For some, mostly men, I’d reckon, part of what mysteriously seems to identify them is a natural inclination towards anything tool-related. Whether it be a section in a store, a neighbor who happens to have the hood of their car up, a catalog, a shed, or anywhere there might be a hammer, some people just can’t help themselves, or their innate curiosity, when it comes to anything tool-related, and subsequently to the often-tricky business of fixing things.
Now not every man is handy. In fact some even self-proclaimed “handymen” should probably not be allowed to fiddle with anything under the sink, with wires attached, under the hood of a car, or anywhere that could be dealt with by calling in the right and well-trained professional.
Thankfully, over the years I have been lucky to have had a number of truly handy friends who rarely shied away from teaching me some of what they knew about how things work, how they might be fixed, and when it’s probably in my best interest to call in an outsider.
I myself was blessed (or cursed) to be obsessed with the building of things from a very early age. My earliest construction-related recollection was of a spring break when I was maybe nine that my older brother and I gathered every bit of scrap wood we could find around the property (including old doors, windows, parts of no-longer-used-yet-not-ready-to-be-thrown-out appliances, and even an old bicycle wheel), every nail and screw we could muster, and two old hammers from the garage. We built ourselves a three-story treehouse halfway up an old maple in the backyard. It had everything we needed from a rope ladder we could hoist up, in case enemies were approaching, to a rooftop crow’s nest to keep a keen eye peeled for spies or parents. For the rest of spring break we slept out there, took all our meals in the second-floor galley, and had basically decided that this was where we would spend the rest of our days.
With the help of a couple of sleeping bags this campout lasted until the following Monday. That evening, after our first day back at school, an extra-long Little League practice, and a big dinner, my brother and I were fast asleep in front of the television before The Six-Million Dollar Man was even half over. Alas, the treehouse was rarely ever used again.
But I digress. The point is I caught the tool-and-build bug, and I’ve had it ever since. My first real job after high school was working for two great carpenters who not only encouraged my growing interest in real construction but introduced me to a lot of really cool stuff. From circular saws to levels, screw guns to wood planes, tin snips to cement mixers, I got to know all of them intimately. Some of them I adored, others I detested. As our crew consisted of just the three of us, we did everything from digging the foundation and laying block to nailing down the roof shingles and everything in between. With few exceptions the only things these guys wouldn’t do were the plumbing and electric.
As I was the lowest guy on the crew, I got all of the nastiest jobs.
One of the first big jobs I did with them was build a quite large house from the ground up. After a large square hole was dug in the ground they began to construct the concrete-block foundation, and it fell to me to supply the guys with endless wheelbarrows full of mortar, which I mixed with a shovel in the 95-degree summer sun for eight hours a day for five days straight. By the end of that week I was exhausted, and despite being deeply tanned and a bit more muscled, I had decided that I hated construction and had made a huge mistake signing on with them.
But then we started framing the house, which compared to the first week was pure bliss. Nailing all day, putting up walls, and seeing the shape of the house come together was a thrill, something I love doing to this day. After the hell of “foundation week,” most of the rest of the job was, as the kids these days say, cake. The only other part of the entire job I didn’t care much for was shingling the roof, and that was mostly because I was the one carrying load after load of tar shingles up a wobbly old wooden ladder all day.
Though I never did make carpentry or construction my life work, I’ve continued building things here and there ever since. Becoming the owner some years ago of an old farm that perpetually needed some type of fix or upgrade, whether a new screened-in porch on a cottage we rent out, to an “adult” treehouse I built by the stream in the backyard (and by “adult” I mean it’s filled with books, old over-stuffed chairs, and even a piano you can play as you watch the creek go by below), there now seems to be not a week that goes by that I’m not out there with my saws and screw guns keeping the place from falling down.
Finally I’m getting to the real reason for this article: what tools are most important for an amateur handy-person, a do-it-yourself fixer-upper, or just your run-of-the-mill homeowner that doesn’t share my tool obsession. Being the owner of a vast collection of tools, from the newest thing on the market to a wide variety of beautiful antique yard-sale finds, I could spend all day ranting and raving about this or that tool. I’d probably lose you by the first few sentences. Being an occasionally practical person of somewhat sound mind and body (though the mind part could be argued), though, I’ve narrowed it down to a few essentials that no home should be without.
First and foremost is a good hammer, and its multitude of uses, from hanging a picture on the wall to opening a coconut on a summer eve. There might be many great new hammers on the market, but in this case I would say older is almost always better. My favorite all-around hammers I’ve almost always found while yard-saling; the weight is right in my hand, the wood has been polished by many years of other hands using it, and they never break (the new ones break). Get yourself the right hammer. Or why not get two?
The second indispensable tool would be a good pair of adjustable pliers. You can achieve so much with them that would otherwise be little more than frustrating acts of futility; from opening, prying, grabbing, and even rescuing things too tough or small or tight or stuck for our soft and meaty mortal fingers to best. A good pair of new adjustable pliers can go a long way to ease our journey through this life, and at the same time give our poor fingers a much-needed break.
The third tool was a bit of a head-scratcher. There are so many possibilities. In narrowing them down, I chose to put the question into the more-than-capable hands of my not-so-tool-friendly significant other. It took her less than a second to think about it before she brilliantly said, “Tape measure.” She was right. For many reasons, having a well-made, easy-to-read tape measure is nearby is an absolute must in any household. For whatever reason, I actually find myself reaching for a tape measure more frequently than almost any other tool in the house. That and a multi-head screwdriver, she said.
These days anyone can go to a mall and come away with a ready-made tool kit with everything you might need in it for under 60 bucks. I would encourage you to refrain from this. Seek out the tools you need individually and the ones that feel right for you. You probably won’t need a 22-ounce straight-claw framing hammer for hanging a picture on the wall, but who knows?
In the end, it all comes down to your own personal preferences. What you need and what you may think you need. But if you have the choice, and we all ultimately do, I would strongly advise you to shy away from the big-box stores when buying tools. Find your way to a great, always reputable, and ever-local hardware store. Get to know them, and let them help you on your way.
Remember that you don’t always have to be the sharpest tool in the tool shed, but in the case of knowing the right tool for the job you can bet that they do.
I speak from experience. The wealth of information I have gathered by asking questions at my local hardware store has always helped. You can usually get good recommendations there for a reputable local builder, plumber or electrician for the bigger jobs as well.
So get out there, make some plans, keep your money local, and build on! Or just hire a professional.