are also a great tool to have. Though not quite as flexible as a circular saw, they can cut stock of almost any material quickly and at a reliable and crisp angle. But, you certainly can’t cut any sheet material with them. Table saws are incredibly capable tool as well, but as a starter power saw my recommendation will be a circular saw for it’s small size, flexibility, and low cost.
3. Tape Measure
No matter what you are making, chances are you are going to want some kind of measuring device. The scale of measurement is completely arbitrary and sometimes “the width of that random wood chip from the floor” works perfectly, but having a precise and accurate scale of measure such as a ruler or a measuring tape sure comes in handy. I use both almost equally - a ruler usually for smaller layout, while a measuring tape is much faster for larger applications. The type of measurer that you get depends entirely upon how accurately you would like to size your objects, but especially starting out, most will beat out the old wood chip method.
When getting a ruler, get one with clear denomination lines and a metal edge for resting your marking device against. A 12” ruler will be the easiest to find and will be very useful for small layouts but other lengths of rulers such as 36” or 48” can come in very handy when acting as a straight edge for larger measurements.
When looking for measuring tapes, bigger isn't necessarily better. Get one that fits into your hand well, reaches at least 12’, and has the markings on its tape that you like best (I like the Imperial 1/8th denominations listed). Having a stiff tape is great for seeing how far you can extend it before it falls reaching the end of your stock easily or measuring a wall or span without frustration. Wider tape usually means longer distance before it breaks. Depending on the type of Making you plan to do, another great measurer is a flexible cloth tape measurer, usually used for clothing measurements. They are around a dollar and when you need to measure something that isn't a flat plane, are great to have around.
“A trusty knife can accomplish anything you can dream of”
-Knife sellers throughout history
Knives are perhaps one of the most versatile tools that you can have in your tool set. At its basic level, it is a thin edge that concentrates pressure over a very small surface area. In its practical form a knife is useful for cutting, scoring, or scraping almost any material. In my shop the knives that see the most use are my utility knife and my breakaway knife. They are similar in that they have very thin blades that are quick and cheap to replace. A trusty knife is the backbone of any shop and is almost universally useful.
5. Soldering Iron
A soldering iron may seem like a strange choice because at first blush it appears as a bit of a uni-tasker, used for well... soldering things. However, it is really just a conductive heating element, which can certainly be used for many other things. The first soldering iron that I ever bought was under $20 and came with a small tube of interchangeable tips. Not only were there soldering tips but also wood burning tips and a small hobby knife tip. Now I could apply heat in all different shapes and sizes! The iron turned out to be an unexpectedly versatile tool for soldering, wood-burning, hot-cutting, and a variety of other things. I think an all purpose soldering iron makes an excellent addition to a starting tool set as it opens up a huge set of options for new ways to create.
Having some way to securely hold onto what you are working on is truly excellent. When starting out without tools the easiest, and not so secure, way to hold your work is with your hands, not so excellent. Being able to either clamp your work to a table or hold it in a vise makes your process, whatever it may be, so much faster, safer and just… better.
In looking for a holdey-thingey (read clamps or vise) it all depends on the size and shape of what you will be holding. Generally, clamps are much more versatile as they are mobile and can hold your work to any other surface. Additionally, there are a wide variety of clamp types and sizes, each has their purpose but I find bar clamps with a quick release mechanism to be the most versatile. However, they lack high clamp down force. As for vises, they also come in different shapes and sizes and certainly have a higher price barrier but I usually have good luck finding swivel vises at antique shops or pawn shops for reasonable prices, just make sure the jaws are parallel and there are no other obvious problems.
To be honest there are more types and denominations of pliers than I will ever know about, each with a specific job that they are excellent at performing. For our purposes, lets consider just a few types: needle nose, long nose, diagonal nose, and groove joint pliers. Chances are that you have seen all of these types of pliers. They are usually included in any plier set, and its for good reason. They are the pliers that I reach for most often in the shop and around the house, the workhorse pliers of your tool set that I guarantee you will find endless (and often strange but day-saving) uses for. When it comes to pliers, quality of materials and construction certainly effects the tool. But for getting a tool set together, a reasonably priced but inexpensive set of pliers will certainly do.
Chances are, if you are making something, you want some part of it to be a square 90 degrees. You can certainly try eyeballing it but I find squares to be the more reliable method. As a general purpose square I think that a speed square is best, even though it is called a square, it also empowers you to mark other angles reliably! Stamped aluminum speed squares or cast plastic ones may not be the most perfect instruments but in most cases are exact enough, that combined with the fact that they can be picked up for less than 10 dollars makes the speed square an excellent backbone making tool. If I was to pick a square other than the speed square to be a backbone of my workshop it would probably be a combination square. It has some different features than a speed square but isn't so great for marking angles other than 90 deg.
9. Pencil (Marker)
What do you call a shop without a means of marking? A bunch of tools and materials just sitting around! You get the point, without a way to mark your measurements, notes, and sketches, it would be tough to get much done in the shop, not with any reliability anyway.
The marking device that you use will change with your application for it and your preference. A #2 pencil is a great multitasker in the shop, especially in regards to woodworking. However, permanent markers, chalk, pens, or metal scribes are all excellent marking implements.
10. Work Surface
This list of tools would not be complete without a work surface included. While Making can be done without a work surface either on the floor, in your hands, or on your lap, having a solid, flat surface upon which you can set your work, tools, and references will save you time, frustration, and back pain. Usually when I am starting a new workshop/tool set or helping a friend to do so, a work bench is the first item to be made, not only to work on but also for storing your tools in an easily accessible manner. Your workbench depends on your space, the tools you have, and the type of Making that you foresee doing on it. I have seen different tops made of plywood, sheet metal, shower-board, acrylic, doors, and pallets. One thing is sure though, no matter the top, you want a solid base. It doesn't necessarily have to be big or heavy, I often make a temporary work surface from a half sheet of cheap ply and two sawhorses. But just be sure it isn't shaky (a personal peeve of mine).
There you have it. As I said before this list certainly isn't comprehensive but it will surely get you started on your way to Making great things!