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Toolbox essentials

We round up the tools that every homeowner needs, whether you’re a novice or a seasoned DIY-er, plus which ones can be easily rented or borrowed for specific jobs.
Adam Snook

Tools come in every shape and size imaginable, to be used in all types of tasks and situations. Many are very specialised, and the options can seem overwhelming.

So which ones do you need in your toolbox? Discover the most useful tools for homeowners, tenants and occasional DIYers.

We also explain how to keep your tools in good condition, where to buy tools and whether or not you should invest in a tool kit or buy items individually. 

And we have advice from Which? Trusted Traders about how to safely hire tools and the types of jobs that should be left to a professional. 

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What you need in a toolbox

So that it's easier to find the information you want, we've split this article down into:

  • tools that are essential for everyone
  • tools that you may need to use from time to time
  • tools that you'll only need if you're going to be doing specialised jobs on a regular basis. 

Essential tools for every homeowner

Hammer – a 16oz claw hammer will be suitable for general use. The claw can be used to pull nails out of wood, or as a lever.

Cross-head screwdriver – also known as Phillips head, it has a head with pointed edges in the shape of a cross, to fit the cross slots of a Phillips screw. They are available in five different sizes, from zero to four. The most common sizes are one for standard screw sizes, and two for miniature. 

Flat-head or slotted-head screwdriver – used for screws with a single groove across the head.

Adjustable spanner or wrench – used to grip and turn nuts and bolts, an adjustable spanner has a moveable jaw to fit different sizes. This saves you from buying a whole set of spanners. 

Tape measure – ideally 5-metre tape with both inches and centimetres on it.

Utility ('Stanley') knife – a general-purpose tool used to cut lightweight materials, to mark cut lines and trim plastic or wood. For safer storage and transportation, consider a retractable or folding blade. 

Drill – used for different tasks depending on which drill ‘bit’ is used – the tip that is inserted into the chuck. Can drill holes into different materials, as well as tighten or loosen screws. Drills are great for hanging pictures, putting up shelves and assembling flat-pack furniture. 

Types of drill bit: 

  • Wood - small, pointed tip
  • Metal - wide-angled, pointed tip
  • Masonry - gently sloping tip
  • Screwdriver - tightens or loosens screws

Head to our guide to buying the best cordless drill to find out more.

Spirit level – used to show how horizontal (level) or vertical (plumb) a surface is, which is great for putting up shelves or hanging pictures correctly. 

Pliers – two pairs will be useful: linesman's pliers and needle-nose pliers, to use for cutting and bending wires, gripping small objects and reaching awkward places. 

Superglue – helpful for making small repairs and sticking various materials such as metal, ceramic, leather, rubber, vinyl and some plastics.

Sandpaper – useful for cleaning and smoothing wood or metal so it’s ready for finishing or painting, or for removing bathroom grout stains. Find out more about keeping your bathroom well maintained.

Torch – always helpful for working in a dark area, or during a power cut. Consider a head torch if you want to keep your hands free while using other tools. 

WD40 – a sprayable lubricant used to protect metal from rust and corrosion, displace moisture, move stuck parts or displace moisture. 

Gaffer tape – many uses such as binding around the handle of something for more grip or temporarily stopping a leaking pipe, as it's stickier and stronger than regular adhesive tape.

A cross head screwdriver (top) and flat head screwdriver (bottom).

A cross-head screwdriver (top) and flat-head screwdriver (bottom).

A toolbox equipped with all these tools will prepare you for a range of DIY projects and repairs. 

We've tested a wide range of brands to find the best hammers and best screwdrivers to use for common DIY tasks. 

Additional tools that you may need 

Allen keys (also known as hex keys) – often L-shaped tool used to install bolts and screws with hexagonal heads. 

Caulk/sealant gun – caulk is a type of sealant, used for jobs such as closing a crack or gap by a window frame, sink or cupboard. Silicone sealant is often used in bathrooms and kitchens. It comes in cylindrical cartridges which fit the caulk gun.

Chisels – a sharpened blade useful for cutting and shaping wood, stone or metal, or ad-hoc tasks such as scraping off glue. 

Handsaw – has a thin, wide blade that cuts on the push stroke, primarily used to cut wood into different lengths and shapes.

