Although working on vehicles isn't rocket science, there are a few different barriers to entry when it comes to repairing and performing basic maintenance items on your car.
Some people don't have a garage to work in (although there's no nothing stopping you from working outside.) Some are overwhelmed and feel they don't possess the knowledge or skill set (not at all a legitimate excuse in the age of YouTube, Google, and model-specific forums.) Lastly though, and perhaps the largest, is the lack of tools and equipment to get started.
For those unaware, tools can get expensive. Really expensive. And while it would take thousands of dollars to replicate the garage of a professional mechanic, I believe that anyone who wants to get into the automotive hobby can build up a solid home toolkit without a whole lot of cash. The key is to focus on two things:
- Only buying essentials.
- Being particular about finding good deals.
You don't need to fill up your garage or have a ton of space. Most car repair jobs require only basic hand tools, and any specialty tools needed can usually be purchased on a "when-you-need-it" basis.
Buying the Essentials... Cheap
Believe it or not, the overwhelming majority of jobs use the exact same tools. Seriously. You'd be shocked at how many engine bays can be disassembled with a screwdriver, pair of pliers, and a 10 millimeter socket. The list I have put together here are what I believe every decent home tool kit should contain.
A word on tool quality: Throughout this article, I will suggest buying some tools and equipment from Harbor Freight. For the uninitiated, Harbor Freight is a tools shop (and website) where you can buy cheap tools. And by cheap, I mean both in price and in quality. Most of the tools there won't hold up long-term. Some will disagree with the idea of buying tools that are knowingly not very good. I would ask those people to keep in mind that the entire point of this article is to get over the myth that you have to be a millionaire to build up a decent garage arsenal. Also, Harbor Freight offers no-questions-asked lifetime warranties on all of their tools, so while the things you buy may not hold up to tons of abuse, you are free to take them back for free replacements at any time.
You need a place to keep all of your tools and keep them nice and organized. I suggest starting out with a simple and portable box. There is no need for one of those giant chests on wheels. Those things are expensive, and you wouldn't even have enough equipment to fill one up.
The best way to acquire a toolbox is to first make sure you or a relative doesn't have a spare lying around. If you have one of those uncles with an infinitely messy garage, you might be able to snag one free if you ask nicely. Otherwise, I'd recommend finding one that comes as a kit with some of the other items on this list included.
Floor Jack and Stands
You won't get very far on most automotive repair jobs without a floor jack. Unless you drive a lifted pickup, you need a way to get under your vehicle, which is hard to do unless you are shockingly short.
When you buy a floor jack, make sure you buy a set of (at least) 2 jack stands. It is not safe to get under a car with just a jack holding it up. Hydraulic floor jacks can fail at any time. Every year people die after being crushed by a car due to a failed jack. There is no excuse for this- jack stands cost $20 and can be found at every Walmart in the country.
A decent place to find a nice used jack is Craigslist. There are usually people that are unloading some of their equipment. Just make sure if you are buying used that you're actually purchasing a decent brand (Craftsman or other "Made in the USA" products are generally decent quality.) If the brand you are buying used is a Walmart or Harbor Freight tools brand, just go to the store and pick up a brand new one with a warranty.
3/8 Ratchet and Metric Socket Set
There's really no point in buying an SAE socket set anymore, at least if you are working on a modern car. Most new cars, even American ones, use metric sockets. If there's one part of this list where you want to spend extra money, this is the place to do it. Cheap sockets will have a noticeable gap in quality, and these are the tools that you are banging on and abusing the most.
Again, I would take a look on Craigslist and try to find a decent used set. Look for Craftsman, Snap-On, Matco, or SK. All of these will hold up pretty well. You can also check out flea markets local to you, there is almost always someone selling used tools.
Set of Screwdrivers
You want a decent mix-and-match set of Flathead and Phillips head screwdrivers of varying lengths and sizes. Feel free to cheap out when it comes to these. I've seen coupons where Harbor Freight will give you a set of screwdrivers free with any purchase. Opt for those if possible. I've owned high-quality screwdrivers and I've owned cheap brands, and can honestly say it's the type of tool where I didn't notice much of a difference.
Whenever you're working on cars, you have to assume that something will go wrong. That's not to say that something always will go wrong, but sometimes it will. And those will be memorable experiences.
One of the most frustrating things that can happen to you is having a stripped (rounded off) bolt. In these cases, it's usually time to break out the vice grips. They are inexpensive enough to purchase that I would just opt for a better-quality brand right off the bat.
Keeping in line with the vice grips in terms of "when things go wrong" is a can of PB Blaster. Chances are if you are working on your car, it is an older vehicle. That means that bolts have been in there a while, and, more than likely, have seized or at least rusted a bit.
I've dealt with a lot of rusted out bolts (especially living in the rust belt.) I can honestly say that PB Blaster is the best bang for your buck in terms of breaking down rust. No way will I go back to using WD-40 in a million years. WD-40 is for the amateurs now.
Oh, plus PB Blaster costs pretty much the same amount of money (less than $10) so there's no excuse not to pick up a can and throw it in your garage. It isn't the best smelling substance in the world... but hey, you can just try and think of that as your new mechanic manly-man smell. No toolbox is complete without it.
Hopefully this helps those of you who want to get started working on cars but feel they don't have the money for it. These tools should really be viewed as an investment, because as we all know, working on cars will save you thousands of dollars in the long run. Not to mention it gives you a chance to learn a new skill, and what's more valuable than investing in your education?