Few things are more satisfying than working on your own vehicle — and few things are more frustrating if you don’t have the right tools. Having the right tools and supplies will make most jobs easier, as well as safer. Here are some “must-have” items.
Cleanup supplies and hand cleaner
Funnels and drain pans
Lubricants and cleaning sprays
Fire extinguisher and carbon monoxide detector
Battery booster pack
Magnetic retrieval tool
Work bench or cart
If you need to get the car off the ground, you’ll need a jack. You can use a trolley jack, shown here, which is easy to wheel under the vehicle, or a bottle jack, which has to be pushed under the car, but which takes up less storage space. They’re rated by the number of tonnes they can lift, so be sure you’re buying one that meets your needs. It’s essential to remember that the jack is only for lifting the car up. Once it’s in the air, you’ll need axle stands.
No matter what you do, do it safely. Wear safety glasses any time you’re working around a vehicle, no matter how small the job. A broken bolt, a screwdriver that slips, or splashing fluid could potentially cost your eyesight. If the job calls for it, wear a mask, too, but wear the right one. A plain paper mask will protect you from dust and particles, but if you’re working with something that gives off fumes, you’ll need a respirator mask with filters.
Okay, so having tools in the garage is a no-brainer. But don’t just grab whatever’s cheap. Poorly-made tools can break, which can damage the part you’re working on, as well as your knuckles. You want good-quality, heavy-duty wrenches and sockets. Avoid “gadget” tools, such as inexpensive wrenches advertised as fitting every possible bolt. Instead, use a well-made, correctly-sized wrench for the job. You’ll also need a set of screwdrivers, locking pliers, and an oil filter wrench.
Never get under a jacked-up car until you’ve put axle stands under it. People have been killed when cars fell off jacks and onto them. Jack the car up, adjust the axle stands so they cradle the axle, and then lower the jack so the car’s weight rests on the stands. Only
then is it safe to crawl under. You’ll want to have four in stock, in case you ever need to lift the car entirely — using two to support the opposite corners isn’t safe. You might also want a creeper, which makes getting under the car so much easier.
You can’t fix something if you can’t see it. Look for a light with convenient features — a cordless light, for example, or one that can be easily stuck in place with a magnet or suction cup. If it uses an incandescent bulb, be sure there’s a cage over it for protection
(because you will drop it eventually). For big jobs, you can’t beat a stand-up lamp, and of course you’ll want a small flashlight for peeking into the hidden stuff.
Paper towels and old T-shirts will do in a pinch, but shop towels – paper or cloth – are stronger and won’t leave lint, which can be important when you’re working with delicate items. If you work in the garage a lot, a towel dispenser is convenient (and it looks pretty professional, too). If you use a towel to sop up flammable liquid, be sure to dispose of it safely. When it comes to cleaning yourself off, soap and water won’t be enough for tough grease. Hand cleaner will include special abrasives and ingredients to cut through and lift it off. Some need to be rinsed off afterwards, while others don’t need water: instead, you wipe it off with a towel. If you don’t have a sink near your work area, the waterless type may be the better choice.
You can avoid having to clean up your hands altogether if you wear a pair of work gloves. Gloves designed for wrenching on cars are also usually padded to protect against vibration and impact, and also provide a superior no-slip grip. Modern gloves can even be used on touchscreen devices.
If you’re doing your own oil changes – or any job that requires draining fluid – get a drain pan. Any wide-mouth container will do, but one that has a lid and drain plug will be the most convenient. You can even get some that include a small tray for draining the oil filter. Always dispose of used fluids properly; contact your municipality for instructions and drop-off centres. Be especially careful when storing antifreeze. It’s poisonous, but its sweet taste is attractive to children and pets.
(You’re also going to need funnels: they’re inexpensive, so invest in several sizes to fit various jobs, such as adding motor oil, or draining used fluids from pans into disposal containers. Metal funnels with flexible extensions are a must for adding transmission oil on older vehicles. Clean your funnels after use, or use specific ones for specific fluids, to avoid cross-contamination.)
These come in a wide variety of sizes, from small ones for pumping up tires and inflating pool toys, to plumbed-in monsters suitable for a small professional garage. If you’re considering buying air-powered tools, make a “wish list” and then buy a compressor large enough to run the most powerful ones on it. Your compressor will need periodic maintenance, so read and follow the owner’s manual.
You should have at least two types of products in your garage: one that takes grease off, and one that puts grease on. Use breathing protection when you’re using spray solvents. Penetrating fluids are helpful for loosening stuck bolts, while anti-seize compound will help prevent that from happening again. Always read and follow the label directions.
A fire extinguisher is a must in any garage (and in your house too — don’t forget to buy one for the kitchen). If your shop is large, have one installed at each end. There are different types, so be sure you’re getting one that’s appropriate for garage use. Read the instructions so you know how to use it, and how to check its condition as it ages. Home-style extinguishers are for very small fires. If the fire is growing, if the garage fills with smoke, or if anyone can’t get out around the fire even if you think you’ll be able to get it under control, leave immediately and call the fire department. (Consider a carbon monoxide detector, too. The stuff’s colourless and odourless, and if you breathe it in, it can kill you. Even if you’re careful about ventilation, it’s easy to lose track of how long a car’s been running when you’re working on a repair that requires it. You may already have a carbon monoxide alarm in your house [and if you don’t, you should have] but you should also have one up in the garage.)
These mobile packs are invaluable when you have a dead battery, whether in a vehicle or a lawn tractor, especially since many manufacturers don’t recommend jump-starting from another vehicle anymore. They’re not the same as a battery charger, which plugs into the wall (or in some light-duty models, into the car’s power outlet) to gradually recharge the battery. Buy one now, and then starting dropping hints you want the other for Christmas.
We all know that horrible sound: the plink! of a screw or bolt as it hits the garage floor and rolls under something, or lodges somewhere deep in the engine. When this happens, a magnetic retrieval tool is your best friend. They’re inexpensive, so you might want to get two: one with a flexible shaft for snaking around components, and a telescopic one that can be extended to reach to faraway places.
If you lean on your fender, chances are good that you’ll scratch the paint. Fender covers are cheap insurance against ruining your car’s finish. (Even so, remember to take off your belt buckle.) Most have rubberized surfaces that will also let you set a small tool down without having it slide away. Plain ones are available, but of course you’ll want one to match your automotive taste.
Whether it’s a portable cart or a permanent bench, having a flat work surface is an absolute must. Quality counts here: a cheaply-made cart or bench won’t stand up to heavy-duty use. Make sure the wheels will turn smoothly when the cart is loaded with tools and supplies. A lower shelf on a workbench is handy for storage.
Whether you get a small one to sit on your workbench, or a tall cabinet, a good tool box should have sturdy drawers that glide easily, large solid handles, various-sized drawers for different types of tools, and a locking mechanism. If it has wheels, make sure they roll smoothly. Dividers and rubberized drawer liners will prevent tools from banging together.