DIY for Dummies: A Guide to the Homeowner’s Basic Toolkit

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guy holding way too many tools

That’s not how you use a wrench, silly.

A coworker of mine offered a single piece of advice when I bought my first home. He told me to get ready for the giant sucking sound. That sucking sound, he said, is the sound of your money being pulled from your wallet at high speed as household repairs and improvements start adding up.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Ok, well… it does.

But you can definitely mitigate some of the costs by doing some of the work yourself. If you’re new to DIY, though, this can be extremely daunting. If someone suggests using a hammer and that makes you feel uncomfortable, then you are in the right place. This is not a guide for doing simple repairs or laying a bamboo floor (though, if you’re interested in that, we can certainly help there, too).

This is the guide before the simple repairs guide. This is a guide for figuring how what tools you need and how to use each one.

We’ll cover these basics today: hammer, screwdrivers, wrench, drill, and tape measure.

The hammer

The hammer is a basic tool in any DIYers toolbox. It can be used for hammering nails, banging doors into alignment, prying things apart, or forcing neighbors to turn down their music. A hammer is an incredibly simple tool. The hammer you see below is known as a claw hammer, but most people call it a “hammer… you know… just a regular hammer.”

For our purposes, we don’t care about the names of most of the parts. Regardless, it’s helpful to have the information.

hammer with parts labeled

This is a claw hammer. Most people call it a hammer.

To use the hammer properly, it’s important to hold it correctly. You want to hold it near the end of the grip, and tightly enough so that swinging it won’t cause grave danger to nearby people, pets, or windows. Needless to say, you’ll also want to make sure that your face is far enough away that you don’t stick the claw into your cheek.

In order to drive a nail, hold the nail to the surface you’re going to drive it into. Do this carefully with your weak hand (I’m right-handed, so I hold nails with my left hand). Tap the nail softly with the hammer to get it started, then harder to drive it. Once the nail is about halfway in, remove your weak hand so you don’t crush your thumb and drive the nail home.

The trick to doing this effectively is to let the weight of the hammer do the work. The weight is the claw so that it will naturally swing forcefully.

If the nail gets bent, stop! If you can’t easily straighten it, just pull it out and start again with a new nail in the same hole. The second one should be much easier.

The screwdriver

Another necessary tool in any homeowners toolbox is the screwdriver. This is a tool that, unfortunately, you can’t just have one of. They come in a variety of sizes and shapes. I have not had an opportunity to count mine, but I’m guessing that I have about 15 hand screwdrivers, 4 adjustable hand screwdrivers, and two drills that allow for a variety of interchangeable sizes. I use most of them.

However, I would suggest for a new homeowner to go to your local Home Depot, Lowes, Menards, or other hardware store, and buy a $10-20 basic set. It will come with four to six different screwdrivers that will cover the majority of your needs.

The two most common types are flathead and Phillips. You’ll definitely need a few of each. Flatheads, to me, are maddening. Flathead screwdrivers slip out of the screws, and it’s nearly impossible to use an electric screwdriver on them, unless you have the steady hands usually not seen outside of brain surgeons and major league shortstops. Regardless, though, you have to be ready, because sometimes you’ll need to deal with flathead screws. Life is just that way sometimes.

parts of the screwdriver

The one on the top is weird. It probably has a different name, but I’m sticking with weird. The one on the bottom looks like it came out of a robot sex-ed book. Basically, let’s just focus on the one in the middle.

To use a screwdriver, the simplest rule to remember is this: righty-tighty, lefty-loosy. If you want to tighten a screw, you turn it right (clockwise). If you want to loosen it, it goes left (counter-clockwise). Easy.

To hold a screwdriver properly, I like to grip it like a big radio knob. At the back of the handle, grip it with your thumb and several fingers (depending on the size, your fingers, and what’s comfortable), and turn either right or left. If it sticks, you may have to apply pressure inwards. Even if you’re taking the screw out, you’ll apply pressure in towards the board. Trust me.

If the screwdriver starts to slip, either try a different size or stop. If it starts to slip too much, you can hurt yourself or damage the screw. Either way is a headache. If this happens, move right on along to the next tool…

The wrench

There are more types of wrenches than there are types of screwdrivers. There Allen wrenches, crescent wrenches, socket wrenches, monkey wrenches, open ended wrenches, adjustable wrenches, and on and on and on. Today, though, let’s just look at one simple wrench: the crescent wrench.

crescent wrench

This is a crescent wrench. That spinny thing in the middle spins. That’s what makes it spinny.

creepy crescent wrench

This crescent wrench, I would imagine, is used primarily to scare small children.

The crescent wrench is never the perfect tool for a job. Its usefulness is due to the fact that, while it’s never perfect, it very often can get the job done. I think of it as a fifth infielder. He’s not fast, not great with a glove, and not great at the plate, but he can fill in at all four infield positions, can play outfield if he has to, and can pinch-hit or pinch-run if needed. You wouldn’t build a team around him, but you also wouldn’t build a team without him. He’s a crescent wrench.

The crescent wrenches’ usefulness is due to its adjustability. That little spiral in the center allows you to control the width of the mouth of the wrench, which means that it can fit a variety of nut sizes. You’ll want to use a wrench when you need to turn something that you can’t get a tight enough grip on. Think of it like trying to open a jar of pickles, but on a smaller scale, and you have the right idea.

To use the wrench properly, you’ll want to widen the mouth as far as it will go using the spiral in the center. Then, place it around the nut and tighten it until it fits snugly and squarely. For more difficult nuts, you’ll need to tighten the wrench more. For looser ones, not as much.

