General builder's top 50 essential tools
1. Cordless drill
Next to nobody uses a manual screwdriver on site anymore. They are time consuming and can really fatigue your arm after a day’s use. A simple cordless electric screwdriver will allow you to drive screws into a piece of work in seconds. For 40% more, the purchase of a cordless drill/driver will provide you with the facility to drill as well as screw. The ultimate purchase, but for another 40%, is a cordless combi drill which includes a hammer action on your drill.
Powerful, interchangeable, rechargeable and easy to use. Why waste any more time and effort? For more information, see our guide to: Cordless drill drivers
Drills have been around since the Stone Age, so, if it’s not in your toolbox already, it should be. You only need a simple drill to get-by with most jobs on site, but having one with an in-built hammer action is a must by today’s standards. Their easy-to-change chuck makes switching between drill-bits quick and efficient. They are cheap, robust, adaptable and easy to use. A truly irreplaceable tool.
For the best power to cost ratio a drill should be powered directly from the mains. You could buy a cordless drill and have free reign to drill holes wherever you please but can be much more expensive.
3. Claw hammer
No worker should be without this tool. Since early humans tied a rock to a stick and changed the course of history, the claw hammer has proved its worth time and time again. It has a blunt end for bashing and a claw end for clawing. It couldn’t be simpler. Sturdy, strong, and will last a lifetime. Nail-guns are faster if you like that sort of thing but is there any better feeling than sinking a nail in two clean hits?
4. Hand saw
A staple tool that everybody should own. Even if you have a full arsenal of power-saws at your disposal, having a hand saw in the van or workshop is essential. It should be your first port of call with any small cutting job. Cuts wood.
Don’t forget to hold it properly: index finger should point down the saw blade.
An essential tool in anybody’s home, workshop or van. The hacksaw is a tremendously useful and powerful cutting tool. It earns its place in the top fifty tools because, with the right blade, it can pretty much cut through anything. The frame is sturdy and strong and their interchangeable blades are easy to fit and replace. Choosing a toughened steel blade with fine teeth (between 18-32 TPI) will allow you to cut through iron, steel, hard plastics, and even ceramic tiles.
There’s very little this tool can’t cut, so investing in a good one will be worth every penny. For more information, see our page: What is a hacksaw?
6. Tape measure
A good quality tape measure is an indispensable tool and any serious DIYer or professional should have one that extends to a minimum of 5 metres. It combines compactness with speed for ease of use and can be attached to a tool belt or clipped to your jeans for quick access. The tape is lightweight but sturdy enough to extend and bridge several feet of open air. If you haven’t got one of these gadgets, get one. You won’t regret it.
7. Step ladder
A good quality, lightweight, easy-to-use step ladder is an essential tool for any professional or DIYer. The best selling size is a seven step 1.5m (5 feet) ladder. This size will allow you to change light bulbs and complete most general purpose jobs without being unwieldy. Most importantly, it will fit in the back of your van. Aluminium varieties are strong and lightweight, ideal for all-purpose use.
8. Impact driver
This is the tool everyone’s talking about. It’s not a hammer drill and it’s not screwdriver. So what is it? An impact driver is able to deliver powerful, sudden rotational and downward force. This gives it high-level torque and better control, allowing you to drive even the longest screws with little effort. With this drill doing all the work you’ll wonder how you ever got by without one.
If you’re driving screws for cabinets, general construction or that DIY project then this is the tool for you. If you do more than some light woodwork then the impact driver should have a permanent home in your collection.
9. Adjustable spanner
You can’t beat an adjustable spanner when it comes to convenience and portability. Does the job of an entire spanner set and weighs in at a fraction of the cost. Can be adjusted to a diameter of your choosing with a flick of your thumb. If you only buy one adjustable spanner choose a model between 10” – 14”. A model this size will be able to deal with most general purpose jobs as well as being able to cope with residential plumbing fittings.
It is advisable to have two adjustable spanners so that you can grip one in a static position and use the other to rotate the nut, reducing the risk of the pipe fitting turning. This is especially useful when removing over-torqued nuts. Be sure to adjust your spanner to the correct width before use, as you may round off the edges of your nut if the spanner is not set or positioned correctly.
10. Spirit level (long and short)
A spirit level is an essential tool for workers of all skill levels and trades. You will need both a short and long spirit level because long levels will not fit into tight spaces, and a short level may not be accurate on bigger projects.
11. Wood chisel set
Wood chisels have long been the favourite tools of many carpenters. They have multiple applications and uses. A good quality chisel set will outlast even the most tenacious worker, and they can always be sharpened if necessary. They range from small chisels for intricate detailing, to wide chisels for removing large areas of wood. They are simple to use and an absolutely indispensable tool.
