The essential old-house toolbox

Scott Gibson, Contributing Editor

Assembling a collection of basic tools can be challenging for a neophyte old-house owner. Many tempting tools beckon from glitzy displays at home centers, and it's easy to drop a lot of money on the wrong ones.

Most of us add to our collections over time, one tool at a time, as we deal with rotten sills, missing trim, and balky windows.

Here's my list of 12 essentials, most of them hand tools. Think of this list as a starting point, a good foundation for building a more complete tool collection in the future. You'll want to add many other tools, but I doubt you'll ever find anything on this list obsolete.

hammer1. Hammer. Few tools are used as often or as hard. My favorite is a 20-oz. Estwing rip. The weight is a good compromise, and the straight claws can chop out rot or stop your slide off the roof. The steel shaft has a comfortable rubber-like grip. (www.estwing.com, about $22).

2. Tape measure. A 25-ft. model from Stanley, the Contractor Grade MaxSteel, has a long enough reach for most jobs, and the tape will support itself for 9 ft., making it easy to hook a rafter tail or corner board when you're on a ladder. (Model 33-599, www.stanleyworks.com, about $18).

3. Square. Choosing a single square isn't easy, but a 7-in. Speed Square from Swanson is a good start. It can be used to mark angles as well as right angles, lay out rafters and guide saw cuts. It fits easily into a nail bag or back pocket. (model T0101, www.swansontoolco.com, about $7).

4. Handsaw. Purists will want antique Disstons, but a model with interchangeable Japanese blades from Tashiro Hardware is more versatile. Blades stay sharp a long time. An Air Jet handle and two blades (one rip, one crosscut) costs about $52. (www.tashirohardware.com).

5. Pry bar. For tearing out floor boards and old framing, a Stanley Wonder Bar is just the ticket. (model 55-525, www.stanleyworks.com, about $11).

6. Circular saw. A 7-1/4-in. circular saw makes short work of dimensional lumber and panel products. There are many good ones on the market, but my basic Makita just won't die (Model 5007NBK, www.makita.com, about $135).

7. Recip saw. These saws have short, reciprocating blades that power through wood, hidden nails, and pipe. Nothing is as useful for reaching into awkward spots. Look for one with a quick-change blade mechanism, like a Milwaukee Super Sawzall (Model 6537-22, www.milwaukeetool.com, about $170).

chalk line8. Chalk line. What else makes a perfectly straight layout line 50 feet long? An Irwin Speed Line Reel also doubles as plumb bob, checks walls for straightness and helps straighten uneven rafter tails. (Model 64494, www.irwin.com, about $6).

9. Cordless drill. Cordless drills are getting bigger and better but 18- and 24-volt models are overkill for most jobs. The 15.6-volt Panasonic will handle heavy work but it's still relatively compact. (Model EY6432GQKW, www.panasonic.com, about $200).

10. Block plane. You may end up with a collection of planes, but start here. A block plane eliminates mill and burn marks from wood, adjusts the fit of molding and fine-tunes miter joints. A low-angle model from Lie-Nielsen is a delight. (Model 102I, www.lie-nielsen.com, about $75).

11. 2-ft. level. A longer level would be better for some jobs, but a 2-ft. model is useful in more places. Stabila levels can be returned if they ever become inaccurate. (Model 24640, www.stabila.com, about $50).

12. Chisels. Like hand planes and saws, your chisel collection will inevitably grow over time. Start with a basic set, like this one from Marples. The chisels are reasonably priced, have indestructible polypropylene handles and hold a pretty good edge. (Model M444/S4, www.irwin.com, about $25).

So that's my list of fundamentals. When I started repairing old houses 25 years ago, I only had a few tools. I've bought many more since then but if I were starting all over again tomorrow, this bare-bones toolbox would be a great beginning.

About the Author
An accomplished woodworker and carpenter, Scott Gibson is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, and a former editor at Today's Homeowner and Fine Homebuilding magazines. He also is former managing editor of the Kennebec Journal, a daily newspaper in Maine.

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