1 Safety Glasses
Used to protect your sensitive and precious eyes from flying debris. Good safety glasses have side shields and should be rated for high impact with an ANSI Z87 stamped on the frame. If you wear glasses, consider getting a pair of Z87 rated goggles that will fit over your glasses. I look for a pair that fits tight to my face and won’t fall off when I’m looking down at materials. They should be comfortable and properly fit around your ears. I personally like to wear Oakley’s that have a Z87 rating or better. They fit tight to my face to keep out the dust and accommodate my need for a prescription. Just be sure they have the Z87 or better rating.
2 Tape Measure
I can’t think of a construction project that is done without a tape measure. It’s the most important tool in your tool box besides your PPE or personal protective equipment. It gets used for every project, so get a good one. Not all tape measures are created equal. I like the Fat Max by Stanley for many reasons. The body is a durable plastic that will handle major abuse like drops. The blade is wide for a long reach from user to helper without getting off your ladders. The markings are easy to read. The hook has three rivets and also retracts itself into the body when dropped to prevent damage that could throw off its calibration. That is really important if you want the tape measure to read accurately. If you only have one tape, I like the 16’ because it does most jobs and feels good in my hand. Most construction materials are only 16’ or smaller so anything longer is often unnecessary. If you’re going to be a professional house framer you may want a longer one. Consider what you will use it for and play with the different tapes before making your purchase. It’s important to have fun with these technical decisions.
3 Screw Driver
A comfortable screwdriver that properly fits all of your fasteners is important. I like the Klein 10 in 1 screwdriver. It has a feeling of quality from the handle to the bits. This screw driver has a textured rubber handle to help prevent electrical shock and provide a good grip. I like to add a non-metallic sleeve from a piece of Romex (house wiring) to the shaft to add electrical protection. The shaft is made with quality steel to ensure strength and durability. The bits are interchangeable to fit whatever size or shape fastener you have. The Klein screwdriver also has a lifetime warranty against defects. As a professional contractor, I personally carry a set of individually insulated Klein drivers but the 10 in 1 is a great screwdriver for a minimalist or a light weight tool box. I keep this one in all of my emergency and backup kits.
4 Utility Knife
There are many utility knives on the market however you will only find one in my tool box. A knife is an important tool for scoring, marking, cutting, and sharping my pencils. The Stanley utility knife is made of metal, so it is sturdy and durable. It is 6 inches long with a 3 position retractable blade. There is a swing out storage unit that holds up to 10 replacement blades. If you can remember to keep it loaded, you will actually have sharp replacement blades when you need them. Like pencils, utility blades always seem to be astray on jobsites. The blades are easy to switch without the need for any other tools because of the yellow quick release button. Another feature of this knife is a built in string cutter that can be used with the blade retracted. I would recommend this utility knife because it is a great value and extremely functional. It is compact, durable, easy to use, and it will keep your extra blades organized and out of the way. It’s an all-around quality tool that could last a lifetime.
5 Finish hammer
Every carpenter has a hammer or several. I have a drawer full of them, which I have collected over the years. I like to try all of the new designs and features to keep up with innovative tool technology. Some of them have unique handle designs to supposedly improve performance while others just look cool. Despite my collection of hammers, I only use three of them when it comes time to get things done. If I could only have one of the three with me, it would be my Estwing 20oz straight claw finish hammer for versatility. Although I like to have a finish, framing and sledge hammer, I could do all of my hammering with a 20oz finish if I had to. My framing hammer is only good for framing and demo because it leaves marks on the surface of the wood that would make it bad for finish work. A sledge is too heavy for small tasks and does not have a claw for straightening or pulling nails. I know most people use nail guns these days but a hammer is still important. If for nothing else, it helps to persuade materials to fit in its place. Because a tiny house is built on a trailer, you don’t need to drive any stakes for concrete forms nor will you need to drive many nails until you start the finish work or picture hanging. Tiny houses are typically screwed together for better durability when traveling down the road. However, a hammer will still be needed to make things fit and line things up. The claw is often used for leverage and prying or holding things in place. I also like to attach things like plywood with nails to hold it in place, then I go back and set all my screws. The side or cheek of my Estwing also drives my chisels. And of course, when all else fails and you need to rip something apart and start over, to do it right, my hammer is there.
So why an Estwing finish hammer? I like my Estwing because it is incredibly durable with a solid one piece steel body. I never have to worry about the head coming off the handle which could cause an injury. The rubber grip feels good and absorbs most of the shock like a wooden handle with better durability. I’ve even use the rubber side as a mallet in a pinch. The straight claw is better for pulling nails in most situations then the curved claw and is available in a 20oz instead of 16 which I feel is to light for me. It’s also made in the USA so I feel good about the purchase. Cheap hammer steel can shatter in your face on impact so buy quality. The Estwing is one of those tools that will last you a lifetime.
