The Car Tool Set
What should be kept in a car tool set? After repeating the same answers on various car forums, I decided to blog it. Reading this topic implies one assumption- you’re willing to have a go at fixing things before calling the tow truck.
If you are mechanically clueless and plan to stay that way, it’s OK to come up with another plan- a newer car, regular maintenance, good tow insurance, a cell phone with spare charger, a credit card with some room on the balance or stash a few hundred dollar bills. Check with your insurance company- they probably offer a tow rider for less than a AAA membership. Even those who carry tools still need a tow now and then.
How about prepackaged auto emergency kits? Take a moment to compare the contents with my Supplies and Required Tools lists below. I’ve yet to find one I would call complete, and the jumper cables are usually junk, but they can kick start your preparation.
Just how many tools are we talking about here?
The very question, which tools, brings up more questions. How much is enough tools? Am I bringing them along for myself, my family fleet, or to help others? Can I tolerate the loss if they are stolen? Most vexing of all, which brand is good enough without being crazy expensive?
To keep it simple, I’ve divided things up into three groups. Required Tools and Supplies are things that any vehicle should have (there I said it- everyone should be prepared!). Optional Tools should be considered if your anticipated needs are greater, such as an older car, remote locations, visiting the U-Pull junkyard to remove your own parts, serious DIY or helping out others. Within Optional Tools I break things down into groups and explain how you can prioritize them.
Of course expense is considered. If this blog’s readers had limitless resources, they’re probably not worried about car breakdowns. Fortunately, you don’t have to put out a lot of money at once. Yard sales and flea markets can often provide you with good, inexpensive tools like screwdrivers and pliers, especially if you are not picky about appearance. Ask parents and relatives if they have spare tools, especially if there’s a handy person in the family. Chances are good they’re hoarding a few spares they can give up. Or, you can wait for a good coupon or sale and pick up a big mechanics set all at once.
Whatever you do, don’t flag down a Tool Truck and drop hundreds of dollars for a handful of shiny overpriced tools. Trucks serve a market that isn’t you- mechanics who need a tool (or tool warranty replacement) NOW to finish a job that day and earn their living. They sell on credit and collect on it weekly. All that just isn’t necessary for the rest of us, even serious DIY shade tree mechanics.
Here’s my approach on tool cost and quality. I choose to carry medium quality Taiwan or older US made tools, leaving the best new US or European tools in my garage. I avoid owning cheap tools altogether, but I’m not against them. Cheap tools in your car may be a better choice for you, if theft or loss is commonplace. Once you put your tool set together, take a photo for insurance purposes. If you have questions about tool brands and quality, check out the Tools subforum on Garage Journal. Use a Google site-directed search first before asking questions, such as this:
site:garagejournal.com craftsman pliers
Purchasing budgets can be stretched over time. Physical size, on the other hand, has strict limits. Your tools have to fit conveniently in your vehicle. Your tool set will serve no purpose at home because it’s too big to coexist with the groceries, luggage, or sporting equipment in your car. For this list, I assume one tool bag and one supply bag per vehicle, with only tools appropriate for that vehicle.
What sizes of tools? How many? Are you super handy, or barely adequate? Let’s sort that out. Start by defining the kinds of things you can do on the side of the road. At a minimum, you should be able to jump start a dead battery, change a spare tire, replace a battery, fuse, signal or headlight, radiator hose, serpentine belt and check fluid levels.
Required wrench and socket sizes
Tool shopping can be frustrating. One set of wrenches skip some sizes, others different sizes. What is going on here? Well, different countries have different standardized sizes of wrenches. For example German cars use the DIN standard sizes of 7, 8, 10, 11, 13, 17, and 19mm. Japanese cars (and most Taiwan made wrench sets) use JIS standard sizes of 7, 8, 10, 12, 14, 17, and 19mm. US cars use ANSI/ISO sizes of primarily 7, 8, 10, 13, 16 and 18mm, and GM (Chevy/Buick/Cadillac/GMC) adds 15mm and 20mm, and Ford 16mm, just because. (Anything above 19mm is probably serious suspension work, or easy maintenance stuff that can be done with an adjustable wrench). I’ve only found a use for 9mm wrenches on bicycles, but they are small and cheap if you find you need one.
You can pay extra and get a “no skip set” from 8, 9 or 10mm to 19mm, then buy the 7 and/or 8mm separately. Whatever you do, get 10, 12 and 13mm wrenches. If you have a 5/8″ then you have your missing 16mm, they are the same size.
