Recommended Tools for a DIY Auto Mechanic

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This page will catalog various tools that I bought and recommend in order to make working on cars and motorcycles safer, easier, enjoyable and efficient.  Every single tool is presently in my house garage and has been time-tested over the last two decades by me working on all kinds of cars and bikes.  Some tools were used extensively around the house as well, but that’s another story.  I will continue to add to this list so it can be used as a reference for any aspiring DIY mechanic who is at a loss on where to start.

The DIY posts on insourcelife.com will often refer back to this page when talking about the tools needed to perform a project discussed in the post.  You will be able to know exactly what tool is needed by quickly finding it’s number on this list.  So if you are reading a post about a brake fluid change and it calls for the “Mityvac” tool number 17, you will quickly find it on this list under the Basic Tool Set item 17. Same goes for impact wrench reviews for example, they will also be numerically labeled and organized.

You can click each item’s description in bold and it will take you to the Amazon Automotive site where you can purchase it.  If you do, this blog will get a small commission without increasing your purchase price – I thank you for that as it took a long time to catalog these items.  You can find similar tools at your local auto store and that should work just fine as well.  However, Amazon prices are often cheaper with free shipping and no sales tax in many states.  Also, when compiling the list below I tried to find and include the exact same tools that served me well over all of these years.  Tools are an investment and there is a lot of value in getting the right tool from the start!

Basic Tool Set

  • Breaker bar. Some of the bolts are torqued very tight and you will need a lot of leverage to get them out. Some bolts are rusted on and will also need a lot of convincing to come out. This is when you would reach for a breaker bar.  Yes, it is basically the same thing as the lug wrench, but it has a pivoting head allowing you to get into more places. If I could only buy one, I would buy the breaker bar but I like having a separate lug wrench as well.

  • Lug wrench. You might need to also get a socket if the one the comes with it does not fit the lug nuts on your car. There are a couple of reasons I like this particular style: it’s ½ inch drive so it can be used with different sockets for other jobs besides removing the wheels; it’s angled so it keeps your hands away from the wheels and the bar itself from scratching the body of the car; it has an extendable handle to give you all the leverage to unscrew the lug nuts that are usually over torqued by mechanics with their impact guns.  This might be optional – see comments about the Breaker Bar below. Although I love mine!

  • Jack stands. Jack stands should be matched to the car jack you are buying so if you bought a 2 ton jack get a pair of 2 ton jack stands, like these Torin ones that I use.  I have 2 jack stands instead of 4 because I try to use the ramps as much as I can.  For example, if I’m changing the differential fluid in a rear drive vehicle which requires the car to be level while lifted in the air, I drive the back wheels on ramps and then put the front on jack stands.  Since I am spending my time under the rear of the vehicle in this situation, it’s safer to have it on ramps.

  • Car jack.  It does not have to be expensive but don’t use the one that came with your car for anything other than a tire change on the side of the road.  Those tend to fail at the most unfortunate moment which can cause lots of damage to the car or yourself as I had to learn, the hard way when I was installing my old Lincoln Town Car lift kit and the jack broke. I have been using this Torin jack for the last 10 years and it has never failed me despite being inexpensive.  Make sure that the jack is rated to lift whatever weight you are working with – SUV’s are obviously heavier than cars so plan accordingly.  If you have a car or a small SUV the linked 2 ton jack will work great.  If you need something with a 3 ton capacity for larger SUV’s, here is it’s bigger brother.

  • Service manual. You should get a service and repair manual for your car make and model. I usually buy Haynes manuals on Amazon. It costs under $20 and has a decent description of different procedures. The instructions are not great as they can be vague and hard to follow. However, the biggest reason I get these books is because they list torque values for most nuts and bolts that you would be taking off the car. I found that it’s easy to find good DIY instructions on the web but they often omit the torque values which are critical in vehicle repair and maintenance. There are better manuals out there but they tend to be more expensive and might be an overkill for a shade tree mechanic. For example, I paid around $100 dollars for the Bentley (publisher’s name) manual when I had a BMW. It’s thicker than a Yellow Pages and has more information than you would ever care to know, unless you were a DIY car nut. The good part is that they keep their value and I sold it for $80 5 years after buying it so it’s like I paid the same $20 anyway!