Then, simply pull the wrench counter-clockwise to loosen. If you get to a spot where you can’t go around any further, slide the wrench off the nut, and then slide it back on in a place where you have better leverage. Repeat until you are ready to just abandon the entire project. Just after that moment, you’ll be finished.

Pro tip: at some point, you may get to a spot where you can just loosen it with your fingers. This is almost always faster. Go for it.

The tape measure

This tool is the simplest of the bunch. It’s a ruler that’s been rolled up into a metal or plastic housing. At the end is a metal catch that you can use to hold one end of the tape on the edge of the cabinet or wall or whatever you’re measuring. On the housing is a switch that locks the tape so it doesn’t roll back up on you.

tape measure

His parents call him Maxwell. His teachers call him Max. His so-called “friends” call him… well… look for yourself.

Along the tape, you’ll find markings for each inch and fractions of an inch. Usually, you should be able to find markings at the foot, inch, half-inch, quarter-inch, eighth-of-an-inch, and possibly at the sixteenth-of-an-inch intervals. On the other side, you may find markings for meters, centimeters, and millimeters, or you may find another set of foot/inch markings.

One tip to measuring: if you’re going to be marking a measurement, use an arrow rather than a line. If you draw an arrow with the point at the measurement, you’ll be sure to get a good measurement.

The drill

Drills are the workhorse of most home workshops. Modern drills are so powerful and adaptable that they can be used for a seemingly endless variety of tasks. You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on a good one, either. You can get a reasonable entry-level battery-powered screw gun for about $50-60. Good ones are worth their weight in gold, so the money will be well spent. Avoid the little dinky ones that have adjustable or straight handles. You want the one shaped like a big handgun with a battery pack at the bottom. Trust me.

Most homeowners use these guns for just about everything. I use mine as a drill, screwdriver, hole-borer, sander, and more. I’ve even used it very, very briefly as a flashlight, since mine has an LED light on the end. (When I say briefly, I mean less than thirty seconds.)

screw gun with labeled parts

This is a screwgun. It’s also called a drill. At my house, we call it “Thor: God of Thunder.”

Since they’re powered, you need to be careful that you know how to use the drill. Each one is different, but most of them have these features in common:

  • Trigger switch (5): you hold it like a handgun, and pull the trigger to start the bit spinning. The tighter you pull the trigger, the faster the bit spins.
  • Forward/reverse switch (3): often located behind or above the trigger, this determines which direction the bit spins. The arrow pointing forward drives screws or bits inwards, and the arrow pointing out does the opposite. There is usually a dead zone in the middle to keep the trigger from pulling at all.
  • Adjustable clutch (4): this surrounds the drill behind the bit, and is operated by spinning the entire ring around the drill. The clutch determines the threshold where the bit stops spinning. In other words, if you’re screwing in a screw and it gets too tough, the clutch will determine if the bit tries to keep spinning or not. This is useful to make sure that you don’t ruin drill bits, screw heads, or delicate woodwork. For simplicity’s sake, you may choose to leave it on the picture of the drill bit. This gives you the greatest chance for doing damage, but also increases the chance of successfully driving the screw or bit.
  • Speed switch (2): this is usually located on top of the gun and is either labeled with numbers or letters. There are usually only two options (1 and 2, or A and B). 1 or A is the less powerful setting. Trust me and leave it on 1 or A.
  • Chuck (1): this is located basically right around the bit itself and you’ll use it to install and remove bits

So, how do you use these heavily adaptable DIY monsters? They’re actually simple. The most difficult part is getting the bit in and out, so here’s a little primer:

  1. Figure out what kind of bit you need (screwdriver, drill, sander, etc.) and locate the shank of the bit (the shank is the end that will go into the drill). If it’s circular, it’s easy as pie. If it’s hexagonal, it’s still easy, but you have to pay a little more attention. Drill bits are usually round, while screwdrivers are usually hexagonal.
  2. Loosen the chuck of the drill. To do this:
    1. Make sure that the forward/reverse switch is in the reverse position
    2. Hold the drill in your strong hand like you’re ready to shoot something.
    3. Then, with your weak hand (for me, my left), grip the chuck from underneath. Basically, you’re looking like Al Capone about to knock off a rival with a Tommy gun. You’ll may need to grip the chuck pretty tightly.
    4. Lightly squeeze the trigger and keep holding the chuck in place. It should get harder to hold at first, then get much easier. You may need to squeeze the trigger a bit more if it’s too tight. You should see the end of the drill open up.
  3. Flip the direction switch to the forward position.
  4. Using your weak hand, hold the bit between your first finger and thumb and insert it into the chuck. Continue to hold the bit, and grasp the chuck with the rest of your hand.
  5. Gently squeeze the trigger and continue to grip the chuck and the bit. When the bit is grasped by the chuck, you no longer have to hold the bit (which is good, because this is when it can start to hurt!). Tighten the chuck a little more and you’re ready to roll.
  6. Screw, drill, sand, scare neighborhood children.

When you need to switch the bit, just follow the directions one more time. The only difference this time is that when you loosen the chuck, you’ll have to take out the first bit. With a little practice, you should be able to do this very, very quickly. When I only have one of my drills available but I need to alternate bits (possibly because I’m pre-drilling a hole, then driving a screw in), I can swap the bits out in seconds. You may never need to be that fast, but that should show you how simple it is.

The wrap

So, what does this mean for you? Off the top of my head, it means that you made it through nearly 2400 words, and hopefully you learned a few things. For many repairs around the house, a basic understanding of these five tools is all that you need.


Ken is the Director of Content and Promotions for the Online Self Storage Directory blog. He loves the St. Louis Cardinals, obscure historical trivia, and the incredible beards on Civil War generals.