Here’s a super handy table to help you sort it out. Of course, this is not the final word. Manufacturers and constantly going global and switching parts providers. Whatever you get, take out the set and try each visible bolt head under the hood. If you find you can’t fit a wrench or socket to one, you may need to add that size. Sears, Lowes, and various Farm Stores all sell individual wrenches and sockets to fill in the gaps.
Finally, late 80’s/early 90’s American marque cars still had some SAE (also known as English, Inch or Fractional) fasteners on them, and earlier vintage US cars were entirely SAE. The good news here is that used SAE tools go for roughly half of Metric tools on eBay, Flea Markets and Pawn shops.
There are often really good bargains on tool sets. Even if they don’t contain the entire recommended list, they can get you close. Be careful about Homeowner Sets, stuff like drill/driver bits, wood saws and drywall hangers are not going to help in your car. Closeouts on eBay can be found on good brand name US made tools like Allen, KD Tools, Kobalt by Williams, NAPA, etc. If going cheap, brand names with lifetime warranties like Stanley and Craftsman are good deals. For Harbor Freight, pass over the P.R. China and Indian made hand tools and buy the ones from Taiwan.
My Car Tools
I’ll start with the bare minimum and work my way up. With each tool in this list, I’ll give a justification as to why it is important in your car tool set.
Required Tools – Pliers, Crimpers and Cutters
Alligator a.k.a. Chain Nose Pliers
Slip Joint Pliers
Water Pump pliers
Diagonal cutters a.k.a. Dikes
Locking Pliers (“Vise Grips”), small (4-6″) and large (8-10″)
Electrical pliers (Combines Wire Stripper, Crimper, and Wire Cutter)
Pliers are the most fundamental tools because they adapt to fit every situation. Even once you have a complete set of sockets and wrenches, you’ll still need pliers for pulling off rubber hoses, cutting shredded S-Belts, or holding the other end of a nut/bolt. Locking pliers can hold a busted bumper cover to your fender, remove a rounded-off rusty bolt, hold up a flapping plastic belly pan, and so on. Crimpers can splice broken wires together, after using the Wire Stripper to remove the insulation.
Required Tools- Other
2 Adjustable Wrenches, small(4-6″) and large (8-10″)
Metric Hex (a.k.a. Allen Keys) and Torx folding key sets
Hammer, 12 to 16 oz
Mini or “close quarter” hacksaw and a spare hacksaw blade
Screwdriver set, at least 3 flat and 3 Philips or a 6-in-1
Locking Lug Nut key (for your fancy wheels)
Jumper Cables, at least 12 feet long
Battery Post and Terminal (wire brush)
Why a hammer? In a minor fender bender, an otherwise working vehicle can be immobilized by the bent fender rubbing against the tire. The solution is quite simple- jack the car up a bit, and then wail on it with the hammer.
The chisel and mini hacksaw (just a handle with the hacksaw blade sticking out) can be used to cut off plastic bumper covers, those large painted things that seem to fall off modern vehicles at the slightest provocation. This will get you back on the road in minutes instead of paying for a tow, and let you choose your own body shop, instead of the nearest one allowed by your towing plan.
Screwdrivers are obvious, I prefer having separate ones because they have other uses- pry bars, scrapers, you can even spear a loose bumper cover with one and wrap a bungee around both ends to tie it down. Six-in-One screwdrivers have a handy 1/4″ hex nut driver if you remove the bit, but the shaft is hollow and not strong enough to abuse like a solid screwdriver. And yes, I will abuse a $5 screwdriver, to get my family off the shoulder of a busy freeway NOW or avoid a $150 tow bill, I’ll abuse screwdrivers as quickly as they are handed to me. Tools serve me, not the other way around, and can be replaced. Time and lives cannot.
If the Hex or Torx key doesn’t fit because the handle is in the way, just dis-assemble the handle, and turn the key with a screwdriver in the loop end.
About Jumper Cables- the short 6 foot ones only work with cars nose-to-nose… and both batteries on the same side! You’ll need at least 10 foot cables, but 12 foot is better. There’s a trick for getting the most dead battery vehicles started, and make heavy gage (read: expensive) cables unnecessary. Hook up the cables (Just remember like to like- positive to positive, negative to negative), and let the good car charge the dead one for a while, like 15 or 20 minutes. You can rev the engine a bit to speed things up. After that the problematic vehicle can usually start itself, unless the battery is totally worn out, and not just run down.
If Jumper Cables don’t do the job and the battery terminals are corroded, take them off and clean the terminals and battery posts with the wire brushes of the Battery Post and Terminal tool, and try again.
