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Originally published Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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The 12 tools you really need

Spend $250 or so on a dozen home tools, and you'll have all you need to avoid repeated treks to the hardware store.

The New York Times

I don't love working on my house.

I have a full-time job and a similarly situated wife, four children, two dogs, one cat, various subordinate pets (fish, gecko), a tower of unread books and hobbies that purr at me when I have a free moment.

I also have a 40-year-old, 2,000-square-foot colonial-style home that creaks, leaks and breaks frequently, and because this place protects my family and welcomes my friends, I oblige.

I tackle these jobs with a collection of tools that has diminished in stunning lockstep with my children's ability to reach the toolbox.

The last time I peeked in that box, it contained two vice grips, four ancient standard screwdrivers, a screwdriver with six replaceable bits, two adjustable crescent wrenches, needle-nose pliers, a narrow chisel I didn't buy (I'm not sure where it came from), a spackling knife and one tool I have never seen before and have no idea how to use. My hammer is wherever my children last used it.

Recently, I decided to give my toolbox a makeover, and assembled what I'll call my tool committee. The members: Joe Ball, a vice president of construction operations for Pulte Group, a prolific homebuilder; Ken Stone, director of the Hobby Shop, a playground of sorts for some of the top engineering minds in the world, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Donna Shirey, president of Shirey Contracting and chairwoman of the National Association of Home Builders Remodelers Division.

They didn't agree on everything, but there was near consensus on the major stuff.

The upshot: Spend $250 or so on a dozen tools, and you'll have all you need to avoid repeated treks to the hardware store. It'll cost $253 if you include Shirey's purple spray paint, but more on that later.

To start things off, you need a hammer. In theory, at least, there should be nothing nuanced about this purchase. It's steel, it smashes things, you're good.

But there's also nothing nuanced about the elbow pain you'll feel if you choose a steel-handled hammer for your annual nail-banging jag.

Do yourself a favor and buy a hammer with a hickory or ash handle, since wood absorbs shock instead of delivering it straight to your bones. It'll look beautiful when you hand it off to your grown child, and your arm will be in much better shape to present your gift.

You'll want a hammer with a curved claw for pulling nails, not the straight claw favored by wrecking crews and framers. And you'll want a smooth-face hammer, not corrugated, so you don't permanently crosshatch your door frame (or thumb) when you swing and miss.

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While you're at it, look closely at the hammer's face to make sure it's good and flat. Nails that are hit with an angled or otherwise flawed surface are more likely to bend. (You can go on the cheap, with a $5 hickory-handle hammer from Sears, or spend around $16 on something more refined, like Plumb's 16-ounce Premium Hickory Autograf curved claw hammer.)

A screwdriver purchase can be even more nuanced, if you let it happen. Don't let it happen.

Buy a multihead screwdriver instead, said Stone, of MIT. It should have at least two different size bits for slotted and Phillips screws, as well as Robertson (square) and Torx bits.

My screwdriver is ratcheted, which is easier on the wrist, but that's not essential. Nor is it critical to buy a screwdriver that stores the bits in the handle, but it will save you from buying replacements.

"You can't really see the quality of the steel from looking at it, so buy a good quality set from a reliable source," Stone said. "It doesn't have to be expensive." One option: Stanley's FatMax Ratcheting Multi-Bit Screwdriver, for about $10 (stanleyworks.com).

And those bits you store in your screwdriver? They'll come in handy for the testosterone-boosting, .357 magnum of the tool kit: the cordless drill.

If you have to ask, you don't understand.

But just for the record, toolmakers could charge much more than the $50 going rate for one of these bad boys, and home repair kings would gladly pony up.

Ball, of Pulte Group, actually recommends a cordless hammer drill, which is twice as expensive as a standard drill. "That really opens up the ability of the tool," he said. "And it'll last you a lifetime." One suggestion: the DeWalt ½-inch, 18-volt Cordless Compact Hammerdrill kit, including battery and charger, for around $220 (dewalt.com).

He also recommends a 1-inch-wide, 25-foot-long tape measure, with a lock. You may never need one that wide, but the first time you encounter a high ceiling and your skinny tape measure droops instead of standing straight, you'll pine for one.

In the "things that grab" category, pliers are, of course, critical. Buy a standard pair and needle-nose, and add a pair of 12-inch slip-joint pliers, for times when you need maximum torque or a wide mouth (think pipes). "They're very versatile in general," Stone said. "They'll give you a much wider range of options."

Finally, crown your arsenal with Mole-Grip pliers, commonly known as Vise-Grips.

"If you're trying to turn that faucet that's all frozen up, or if you strip the bolt off a bicycle, you'll need something with some teeth and some leverage," Ball said. "This will do it."

Next, wrenches. You'll need one adjustable wrench and a set of standard and metric wrenches — each with one closed, or "box," end and one open end. (Shirey said she can do without the wrench set: "I like the adjustable one because I don't want too many things in my toolbox.")

A set of socket wrenches — metric and standard — also helps, in the age of unassembled furniture.

Few homeowners or renters will escape their tenure without a shelf-building escapade. You can prevent it from becoming a shelf-building calamity with a level and an electronic stud finder. They're sold as a unit, but you may want to buy them separately if you like the feel and versatility of a two-foot-long level.

If you succeed in building shelves, you may graduate to hanging a door or replacing trim. A foot-long wrecking bar is crucial, especially one with a nicely tapered edge so you can slip it beneath existing wood. "You don't want to go with anything crude for this," Stone said. "Otherwise you can damage the wood around the area you're working on."

Light carpentry jobs will also require a handsaw small enough to fit in your toolbox. Be sure it cuts as you pull (on the "pull stroke," that is) since that's easier than cutting on the push stroke. One popular option is Stanley's FatMax Single-Edge Pull Saw, about $16.

As an untrained owner of a circular saw who has nearly severed a finger more than once, I was swayed by his advice to eschew circular saws in favor of jigsaws. "They're fast, and they can cut straight or in curves," he said. "They're also way safer." He recommended the Bosch JS470E 7-amp jigsaw with a top handle, for about $190 (boschtools.com). Another option is Bosch's 5-amp jigsaw, for around $125.

Toss in a small assortment of screws, drywall fasteners and eight-penny nails, a small notebook (for recording dimensions) and a carpenter's pencil, and you're set.

Except for the spray paint, that is.

Shirey marks her tools with a dash of purple spray paint, so everyone knows whose toolbox they belong in. "Everyone in the family has a different color," she said.

Speaking of which: If you have teenagers, add a combination lock. Give them the combination when you hand them that beautiful old hammer, then invite them over for a shelf-building party.

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