If you've decided to tackle a vehicle repair by yourself for the first time, welcome to the DIY Club! It's fun here, plus we've got awesome tools. Whether it's your first repair, first car, or first garage, we'll cover all the affordable and useful tools you'll need to get the job done. Let's get started with the obvious.
Source | Andy Jensen
Air Pressure Gauge
Got $2? That can buy one of the most useful tools in your inventory: an air pressure gauge. This simple device does exactly what its name suggests, measuring the amount of air in your tires and displaying the reading of pressure in pounds per square inch. This is useful information, since underinflated tires cause decreased gas mileage, increased tire wear, and poor handling. Wielding this simple, inexpensive tool and adjusting your tire pressure to the proper level will save you money and make your vehicle drive properly. That's quite a return on such a small investment.
Sure, your vehicle probably came with a jack, but have you looked at it? It's likely a stamped steel hunk of junk with the build quality of a Cracker Jack box toy. A solid jack is cheap, well-built, and easy to use—making it safer all around. Floor jacks are large, but they roll easily, have a low profile for low vehicles, and can lift tons in just a few pumps of the handle. If you need something smaller for everyday carry, bottle jacks are conveniently small but offer incredible lifting power. There's even some that can lift a ridiculous 20 tons, for our DIYers with an Abrams tank.
Odds are that once the vehicle is in the air, you'll want some backup support. Modern jacks are reliable, but sometimes you need both front wheels in the air or maybe even all four. In that case, you need jack stands. Think of them like a cell phone mount for your car; it's cheap safety. These steel or aluminum devices keep the vehicle at the lifted height, allowing for easy and safe tire rotation, oil and transmission fluid changes, and swapping out brake pads.
Buying tip: save cash and get a kit offering jack and jack stands together.
Ratchet and Sockets
Yeah, wrenches are cool. But there's nothing like the sound of a spinning ratchet that loudly and proudly announces, “I'm fixing my ride!" Rather than slowly working a bolt off with a wrench, a ratchet and sockets get the job done in less time. For small bolts, go with a 1/4-inch drive. For large bolts, like on heavy-duty trucks, buy a 1/2-inch drive socket. Or split the difference and get a 3/8-inch drive. Buy sockets, however, for that specific ratchet, as 1/2-inch sockets will leave you disappointed on your 1/4-inch drive ratchet. Like with the jack stands above, buying a ratchet/socket set is easier and cheaper than buying individually.
This tool is way more than just a battery tester. A basic multimeter can read the volts, current, and impedance of electrical systems, providing valuable troubleshooting assistance. Flip-up headlights being wonky on your Honda Prelude? Use a multimeter on the headlight relay. Thinking that your Ford Explorer's coil packs might be going out? Make sure with a multimeter. It can also help around the home with installing that ceiling fan or troubleshooting Christmas tree lights, so it's far more than just an automotive tool. And, yes, it will also be a great way to test your battery.
Lighting isn't a tool in the traditional sense. It won't help you get that seized bolt unstuck or grease those bearings, but it certainly will help with both of those projects. Roadside emergencies seem to mainly happen at night, and it's no fun changing a tire by the headlights of passing motorists. LED lights are long-lasting, compact, run cool, and can be very affordable. Options cover basic flashlights and headlamps for seeing into dark engine bays to large four-foot shop lighting systems that can turn garage darkness into daylight. A good first buy is a handheld unit with a magnet for attaching to metal surfaces. Everything is easier when you can see what you're doing. Get some good lights.
Some of the most-used tools, and often most overlooked, are those involving cleaning up. For yourself, get clean with mechanic's soap and stay clean with some disposable latex or tough safety gloves. For your ride, a degreaser is your best friend under the hood, while the top of the hood needs a good car wash soap. A shop vac is excellent at keeping the interior clean and can even power through the mess of your garage/workspace. PEAK offers a radiator cleaner among other fluids, and if you spill them, use your shop towels. Those cheapo things have a million uses.
Have any suggestions for the first-time wrencher? What would be a common and affordable tool that everyone needs? Add to this list in the comments.