Wrenches and Sockets
Once you have the basic tools, you can stop there or add a wrench set, socket set, or both. If you skip the wrench set, get a 3/8″ Breaker Bar or Flex Head handle to add to your socket set. That will allow you to break free tough nuts and bolts without damaging your ratchet.
Combination Wrench Set, no-skip 7-19mm or just the required sizes as discussed above
1/4 inch drive shallow Metric socket/ratchet set, including U-Joint and 3 different length extensions
3/8 shallow and deep metric socket/ratchet set, including U-Joint and 3 different length extensions
Socket Drive adapters 1/4 to 3/8 and 3/8 to 1/4
3/8 Drive Torx Bit Socket Set (some 1/4″ drive is OK if that’s what comes with the set)
Spark plug socket(s) sized for each car served
3/8″ Breaker Bar or Flex Head (especially if you have no wrench set)
The idea is that you break free the fastener with the wrench or breaker bar&socket, and then speed it off (and later back on again) with the ratchet. This saves your ratchet mechanism from severe wear and tear or binding. For most people, a Combination Wrench Set is the one to start with. Combination means an Open End (like a crab claw) on one side of the wrench, and a Closed End (a.k.a. Box or Ring Spanner) on the other.
Sockets are driven by a Ratchet, Breaker Bar or Flex Head with a square driver. Even if they are a Metric set, the driver is a traditional Inch size of 1/4″, 3/8″ or 1/2″ (or larger). Unless you have a truck or particularly rusty vehicle, you can live without the 1/2″ drive or larger socket sets.
A punch is used to remove a stuck bolt from a socket, or other persuasions as needed. A nail setter will also do nicely.
Optional Tools – Other
This section is for the more advanced home mechanics, willing to work on suspensions, rusty bolts, or do diagnostics. If you are not intimidated to work on your brake lines, chances are you don’t need a whole set of flare nut wrenches, probably one will do. Use the open end of your Combination wrench to size-up the flare nuts on your brake lines, hydraulics and/or fuel injection, and then buy just that size.
Optional – 1/2″ Drive Breaker Bar or Flex Head (and 1/2-3/8″ adapter listed above)
Optional – Spark Plug Gapper
Optional – Cheap VOM (MultiMeter). Harbor Freight gives these away free-with-purchase every few months
Optional – Ignition wrench set, one flare nut wrench. For advanced DIY repairs
Optional – Upgrade 6-in-1 screwdriver to a full screwdriver set
Optional – Flare nut wrench
Optional – Vehicle specific tools. See your vehicle specific web discussion forum for ideas here
Nothing optional here. Every vehicle should carry these supplies. Most should fit in Gallon zip-lock bags to keep things dry and corrosion free.
Triangle Reflector, Flares or Safety Beacons.
Reflective safety vest. Even if you have flares or beacons set up, you are moving around, they are not, and you may be blocking the flare or beacon. Put it in a Zip-Lock bag to keep it clean and shiny.
Spare Serpentine belt. Usually you only need one. If you get one replaced, just keep the old one. A new one can fall victim to road debris or animal damage, then even a used belt is better than none.
Sta-Kon Electrical Connectors (Butt Splice, M/F spade), and wire. Let’s say your Serpentine belt goes to pieces, or you pick up some road debris and it takes out an electronic ignition wire (one of the skinny ones that leads to a coil pack, not the old-school big fat ones). If you have some Sta-Kon style connectors, you can crimp one on each end, and then plug them back together again for a permanent repair.
Fuses should be obvious. If a dime gets behind your iPhone 12V USB charger plug, or your dashcam goes all smoky on you and the lights go out, you’ll need your owners manual and a set of 5A/10A/15A/20A fuses. Pick up a variety pack but make sure it is the right type(s) for your vehicle. Your vehicle may have two sizes. A good auto parts worker can help you out here.
A spare spark plug. Just keep the best one from the last set you changed, ask the mechanic to save you one when you get them changed, or pony up the $5-$10 for one at the auto parts store.
Gloves. I suggest two pair. A thin pair of Nitrile to keep your hands clean while maintaining feel, and a thicker leather pair for warmth in the cold (or protection from hot exhaust parts).
Fluids. I think you only need to carry auto fluids if your vehicle is a fluid dripper or a user. You should always keep a new bottle of drinking water inside your vehicle. Besides emergency hydration and hand washing, it can be used to clean injuries.
First Aid kit. No need to go crazy, a $12-20 first aid kit is good enough… unless you’re into extreme sports in remote areas or something like that!