6 Hand Saw
I like power saws as much as anyone, but sometimes a hand saw is faster and easier to use. During a woodworking class in college, I came across a Japanese style hand saw called a Ryoba and fell in love with it. I haven’t used a western style saw since. The Japanese saw cuts on the pull stroke instead of the push stroke. This is important because it prevents the tendency for the blade to bind when cutting under pressure. It also allows for a thinner blade that waists less material so sawing is easier and faster. The blades are also replaceable so you don’t need to become a master sharpener and spend hours laboring over your saw. The Vaughan 10” double edged pull saw is my favorite one. It has a durable handle that can be taken off for easy storage in a tiny tool box and it’s made in Japan. I use mine for many applications including, typical wood cuts, molding and joinery and plastic pipe. It’s also a great tool for trimming door casing to finish floor height after the casing is installed. The flexible blade makes it easy. If you have never used a hand saw, just keep in mind that the big teeth are for rip cuts with the grain direction and the little teeth or for your cross cuts and everything else.
7 Cordless Drill
If you’re going to build a house with screws, then you’re going to need a drill to drive them. There are many drills available today, with many different options such as corded or cordless and keyed chuck or keyless. A Corded drill still has its place in my truck for mixing construction materials like drywall mud and turning large whole saws however, I don’t use it that often. I prefer an ergonomic drill that will help me get the job done without the hassle of finding a power source and tripping over cords. I also like the quick keyless Jacobs chuck found on most cordless drills today. Many drill kits will even come with a second drill called an impact driver which has an even faster quick change chuck but requires the purchase of special bits. Impacts are nice because they keep the torque in the drill not in your joints making it easier to drive those long screws. I can’t say that one set is truly better than all the rest however I will give you a few examples of why I use the Makita over other brands and let you test them for yourself. My Makita set is durable, compact, lightweight and fits well in my hands. It has a handy LED light for dark places like the inside of cabinets. The drill has a ½” chuck that will hold most bits and a hammer mode for concrete work. It has a hook for my tool belt so I can safely climb a ladder with both hands. The batteries charge quick and last a long time. I only buy the blue or green kits not white because they come with bigger batteries and sometimes better chargers. Because batteries are really expensive, they are an important factor if buying cordless. Look at the amps and number of life cycles if you can find it. Also consider what other tools you many want to have run on batteries. You will save time and money if all of you cordless tools use the same batteries and chargers; especially when it comes time to start replacing them. I really like Makita’s cordless circular saw which I will talk about as tool 12. If you like keeping your tools in cases, compare them. Just remember you will need a good set of drill bits and screw bits to really use the tool. If you buy used, be sure to check the condition of the batteries. They may not hold a good charge. I am currently keeping my eye on the new Ridgid lineup as they also seem to make a good drill with some cool features such as a battery level indicator and lifetime warrantee. Call around, a good tool supplier will let you test and compare floor models before you buy.
there is no question that Stabila makes some of the best levels in the world however, for the money I like to use my little 12 inch True Blue Magnetic Empire. It’s more than accurate enough for most construction and can be taped to a long straight board for more accuracy when needed. Its 12” long so it can read proper slope for things like drain pipes. It has a magnet and v grove for convenience. Last, it durable and American made. I have a set of pricey Stabila levels but always keep my True Blue handy. I even keep an extra one at home on the fridge for checking pictures after the occasional California quake.
In college I had a really nice set of new Lee Nelson chisels that got stolen with many other tools from my truck two weeks after I purchased them for a college hand tools class. I was temporarily heartbroken but blessed. My professors and a few students got together and compiled a collection of unused tools to replace gear. One of the donation was a set of 4 old Marples or Blue Chip Chisels from a retired gentlemen named Jim who used my misfortune as an excuse to buy a nicer set. I figured I would use them to get through college and someday replace them. That was almost 10 years ago. My hand me down chisels have been very functional. They have high impact square blue plastic handles, radiused for a comfortable grip. I have cut one of them to make a shorter chisel for butt or hinge work. The steel has a beveled edge for joinery like dovetails and tight spaces. The metal is a good carbon steel, hardened and tempered along the full length of the blade. I will admit that I have spent lots of time honing and sharpening to make my chisels work the way they do however, they hold the edge well and they would be relatively inexpensive to replace. If you buy Marples, try to find a set that is stamped Marples not Irwine and make sure the steel if from England not China. You will find your chisels come in handy with doing the finish work around your house like hanging the doors. If you are looking to buy a set, the small set of 4 will get the job done. You may also want to look at butt chisels by VERITAS. They will need less work out of the box to be really functional.