12. Skeleton gun
The skeleton gun has earned its place on the top 50 essential tools due to its wide range of applications and uses. There are a near-endless amount of attachable and detachable premixed sealants and adhesives available on the market for use with a skeleton gun. They are reasonably cheap and a good quality gun will last you a long time.
13. Stripping knife
Stripping knives are extremely useful tools and have a wide variety of applications. Whether you are using it to jimmy open paint cans or to chip off unwanted plaster, the humble stripping knife is robust enough to tackle tough jobs whilst still being flexible enough to do more delicate jobs such as laying drywall tape. Everybody should have at least one in their toolbox. A simple 40mm (1.5 inches) steel blade is sufficient for most jobs and will be both durable and lightweight. An excellent all-round tool.
14. Combination pliers
Combination pliers is an essential tool for anybody. Suitable for multiple applications and uses. Their heavy jaws and side-shears are perfect for stripping wires, cutting cables, bending metal, and holding pretty much anything you need to hold. Quality high-leverage models will even cut through nails and bolts. They are incredibly strong and practical tools and have earned their place on the top 50 with ease.
15. Extension cable
An extension cable is an absolutely essential tool for all skill levels. Even if you have a plethora of cordless tools at your disposal there always comes a time when an extra plug socket is needed (even if it’s just to plug your radio in). This handy tool gives you extra reach and endless power. Most big jobs will need mains power anyway so invest in a good one with at least four sockets and 50m of reach. 10 gauge contractor’s quality cord is best and will ensure a minimum voltage drop.
16. Oscillating multi-tool
There is no other tool that can do the jobs this tool does with such ease. An oscillating multi-tool has multiple applications and attachments for nearly every job imaginable. One of its many functions (and arguably its best) is the plunge cutter attachment that can cut into and through a thick piece of solid oak in seconds. Because of its design the plunge cutter can start cutting at any given point on a piece of timber allowing the user to quickly, cleanly and accurately cut without wasting time drilling starter holes.
As well as this, the powerful oscillating multi-tool can cut, sand, buff, polish, grind, saw, rasp and even scrape. If you haven’t got one of these yet, get one. They are awesome.
17. Crow bar
A crow bar is an supremely useful and versatile tool. Can be used to pry open pretty much anything, removes panelling with ease when elbow grease is applied. Reasonably cheap, investing in a quality one will stand you in good stead. Should have at least one fissure for removing nails. An all-round useful tool.
18. Square shovel
The wider square blade of the shovel is ideal for scooping debris and rough measuring of materials. The back of the blade can be used to pat down or smooth off. You can also use it to pry plasterboard from walls if demolishing is needed. Strong and durable, if well looked after will last a lifetime.
19. Rabbitting shovel
The rabbiting shovel’s smaller, thinner blade allows you to dig and cut into even the hardest ground. Try doing that with your square-scoop shovel. You can’t. This tool is essential and will make manual digging jobs a breeze. Use your bodyweight and leg muscles to sink the blade into even the hardest earth. Always remember to bend your knees when tossing dirt and lead with your forward hand on the blade socket.
20. Brick bolster chisel
The brick bolster is a specially designed stone chisel used to cut through bricks and other masonry. It has earned its way into the top 50 essential tools by being the quickest, cheapest and simplest tool for splitting bricks. Even if you are not a professional bricklayer, a bolster chisel should still have its place within your toolbox. Its wide, flat and spatulate blade can be used to tap out a narrow groove for chasing, plumbing or electrical lines in block or brick. If you haven’t got one of these yet, get one.
For more information, see our guide to: Brick bolsters
An extremely useful tool with many uses. Buckets come in many shapes, sizes and designs. Most commonly sold in hard plastic varieties. You can pick one up for next to nothing and a good quality one will be tough and durable. You can lug bricks about, mix mortar in it, and carry pretty much anything you want.
22. Retractable trimming knife
This is one of the most useful tools you will ever own. A trimming knife cuts string, duct tape and even plasterboard. If nothing else it will sharpen your pencil. Fits snugly in a pocket or tool belt and can be grasped at a moment’s notice. Their retractable blades are sharp, cheap and easy to replace.
23. Coping saw
A coping saw consists of a simple interchangeable cutting blade set in a “C” shaped frame with handle. You won’t find a better manual saw for cutting intricate shapes and following curved lines. Typically used on workpieces where two sections meet. A blade with a smaller number of teeth will make a rougher but quicker cut. A blade with a higher number of teeth will make a finer but slower cut. For general use a good compromise is to have roughly 15 teeth per inch (TPI) How have you been coping without a coping saw?
For more information, see our page: What is a coping saw?
