The Useful Shop

Here’s a fairly definitive statement:  a reasonable life needs a shop. 

At some point, your “stuff” will break.  At somepoint, you’ll simply feel stupid and ineffectual if you can’t do something about it.  I know, some “stuff” can’t be fixed, was made to be thrown away.  But, here’s the thing:  the more you know about the way things work, the more you’ll start buying and keeping things that you can fix.  There’s a bit of circular fulfillment in all of this. 

Besides, taking personal responsibilty for your “stuff” will temper your appetite both for new stuff and, especially, for junk.  You’ll be more careful with what you have and you’ll respect the time (out of your life) that you’ve traded for it.

So, a reasonable life needs a shop.  Large or small, there a few basic tools you’ll need to be able to do the most common maintenance and repair tasks, even if you live in an apartment in the city.

Here are a few steps in the process of tooling up to true “handiman” status: 

A Basic Starter Tool Kit A single tool box with the basic tools needed for most emergency home repairs.  This kit should include a little bit of everything, from a cordless drill and small socket set, to wrenches, pliers, and screw driver.  See a more complete list below. 

Note:  Some handy starter kits are available through Sears, Amazon (See their “Tool Crib“, for instance).  Examples might include:  The Denali 115 Kit  and the Black & Decker Home Project Kit, both sold through Amazon  You’ll need to add to both of these kits, but they’re a decent start.  As always, you get what you pay for.  Choose quality and you won’t regret it.  

A Basic Electrical Repair Kit – A more specialized tool box with the basic tools needed for both home and automotive electrical diagnotics and repair.  This begins with a “multi-meter” and would also include various wire cutters, strippers (not that kind!), and connecters.  See a more complete list below.  (Note:  Again, look for pre-packaged kits to save money.)

A Basic Automotive Kit – Today, unless you’ve managed to keep Dad’s ’63 Comet on the road, most automotive repair is simply beyond the knowledge and skill of the average driver.  Still, you’d be well advised to be able to handle certain basic roadside emergencies (and/or temporary set backs).  At the very least, have a good set of battery jumper cables, a flashlight, and a small set of basic automotive tools such as a small socket and wrench set.  A roll of duct-tape never hurts either.

A variety of “roadside emergency” kits are available at your local big box retailer or, again, on Amazon. 

The Home Shop

The average apartment dweller may have to settle for a tool box or two stored in the hall closet.  For everyone else, it shouldn’t be too difficult to allocate a little space in the garage, the basement, or backyard shed for an actual shop.

Really, this needn’t be any more elaborate than a workbench (or table) where projects can be laid out and dealt with in an organized manner and, perhaps, some shelving where tools and spare parts may be stored. 

The Workbench:  There are quite a few pre-made (usually customer assembeled) models available on the market.  However, anyone aspiring to true handiman status shouldn’t hesitate to slap some 2x4s and plywood together for the basic bench.  (See pictures from my shop below.)  A number of good designs are available on the web, but these are recommended:  

 What Else Do You Need?:  Not much, really, besides the basic tools and a bit of patience and diligence to learn how to fix and/or make things.  Start simple and take the time to study a problem.  Their are a multitude of good DIY resources on the web, although good-old-fashioned repair guides should also be in your library.  Also, take the time to talk with people who know. 

Other improvements:  Oh, maybe some good lighting, a bench-top vice, sanding block and paper, various chisels, clamps, planes, and, oh, you’re in the soup now, because we’ve not even talked about power tools…..  

More Advanced Needs

Covered above are just “the basics”, for those who simply want to be able to handle those projects that, really, just don’t make financial sense to call in a “specialist”.  You’ll find, however, that once bitten by the handiman bug, there’s quite a lot of benefit from the confidence you’ll build.  Soon enough, you might just consider moving on to more advanced capabilities. 

For some, this will include the exploration of new (or dreamed of) hobbies like woodworking, furniture and/or cabinet making, gunsmithing, home improvement and/or construction, car restoration, boat-building, picture framing, bowl-turning, guitar building, etc. 

The choices are limitless, really.  And, frankly, there’s nothing quite like the sense of accomplishment you can get from working with your hands.

Harry Tuttle’s Shop

My shop is evolving as there is time, budget, and need to do so.  Shop time is usually in the winter and there’s usually a back-log of projects to organize, start, finish, or move out of the way.  My shop building is 18′ x 32′ with a small bathroom and 9′ x 10′ storage shed tacked on the back.

You’ll always want more room, so plan well.  My shop has dedicated work benches, cabinets, a central work “island”, outfeed capabilities, wood storage, wood stove, mobile and stationary tools, drop down assembly table, dedictated paint storage, sink, bathroom with shower, and more general storage (with a sorting table).  It’s tight but workable. 