  • Ramps. I use Rhino Ramps which is probably the safest way to get your car up in the air without a lift.

  • Wheel chocks. Safety first! Use these any time you work on a car.
  • Torque wrench. This one is similar to mine. The torque range on this is 10 to 150 ft/lbs which means you will be able to handle most of the jobs on any car. Ever since I did a short internship for a Perth auto electriains at All Plant, I always use a torque wrench whenever possible as there is nothing that will ruin your day faster than a snapped bolt on a vital part like an oil pan or an over-torqued spark plug that strips the threads in the engine block.

  • Socket and wrench set. First thing to know is that you will be using ½ and ⅜ inch drive sockets.  These will require different wrenches. For example, the breaker bar and the lug wrench I mentioned are both ½ inch drive.  Second thing to know is that they come in metric (mm) and SAE (inches) sizes. Most European cars (BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, Audi, VW, Saab, Volvo etc) and Asian cars (Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, Infiniti, Lexus etc) will use metric nuts and bolts. Most American cars (Ford, Chevy, GM etc) will use SAE nuts and bolts. I’ve never owned an American car so most of my tools are metric. Some sets will have both metric and SAE sockets which is fine as long as it has most of the metric or SAE ones that you will need. Since right now we are talking about a basic set, I would start with a kit linked in this paragraph.  It contains a good combination of metric and SAE sockets (including deep ones), an assortment of wrenches and extensions that should get you through most of the basic repair projects.

*Note: the Stanley socket/wrench kit linked above uses a 3/8″ drive. To use the sockets from the kit with the torque wrench (item 6) or the breaker bar (item 7) you will need the socket adapter set (item 9) that will reduce those from 1/2″ to 3/8″. If you plan on doing a decent amount of car maintenance yourself I would recommend picking up a set of 1/2″ drive sockets that are meant for larger jobs (lug nuts, suspension, etc). I have a metric set and a SAE set and these should cover most auto jobs requiring a socket.

  • Funnel. A funnel is a funnel, right? Wrong!  This is the one you want when doing oil changes. It has a large spout that is offset and a shape that allows you to quickly dump a quart of oil, leave the bottle upside down to drain into the engine while you are opening the next bottle.

  • Adjustable wrench.  One should be good to start but you might find yourself needing smaller ones if you don’t already have a set of non-adjustable wrenches.

  • Screwdrivers. A good set of large, medium and small flat and Phillips head screwdrivers.

  • Hex bit set.  I prefer using the socket style hex bit sets since you can use them with a torque wrench.

  • Socket adapter set. This will allow you to use mismatching drive sockets and wrenches. For example, you could use the ½ drive breaker bar with a ⅜ drive socket. Allows you to buy less tools since you will be able to use what you have with these adapters instead.

  • Torx bit set. This is also called a star bit set and can be found on the majority of cars.

  • Pliers. You should always have a set like this handy.

  • Oil drain pan.  I made a mistake buying a different type before – the one with a big round lid on top.  After spilling the oil all over the floor due to a lid that would not stay closed, I picked up a pan similar to the one referenced here and have not had any issues since.  I would also recommend picking up a plastic drip pan that you would put under the drain pan during oil changes.  It will further prevent and contain any oil spills you might have.

  • Mityvac Brake Bleeder. I HIGHLY recommend this brake bleeder for any DIY mechanic! This tool is inexpensive and will make brake bleeding an enjoyable, almost surgical experience instead of the hassle that it is to run back and forth trying to pump the brake pedal all the time or having to ask someone else to do it for you. With this tool you will be able to do the whole job by yourself and in half the time.

