Given the number and variety of projects we’ve documented here on YBH, we get a lot of requests for tool buying advice. We totally get it; with the sheer volume of brands, styles, cross-compatibility (or lack thereof) and varying levels of quality available, purchasing decisions can certainly be overwhelming. So as an aid to wading through the sea of options, we’ve assembled a three stage tool buying guide that we hope will offer some insight into the tools that we’ve found helpful throughout our own renovation journey!
We believe in buying quality tools the first time. While it’s tempting to go the inexpensive route when purchasing tools, quality tools will not only stand the test of time, but will lead to quicker, safer completion of projects with lower levels of frustration. (So important!) Purchasing tools that will need to be replaced when they wear out quickly or fail prematurely will actually cost more in the long run – not to mention the environmental impact of tossing sub-par materials.
We’ve broken our choices down into three stages, with each building on the stage before it. For example, purchasing the tools in Stage Two prior to Stage One would result in the lack of a hammer. That’s not going to help anyone!
Stage One is composed of tools for the first time homeowner or apartment dweller.
Stage Two features tools for the owners of a ‘cosmetic’ fixer-upper and likely reflects the most substantial investment.
Stage Three is made up of tools that we’ve found necessary for our not-quite-gut rehabs and have become indispensable to us as we continue to renovate our Chicago home and our Michigan Tree House.
Note: This post is not sponsored and the brands displayed here are our personal preferences. We tend to find a brand that we trust and stick with it, so you’ll surely notice some repeating themes. Many of the tools below are the exact tools in our toolbox(es). Otherwise, we’ve chosen similar or updated models – or the tools we wish we’d purchased in the first place! You might also notice that we’ve intentionally left off safety and protective gear like glasses and gloves, because we’re all smart enough to know that’s a given, right?
Another note: In the interest of avoiding a specialty tool rabbit hole, we’ve also intentionally left tools for tiling and flooring (wet saw/grout float/flooring nailer etc.) off the list. Tools like these that only perform one specific task can easily be rented at a big box store or tool rental shop as needed. We’ve also purchased some of these speciality items second-hand on Craigslist or Facebook marketplace and re-sold them when we were done.
Here we go!
Stage One| First time homeowner/apartment dweller
You’re out on your own! The tools in Stage One will help complete simple tasks like painting, hanging art, replacing light fixtures, assembling furniture and completing small repairs around the home. We feel that investing in these tools is nearly mandatory for anyone and will help in gaining self-reliance.
1| 12 volt drill/driver: This compact workhorse will live in your tool bag and end up getting a workout on almost every project. Choose your brand wisely here as future battery/charger compatibility will determine many of the tools you purchase in stage 2 and 3. Your power tool kit starts here.
2| Hammer: You will use your trusty hammer all. the. time. Buy one that feels nice in your hand and select a weight that you’re comfortable with (yes, hammers come in varying weights). Antivibe technology helps keep your elbows healthy if you’re into that sort of thing.
3| Multi-function ratcheting screwdriver: This will eventually be replaced by a whole set of screwdrivers in Stage 2, but don’t skimp. This tool will live in the ‘junk’ drawer forever so the tool bag doesn’t need to come out for every tiny fastening job.
4| Bit set for your drill/driver: We recommend a set with drill bits, every screwdriver bit you could imagine, and even hex head bits that will make assembling all of your new flat packed furniture a breeze.
5| Tool Bag: Choose something small and manageable here. We prefer a tool bag as opposed to a box because we find it easier to squeeze into limited storage spaces. (Our Big Bag O’ Tools lived under a kitchen cabinet for 7 years along side a compact miter saw when we lived in our condo!)
6| Fastener Organizer: A Grandpa Jar is great when you’re starting your tool kit, but we are strong proponents of sorting by category. At the beginning of your journey, save every extra fastener from every project. You’ll need them all eventually.
7| 24″ Level: From hanging artwork to tweaking adjustable legs on furniture, this tool has infinite uses to keep your home from looking like an M.C. Escher lithograph.
8| Platform step ladder: The top platform is a must have. Look for a model with tool storage and a hook to hold a paint bucket handle.
9| Adjustable wrench set: Because you’ll often need 2 wrenches at the same time, a 3 pack of varying sizes makes a lot of sense.
