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Written by Jo Behari and Alison Winfield-Chislett, authors of Hammers and High Heels - An Illustrated Guide to Do-it-Yourself Home Projects.
Before you can launch yourself into your DIY projects, you will need to acquire a basic tool kit and learn a little about the materials you can expect to have to buy and use in the course of doing the projects.
Think of these items as “empower” tools.
Dodgy old blunt tools discarded by others will not instill confidence, so take yourself seriously and gather a basic box of tools that you can add to later. Most tools cost less than a bit of makeup and some cost as much as a pair of shoes but could last a lifetime and save a fortune.
Without tools, you will find it difficult to carry out the simplest tasks. If you are camping, you can cook food with a stick and an open fire, but we all know how much easier it is to cook with a range of utensils and it’s the same with DIY. If you know what tools you have and where they are, you can plan the job and do it whenever you find the time.
When setting up a basic tool kit, buy the best tools you can afford but also acquire the ones you like. More expensive tools tend to perform better than cheaper tools and may last longer, but if you only need a tool for one job and you know you won’t use it again, then it can’t hurt to buy a cheaper version. Learn what each one does by practicing with it before a big project if possible, and by reading its instructions. Trying each tool out and really getting familiar with them will give you more confidence when you use them for real.
Every tool is designed to do a specific job, so if you use a tool in the way it was designed, it will make the job run more smoothly. A sure way to damage a tool is to use it for a job it’s not designed to do.
Think of choosing tools as you would choose a pot—there’s a lot of choice with regard to color, material, and design, but ultimately it just boils water! Good places to browse are catalogs from online tool supply companies to your local mid-sized hardware store.
The advantage of buying from a hardware store or DIY outlet is that you can ask a lot of questions. Ask the assistant to show you how to change a blade on a hacksaw, for instance. Watching someone do it is the best way to learn. Once you know what to look for, you can pick up tools from market stalls and garage sales.
A place for everything and everything in its place. You’re all set to go, but where is that screwdriver and hammer? Start keeping everything together.
Shoeboxes can hold your tools until you expand your collection, and then it can hold all the clips, staples, spare blades, and so on. Good tool storage places include under the stairs, in the bottom of a closet in a special box, or in a trunk doubling as a coffee table. I’m sure that there are any number of places in your home where tools can be stored out of sight.
If you invest in a toolbox, make sure it’s big enough and sturdy enough for you. A toolbox isn’t just great storage, but in a pinch, it can also be used as a mini workbench, and you can stand and sit on it if you don’t have a stepladder around.
A foldable workbench is the right height for working at, will hold your wood tightly while you work, and is a fabulous friend that will keep your furniture from being ruined. There are several lightweight, adjustable, foldable workbenches on the market that fit into the back of a closet. If you can’t find room for a bench, then don’t despair; buy a removable table vice and attach it to a worktop or a table when needed. Use a section of cardboard to protect the surface of the table and make it secure with masking tape.
“Measure twice, cut once” so the saying goes. I’ll add my own tip—measure it again if you have taken a break before cutting it. Also mark the section to be kept and the section to be discarded so that you will know which is which. But in order to measure you need the right tools:
Sixteen-foot (5 m) retractable tape. Try some out in the shop—unroll it and see how long you can unreel it till it “breaks” (bends). The longer the tape, the better and more handy if you are measuring things by yourself. It should have clear readable numbers that you can understand.
Combination square. This is used for marking right angles, perpendicular marks, and 45-degree angles. Look for clear measurements on the straight part. Most have a small pin that unscrews and can be used for scribing (scratching the line to be marked).
Bubble level. Used for checking and marking horizontal and vertical lines. Look for easy-to-read “bubbles,” both horizontal and vertical. Long versions can also be used as a straight edge to cut against. Smaller ones can be used as a plumb line too.
Pencil. Sharpness is the key to accuracy. Ask yourself “What side of the pencil line am I cutting against?” Buy two wide, flat carpenter’s pencils. They are oval in shape so that when you put them down, they don’t roll way. Buy two because a pencil’s main aim in life is to hide from you during a project.
