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Car maintenance tools: what to buy?

car tools for beginners
Martynn Randall Haynes manuals

Martynn Randall is technical editor at Haynes and has been with us for 27 years. He's written more than 60 Haynes publications and has owned more than 85 cars and 60 motorbikes... so far!

As you know, Haynes is all for saving you money when it comes to servicing and repairing your vehicle, but here's an important tale which shows that spending as little as possible isn't always the wisest decision.

When I started my apprenticeship many years ago, I was told to bring my own tools. As I had no money, I went out and bought the cheapest tool kit I could find. Needless to say, it was rubbish – the spanners and sockets were made from cheese, the screwdrivers weren’t hardened properly, and the pliers were so poorly made, the jaws barely met.

I know it’s a cliche, but buying cheap tools is a false economy. The spanners and sockets will slip, damaging the nuts/bolts, and the screwdrivers will chew the heads of the screws. Poor quality tools will become a source of immense frustration. Much better to buy reasonable quality tools to start off, then gradually as time goes on, replace the tools you use most with better quality ones. 

Caution! Buying tools is addictive! When you break a tool, or discover there’s a tool you need, there is a delicious delight in browsing and buying new tools. There are thousands of different tools out there for working on cars, but for the majority of jobs you can undertake at home, you don’t actually need that many.

Here’s my list of essential car tools to get you started

Socket set

1 Socket set

These come in many different sizes, and designs. There are 2 common designs of sockets - bi-hex and full hex.

The bi-hex sockets have 12 teeth inside to grip a nut/bolt. The teeth allow the socket to be placed in 12 different positions on the nut/bolt, which gives a lot more flexibility in positioning the breaker bar or ratchet that fits into the socket. Where access is limited, a bi-hex socket could be essential.

Full hex sockets, have six teeth, and have a lot bigger contact patch size with the nut/bolt. The larger the contact patch, the more torque can be applied to slacken or tighten a nut/bolt. Where a fastener must be tightened to a high torque, use a full hex socket. Where a corroded/seized one must be slackened, don’t risk damaging it with a bi-hex socket that could slip - use a full hex to have the best chance of success.

Sockets for passenger cars are usually available in three different ‘drive’ sizes. This is referring to the size of the square hole in the end of the socket into which the ratchet, breaker bar, or extension is inserted:

  • ¼” drive is for small sockets, usually up to about 12mm. They are great for very small fasteners, where delicate control is required and access is limited.
  • ⅜” drive sockets are probably the most useful size for a DIY’er. Small enough for most access situations, yet large enough to be useful where some force is required. Common socket sizes range from 8mm to 17mm.
  • ½” drive sockets range from around 11mm to 36mm. These are sockets that can take the torque! Whether it’s tightening cylinder head bolts, or wheel bolts, these are the sockets you’ll need. 

To go with the sockets, you're going to need a ratchet, breaker bar and extensions. The ratchet should be reversible - meaning it works when slackening as well as tightening.
The breaker bar should be long enough to apply some serious torque, but not so long it’s unwieldy. After a while, you may find a need for a long breaker bar, and a short one, etc (see Caution! above). Extensions are available in many sizes, and the chances are you’ll need a long one (12”), a medium one (6”), and a short one (1”).

Despite the imperial drive sizes, virtually all cars made in the last 30 years will have metric-sized nuts and bolts, so you’ll need metric sockets and spanners.


2 Spanners

There are many designs of spanners available, but without doubt, the most useful ones are combination spanners. This is where one end is open-ended, and the other end has a closed ring of the same size. The open end can be useful where access is restricted, but can easily slip as it only acts upon the nut/bolt in 2 places. If it slips it will almost certainly damage the fastener, and probably your knuckles as well. The golden rule is: always use a ring spanner instead of an open-end, where possible.
The ring spanners are available as bi-hex and full hex design, for the same reasons as sockets, described above.

Adjustable spanner

3 Adjustable spanners

These can be invaluable for odd size fasteners, turnbuckles, or generally preventing things from rotating when you don’t want them to. However, they do have limitations…
Just like open-end spanners, they only make contact in two places with the nut/bolt. Plus there is always a little ‘play’ between the sliding jaw and the fixed jaw, so it never sits completely parallel. This means they are prone to slipping, and poor quality adjustable spanners will slip lots.