Intermediate Tool Set

  • Impact Socket Set. If you got an air impact wrench and a compressor you’re playing with the big boys now so you need big boy tools. Don’t be tempted to use regular sockets with your impact gun – that’s just asking for trouble. Start with a good set of sockets designed to work with impact tools and then add other impact gun-specific sockets like star bit torx, female torx, hex bit, etc.
  • Sockets. I keep adding to my socket collection but I try to do it on as needed basis. So if I am working on something and I don’t have a particular socket I get it then and there. Note that most of the time is better to buy a set that contains the socket that you need instead of buying that socket by itself.  It will cost more but it will be a much better value on the per socket basis. You will probably need one of the other sockets at some point in the future anyway. This applies to wrenches and some other tools as well, so always check if you can get a set first.

  • OBD code reader. If your check engine light is on, the first step is to pull the code from your OBD system to figure out what caused the light to illuminate. While you can go to a place like Advance Auto and have them read a code for free, it’s nice to have one at home for repeated troubleshooting. I use a computer based program that runs on my netbook, but a tool like the one referenced here will work great and requires the least setup – just plug into the OBD socket and read/reset the codes.

  • Multimeter. A must when trying to troubleshoot any electrical issues. This particular model is what I use and it saved me hundreds of dollars already. Besides diagnosing multiple battery draining issues, this multimeter has also allowed me to test and fix our HVAC units on several occasions. Sometimes I use a simple test light when working on cars of motorcycles, so that’s another great and simple tool to have in your arsenal.

  • Dremel. I can’t tell you how many times I used Dremel to save the day. I’ve had situations where a bolt would snap and there was no other way to extract it but to cut it off with this rotary tool. Dremel fits into tight spaces, which seems to be everywhere with the way modern cars are put together. I’ve accessorized the tool with different attachments (this one is cool) and used it on a variety of household projects as well. While it sits unused most of the time, when I do need this Dremel it’s usually an emergency situation so having one on hand is a lifesaver.

  • Wrenches.  Pretty much the same as with sockets – get more on as needed basis.  I have a set similar to the linked one that allows working in tight places.

  • Female torx set.  This is a must while working on some cars.  For example, almost all bolts that you would want to work with during maintenance on a Mercedes require a female torx set.

  • Heat gun.  If you are serious about DIY you need a heat gun. Sure, you might be able to get away using a hair dryer but sooner or later your significant other will yell at you. I’ve used my Wagner heat gun to loosen stubborn bolts, remove paint and thaw out frozen water pipes under the house. It’s powerful, reliable and tough.

  • Air compressor. Once you get an air compressor for your garage there is no going back. Inflating car/bike tires, soccer/volley/basket balls, cleaning air filters, winterizing the sprinkler system, running air tools, the list goes on an on… If you have sprinklers your first DIY winterization using a linked Porter-Cable C2002 will pretty much pay for itself after one use.

  • Air Impact Wrench. I can’t believe I waited so long to get it! This linked model is compact and light but powerful enough to easily take off lug nuts and pretty much any other bolts you’ll encounter on your vehicle unless your vehicle is a semi. Most importantly, it works great with the inexpensive air compressor above. If you get a different model you might have to upgrade your compressor but this one is easy on air and needs very little CFM so you can stay with your compact Porter-Cable C2002. I’ve held several impact guns and this one feels the best in my hand – it’s just the right size and weight to be used all the time. This model is cheap so there is no reason not to get it and start making those cool “woop-woop” noises in your own garage right now! Seriously, this is one of the most satisfying tool purchases to date.
  • Cordless Tool Combo Kit. I have an older version of the linked DEWALT combo kit and two of my favorite tools are the impact driver and the flexible floodlight. Both get used regularly whenever I’m working on cars. Other cordless tools in this kit are used quite often in other projects around the house. It wasn’t cheap but I have no complaints after years of abuse. Everything still works as new and batteries still hold a charge without issues.

  • Socket Holder. It’s hard to find the right size socket when you need it because they all look the same. With this holder I can grab what I need by quickly finding the size stamped right on the holder itself. By the way, the picture for this post shows my own Hansen socket holder.