Electric screwdriver – does the work of screwing and unscrewing for you with power. A good option for larger projects where you will need to fit lots of screws in a short amount of time. 

Ratchet screwdriver – designed to lock when tightening or loosening screws, making each turn of the screwdriver more efficient. 

Mitre box – guides a hand saw for more precise cuts, most commonly at 45-degree angles, but many are adjustable. 

Planes – a cutting tool used to shape wood by removing rough surfaces and reducing its size.

Punches – used to make a hole or impression that can then be filled with a nail or dowel. 

Rubber mallet – can hit things such as when assembling furniture, with less risk of chipping any wood or plastic if you strike a bit too forcefully.

Stud finder – helps locate the vertical structural pieces of wood in a wall so you know where to drill into. Useful when screwing ceiling boards back up, as they can slip over time and start to sag, but a few extra screws will fix this issue.

Tools most people won't need

These tools you will most likely only need occasionally, and would only be worthwhile buying if you do lots of large projects or have significant disposable income. 

For most people, it would be more cost-effective to hire these tools, or pay a trader to do the task. 

Diamond-wheel tile cutters – fairly cheap to buy online but most people will only use them a few times, so hiring one makes more sense.

Scaffolding tower – it would be much better to hire this, as it would take a lot of space to store permanently. 

Air compressor – has a variety of uses such as powering pneumatic tools and pressure washing.

Generator – portable source of electricity to provide power for tools, lights or other equipment.

Should you invest in a full tool kit or build one over time from individual items?

There are two approaches to assembling your toolbox. You can either buy tools individually and over time build up your tool collection, or you can start by buying a tool kit with a selection of tools. 

A basic tool kit can be bought for £35 to £60 and should come with at minimum a hammer, adjustable spanner, saw, a variety of screwdrivers and pliers, hex keys and a tape measure, along with other tools and extras. Many will have at least 100 individual items included.

Advantages of buying a tool kit

  • The cost per tool should be cheaper than buying everything individually.
  • Tool kits usually include a box or bag that makes storage and transportation easier.
  • Buying a complete set is quicker and requires less decisions about which tools you should buy.
  • The kit is likely to include various tools you would not have bought on their own, but are useful to have.
  • All the tools will match, which you may or may not care about.
  • A tool kit makes an ideal gift, particularly for a friend or relative who has recently moved into a new property.

Disadvantages of buying a tool kit

  • You won't be able to decide on the specifics of each tool. If you buy tools individually, you can get exactly what you want.
  • It’s a larger outlay of money all at once, than just buying one or two tools at a time.
  • The tool kit could well include tools you won’t need.
  • There are a huge variety of options for tool kits and it may be more confusing trying to decide which is the right kit than just buying a small selection of individual tools.

Ultimately it will depend on your preferences and budget, but, if you're starting with no tools at all, a tool kit is a good option. 

If you already have a basic selection of tools, it might be better to just slowly grow your collection with individual purchases. 

For more tips about the best tools to buy, check out our decorating and DIY advice guides.

Where to buy tools 

If you’d like to visit a store in person and talk to staff before buying, Toolstation and Screwfix are good options, with extensive ranges of products and branches nationwide.

Alternatively, if you're happy to order tools online based on specifications and reviews, Amazon has lots of low-cost products, particularly for tool kits. 

Another option is ToolStore UK, an online independent stockist and distributor with a vast range of products from different brands.

For more information about how different retailers perform, including Which? Recommended Providers, customer scores and star ratings such as product quality and staff helpfulness, read our best and worst DIY and decorating shops.

 

How to hire tools

For tools you only use occasionally, hiring could be a better option than paying a lot for something you rarely use. We asked a variety of Which? Trusted Traders for their advice on renting tools, and put together the following tips and things to consider:

  • For any tool, make sure it is in good condition and that you know how to use it. A good hire outlet will demonstrate safe usage if you are unsure
  • Signs of abuse are the most important. Check tools for extensive wear and tear, obvious faults and stress fractures on welds. If it has an engine, make sure you are shown how to start it, and listen to it.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask how recently the tool you are hiring was last serviced. The hire company should routinely carry out electrical safety tests where relevant.
  • Check the hire rates, as sometimes it’s cheaper to hire for five days than two, and weekend rates can be more expensive than weekdays. Research the hire company’s insurance and liability rules.
  • If you're planning on using one of your own tools with the hired tool, ensure that you have the correct connections.

