If you’re anything like me, you probably have drawers full of obscure tools bought for maintenance on vehicles you no longer own. Need a stator puller for a mid-80’s Honda CB motor? I’ve got one. How about an 8mm carb balancing tool? Got that, too. Electronic carb synchronizer? Check.
There are some tools, however, that no gear head should be without. Some get used all the time, while others are there just in case. I’m skipping over the obvious stuff like good sets of combination wrenches, sockets, extensions, screwdrivers and pliers; if you don’t already have these, you can’t really consider yourself a gear head, now can you?
Here’s my list, but feel free to tell me yours:
Computer: Since you’re reading this online you probably already have one, but every gear head needs a computer with internet access. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of car and motorcycle boards out there. Some are model specific, like Miata.net. Others are more general in nature (like bimmerforums.com), but all provide a repository for every last bit of information you could want to know about your vehicle. Two points of caution: first, the information is worth what you pay for it. If someone on a forum suggests that you pour sand into your motor to ‘polish the pistons’, you’d be wise to get some validation before you try anything that just doesn’t sound right. Second, search is your friend: nothing pisses off crusty forum vets like noobs asking the same question, every day, for five or ten years.
Floor Jack / Jack Stands: Don’t cheap out here, because you generally get what you pay for. First, think about your vehicles. If you own a ‘Vette, that bottle jack you bought to rotate the tires on your Jeep CJ isn’t going to do you much good. Likewise, that low profile jack for your slammed S2000 isn’t going to do much good when you need to rotate tires on your lifted Tacoma. At the very least, you need a jack (or jacks) that will allow you to raise every car in your garage for service. If you lift unibody cars by their jacking points, a channel saddle that supports the unibody seams (instead of the standard dished saddle) is a good investment.
Since jack stands support the weight of the vehicle when you’re underneath it (and keep you from being squashed like a bug), always buy stronger stands than you think you’re going to need. If your car weighs 4,000 pounds and you’re doing brakes on all four corners, you’ll need stands with a minimum capacity of 1,000 pounds each. Buy the ones rated at 1,500 pounds, just for that extra margin of safety. Inspect them prior to purchase; make sure that the teeth on the saddle engage the pawl firmly, and make sure any welds are solid. Inspect your jack stands regularly, and replace them if anything looks out of sorts.
Lug Wrench: The one in your car’s tool kit may be good enough for the occasional roadside emergency, but any gear head who rotates their own tires, changes brakes or fixes their own flat tires needs a good lug wrench. Once you get proficient, you can spin off lug nuts almost as quickly as you can with an impact gun. They come in standard and metric, and in different sizes of each, so make sure you’re buying the correct size for your vehicles.
Compressor: A 110v floor model is preferred, but everyone needs at least a cheap 12 volt portable air compressor. Properly inflated tires improve handling, last longer and give you better fuel mileage. Besides, nothing sucks more than trying to find a gas station that still has air for customers.
Tire Gauge: That cheap pencil style air gauge you have in your tool chest? Throw it out. That fancy digital tire gauge you blew twenty bucks on? Smash it with a hammer, then throw it out. Buy yourself a dial type air gauge with a bleed valve and rubber armor (because yes, you will drop it).
Half Inch Drive Torque Wrench: Few things piss me off quite as much as shops who use impact guns to tighten lug nuts on wheels. Why? First, excess torque can damage wheels and warp rotors. Second, have you ever tried to change a flat tire by the roadside after some asshat cranked down your lug nuts with 350 ft-lbs of torque? It pegs the suck-o-meter, trust me. Buy a torque wrench, learn how to set it and use it to torque the lug nuts on your wheels to the manufacturer’s recommended value (usually 95 ft-lbs or so). And ALWAYS verify that anyone working on your car has torqued the lug nuts properly.
Tire Plug Kit: A decent kit with a t-handle reamer and t-handle plugger will set you back $20 or so. Buy extra plugs and keep them in a ziplock bag, since they dry out over time. Ditto the rubber cement used to lubricate and seal the plugs. I carry a kit in each of my cars as cheap insurance against flat tires. Just remember to NEVER plug holes in a tire’s sidewall and use plugs in a tubeless motorcycle tire only until you can replace the tire.
Rechargeable Drop Light: Ever notice how the cord of your plug-in droplight always manages to block the wheel of your creeper? Ever notice how this happens at the worst possible time, like when you realize you don’t have rags under the car and the hot oil is running into your armpit? A rechargeable drop light solves the problem.
OBD II Code Reader: If your ride is newer than the 1995 model year, you need one of these gadgets. Want to know the source of that “check engine” light? Is it an oxygen sensor or just a loose gas cap? OBD code readers allow you to capture the ECU’s trouble codes and diagnose the source of the problem. Some allow you to reset trouble codes, saving a costly trip to the dealer for service.
Dremel Tool: Not something you use every day, but when you need it, you REALLY need it. I’ve used mine for everything from cutting exhaust bolts to slotting stripped screw heads.
So that’s my list; what did I forget? What tool can you not live without in your garage?