I don’t have the budget (or time so far) to have fitted this out with a lot of fancy gear like a central dust collection system.  Most of the furniture is DIY or salvaged.  Most of the tools are second hand, often self-repaired.  What could have cost more than $10,000 (new) only cost $3,000.  I try to put my money into:  good blades and, when it’s a critical piece of gear, the tool itself.  But, I’m also very patient.  Keep your eyes open at garage sales and on Craigslist and “it will come”.

There’s not a lot that can’t be done in this shop, although a dedicated metal working area might be necessary at some point.  I’ve also added a separate “rough carpentry” workbench/area in the horse barn, which is good place to cob together a chicken coop or dog house, build a fence gate, etc.  If I had the space, a dedicated automotive shop would be nice, but then, I’d have to start on that diesel land cruiser conversion project, finish my sailboat, and who knows what else.  Maybe enough’s, enough.


Suggested Tool Kit Lists

  • The Basic Home Repair Kit: 
    • 16-ounce hammer
    • Torpedo Level
    • Tape measure (12′ is fine for most jobs)
    • Utility knife 
    • Wrenches, various:  crescent, combination, small set box and/or ratchet type
    • Hex Key (Allen wrench) set, English & Metric
    • Pliers, various:  8-inch needle-nose, 8-inch diagonal pliers, 8-inch, 7-locking pliers (“vice-grips”)
    • Wire Cutters
    • Screwdrivers, various flat head, phillips head, combination w/ interchangable heads (square, star, hex, etc.)
    • Hacksaw and spare blades
    • Small handsaw
    • Cordless Drill and spare batteries
    • Nut Drivers & Drill Bits (sold in sets of various sizes)
    • Small 1/4″ socket set, may be added to over time.
  • Basic Carpentry Tools (From the Pennsylvania College of Technology, Residential Builder Program, Student Tool Requirements, Est. Cost $1,200)
    • 1 each Nail apron and/or Tool Belt
    • 1 each Safety glasses
    • 1 pair Hearing protection
    • 1 each Work Shoes (hard sole)
    • 1 each Hard hat (only for outside jobs) 
    • 1 each Tool bag
    • 1 each 25′ Tape Measure
    • 2 each 6″ c-clamps or quick grip clamps
    • 1 each 6 in 1 convertible screwdriver
    • 1 each Vice grip Locking Pliers 10″
    • 1 each 10″ adjustable wrench
    • 1 each Hammer – 16 oz. or 24 oz. straight claw hammer
    • 1 each Speed Square 
    • 1 each Combination square 
    • 1 each Block plane 7″ 
    • 1 each Sliding T bevel 
    • 1 each Spade type wood bit set (3/8″ to 1″)
    • 1 each Countersink ½” 
    • 1 each 2 – 1/8″ hole saw 
    • 1 each Hacksaw 12″
    • 1 each Nailset, 1/32″ and 1/16″ 
    • 1 each General pencil scriber 
    • 1 each Crosscut handsaw, 8 pt. 
    • 1 each Crosscut handsaw, 10 pt. or 12 pt. 
    • 1 each Utility knife – retractable blade w/extra blades 
    • 1 each Chisel set (1/4″, 1/2 “, ¾”, 1″)
    • 1 each Framing square w/rafter table
    • 1 each Chalk line and chalk 
    • 1 each 4 in 1 hand file
    • 1 each 50′ tape measure 
    • 1 each Aviation snips (straight)
    • 1 Set Square buttons 
    • 1 each 24″ level 
    • 1 each Drywall knife – 5″ or 6″ and 10″ or 12″ (Goldblatt, Doyle)
    • 1 each Drywall inside corner trowel
    • 1 each Drywall pan
    • 1 each Hand held drywall sander/pole sander
    • 1 each Drywall keyhole saw
    • 1 each Coping saw with various tooth blades
    • 1 each 7-1/4″ circular saw
    • 1 each 25′ or 50′ extension cord, 16 gauge min.
    • 1 each ¼” or 3/8″ electric/cordless drill and with steel twist high speed drill bit set 1/16″ – ¼”, and speed bore (paddle) bit set 3/8″-1″, and Philips and square drive bits 
    • 1 each Nail puller (Cat’s paw)
    • 1 each Wonder bar & 18″ pry bar
    • 1 each Plumb bob
    • Optional:  Quantity Masonry Tools (Goldblatt or Equal)
      • 1 each 11″ brick trowel
      • 1 each 48″ brass bound mason’s level
      • 1 each Brick hammer – 24 oz.
      • 1 each Jointer – 1/2 x 5/8 convex
      • 1 each Standard brick spacing rule, folding
      • 1 each Masons line – 24 thread – nylon
      • 1 set Line blocks

Note:  See this list of the 50 Best Tools to Own, from Popular Mechanics

Woodworking Shop Tools


Shop Layout & Plans

Other Resources



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