It’s important to rent tools from a reputable company to ensure safety and good performance of the tools. Many Which? Trusted Traders recommend finding a local company or supplier with a good reputation, based on reviews, recommendations and local connections. 

However, traders also suggested plenty of reliable national tool hire companies, such as HSS Hire, Travis Perkins, Jewsons, Buildbase, Mark One Hire and Speedy Hire.

An alternative to consider is peer-to-peer rental marketplaces such as Library of Things or Fat Llama. These sites enable people to rent out their tools to others, usually relatively cheaply. 

This method of hiring is worth exploring but make sure you follow all the advice from Which? Trusted Traders and don’t take a risk with an unsafe tool.

How to keep your tools in good condition

Once you have assembled your tool box, it's important to take care of the tools and use them correctly. Poorly maintained or incorrectly used tools can cause injuries or damage your project. 

These are some tips for tool maintenance and use:

  • Don't leave tools damp or dirty with anything moist, as they could rust and then become ineffective, unusable or dangerous. Dry them off each time
  • Check if any have got blunt. If you're using a blunt chisel or knife, you will need to apply more pressure and run a greater risk of hurting yourself.
  • Don't use indoor wood saws for sawing trees and plants outside, as the sap can damage the blade. A garden or pruning saw specifically designed for the job will be more effective and durable.
  • If using the claw part of a wooden-handled hammer to remove a nail, don't force it as you could snap the handle
  • Use a decent hammer when chiselling tiles off, as a weak hammer (such as some supplied with furniture kits) may bend when hitting something sturdy.   

DIY jobs you should (and shouldn’t) do yourself

There are a huge variety of possible DIY jobs you could try once you have a set of tools. But be realistic about your skills and do watch video tutorials and read online advice before attempting small tasks and projects.

We’ve listed a few DIY jobs you might be able to complete yourself, and asked some Which? Trusted Traders what jobs should definitely be left to the professionals to handle. 

6 DIY jobs you can do yourself

  1. Resealing around a bath or shower - requires paint scraper, utility knife, sealant remover, sealant tube and gun and washing-up liquid.
  2. Patching plaster after a rewire or minor damage - requires plaster (ready mixed), scraper and a tub of water.
  3. Patching a small hole in the ceiling or a wall - requires plaster repair, scraper, screws, drill, a tub of water, wood baton (can use off-cuts) and wood glue.
  4. Installing skirting boards - requires wood glue, nails, hammer, hand saw and mitre box (helps to guide saw cuts).
  5. Hanging internal doors - requires ruler, pencil, electric plane, hammer, chisel, drill, drill bits, wedges, Stanley knife.
  6. Take apart an old sofa - requires a handsaw. For full details, read our 7 ways to get rid of your old sofa.

DIY jobs you must not do yourself

You should definitely leave these jobs in the capable hands of a professional. 

MTS Plumbing & Heating Services suggests you 'leave any gas work to a professional' due to the health & safety requirements surrounding it. Anyone working on gas boilers or other gas appliances is required by law to be on the Gas Safe Register. 

Read our guide to getting the best boiler service to find out how to keep on top of your boiler maintenance. 

Plumbing was also a sector that was advised by Aston Locks Ltd, Bamsey Plumbing and Heating, PJC Electrical Services, Three3one Ltd and DB Electrical to not be carried out by homeowners for similar reasons. If you have the necessary skills and knowledge, you may be able to do some small plumbing jobs. 

Similarly, electrical work was also voted for by several Which? Trusted Traders, unless the homeowner has an electrical competency such as being accredited by NICEIC or ELECSA. 

Other jobs also have significant risks and shouldn't be attempted without professional help. Tasks that were strongly encouraged for involving Traders to ensure the job is completed safely and efficiently for customers included:

  • Structural work
  • Asbestos removal
  • Roofing
  • Hot water cylinder work
  • Installation of large TVs or units onto non-loadbearing walls

It’s better to be safe than sorry – Strysen Heating Ltd sums this up by saying 'homeowners should ask a professional to complete any job they are remotely unsure of how to complete competently and safely, or anything that they are unprepared for should it not go as planned'. 

Use Which? Trusted Traders to find reliable traders, such as plumbers, electricians and gas engineers, near you.