Rich’s Repair Ramblings #1: Basic Hand Tools

We are starting a new series with this post, all entitled “Rich’s Repair Ramblings”. What is this about? Way back during the summer of 2019, I was approached by the editor of The Road Map, which is the newsletter for the NJ Region AACA. He asked me if I would author a monthly technical column to be published in our club newsletter. I agreed to take on the task, and I have been writing the articles ever since.

The Road Map is only distributed electronically and is available without charge and without a password requirement. You can find an archive of all The Road Maps back to 2015 at this link here. For multiple reasons, including my desire to give these articles a more permanent home with easier access, I have decided to reprint them here. For the most part, they combine automotive technical history with some basic DIY instructions; keep in mind my need to be somewhat general, as I am addressing owners of vehicles as disparate as Ford Model As, ’57 Chevy Bel Airs, and Hemi Cudas. I plan to add about one article a week; I hope you enjoy them, and let me know of any comments or questions.



Hello, and welcome to the initial installment of “Rich’s Repair Ramblings”. You may know me as the Region’s Properties Chairperson: the guy who stores and sets up our PA system, tents, and signage. I’ve also dabbled as our unofficial IT assistant, and in that role I’ve traveled to the homes of several members to help with PC and printing issues.

So what qualifies me to write a column about auto repair? What you may not know about me is that I’ve spent almost my entire professional career (41 years and counting) in the automotive business, mostly on the service and technical side. I started as a dealership technician, moved to Service Advisor, and then to Service Manager. After seven years of that, I jumped to the corporate side, spending 23 years employed by Volvo Cars North America, the official importer of those “boxy but safe” cars from Sweden. Since taking early retirement from Volvo, I’ve taught auto technology at a community college, and have spent the past 8 years working for the company that runs the website, where we sell aftermarket car parts and accessories.

While all that was going on, I was also fully immersed in the old car hobby. I’ve owned a 1957 Ford Skyliner, 1967 Dodge Dart GT convertible, 1972 MGB, and 1968 Ford Mustang California Special. My proudest achievement was completing a full restoration on a 1957 BMW Isetta. All of these collector cars had most of their maintenance and repair work done by yours truly, right in my own garage.

Between wrenching for a living and performing restorations as a hobby, I’ve collected quite an accumulation of tools. Let’s start our ramblings on that topic. Presuming that you either want to learn how to work on your own classic cars, or that you want to improve your skill level, you need tools. Most folks have a few screwdrivers, hammers, pliers, and maybe a drill with a bunch of drill bits, along with an adjustable wrench. That might help you fix a loose doorknob or stuck window inside your house, but you’ll need a little more if you want to perform your own fixes on that ’62 Corvette or ’72 Triumph.

Having said that: you do NOT need to own one of every tool you see in Home Depot (or in that Harbor Freight catalog). For basic automotive repair, let’s outline the minimum necessary tools, all of them common and readily available.

Screwdrivers: Most everyone has “flat” screwdrivers, for slotted screw heads. You will want a good assortment of thin and thick tips, and short and long shanks (shafts). Phillips-head (cross-head) fittings are much more common on cars. Phillips-head sizes are noted by number, from small to large: #1, #2, #3. The #2 is the most common, so have a variety of those, including a “stubby” (the first time you need the stubby you’ll thank me). For now, I would hold off on the other sizes.

Phillips screwdrivers top to bottom: #2 stubby, #1, #2, and #3

Wrenches and sockets: If your collector cars are American, you’ll need SAE (inch) sizes; most imported cars use metric-sizes. It’s a rookie mistake to own SAE tools and expect them to work on metric fittings, or vice-versa. Always use the correct size, or risk doing damage to the fitting. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Wrenches: Basic wrenches, whether SAE or metric, are either “box-end” (enclosed) or “open-end”. Box-end are stronger, but can only be used if the box end can slip over the fitting. Open-end are more versatile, but not as strong. My own preference is the combination wrench: box on one end, open on the other, both ends the same size.


My metric wrench collection, arranged (mostly) in size order
  • Sockets: Sockets are attached to a ratchet wrench (more about that shortly). Aside from the nut or bolt size, the square end that snaps onto a ratchet wrench is either ¼”, 3/8”, or ½”. For starting out, stick with the 3/8”. You can add the others later. Sockets are also described as either “6-point” or “12-point”, which refers to the number of edges (points) which fit around the nut or bolt. The 12-points allow you more finesse if making very small turns with a ratchet, but the higher strength of the 6-point sockets make them the preferred choice for automotive work. Finally, there’s “regular” depth and “deep” sockets. Deep sockets give you access to recessed fittings, and are good to have.
Top row: deep sockets, 6-point (L) and 12-point (R). Bottom row: regular sockets, 6-point (L) and 12-point (R)
  • Your starter set should consist of 6-point sockets, 3/8” drive, in both regular and deep sizes. The SAE range should be 3/8” to 1”; the metric range should be 8mm to 24mm.


  • Ratchet wrenches: The drive end is on a ratchet, which allows you to swing the handle in an arc as small as 25 or 30 degrees and rotate the socket. The ratchet also makes quick work of running a fastener on or off. A lever in the head allows you to reverse the ratchet direction between clockwise (tighten) and counter-clockwise (loosen). Get two or three handle lengths in 3/8” drive to match your sockets. The shorter handles are handy in tight quarters. The longer handles give you leverage for stuck fittings.
Ratchet wrenches and corresponding sockets, L to R: 1/4″, 3/8″, 1/2″


  • Extension bars: these fit between the socket and ratchet to give you extra reach. Get several in various lengths; you’ll need them. Be sure the size matches your ratchet and sockets.


Pliers are necessary, but for starters, three or four will do. Besides the standard pair of pliers, get a pair of needle-nose, slip-joint (adjustable opening size), and locking pliers (known by the Vice-Grip brand name).

Pliers (L to R): regular, needle nose, diagonal cutters, locking, and slip-joint

Hammers should include ball-peen (rounded end) and plastic or rubber headed mallets, which deliver blows without marking or denting the surface.

If you’re building a tool collection from scratch, the above list covers over 80% of what you should have on hand for common tools. When shopping, you can look for “mechanic’s starter kits” but be wary of kits which contain tools you may never use. It might cost a bit more, but purchasing a la carte will guarantee that you get what’s on your list, and nothing more. My final comment about tools: quality tools are worth it. It’s a sad waste of money to buy a cheap tool that breaks the second time you use it. You don’t need to buy from Snap-On; Craftsman, Matco, NAPA are good and even some of the big-box brands are not bad. Avoid the “no-name” stuff that’s priced too good to be true, because it is.


All photographs copyright © 2023 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.




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