Bradawl. Like a very small screwdriver but used for making a very small hole in wood. This is called a “pilot” hole before drilling a bigger hole. It makes the hole more accurate and well worth the extra step. Look for a comfortable handle—some have a flat head, some have a square rod.
Miter box. This useful device will help guide you to cut small lengths of wood at angles when finishing a wooden floor.
There is an assortment of tools for cutting various materials, so you will need several tools to accomplish the cutting you will do.
Utility knife/all-purpose cutting knife and a set of spare blades. This is an invaluable tool for cutting vinyl tiles and carpet and for scoring lines. It is also brilliant for sharpening pencils. Look for a sturdy well fitting handle; the blade should not rattle when the screw is tightened. Learn how to replace the blade.
Junior hacksaw with a set of replaceable blades. A non-powered option for cutting small pieces of wood, especially if you have to hold it near the edge. Also brilliant for cutting curtain track, plastic pipe, dowel, and carpet strip. It won’t cut anything larger than the distance between the blade and the back.
Look for a fairly comfortable handle. Learn how to change the blade since it becomes blunt eventually, and too much exertion may make the blade snap. It’s OK—this is normal. Practice changing the blade when you aren’t in a hurry—it’s a technique that requires pressure against the saw handle.
Hacksaw and set of replaceable blades. Look for a fairly comfortable handle. Hold the saw firmly and level and stand square on to the work you are cutting.
It helps to keep the cut vertical. Holding your first finger straight against the saw will help to keep it steady.
Electric powered jigsaw. Look for a bigger motor (18v) since the more it will cut through like butter, the less sweat you will produce. Cordless tools make working up a ladder and in the garden more convenient but are heavier. However, working with these will have a beneficial effect on any bingo wings. The speed needs to be variable so you can cut fast for wood and very slow for metal (it gets hot).
The base plate can be adjusted to cut at 45-degree angles so it can cut molding and frames. If it can collect the sawdust then less mess for you to clear up and if it has a laser guide for cutting it’s about perfect.
Get an assortment of blades—a pack of “rough cut,” a pack of “fine cut” and a pack for metal cutting. A set of pliers. Flat nose, round nose, saw nose will be plenty to start. These are extra hands to help hold and cut wire and cable.
Claw hammer. For nailing and removing nails. Look for a firm head and a very fine V in the claw for removing nails. The flat face should be gently rounded to not dent the surface of the wood when driving nails home. Heavy is good. Remember that the weight of a tool can make up for the lack of muscle strength.
Smaller ball/pein hammer. (pein or peen—it’s a metal worker thing . . .). It’s used for starting nails and pins on intricate jobs. Look for lighter but still firmly fixed head.
Nail sets. Steel instrument used for hammering in nails below the surface.
Pincers. Used for removing nails. You can use pincers in one hand and pliers in the other for an effective method of undoing or unscrewing objects— very Edward Scissorhands.
Ratchet screwdriver. Helps keep the screwdriver in the head of the screw, helps to make the turn and doesn’t waste muscle power when turning the screwdriver the other way. The ratchet device operates to both screw and unscrew and can be ‘locked’ to operate as an ordinary screwdriver.
Cordless electric screwdriver. It’s a fab toy. Buy a good one with a long battery life—it will save time and muscle and is vital for Flat-pack Queens.
Set of assorted screwdriver bits. A set will have slot heads, cross heads as well as a hex head to assemble flat-pack furniture fast.
Cordless drill with a “keyless” chuck. The best thing in a girl’s tool kit. It is heavier than a drill with a cord, but fabulously freeing when up a ladder or walking across a room—you won’t need to use an extension cord. Not only will it drill all the holes you will ever need, you can also use it as a really powerful screwdriver, though I recommend that you have an additional cordless screwdriver (see above) if you are planning a big project so you won’t have to change bits from drills to screwdriver heads.
Set of drill bits. The spiral-bladed things that drill the holes are called bits. You need three sets of bits: one for wood, one for metal, and one for concrete/brick.
Buying a complete set of drill bits means you know you have all the sizes you will ever need. The bits will blunt eventually, like pencils, and you can buy replacements individually as you go along. Expensive bits will be worth the money—they are sharper and will last longer. If you don’t want screw heads to rest above the surface, then buy a countersink bit to use after drilling the hole.