10 Adjustable Wrench
There is no real substitute for a quality set of wrenches. I grow up working on airplane engines with my dad. He not only had a wrench for every size but a second one of the same size that was modified for a particular application. With construction, its nearly imposable to have every tool with you all the time. For the few foundation bolts or plumbing valves one needs to encounter, an adjustable wrench or two can get it done. I keep two sizes with me on most jobs, a 12” and 6”. I like the Crescent because it is made of quality heat treated alloy for extra strength with a nickel chrome plated finish to minimize rust. It’s made in the USA. It has a wide capacity jaw and can be found with a nice cushion grip. Because of the slop in the jaw, just remember to snug the worm gear every time before you put torque on it. This will prevent smashed knuckles and rounding the edges of nuts and bolts rendering them garbage.
When it comes time to do the finish work, a file or rasp is a must have to round over the edges, fit a coping joint and prevent splinters or burrs on the ends of your boards. A round shaped rasp can also be handy for shaping wood. A simple 4 in 1 rasp and file can get most jobs done with building a tiny house. It has a flat side and round side for different situations as well as large rasp teeth for woodwork and smooth file teeth for metal. In my tool bag I carry two files. One is the all purpose 4 in 1 and the other is a Japanese Shinto. A Shinto is made of band saw blades and never clogs from to much wood between the teeth. It also cuts really fast. It’s not good for a smooth edge or deburring but its great for fast shaping and rounding over edges. If you get an older style file with a sharp pointed tang, be sure to use it with a handle so you don’t risk a puncture wound. It’s also nice to have a wire brush around to clean the teeth of fine files if they clog.
12 Circular Saw
Time is always a consideration with building a house. The faster you get it done, the less likely you will be working in bad weather or losing money. A good circular saw can save lots of time. I still use my corded worm drive Bosch circular saw for big jobs when I have a dedicated cutting area however I love my cordless. I’ve used many cordless saws and most of them lack power or performance. My Makita will cut plywood and 2×4’s with ease and accuracy. The flat, square foot makes it really easy to be precise. It’s good for right and left hands and does not feel like a workout. My younger female students all master this saw with ease. It’s really well designed. I also like the fact that it is easy to control if placed into a bind. This reduces many kickbacks and prevents injuries. For this reason alone, I only use these in my classroom. Things to consider would be the blade size; how common are they and how easy is it to replace if damaged. Also, if you have cordless tools try and make them all match so when the batteries die, you’re not waiting for them to charge. This is another reason I only use Makita.
A large flat carpenters pencil will not roll away if you drop it on the roof. If sharpened properly, the larger led can also withstand the abuse of rough surfaces found on framing lumber. I always keep a handful ready because they seem to grow legs.
14 Speed Square
A good speed square really speeds you up. It marks roofing angles fast and 90 degrees faster. I look for one with ridges that act like a marking gauge to draw quick lines parallel to the edge of a board. This feature is becoming harder to find. Many people use the speed square with their circular saws as a fence to insure square cuts.
15 Chalk Box
The chalk box is one tool that could still use some improvement. The current features I look for are and easy to open loading door for the powdered chalk, capacity, a long crank arm with an override release and a durable string and body material. Some carpenters will use their box as a plumb bob witch is a weighted tool that hangs from a string and points to a spot directly below the string. I have never found them to be accurate enough for this application. I am more concerned with the line clogging inside the box causing a jam. I am currently using the DeWalt but I just ordered a Tajima to play with. A cheaper box will work but will most likely cause frustration.
16 Adjustable pliers
There are many different plier manufactures on the market however I only use two of them. Channel Lock as industry calls them, makes a blue handled adjustable pliers in many different sizes. Made in USA, it is a lifetime tool. Adjustable pliers are great for plumbing and electrical applications. Unless I need a large or small size for a specific job, I keep a 10” version from Klein with me in my standard kit. They have a good overall jaw capacity of 1-3/4″ and overall length of 10-1/4″ for good leverage. They also have the most ergonomic grip I have ever felt on a set of pliers. It’s a little pricey but worth the investment. I currently have several Klein tools with a similar grip.
17 Needle nose pliers
If you are going to do your own electrical, a pair of needle nose pliers will be needed to reach things your fingers just can’t. They are great for holding and cutting small wire as well as bending the ends into loops. A good pair will not have slop in the joint and should hold up to with proper use. I like the color coated handle as well so I can find it quickly in my bags. They also share the most ergonomic grip I have ever felt on a set of pliers with my adjustable pliers. These are a little pricey but worth the investment. I currently have several Klein tools with a similar grip. Check out the Journeyman Series from Klein.
If you need to squeeze your stapler and hold it down with two hands, you’re working way to hard. Take a look at hammer tackers. Stanley makes a good unit that hardly ever jams. DeWalt also makes a decent one. I think all the others I have tried are a waste of time. Look for a unit that takes T50 sized staples so you can load up at any hardware store in a pinch. A good tacker will help hold down your water and vapor barriers quickly with a free hand to hold them in place.