24. Brush set
A quality set of brushes will put you in good stead for any project involving painting. If you buy a cheap set of brushes you may save a few pounds but you’ll be forever picking stray hairs out of your paintwork.
25. Bench grinder
A grinding wheel may seem a little flamboyant to be on list of essential tools but you won’t regret investing in one. How else are you going to sharpen all your tools? Having tools sharpened professionally can be expensive especially if you have a lot of them. A grinding wheel is a fairly inexpensive tool and it will last you a lifetime. Investing in one now will allow you to keep your chisels and other tools razor sharp and in good condition for the rest of their life.
26. Manual screwdriver
Although hardly anyone on site uses manual screwdrivers anymore, having one or two in your toolbox is definitely recommended. The one we recommend is a Phillips head screwdriver with a shaft measuring at least 300mm (12inches). Sometimes, this is the only way to fit basins as the handles on short ones will clash with your hand against the basin. They are simple to use, lightweight and convenient.
Arguably the greatest tool on this list, there are various applications for its use. Pencils can be stored easily behind an ear or in a top pocket. Carve your initials on it because if you lend it out, it’s likely you’ll never see it again. Ideal for doing the crossword on your tea break!
28. Pad sander
Unless you want to spend valuable hours manually sanding, a hand-held sander is an essential power tool for any worker whether you are a professional or not. It can complete a job in a fraction of the time with minimal effort.
Interchangeable sanding pads of various grit sizes allows you to increase or decrease abrasiveness. It can strip paint, smooth off and shape wood. It is better and cheaper to buy a roll of sandpaper and cut it to size rather than buying the more expensive proprietary sandpaper attachments. A powerful tool that will save you countless hours of labour.
29. Angle grinder
The small (115mm / 4.5") hand-held angle grinder is an extremely useful power tool and should be in everybody’s collection. Used for cutting, grinding and polishing. Various attachments and applications include: diamond blades, wire brushes, sanding discs, polishing pads, and grinding wheels. This can be used to remove excess material from an object or simply for cutting through a workpiece and is incredibly versatile and powerful. It will cut through anything with the right attachment. You’ll wonder how you ever got by without one.
One of the most powerful applications of this tool is its sanding disc attachment. The vigorous abrasive action can cut through solid oak in a matter of seconds.
30. Nail punch set
If you want a neat finish to your projects then there is no better tool that allows you to countersink nails without damaging the surrounding surfaces than a nail punch. Align with your nail head, strike with a hammer and fill the resulting cavity with wood-filler for a seamless finish.
When purchasing a nail set make sure you get one with a concave tip. This concavity helps to keep the punch tip on the end of the nail without it slipping off.
31. Combination square
A combination square is a very useful tool and an absolutely essential piece to have in your collection. It has multiple purposes in woodworking, masonry, and metalworking. Typically it has a ruled blade used for measuring and one or more interchangeable heads that can be affixed to it. It can determine flatness, measure angles and has protractor functions.
32. Laser line level
A laser line level is a very handy tool to own. It is a compact hand-held device which combines the functions of a spirit level and plumb bob with a rotatable laser which displays an accurate vertical or horizontal illuminated line on the surface it is laid against. The built-in spirit level allows you to mark horizontal and vertical lines with accuracy and ease. Never have a wonky shelf again.
We all have our vices. Or do we? If you haven’t got one of these super useful tools then you are at least one tool short of a full compliment. Having a vice is like having an extra set of strong hands. Undoubtedly something we all have needed at one time or another. It can secure nearly any piece of material so that you have both your hands free for cutting, chiselling, sanding, etc.
34. Nail gun
The nail gun has almost completely replaced the humble hammer as a means of driving nails into timber and other materials. The first nail guns were introduced in the 1950s and have quickly taken over as the tool of choice amongst builders, especially when fixing architrave. There are various models available powered by compressed air, electromagnetism, gas, or even small explosive charges. The nail gun is a powerful tool and can increase your work rate tenfold by dispensing up to 200 nails per minute.
35. Bar clamp
Having a few quality bar clamps in the old toolbox is essential to any worker. They are lightweight and perfect for any gluing or holding jobs. They provide those extra pair of hands when they are needed. Rubber grips allow you to apply up to 70kg of clamping pressure without marking or damaging your work. They are compact and adjustable, ideal for working in tight or cramped conditions. Bar clamps have a quick squeeze-and-release trigger for fast positioning.
36. Dustpan and brush
All good workers keep a clean and tidy site. It looks great for the customer and lowers the risk of accidents happening. A tidy working environment reflects the care and diligence of the worker. A dustpan and brush is essential for collecting and disposing of waste material. A plastic dustpan and brush may be cheap and cheerful but they are just not robust enough to last very long on a busy site. A metal dustpan is more suitable and although it may get bent and dented it will last much longer.