10| Plier set: This 4 pack offers a ton of value for the money. Quality needle-nose pliers alone will pay for themselves after one use.
11| Paint kit: Quality brushes and rollers will last quite awhile if properly cleaned and maintained. Start here and add/replace as necessary.
12| Paint roller extension handle: We’ve tried a handful of these and we always come back to the Sherlock. Don’t waste your money. Buy the Sherlock. Unless your ceilings are taller than 10 feet, the 2′ – 4′ extension should be more than long enough – and it’s much easier to store than the longer models.
13| Utility knife: A sharp knife is a safe knife. Utility knives utilize replaceable blades so your cutting edge is always on point. I’m not at all sorry for that dad joke.
14| Hex wrench multitool: The hex tools that come with flat pack furniture are usually cheap, soft metal and their use often results in cursing. An inexpensive multitool will help you curse less.
15| Blue tape: Blue painter’s tape is great for painting crisp edges when your hand isn’t as steady as Kim’s, who spent the better part a decade painting microscopic puppy eyeballs. Blue tape is also great for laying out the size and placement of rugs and furniture. Both uses are handy.
16| Joint/putty/spackle knife: This multi-purpose bad boy is designed to spread spackle, but we’ve also used it for scraping and gentle prying tasks. We’ve also never replaced the first one we ever bought.
17| Carpenter’s pencils: It might not seem necessary, but quality pencils are mandatory for any measuring or cutting task. Buy a few and they’ll last much longer than the time it will take for you to inevitably lose them.
18| Tape measure: Please, please, please do not skimp on your tape measure. Like your hammer and compact drill/driver above, you’ll use it for almost every project.
19| Razor blade scraper kit: The plastic ‘razor blades’ included in these kits are absolutely indispensable for scraping labels and paint off of delicate materials. The actual razor blades will remove delicate materials completely. Choose wisely.
Stage Two| Cosmetic Fixer-Upper
Your new home has great bones! The floorpan is excellent, but the features are a little worn and dated. You’re confident using all of the tools in Stage 1 and are ready to take on slightly larger challenges. Replacing bathroom fixtures, installing a new faucet and even building simple furniture like a picnic table are all possible with the tools in Stage Two. This stage is also where you’ll take the plunge and purchase tools that will form the core of your cordless power tool arsenal. You’re going to make big things happen in Stage Two.
20| Compound miter saw: We’re jumping right into the big leagues. A solid compound miter saw is necessary for clean cuts on long boards. We’ve replaced every single inch of trim in both of our homes and we couldn’t have done it without a compound miter saw. If space allows, opt for a wheeled stand. Portability is key and the quicker you can set up and tear down your saw, the more likely you are to use it.
21| Scratch awl: Another one of those tools that you didn’t know you needed until you’ve found yourself using it constantly. We use ours to mark locations for hanging art as well as for intricate scraping tasks.
22| Quick clamps: Gluing, grasping, and cutting tasks are made simpler and safer when materials are held firmly in place. Quick clamps can be used with one hand, which is incredibly convenient.
24| 20v combo tool kit: This kit will form the backbone of your ‘full-size’ tool kit. Most combo kits of this size will include a hammer drill, circular saw, reciprocating saw, and oscillating tool plus a flashlight or a bluetooth speaker etc. Be sure to watch the sales around summer holidays for big price cuts and ‘choose a free bonus tool’ promotions at the big box stores and online. Buy the kit that contains the right tools for your needs and add on bare tools from there.
25| Dremel kit: With the right attachment, a Dremel tool at the right speed will cut just about anything. 100% necessary. We prefer the cordless variety, because tricky projects that require a Dremel often take place far away from a power outlet for some reason.
26| Full socket set: Buy the big kit all at once or be forever cursed by mis-matched sockets bouncing around in a bag like me. I’m asking you to be smarter than I was on this one.
27| Drill bit set: All of the drill bits. All of them. Except masonry bits. Those fall under the ‘specialty’ category.
28| Speed square: Because right angles are always correct. Another dad joke and I’m still not sorry.
29| Carpenter’s square: Great for framing and larger scale right angles.