19 Wire Strippers
A good pair of wire strippers will make you fast and efficient. Many strippers have lots of features to consider. I like Kleins “Long nose muilty purpose tool” because they have built in pliers for grabbing, gauges for solid and stranded wire from 10-22 gauge, screw cutters, and crimpers. They also have a nice cushioned grip. Make sure to get a pair without joint slop and good steel cutters or they won’t work well.
20 Jig Saw
When you need to cut corners “and I don’t mean short cuts” there is only one saw that seems to do it well. A jig saw is the best way to cut curves by hand. I have used many different brands and the only one that seems to hold its place in my tool collection is the Bosch. The Bosch is smooth, efficient and powerful with a really cool easy blade changing system. If you’re into cordless DeWalt, they make a nice jig saw as well but the Bosch is better. Just keep in mind that you may need special blades called “T Shank” for some of the tool free, blade locking systems. If you are comparing cuts from one saw to another, use the same blade and keep the nice side or your material down because the saw blade cuts on the up stroke and may tearout or splinter.
21 Saw Horses
A saw horse is one of those tools that can be super helpful or convenient when you’re using it buts spends lots of it life in storage between bigger jobs. Because I don’t use them for every job, I want my saw horse to pack down and consume little space in my truck or shop. A set of metal saw horses comes in really handy to set up tools like chop saws and keeps material off the ground so you don’t injure your back. The quick adjustable legs adapt to different situations while the metal body holds lots of weight. The metal style can be a real pinch hazard for finger’s so you should wear gloves when setting up and tearing down. I also look for a good handle and straps to hold the legs in when stored or transporting. A piece of plywood with a 1 inch lip screwed to the top is a great addition for clamping and protecting saw blades. You can even use a router or a file to round over the edges so they don’t splinter.
22 Miter Saw
A good miter saw is hard to beat for quick, repeatable accurate cuts on the job. I have used many different saws and currently keep three of them in my shop for students to experience. However, I still think the DeWalt is the best for ease of use with durable components. If you have the space and funds, consider getting a sliding style for larger cuts. I also like the 12” blade for the same reason however 10” blades are far more common and cheaper. This is one tool I would try to buy used or borrow from a friend if you don’t need it often because of the price tag. If you do buy used, plug it in and smell the motor. It should not smell burnt. The saw should also move from side to side with ease. Last; check to see if the blade baring is good. While the saw is unplugged, pull back the guard with one hand and jiggle the blade from side to side with the other. It should fill solid, not sloppy. If your into small stuff a simple no bells or whistle model can be found with a 7 ¼ blade. That is a good common size if you’re going small. Don’t buy a saw with an odd sized blade because you won’t be able to get replacement blades easily. I’m not a fan of Ryobi but they have an ok saw for light use. The new craftsman saws are not accurate so save yourself the trouble. When it comes time to use the saw, read all the safety info that comes with it and get some professional training if you’re not comfortable with it. Remember, Safety First!
23 Table Saw
A table saw is not only one of the most useful tools when looking for production style efficiency but potentially the most dangerous. If you are not totally aware of the hazards and safety mechanisms of this saw, please don’t use it. If you are looking for a complete “get it done” package, a table saw is a must. Things I look for include light weight with easy storage ability. It should be able to rip 24” between the blade and fence. The blade should be a 10” common size with a riving knife for safety. The fence should be easy to adjust and lock in place. The switch should be big and easy to turn on and off. Good dust collection is a plus. On board storage of safety gear is also a plus. I also look for a good place to wind and store the power cord. with smaller models, it’s hard to find a thicker throat plate but that is also nice. I am currently using a Bosch but DeWalts new saw my be competing for its spot. Please read all safety information that comes with your saw and wear your eye protection. SawStop is another brand to look at.
24 Compressor & Nail Gun Kit
When it comes to interior trim, there is no faster way to install it than using a nail gun. I love this little combo kit from Senco because the compressor is very quiet. The hose is garbage but the compressor and nail gun are good. I would replace the hose with a 50’ soft rubber hose. The gun will shoot ½’ to 2” 18 gauge brads and rarely ever jams. I have two of them that have been real workaholics. You may want a larger compressor for other applications such as framing nail guns, or spraying paint but this is a great combo for brad nailers and pin nailers. Please remember to treat it like the loaded gun it is and always wear you safety glasses.
25 Extension Cord
If you’re going to own any power tools, you will need to hang out next to the plug or get an extension. I always look for 12 or 10 gauge cords so I don’t burn out my motors. 25’ is a minimum however 50’ or 100’ is nice to have. A good cord should be grounded with a third prong and flexible. I like to find cords that have a built in light that tells you if the power source is good. Remember to always check your cords for nicks or cuts. If the third prong is missing, you should replace the end before using it to prevent electrical shock. It’s there for your safety.