One of the unexpected expenses and most useful parts of a restoration project is your investment in tools. Having and using the right tools is more than a convenience -- it’s an absolute necessity. The right tools will minimize the slips and twists that ruin fasteners and often lead to damaged paint and broken parts, to say nothing of bloody knuckles!
Buy Quality Tools
The list below itemizes many of the tools every restorer will need to have. But before we get into that list, let’s talk about tools in general. You’ve probably heard it all your life: “Buy the best tools you can afford and take good care of them.” It’s good advice. A high-quality wrench feels good in your hand and holds the bolt or nut securely, allowing you to focus on proper installation.
There are many opinions on what constitutes an “adequate” tool. Well, tools made of stone were “adequate” for some jobs. For our purposes, however, we want tools that will do their job without hurting you or damaging a valuable part. Tools on a bargain table just don’t cut it. Most cut-rate tools are made in China, India, or Pakistan. They are made with poor metallurgy and not made to an exacting tolerance. Yet even these wrenches have their place -I’ll explain this later.
In my opinion the minimum quality tools you should have are Craftsman. By and large they are a decent tool for the hobbyist and are affordable. The Husky brand sold at Home Depot seems to be decent quality. Other brands that have been around for a while and are worthwhile are Mac, Proto and Challenger. There are others, but those are popular brands.
I’ll give you my honest opinion. There are no better tools than Snap On. They are the best, bar none, and they are expensive! But in my 40+ years of wrenching the number of Snap On tools that have broken or failed I can count on one hand. Snap On is not sold in any store (although you can find them, used, in pawn shops occasionally), but ask your local garage when the Snap On truck stops by and then meet the truck there.
Remember, there are lots of tool brands that offer a lifetime warranty and will cheerfully replace one inferior tool with another inferior tool if you do all the work to return it to some crowded mall. However, that warranty won’t pay to stitch up your bloody knuckles after you’ve raked them across jagged sheet metal when their tools shatter the first time you give them a little grunt.
Beyond getting a good set of wrenches, there’s value in having a nice toolbox to organize and store your tools. A good, but not necessarily expensive, toolbox tells every visitor to your shop that you are serious about the work you’re doing.
The Point of Cheap Wrenches
OK, so let’s assume you’ve got a set of quality tools and a nice chest to hold them, with little racks so they’re always in order and a rag to keep them clean. You’re working on your restoration in style.
But one day you come to a problem. There’s a nut tucked in around some other parts, and the space around it won’t allow a box-end or open-end wrench or even a socket to get at it. But you notice that if you modified a wrench just so, it would fit in there and you could twist that nut as needed. What do you do?
Well, here’s where a stack of cheap wrenches comes in handy. Grab one of those 10-for-a-dollar babies and get to work on your bench grinder and welder, or just use your torch to heat it up and bend it. Your nice Snap On tools stay safe and sound in their case while you create exactly the custom tool you need. Hang on to those when you’re done -chances are you’ll use them again.
English or Metric Tools?
If you know that you will be working on classic domestic cars only, you can usually get away without a metric tool set. Virtually all American cars (and a few imports) before 1975 are exclusively SAE. But many modern domestics and almost all imports use metric sizes, so it’s generally a good idea to invest in at least a rudimentary set of metric wrenches and sockets. Chances are you’ll use them.
There are reasonably close matches between some metric and SAE sizes. For example, a ½-inch wrench will fit a 13mm bolt head. However, it’s a little loose, and a 13mm wrench will not usually fit a ½-inch bolt head because it’s too tight. Don’t rely on one set of tools to fit all cars.
Some older British vehicles use a scale called Whitworth, which is similar to SAE, but not quite the same. The thing to note about Whitworth is that it applies not only to the size of the wrench you need, but also to the size and pitch of the threads.
Collecting Your Tool Wardrobe
Here’s what you’ll need before you begin:
Wrenches. You can buy box/open end, open/open end, or box/box end. You will need both open and box at various times. You can lean a little harder on a box than you can with an open and not damage the bolt, but an open is required occasionally. Most box wrenches are 12-point, although 6-point is available. The advantage to 12-point is that in tight places you have twice the ability locate the wrench and turn it. A 6-point is less likely to round off the corners of the bolt.
Tubing wrenches are nice to have. They are thick box wrenches that have a slot in them to slip over a tube and encircle 5 of the 6 sides of the nut that secures tubing, such as brake lines or power steering. A regular box wrench obviously won’t work and an open can (frequently) round off the corners of the nut. Tubing wrenches are available in both 6 and 12 point. Don’t waste your money on a 12-point. Buy only 6-point and the most-used sizes will be 3/8 and 7/16.
Some people like ratcheting box wrenches. I personally don’t use them, but I suppose they have their place. Their biggest drawback is that their wall thickness is much greater than a regular box and they won’t fit everywhere. If you like the novelty of the ratcheting kind, fine, but have a regular set of wrenches also. Wrench sizes should range between ¼-inch - 1-inch
Sockets and Rachets. The most common, basic socket set is 3/8 drive, which refers to the male/female square that joins the wrench/extension/socket. There are also (commonly) 1/4 and 1/2-inch drives.