30| Wire stripper/crimper: Anything with electrical connections is much more time-consuming without one. Ask me how I know.
31| Locking pliers: Handy for acting as a ‘third hand’ in tight spots and for awkward twisting tasks.
32| Sturdy snips: Buy these before all of your other tools and use them to cut open those annoying molded plastic packages. Also great for their intended use of trimming sheet metal.
33| Full screwdriver set: The simple ratcheting multi-screwdriver moves into your junk drawer for quick jobs and this set lives in your big tool bag now.
34| Quality studfinder: We love this particular model because it scans deep into the walls of our Chicago home, which contain 130 years of mystery. You were expecting a dad joke, huh? Not this time.
35| 12″ pry bar: This model is called the ‘wonderbar’ for a reason. Incredibly handy for removing baseboards and other small prying tasks.
36| Folding sawhorses: Stash them in the corner of your garage until you need a solid cutting surface.
37| Nylon mini brush: This is basically an industrial-strength toothbrush. Handy for cleaning small parts and keeping your tools tidy.
38| Tool bag: All of these tools need somewhere to live. This larger tool bag now becomes your go-to and the smaller bag from Stage 1 can be repurposed as a task-specific bag. My small bag now holds our drills and all of our specialty bits.
39| Random orbital sander: We’ve used this tool to refinish furniture and smooth out poorly painted surfaces. Pick up a multi-pack of sanding disks with a variety of grits while you’re at it.
40| Rubber mallet: Because sometimes things need a little ‘coaxing’.
41| Staple gun kit: Framing artwork and simple upholstery jobs are made much quicker with the right tools.
Stage 3| Full-On Fixer-Upper
So you’ve done what we did (twice) and bought the ugliest house on the block, huh? You’re ready for Stage Three! These are the tools we’ve come to rely on with our live-in, one room at a time renovations. We still rely on professional contractors for HVAC, plumbing, electrical and structural work, but these tools help us accomplish pretty much anything else!
42| Air compressor/nailer kit: If you’re ready to tackle baseboards and trim molding, (or maybe you’d like to test your math skills and install some crown molding?) an air nailer can be your best friend. If air tools aren’t your thing, this would be a great time to add to your cordless kit with the this guy.
43| Nail setter set: Because every once in awhile, your nailer will misfire and you’ll need to set the head flush with the material. Seriously – please don’t buy a nailer without spending the extra ten bucks for nail setters.
44| File set: Sometimes a Dremel is too much. A file can also help keep your cutting tools sharpened.
45| Bench vise: We like the clamp-on style for the sake of portability, but if you’ve got a dedicated space, go all in and bolt a vise directly to your work surface.
46| Table Saw w/portable stand: Table saws are incredibly handy for accurate rip cuts. They’re also incredibly dangerous. Please, please, please use caution. Respect this tool. Seriously. Now that careful dad has said his peace, we absolutely love our table saw and couldn’t accomplish cabinet installs and finish work without it.
47| Right-angle drill: We didn’t know this tool even existed until we needed it. Now we can’t live without it. Drilling and fastening in tight spaces is a heck of a lot easier now.
48| Jigsaw: Detail cuts are much quicker and more accurate with the correct blade on a jigsaw.
49| 48″ level: A long level is great for leveling across expanses greater than the 24″ that your Stage 1 level can span. Very helpful for kitchen installs and framing walls.
50| Drywall square: Accurate 48″ cuts on drywall can technically be made with a long level, but this tool keeps things clean and fast. We also clamp ours down and use it as a guide for long cuts with the circular saw.
51| Laser level: Leveling 180 degrees over multiple surfaces is nearly impossible without this tool. Don’t buy it until you need it – you’ll know when the time comes.
52| Chisel set: Necessary for installing handle and lock sets on brand new doors. Also handy for flush-mounting anything to a wood surface.
53| Hole saw set: Hole saws are great for cutting round holes that are too big for your drill bit set. Used semi-infrequently, but very handy.
We dug through our tool bags, checked the garage and opened every drawer we could think of to make sure everything made it on to the list, but surely we might’ve missed a tool or two? Chime in with any of your favorites below, so that we can all learn from one another. What tools are in your bag of tricks that you simply can’t live without?
PS: See how we organize our workshop in this post!