Sanding block. Look for ones made from a wood block with felt on one side and a slit for securing the sandpaper. Others are made of hard rubber or cork. A block will ensure that the surface being sanded has constant pressure and is flat.
Sandpaper. The grittiness is measured by number, so 40 is very coarse and 240 is very fine. Buy an assorted pack and keep all the sheets together with the sanding block in a supermarket bag, then you aren’t hunting for the block when you need it. If you are doing a lot of decorating, it’s cheaper to buy sandpaper by the yard/meter from a trade store.
Electric sander. Sheet sanders are easy to use—like using an iron from Mad Max. On some machines, the sandpaper even attaches by VELCRO! Beware the orbital sander, as they are more likely to gouge into the wood and leave bad semicircle memories.
Small mouse sanders are great for getting into small places and look cute too.
Files. Three assorted hand files with handles to smooth wood and metal. Round, triangular, and flat in shape from rough to fine. The midsize crosscut file is called a bastard. Keep a straight face when asking for one in a hardware shop. To keep a straight edge when filing, stand behind the work and use long, smooth, even strokes. Files can be used to make fine adjustments to wood, great when you need to shave a thin area off a shelf or can be used to create channels for cables.
Cold chisel. Not expensive but very empowering. You can remove tiles, flooring, skirting boards, stuff that’s stuck with a cold chisel and a hammer. Often the first tool on a job.
This list isn’t comprehensive, but will enable you to assemble a set of tools to embark on many projects in this book. Beside the tools, there are various must have items that can be used on almost any project.
Cartridge gun. Cheaper and much easier to use than little tubes, the cartridge gun will apply sealant, glue and caulk quickly and with style, making you look and feel like a pro.
Woodwork glue. Also called PVA glue (polyvinyl acetate). Wipe off excess quickly; it’s harder to remove once it dries. Water solvent, PVA is like school glue, so if you get any on your hands you may delight in peeling it away and reveling in school-day memories.
Other glues. Invest in a pack of two-part epoxy glue, a tube of superglue, and some impact adhesive. As you get in the DIY groove you can decide which is the best glue for a job.
Grab adhesive. When you discover grab adhesive, your confidence level will soar. This brilliant stuff is very viscous and very strong. It sticks everything to everything as well, so be careful when using it because you don’t want to stick your clothes to your new shelves.
Can of WD-40. (Water Displacement—40th attempt). The inventor was a persistent guy. This versatile spray repels moisture and loosens things like squeaky doors and helps unstick overtightened joints.
Can of orange-scented goo remover. Great for removing sticky labels and old stickers.
Mineral spirits. For cleaning oil-based paints from brushes and rollers.
Dishwashing liquid. An underrated DIY helper. It acts as a surfactant and dissolves grease on contact. Add a teensy drop to paint where the area is too smooth (glass or shiny metal) to hold.
Baby oil. Great for removing stubborn stains on skin and hard surfaces.
• Insulated screwdrivers and pliers with a thick rubber handle to limit shocks.
• Stud/wire detector to check that you aren’t going to drill into cables.
• Small screwdrivers for connection boxes.
• Wire cutters.
• Rubber-soled shoes. You may thank the earth one day . . .
• Toilet Auger. A metal rod with a curly end for unblocking a toilet. It costs a fraction of what an emergency plumber will charge and may save friendships if you share a place with someone who uses a roll of toilet paper every day.
• PTFE tape. A special tape that works like a washer when fitting plastic pipes. It’s special because it is both slippery and can grip.
• Adjustable spanners. Preferably two so you can use them both for grip.
• A bucket and old rags. No matter how hard you try, there will always be spillage.
• Pipe cutter. A whizzy little tool that easily cuts closet rails and metal curtain rods when not being a plumber’s mate.
• Hole saws for cutting holes for pipework.
• Tile spacers.
• Trowel or spatula to spread adhesive.
• Grout float or spatula.
• Tile cutters. Either hand-held like big scissors or bigger like a paper cutter.
• Nibbler. A type of pincers that will nibble away at a small amount of a tile.