4 Pliers/side cutters

Lots of different shapes and sizes of pliers are available, but generally, a three-piece set will suffice.

Long-nosed (or snipe-nosed) pliers are great for reaching clips etc. that regular pliers are too bulky for.

Regular pliers have shorter, stronger jaws, usually with a sharper, cutting section incorporated. These pliers can provide strong, flexible grip, but beware - cheap ones will lose grip quickly, and the cutting edges will blunt quickly.

Side-cutters (or ‘snips’) are for cutting small diameter items like electrical cables, hoses, cable ties, etc. Guess what? Cheap ones will blunt quickly, and cause much frustration!
Try to get pliers with soft, comfortable grips. It does make a difference.


5 Screwdrivers

You’re going to need a good selection of screwdrivers. Long ones, short ones, flat-bladed, cross-head, and Torx. As time goes on, you’ll probably discover the need for different sizes and designs (see Caution! above).

Try to get ones with comfortable handles that provide good levels of grip, and try not to use them as chisels or punches! Most screwdrivers are not designed to be used in conjunction with a hammer.

Torx bits

6 Torx bits

There are few things more annoying than discovering your car's held together with Torx bolts/screws and you don't have any Torx bits! Don't even think about trying to wedge normal screwdrivers in them and hoping for the best because you'll run the risk of ruining the head, making it impossible to remove.

Torx bits can be used in conjunction with sockets, ratchets, etc or you can use Torx keys in the same way as Hex (Allen) keys. Obviously, it’s impossible to use a torque wrench with a Torx key.

Hex/allen keys

7 Allen keys/hex keys

As with Torx bits, you really need the correct tool for the job if you encounter any Allen head bolts. Avoid the cheap sets – they'll bend easily and round-off the edges. 

Give any stubborn fixing a liberal dose of penetrating fluid and it will – in theory – make it easier to remove!


8 Gloves

Working on cars is a messy business, and dirty oil is carcinogenic. Latex gloves are cheap, and prevent ‘black finger nail’ syndrome.

torque wrench

9 Torque wrench

There are many nuts and bolts holding your car together that need to be tightened ‘just so’. Too loose and the fastener may unscrew. Too tight and it could break.
In order to prevent this, manufacturers specify a precise torque setting for many critical fasteners (wheel bolts/nuts, etc).

Torque wrenches attach to a socket/extension. Modern wrenches, once set to the required torque, will slightly ‘give’ and emit an audible click when the setting is reached. Old-fashioned wrenches bend when force is applied, with a needle on a gauge displaying the amount of deflection. Probably best to avoid these ones.

Torque wrenches come in different sizes, (¼”, ⅜”, ½” drive), and different toque ranges. Probably the most useful size to begin with is a ⅜” drive one, although you may find a ½” one indispensable (see Caution! above).


10 Hammers

You may be surprised by this one, but there are times when only an application of force will do – sometimes a gentle tap is all that is required to loosen some component, or sometimes a good ‘whack’ is needed.

A soft-faced hammer is probably the most useful. It has sufficient mass for a forceful blow, but due to the soft face, causes the minimum of damage. The soft faces are provided by rubber, copper or resin caps, which may be replaceable as they wear.

Hard faced (engineers) hammers will be useful, but tend to cause damage – take care!

trolley jack

11 Trolley jack

If you're going to be working under the car then you'll need a jack. The standard-issue jack in your car's boot is fine for changing a flat tyre in an emergency, but a simple trolley jack is a much better, safer bet – and don't even think about jacking up the car to work on unless you have some axle stands…

axle stands

12 Axle stands

A good, sturdy pair of axle stands should ALWAYS be securely sited under the car whenever you're going to be either getting under it, or even if you're just removing a wheel. You do not want the car to collapse onto you – and it does happen.


Other car tools to consider

The following items aren't essential, but will come in handy as your DIY skills increase and you tackle more adventurous jobs:

  • Mole grips
  • Brake piston wind back tool
  • Oil filter wrench
  • Water pump pliers
  • Jubilee clip driver
  • Pry bars
  • Electrical multimeter