(Seb Agresti/Illustration for The Washington Post)
6 min

My motto has always been: Use the right tool for the right job. It’s something I learned early on; my father made sure I had an array of tools from the moment I started living on my own.

I’m grateful for that. It’s embarrassing (and sometimes expensive) to call a handyperson for a simple repair. Or to be caught unprepared when you discover that a dining room chair leg is wobbly just before guests are scheduled to arrive and you don’t have a what-do-you-call-it to tighten it up.

Even if you weren’t gifted a set of tongue-and-groove pliers — more on those later — with teal handles for your 18th birthday (thanks for that, Dad), it’s not too late to compile your own assortment of essential tools and supplies. Here’s what experts suggest you need. Note that many of the items are multipurpose, which can save you space and money.


Hammers are the workhorses in any tool kit. You can use them to close a paint can, pull out an errant nail or pound that security alarm sign into your flower bed. Consider it a must-have, says Chuck Khiel, senior vice president for Bethesda, Md.-based Fred Home Improvement. There are various types, including ball-peen, sledge and mallet, but the 16-ounce claw hammer, which has a head that is split and curved on one side, should handle most jobs and isn’t too heavy to wield.

Tape measure

Look for one that is at least 25 feet long to measure pretty much anything inside or out. It should have the fractions of an inch — down to 1/16 — labeled, so you can concentrate on the measurement and not on counting the marks, says Vineta Jackson, who writes about home improvement at the Handyman’s Daughter.

Four-in-one screwdriver

Whether you need to tighten a loose hinge, assemble a toy or change an item’s batteries, this is the ultimate affordable tool, says Sean Walsh, a general contractor and CEO of Walcraft Cabinetry in Ohio. It comes with two double-sided bits, including two flat heads and two X-shaped Phillips heads. These can be swapped in and out of the screwdriver handle.

Set of pliers

A standard three-piece set includes six-inch slip-joint, needle-nose and diagonal (or cutter) pliers. “They allow you to get a grip on anything,” says Kevin Busch, vice president of operations for Mr. Handyman. Needle-nose pliers are especially efficient in small, tight spaces, and diagonal ones are ideal if you need to cut wires.

Tongue-and-groove pliers

These adjustable pliers are good for tightening threaded fittings, such as sink drains, and turning handles or valves. “They’re my go-to for plumbing repairs: to stop leaking water, change a shower head or grip a stuck valve, so you can apply enough leverage to turn it off,” Walsh says.

Socket wrench set

A socket wrench does the same job as a conventional wrench, only more efficiently. Instead of buying dozens of wrenches, you can buy a single handle and removable sockets in different sizes. A socket wrench, with its ratcheting handle, lets you turn a nut or bolt without repositioning the tool on the fastener — as you would need to do with a wrench — when there isn’t enough room to turn it in a full circle. A set with about 25 sockets should be sufficient.


Jackson suggests you add two sizes of levels to your tool kit. One should be six to eight inches long, and the other should be four feet long. “The shorter one is good for hanging pictures or shelves,” she says. “The longer one should be enough for greater spans, say side-by-side shelves, or if you have a project like outdoor pavers.”

Five-in-one painter’s tool

This inexpensive gadget may be the Swiss Army knife of hardware. It looks like a putty knife, with its wide, flat blade, and it has a point for gouging, a square end opposite the point and a curved cutout. Use it as a can or bottle opener, a scraper, a paint roller cleaner, a screwdriver and more. Khiel says it can even help unstick painted windows.

Utility knife

“Please don’t use a steak knife to open boxes,” Busch says. A utility knife with retractable and replaceable blades can cut through thick materials, including cardboard, rope, foam rubber, heavy tape and more.

Cordless drill with interchangeable bits

The least intimidating of all power tools is the cordless drill. Prices start at about $35, and manufacturers typically produce them with long-lasting rechargeable batteries. Even if you have to pay a bit extra, get a full set of bits — drill, screwdriver, hex head, star head — to make it as versatile as possible. A good cordless drill allows you to do a job much more efficiently than by hand, Busch says.

Magnetic stud finder

A stud is the wood frame holding up your wall. When you go to hang a heavy item, you want to be sure you are nailing or drilling into wood and not just drywall, so it doesn’t fall. Electronic stud finders tend to give false readings, especially on textured walls, Jackson says. Instead, use a magnetic one (about $10), which you can move over the wall. Stud finders should stick to the screws or nails in the wood framing.

Duct tape

A universal adhesive, duct tape can seal boxes, corral cords, patch holes in a garden hose or spray faucet, mend a shower curtain and more. And it comes in a rainbow of colors.


This blend of lubricants and anti-corrosion agents silences noisy doors and hinges, lubricates locks, loosens stuck bolts or zippers, and even removes crayon marks and other stains from many surfaces.

Allen wrench key set

If you have ever assembled a piece of Ikea furniture, then you are well-acquainted with this tiny tool, also called a hex key, used for turning bolts and screws with hexagonal sockets, Jackson says. “I like mine on a ring, so you can easily find the one that fits,” she says. Allen wrenches are useful for tightening assembled furniture, towel rods and more.

Something to put it all in

Whether it’s a five-gallon paint bucket, a heavy-duty duffle bag or a toolbox with multiple shelves, store everything in one place, not throughout your house. When you do need to make a quick fix, you want something that’s easy to tote, so you don’t have to run around digging through drawers or scouring cabinets.

Denver-based writer Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategies. Find her at dailywriter.net.