Chances are, someone in your family is a tool junkie. The vast collection I inherited, which filled my first of many toolboxes, was given to me by my grandfather. A lifelong handyman and builder, he possessed a treasure trove of oddly shaped saws covered in rust, wood-handled gadgets of indecipherable purpose, and metal machines with frayed electrical cords; they stirred equal parts fear and amazement in me. He could build his own furniture, repair his own plumbing, and fix his own car—in short, live more independently—all because of the powerful instruments of home improvement contained in the garage.
That independence has expanded over the years as the dark, heavy machines of my grandfather’s day have slowly evolved into today’s rubber-gripped, ergonomically correct multitools. And designers have finally realized that the thrill of independence from hired-gun repairs isn’t gender-specific. The gift-giving season is near; it’s the perfect time to assemble a beginner’s tool kit for yourself or a tool-curious friend. (Prices are approximate.)
Wrenches come in every imaginable configuration, but unless you’re building a Cadillac, you need only one. An 8-inch adjustable crescent wrench ($9) will allow you to tighten leaky plumbing fixtures or put together a bookshelf. (For rusty bolts or stripped screws, step up to a pair of $15 vise grips.)
A must-have for the DIYer, the 6-in-1 screwdriver ($13) offers small and large tips for both straight-slotted (flat-head) screws and cross-slotted (Phillips-head) screws. The fifth and sixth tips are sockets for securing bolts. Just pick a designer color for your handle and you’ll be ready to take on any Ikea project.
Retire your kitchen knives from box-cutting duty and use a $3 utility knife instead. Make sure the blade retracts to avoid a hazard in your tool belt, and spring for a bright color to make it easier to find.
Cordless drills aren’t just for pros anymore. They’re now light enough and small enough for anybody to handle—and you can use them for both drilling and screwing, saving your wrists from excessive labor. Cordless drills start at $20 for the most basic model, but for the more stylish and well-heeled driller (whether female or male), Tomboy Tools makes a nice 8-volt pink model ($80). Don’t forget the bits and screwdriver tips.
Before trying to move that couch into the sitting room, save yourself some trouble and measure the doorway. A 10-foot tape measure ($5) will allow you to measure your windows for blinds, size rooms for furniture, or center pictures on a wall. No need for lasers or other tricks; just make sure the tape measure is easy to read and has a belt clip.
You can’t have too many flashlights. The apocalyptically minded can spend hundreds of dollars on a bombproof light stick. But most people will do just fine with a rechargeable light equipped with a hand crank ($10), which provides human-powered illumination with just a few turns.
You can go old-school with a steel toolbox, but a more fashionable and functional alternative is a wearable canvas tote with plenty of pockets. Until Marc Jacobs signs on for a Home Depot line, consider Girlylock or Pink Tool Belts.
Non-Contact Voltage Tester
Most of us have a dead light fixture, a wall receptacle, or a scary dangling wire that we’re unsure about. To fix it, first you need to know whether it’s a live wire or a dead one. The non-contact voltage tester is a little larger than a ballpoint pen and just as useful.
These might be the most valuable items in your toolbox. The next time you try to saw a piece of wood, clamp it to a table or counter so it won’t shift with each stroke of the blade. If you’re gluing or screwing two pieces of wood together, a clamp will make the task more accurate and successful.
Nobody likes a crooked picture on the wall. A small level ($4) takes the guesswork out of the task of straightening frames. (If you live in an older house and a level picture still looks crooked, try using the level on your floor.)
Saws are like kitchen knives: There’s a different design for every occasion. A basic 15-inch steel handsaw ($13) will aptly complete most simple jobs like cutting a two-by-four or a piece of plywood.
Socket Wrench Set
Don’t be pressured into thinking you need a thousand sockets for your socket wrench. A good 20-piece set ($40) will do; be sure to get a nice selection of metric and standard sizes for tightening up table legs or sinking bigger bolts into a wobbly fence. You’ll soon find that the ratchet’s crank is the sweet sound of independence.