  • Auto Body Trim and Molding Removal Tool Set. I’ve fixed several broken POS window regulators over the course of my BMW ownership. First time it was scary to rip off the door panel and trim, mostly because I was using a flat head screwdriver to get to the clips braking many of them in the process. I wised up and spent a couple of bucks on a trim removal tool set that made subsequent projects much easier and less destructive. If you find yourself needing to remove ANY clipped panel from the car I suggest you avoid the screwdriver and do it with a help of this kit. This is what the pros use and it’s cheap!

  • Hand Cleaner. If you’re gonna work on cars you WILL get dirty! I try wearing rubber gloves but my hands get sweaty and the gloves get ripped up pretty quick. One way or the other my hands are usually covered in grease and oil. This hand cleaner pump is always within reach and it gets 90% of the nasty stuff off within seconds. Smells nice too!

  • Self-Adjusting Wire Stripper. Sure, you can use a box knife to strip a wire but I guarantee you won’t enjoy it. This tool takes a mundane task, removes the frustration and elevates it to a whole different level where you enjoy what you are doing. Any tool that makes me enjoy the experience is worth it in my book. Still skeptical? Try it once and you’ll understand.
  • Stanley Rotator Ratchet. “Works in tight spaces. Requires less than 1 degree arc swing in Twist Action mode” – enough said. I found this to be a lifesaver many times when space was an issue, which happens more often than you’d think given an engineering trend to cram as much as possible into the engine bay. You won’t need it until you do and good luck trying to find it at a local store while your car is up on jacks!

I keep updating this list as I think of something else that’s useful, so check back in!

11 thoughts on “Recommended Tools for a DIY Auto Mechanic

  1. Thanks for this article. I’ll be referring to it from time to time as I increase my tool chest. Do you have any experience with the OBD code reader cited in your article? If so, any thoughts. I’m in the market for one and I’ll take a look at the comments on amazon but thought I’d see if you have any first hand info.

    • The OBD tool linked in this post is very similar to the one I used before. I now use a program on my netbook computer together with a USB/OBD wire to read and reset codes and do other a bit more advanced things like stream and record live data, read info from various sensors and so forth. For a beginner to intermediate DIYer, I would still recommend the tool linked here because it will be extremely simple to use and will be more than enough 99% of the time. If your check engine light goes on you would plug this in, read the code, type that info into Google along with your make and model and find a solution posted by someone with the same issue. Fix, reset the light with the scanner and you should be good to go!

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    • You know, gloves is probably something I should use when working on cars but I usually don’t. I tried using those mechanic gloves but it feels like I have less feedback from what I’m doing. I also have a box of disposable rubber gloves but I don’t usually end up wearing them. My hands get sweaty or the gloves rip. So yeh, I do get dirty hence the Hand Cleaner entry on my list!

  7. I ordered few items from your list and I’m very grateful to you as it’s extremely helpful. After I received the Tekton 1/2″, I was wondering if I should have ordered the 3/8″ instead so I could use pieces from the Stanley set. What’s the rationale behind 1/2″ please. Thanks

    • I use the 1/2″ torque wrench on a lot of jobs where it would be better to have a 1/2″ drive, like lug nuts or suspension components that are torqued pretty high. I also have a 1/2″ socket set so I use those with the torque wrench. However, I’ve used 3/8″ sockets with 1/2″ breaker bars and 1/2″ torque wrenches and they never broke on me. To do that, I use the socket adapter set – item 9 on the list. An adapter goes on the 1/2″ torque wrench and reduces it to accept 3/8″ sockets.

      Depending on how much DIY you will be doing I would either get a set of 1/2″ sockets (what I did) or just get that adapter set and use the 3/8″ sockets from the Stanley kit. You can always get the 1/2″ socket set later. I’ve updated the list to make this a bit clearer and provided a link to 1/2″ sockets that are quite inexpensive but that would cover most DIY auto repair jobs. Thank you for supporting the site!

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