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Many DIYers don’t have a huge shop with dedicated space for everything they will ever need. If you want to focus on just the necessities when it comes to basic home improvement tools, this list is for you.
I had feared this day for a long time. Behind the thrill of every garage sale find or Kijiji score lingered the unsettling truth that one day I, too, would be selling my tools. After much soul-searching, my wife and I had decided to scale down our lives to fit within an apartment – the time had come to significantly downsize. My shop was being slashed from 600 to 25 square feet. With a space too small for any work save carving, my future would be limited to renovation projects. What follows is a list of my staple tools that see use on almost all my significant home renovation projects.
I have no specific brand allegiances, and collect tools from many different companies. Manufactures are only mentioned if they clearly have a product that stands out or they have pioneered within a certain area. Few of the tools I purchase are top-tier, but they are all solid designs suitable for professional work. I am a big advocate of buying quality once. If I can’t afford a good tool I will do without, borrow, or rent.
If someone has the room, I will always recommend going for a 2 HP-plus cast-iron contractor or cabinet saw outfitted with an induction motor. By comparison, portable saws are noisy, relatively unstable, and do not work as well with jigs and fixtures. But for those of us who must store our saws in a utility closet, or transport them to job sites, the portable table saw is an effective option. My preference for finish carpentry is a smaller professional model that has a maximum rip capacity of 16–18″, like those offered by Bosch and Dewalt. While you do sacrifice some cutting capacity compared to a larger portable, these saws are just as powerful and yet light enough to be easily transported up stairs and over irregular ground by yourself.
I was a slow convert to cordless drill ownership and still recommend a quality corded 3/8″ drill for the occasional user or tool junkie on a budget. While I like the convenience of cordless tools, the difference between a corded drill and cordless model was not that significant for me – that was until the cordless impact driver arrived on the market. Small, light, powerful and with a quick-change chuck, nothing is better for driving screws. With the pricing of a drill/impact driver kit being so close to that of a cordless drill, it makes sense to invest a bit extra into the increased performance offered by the impact driver. When choosing your brand, consider what other cordless tools you may wish to purchase in the future. The ability to swap batteries back and forth is invaluable. When you buy your first cordless tools, you are buying into a manufacturer’s system.
A staple tool for framing and rough finish work such as deck building. Outfitting it with a finish quality blade and cutting guide can take its utility to another level, and allow you to break down sheet goods as efficiently as with a cabinet saw. While I would not be without my standard 7-1/4″ workhorse, my little cordless circular saw gets much more use. Though it doesn’t replace a full-size model for framing your basement, its light weight and portability have made it my go-to saw.
Its precision and repeatability when cutting makes the mitre saw essential for any significant volume of trim work. While the allure of a 12″, double-compound, sliding piece of engineering magnificence is powerful, I suggest some serious reflection on what your needs for cut capacity are. I love a light saw and my 12″ non-slider has always been sufficient for my work. You can always flip the odd board or use your circular saw for the odd cut. More important than a big saw is a stable stand. Avoid complexity and look for a model with a large footprint. Dewalt and Ryobi both make simple, solid stands.
An essential tool for any renovation work requiring demolition. The less you have to use one the better, but when you do it’s essential. A smaller 9-amp model from one of the major manufactures is sufficient for occasional use. This is another saw that becomes much more convenient as a cordless tool. With no cord to sort out, I leave it on the shelf ready to go and use it for many random jobs such as lopping off a piece of pipe or pruning trees.
Of the many varieties of sanders available, there are two, positioned at either end of the sanding spectrum, which I consider essential. For general work, the 5″ random orbital sander is simple to use and allows anyone to easily achieve a smooth, finished surface.
The 3″ belt wide sander is a tempestuous beast, requires practice to master, and has as much potential to destroy as it does beautify. That being said, its speed at removing stock has made it my favourite sander for large smoothing jobs, and in the right hands it can be used to scribe material quickly to even the most irregular wall surfaces.
Routers can be purchased in a multitude of sizes. My choice for renovation work is a standard, fixed base, 1-3/4 HP model. This size is small enough for comfortable hand routing but still large enough to throw into a router table. Most models come with the option of using either 1/4″ or 1/2″ bits, which is very handy, although whenever possible I buy my bits 1/2″ to minimize the possibility of shaft breakage. I believe in buying specialty bits only as you need them, although there are some profiles that are used so often that it makes sense to always have them on hand.
When you are working without a shop, the ability to create strong joints quickly, without an army of clamps, and with little mess is invaluable. I favour a bench-mounted version like the Kreg K3, but a smaller more portable version works fine as long as it registers easily to the side of a board and includes a quick-release clamping mechanism.
For me, keeping a clean and organized workspace has always been a formidable challenge. Once I began to work in other people’s homes, I was forced to find some solutions to address my chaotic ways. To this end, I have found having a pair of three-step sturdy steps to be invaluable. They function as an exceptionally stable base for a cutting table or mitre saw stand, but the real magic is found below. One can easily store a project’s worth of trim and offcuts on the bottom steps – I have gone as far as to cut plywood shelves to rest on the steps for storing fasteners. Another added benefit, unlike shop-built sawhorses, is that once the trim is done you can safely stand on them when it is time to paint.
Having the ability to preassemble your mitres prior to installation is the key to creating tight joints, despite the irregularities inherent in finished walls. These clamps hold the joints tight for pinning or while the glue dries. When buying these clamps, it is well worth the extra expense to purchase the pliers that complement them.
There are a multitude of prybars available in the hardware store, but only one style is suitable for removing trim without damaging the materials or finished surface. They are also very handy to use as wedge/shim and for procedures such as levelling a cabinet or supporting the outside edge of a door during installation.
Apart from the fact that it’s made in Canada, what sets the full-size Picquic screwdriver apart from the rest is that its 3″ hex bits are compatible with the quick-change chuck on a cordless impact driver.
Even in a world chock full of sanders and finish quality blades, there is still a place for the faithful hand plane in a renovator’s tool kit. A block plane allows you to shave a tight door without filling the house with sawdust or to chamfer an edge without burning an electron. Whenever I use a hand plane on a renovation job, it feels like I’m taking an extra coffee break.
A fine-tooth Japanese pull saw is perfect for the precise notching of trim, flush-cutting of plugs, and finishing off of plunge cuts started with power saws. To complement my finishing saw, I have an aggressive Japanese pull saw that rips through subfloor, particle board, and other materials. Many of these models feature a blade that folds into the handle to protect the teeth while they are bouncing around in your tool bag with a framing hammer.
Leave your heirloom quality chisels in the shop and buy a cheap set with plastic handles for renovation work – they will take a beating. You don’t want to wince every time you hit a nail or have to beat a chisel with a steel hammer. I have found the standard four-piece set ranging from 1/4″–1″ meets most of my on-site needs, but I do also have a 1-1/2″ that is great for any timberwork or framing.
While often regarded as a workshop tool, the card scraper is very well suited for renovation work. For small smoothing jobs it avoids the mess of sawdust. The ease of sharpening it also makes it well suited to aggressive scraping of paint or glue.
The flexibility of the combination square makes it by far the most versatile measuring tool in my tool bag. Its uses include marking of 45° and 90° angles, setting blade heights, measuring depth and marking a rip line down the length of a board. I have both a 6″ and 12″ model, but it is the smaller one that lives in my tool belt.
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