37. Soft broom
We all know how important it is to keep a clean and tidy working environment. A soft headed broom is needed at home or in the workplace. Fill your customers full of confidence when they see your neatly kept site. A tidy workspace reflects on you as a worker and marks you as a professional who takes care and has pride in your projects. All this can be yours for just a few pounds. Just remember to use it.
38. Circular pipe cutters
This pocket-sized tool should have a special place in every toolbox. A pipe cutter can cut through most piping with ease, and produces a cleaner cut and is easier to use than a hacksaw. Most importantly it is quicker. They are much more useful than the models with handles because they can be used in very tight spaces. Circular pipe cutters are not adjustable so it is recommended that you buy two. One 15mm and one 22mm. These sizes match the most common diameters of copper piping.
For more information, see our page: What is a single-handed pipe cutter?
A good quality blowtorch is well worth the investment and will prove to be an essential tool for any serious worker, with various uses and applications. Typically used on jobs where a high-temperature naked flame is needed but not so hot that combustion or welding is caused, for example: softening old paint for removal from walls, soldering, and brazing. It's worth buying a good blowtorch with a strong narrow flame rather than a cheap blowtorch with a wider flame.
40. Light source or lamp
Working late again? Are the nights getting longer? Get yourself a good quality light source to illuminate your workspace. Lighting is not always available at short notice, especially for outside work. Get a set of lamps to keep the work going.
41. Soldering pad
Soldering pads are traditionally made from asbestos these heatproof mats are now made from fibreglass and other materials due to the toxicity of asbestos fibres. Commonly used in many table-top procedures such as soldering and metalwork and to protect surrounding decoration, wood and workpieces.
42. Workbench or trestle
Workbenches are essential for all types of general purpose manual work and are available in a variety of sizes, materials and designs. They range from simple flat surfaces to complex designs which can be considered tools themselves. They are nearly all rectangular in shape and often have set dimensions to measure flat and square angles. A thoroughly useful item with multiple applications and it also gives you a place to eat your lunch.
The best tool is an efficient tool and there is no tool that beats the humble roller when painting large, flat surfaces. They are easy to use and cheap to buy. Everybody should have at least one of these because they can make even the largest paint job a breeze. The roller heads on most models can be easily removed, washed and replaced. Now all you have to do is agree on a colour.
When buying a roller, make sure you buy one with a screw end that can be used with an extension pole. This will make a big project much easier work. It is well worth spending a few more pennies on a quality one because if your roller doesn't screw on properly then they have a tendency to fall off at the most inappropriate moments.
44. Voltage tester
Every toolbox should have a voltage tester in it. If only because one day it might just save your life. Designed to test objects for electrical voltage. It has an insulated wire typically attached to an LED which lights up if there is a voltage present in the object. You can touch the ends to any part of the circuit to pinpoint breaks or check if you have a full circuit.
45. Mitre saw
Investing in a quality mitre saw is one of the best things you can do whether you are a professional builder, carpenter or just an enthusiastic DIYer. Not only does this tool look cool, it makes cutting through timber an accurate process. It can be set in various positions and is used to make quick, accurate crosscuts in a workpiece. Most models even have a laser to guide your saw for pinpoint accuracy.
46. Extension ladder
The extension ladder is made up of two or more lengths that can be kept together for compact storage or slides apart for full extension. It deals with those jobs a step ladder just can’t handle, like cleaning leaves out the gutters in autumn. Aluminium varieties are strong and lightweight, can be easily stored when in a compact position. A must-have tool for anybody whether they are a professional or a DIYer.
47. Mole grips
Mole grips (otherwise known as locking pliers) are an invaluable tool especially when faced with a nut or bolt that has been “rounded”. They can be adjusted and locked in position for ease of use and are typically used to hold two work-pieces together when welding or joining. Once you have dug around a stuck screw this is the only tool that can get it out.
48. Wood router
A router is one of the most dangerous tools you should have in your collection. If you become confident with this tool then the number of occasions you will find yourself using it expands enormously. From chamfering, cutting out mortise locks and door hinges, to routing down the length of a door; the applications are many. A wood router may be dangerous but it is essential.
49. Metal ruler
As simple a tool this may seem but find yourself without a ruler and you could be in a pickle. Your tape measure is no good for running a pencil along, and your spirit level probably isn’t ruled, so keep a ruler handy for quick measuring and for marking jobs. A metal ruler is best to have as plastic ones have a tendency to snap. Buy one that is at least a metre long.
Last but not least, the toolbox. Toolboxes are always a place of wonderment and endless possibilities. They come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colours for the discerning and fashionable builder. Choose one that is tough and it will hold you in good stead. You can organise, carry and protect your tools from the elements and from accidental damage. Essential for all.