Although there are many, new, allegedly “better” ratchets out there, there are still only 2 basic types: straight (rigid) and swivel handle. They both have their good points and if you can, have them both. Extensions are a necessity and come in various lengths, but for starters I would recommend a 3-inch and a 6-8-inch. I would also recommend a u-joint or swivel-joint. There will be times when you just can’t get a straight shot at a bolt and this will allow you to turn it at an angle.
Sockets come in 6 and 12-point, shallow and deep sizes. My preference is 6-point for strength and resistance to rounding corners. There are instances where a 12-point is necessary for a special bolt head.
You should have at least the shallow, 6-point sockets ranging between 3/8 to 7/8. Deep sockets are very nice to have, even if you only have 3/8 to 3/4. Spark plugs take deep sockets and are usually either 5/8 or 13/16.
I also like to have 1/4 and 1/2-inch drive sets. 1/4 drive is less clumsy with small stuff and you have more feel so you won’t overtighten a small nut or bolt. The size range for 1/4-drive is usually 7/32 to 9/16. 1/2 drive is sometimes necessary for bigger fasteners, and the size range should be 1/2 to 1-inch. If your car uses bigger fasteners (older cars often do) then get the sockets you need for your car.
Pliers. You should have “regular” slip jaw pliers, lineman’s pliers, side cutters (AKA diagonal cutters or “dikes”), needle-nose pliers, large mouth and needle nose “Vise-grips”, a large slip-jaw set of Channel Locks (AKA plumber’s pliers), and a 12 to 15-inch adjustable “Crescent” wrench. Here’s the thing about pliers: they aren’t wrenches. Never use pliers to tighten a nut or bolt, and use them to remove nuts and bolts only when wrenches and sockets have failed or the fastener is so damaged that it is unfit for further use.
Screwdrivers. This includes the flat blade type with small, medium and large blade widths, and the Phillips type with small, medium and large tips. It’s nice if you have the small and medium blade/Phillips drivers in both stubby and “regular” lengths.
One thing to note is that there is Phillips and there is Reed Prince. They look virtually identical, but while you can use a Phillips tip in a Reed Prince screw, you can’t (properly) use a Reed Prince tip in a Phillips screw and you are likely to strip the screw head. An RP has a sharp point on it and a Phillips tip is slightly blunted. Many bargain table “Phillips” screwdrivers are, in fact, Reed Prince. Automobiles don’t use the Reed Prince variety.
Air Compressor. You really do need one, even if it’s only a 10 gallon, 2 horsepower unit. You’ll find hundreds of uses for it around the house during and after the restoration. You can get a decent one for $150.
Jackstands. Invest in 4 good-quality jackstands. Avoid the Chinese 3-legged/welded sheet metal/tubular-with-a-pin-through-it styles.
Never, ever use concrete construction blocks or chunks of wood!! Always get a jack stand with double the weight rating that you think may be necessary. Decent stands should cost at least $15 each. People are killed every year when their car falls on them, and usually it’s because they didn’t use proper jackstands.
. Get at least a 2-ton, full-size
model (not a bottle jack). The smaller ones, even with a high rating, are unstable. Use it only for getting a car onto jack stands and raising/lowering components. Vise
. A good vise is almost literally worth its weight in gold. An adequate vise is still going to cost you at least $100. Get a 4”-6” jaw and with a not-too-aggressive gripping face (so you don’t leave indentations on the work piece.) You can make leather face covers for working with finished parts. Hammers
. Do not use a construction claw-hammer, and especially not a framing hammer. It’s just not right. About a 12-16 oz. ball-peen is right for most jobs. A brass or plastic or rubber dead blow hammer is also a good tool to have so that you don’t damage parts.
Bench Grinder. You’ll use this a lot for cleaning parts and bolts. Get at least 1/3 hp with a medium grit grinding stone on one side and a medium stiffness wire wheel on the other.
Allen Wrenches. One of those all-in-one deals that holds 10 allen wrenches is good to have. Sometimes knobs will be held on with allen fasteners.
Shop Manual. This is probably one of the most important tools you can have in your box. Try to get an original (not reprint) factory Shop Manual. The pictures in an original are usually far superior to the reprints. (Use one of our vendors listed in the Literature section) For a general manual I prefer Motors, not a Haynes or Chilton’s. Also get any factory Body Manuals and Parts Manuals. They will often show far more detailed or exploded pictures than the shop manual.
If you have those tools you should be able to take apart and put together at least 75% of an old car. Of course, there will be times when you’ll need a special puller or socket or wrench, but those can usually be rented.
Depending on how much you’re going to do yourself and how much room you have left on your Visa card you could add a welder (gas and/or MIG), various body working tools (sanders, hammers, dollys). paint gun, torque wrench (any of the specialized engine building tools), engine stand, engine hoist, scrapers, drifts/punches, hand grinders/polishers, glass bead cabinet, parts washer, ad nauseum. There’s no end to the amount of tools you can obtain to make your life easier and job better.
The last word on tools is this -your tools will be with you long after you’ve forgotten what you paid for them, and long after your first project. They are a true investment in that they continue to benefit you as long as you hold them.