Cable ties, those flat plastic zip things. Useful for keeping hoses away from belts and pulleys, improvised hose clamps, holding up tailpipes, etc. Get several lengths.
Bungee cords, different lengths. Useful for many things, not just holding the trunk or hatch down over a new roll of carpet. They can be used to hold a hood down after a front-ender breaks the latch, hold a front bumper cover to a fender, hold a wrong-sized loaner battery down, an improvised throttle or clutch return spring, and so on.
Rags. Keep a few with the supplies and at least one in the tool box or tool bag.
Muffler clamps. They hold on more than mufflers. Combined with Bungee cords and Duct Tape, there’s nothing you can’t hold down.
Duct tape. Need I say more?
Tool Storage and Organization
Tool storage options include the box tools come in, a metal tool box, plastic tool box, or a tool bag. Before buying, look around your vehicle for where the tools will go, because this reality will drive your decision. Cubbies, trunk, space around the spare tire (if inside the vehicle) and/or by the jack and tire iron. Many SUV’s have tow bar storage you might not be using. If you have to, split tools up into multiple boxes and bags.
When I was young and my car had a big trunk, I rocked a big 3 drawer hinge top metal tool box that tucked neatly between the rear wheel hump and the back of the trunk. I bought a new standard cab pickup truck, the big box had to go and got replaced by a long, low plastic box and a wedge shaped behind-the-seat organizer. I traded the Standard Cab in on an Extended Cab pickup, and there was no behind behind the last seat, so that was the end of the wedge behind-the-seat organizer. Rear passengers objected to the hard smooth plastic box, but a toolbag felt more satisfyingly smooshy to younger feet, so I moved to a bag.
Today, everything for one car (well, everything Tools, not Supplies) has to fit in a 12″ tool sack. I value completeness and compactness over organization. If I have or assist at a breakdown, by definition I’m going to be late, and will take time to sort through tools. However with minor effort, there’s a few tricks you can use to keep your tools organized, even in a sack.
Blow molded plastic boxes that come with 100+ piece Mechanics Tool Kits are usually a huge waste of space, with have little or no room for expansion. Their only advantage is they organize well the tools that came with them (and no more). If you find a good one and it happens to tuck into your vehicle nicely, you can supplement it with a small tool bag for the remaining tools and supplies.
Metal and plastic tool boxes are rigid, and like the blow molds either fit in your vehicle or not. If not well secured, a box can slide around, and even if secured, the contents can rattle around inside. Rubber liners, socket organizers, rags and wrench wraps will moderate the noise, but take up their own space. Still, if you are a frequent tool user, this is your primary set of tools, you have the space and the spousal tolerance, you may prefer a real tool box. In use, nothing beats the convenience of seeing everything laid out and sorted.
A rubber bottomed Cordura (Nylon Canvas) tool bag is best for me and many people. While organization will suffer a bit, tool bags are smaller than boxes for a given number of tools, don’t slide, and are not noisy over bumps and around curves. Small size and good aesthetics lower the chances of spousal removal. During an emergency, having tools in the vehicle is more important than having a big fancy fold-out metal tool box with drawers at home.
For wrenches, Canvas Rollups work well. They are available separately from Craftsman and on Amazon. I use a huge and a medium size Carabiner (D clip) from HF to hold the box end of Combination Wrenches.
For sockets I just put them on a long wire and tie the ends together. The wire also serves as a repair supply item. Socket organizer strips work well if you have the space. If it has a plastic dipped handle on one end I just hacksaw it off. Get a length (or lengths) short enough to fit in your tool bag or box, or cut some in half. The wire is a good solution for minimal space storage, but not for someone who uses their tools often. For frequent users, the less flexible socket strips work better.
Trying it all out
Try storing your tools and supplies in your vehicle. Check for rattles and clunks while driving. Often a few extra rags will fix noise problems, plus are nice to have as needed.
Try to loosen the lug nuts on a wheel, and then jack up the car enough to remove the wheel. The first time I tried to change a flat on the road, my factory provided combo lug wrench/jack handle rounded-off 3 lug nuts in a row. I walked up the road a half mile and borrowed a breaker bar and socket from a mechanic fixing a pavement layer. I was lucky. Now I’m prepared. After that I carry either a breaker bar and matching socket in each vehicle.
Pop the hood. Can you figure out how to change your Serpentine bolt? Print out a diagram of the belt path, write on it the socket or wrench sizes needed to adjust belt tension, keep it in the Zip-Lock bag with your safety vest.