Getting started with DIY

By Dan | Jan 31st, 2021 - 8:04pm

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Building up your DIY tools can be a daunting task to start, there are so many varieties across such a vast price range that it can be overwhelming - browsing through your local hardware shop's website, there is an absolute myriad of different bits of kit. Do you need a dowelling joiner? A reciprocating saw? A rotary drill hammer? A vertical contour grinder? A framing nailer? Only one of those was made up. The good news is that as beginners you will almost certainly not need a big fancy kit and there are so many budget options to get you started! I am going to break down a bunch of tools I think everyone should own, so you know where to start, and then I will take a quick look into the specifics of what you may need as a homeowner. There are of course plenty of things you will need if you want to do some specific projects, perhaps wood or metalwork, but this is focusing on someone who is coming into DIY with a completely empty toolbag and needs to get started.

I have accumulated quite a handful of different tools over the years for all of my different DIYing activities, and as we start planning towards our first home I am really starting to look into the bigger bits and pieces now; my plan to build many things rather than buy is going to see me needing things like jigsaws and routers, plus my garden is going to need a bunch of things that I have only ever borrowed off family over the years. At the tail end of 2020, I did a gift guide for the outdoorsy that also went a bit into tools, so if you are looking more for a gift than setting up yourself with a full ensemble of gear then you may want to give that a look for inspiration.

Buy cheap - pay once

There is an old saying that goes "buy cheap, pay twice", and the logic is simple - if you go for the cheapest option then odds are it will disintegrate before its time and you will be forced to go out and buy again. With that being said, at least when it comes to hobbyist DIY, I actually believe you can use this concept to your advantage so I actually recommend buying the cheapest first, with a caveat. The reason this may be the best approach is that while I consider a lot of the upcoming tools essential, you may only pick them a few times throughout a given year depending on the kind of work you plan to do; even the cheapest of tools are likely to be sturdy enough for the casual usage you are going to put on them and anything more robust may be overkill for what you want. That said, if you want to sink a bit of extra cash into your kit then feel free, and you will be safe in the knowledge that your tools will probably outlast you!

There are, however, three caveats I want to raise with buying cheaper tools. The first one is pretty obvious but I think I should point it out: If you manage to break a tool within a small window of buying it, do not buy cheap the second time around! You obviously need something a little higher in quality as a replacement around because you have proven the bargain-bucket option isn't really enough for your usage. That said, if you have owned the tool for years before it gave up the ghost, then you can probably buy cheap again, just use your best judgement to decide if you feel you got your money's worth out of it. Secondly, I would say avoid the cheapest option when your safety is involved, or when dealing with potentially dangerous equipment. Please, if you decide you need something like a lathe or table saw to be very careful about going mega cheap, make sure they have all the safety features to protect you from disaster Finally, I would also skip the cheaper option for anything you know you are going to use a lot and that thing has moving parts - a screwdriver set can absolutely be bought cheap as a beginner considering there is nothing to them beyond a bit of metal and a handle, but if you see yourself using a drill or electric screwdriver often then spend a little bit more cash on something a bit more robust as those moving parts are likely to fail fast. As an added note, I have found that on the cheaper cordless options, it tends to be the rechargeable battery that lets me down before anything else, so be aware and if you can tolerate needing a plug nearby at all times maybe just go corded.

For the following I will be including some Amazon affiliate links so you have an idea of what I am talking about, however, I do believe you should comparison shop a little as independent stores and even your high-street cheapo tat shops like Home Bargains, B&Ms or Pound Land often offer a range of perfectly competent starter tools. A huge portion of my tool collection has been built up via this means, and a lot of those tools are still going strong years down the line. Also, if you are buying a house then I am sure you are already drowning in new bills so don't feel like you need to go out and buy one of everything on this list right now, but maybe keep an eye out every time you pop to the shops for these things, as they may turn up on sale from time to time. Always keep an eye on places like Aldi's middle aisle too!

A little bit of something for everyone

So if you are starting out from a completely blank slate, perhaps you are a budding young DIYer, a first-time home-owner or just someone looking for a new hobby and needing to start a collection, then we will start at the absolute basics and hopefully guide you through exactly what you are likely to need. Let me give you a bit of a checklist of things you will absolutely need over the course of general house maintenance:

  • You will need to be able to take stuff apart
  • You will need to be able to put stuff back together

This is the absolute bare basics of DIY, so let's focus on getting those two things ticked off first, then we can delve into other bits - some of the things I consider 'extra' I still really recommend not skipping on, they can really make your life easier in the long run!

Take Stuff Apart

A socket and screwdriver combination set is pretty much the perfect base for any DIY kit and you will certainly be using parts of these sets for most jobs no matter what kind of DIY you intend to do. A good set will typically come with a screwdriver with interchangeable heads or screw bits, ideally with multiple socket wrenches but if not then a 3/8" set with adaptors and a range of both metric and imperial sockets. If you plan to be working on cars, then you will want a greater range of sockets, ideally going all the way to a 1/2" wrench with the largest possible range of sockets plus some deep reach one - this is all about building the kit for the job!

Beyond that, I like to get some extension pieces and a universal joint for those hard-to-reach bits. These kits may be a little pricier to get everything but you can always build up using multiple smaller sets until you have everything you personally need. It should be said if you plan to be working on a lot of electronic devices, things like laptops etc, then a good security screwdriver set may also come in handy as there is nothing like stripping down something only to discover a couple of tri-wing screws to ruin your day...

That alone will go a long way to meeting our first criteria of being able to take things apart, but there are a couple of extra tools you are almost certainly going to need to make your life easier as you disassemble whatever is troubling you that day. Get a set of spanners, a pair of both regular and needle-nose pliers and vice grips to make sure you have all of your bases covered. Firstly, spanners are spanners and almost any set will work but if you can, spring for ratchet spanners to make your life just that much easier - nothing makes taking a battery terminal off of a car easier than a ratchet spanner. Spanners are a must-have, I know to the inexperienced it may seem like a socket set can do every job spanners can (and vice versa), but there are just some places one can reach the other can't, so don't get caught high and dry without both at hand! Same with the pliers, you can do most jobs with just about any pliers but getting a pair of both long-nose or needle-nose and regular pliers are worth grabbing to make sure you have all the tools for every occasion.

Getting it back together

I think that should be enough for your first DIY kit in terms of taking things apart, what about putting things back together? Well, if you got it disassembled without breaking anything then the good news is you should be able to put it back together with what you already have. Otherwise, there aren't a lot of problems that cannot be fixed with either super glue or Duct Tape. There is not too much to say here, always keep some of both around I guarantee you will be using more than you expect - in our modern plastic world I get through so much super glue that I always keep a few multi-packs knocking around. I have used pretty much every brand of every glue and duct tape and can say they are all pretty much the same, so just grab whatever you happen to find on offer.

Otherwise, keeping spare screws, nuts, bolts etc is always a good shout, you never know when one is going to strip or rust away and if you have a clean spare you should always swap it out. This is one of those collections I have built up over time and while you can buy a couple of kits so you have something I guarantee the one you need is never among the ones you have. Pretty much every DIY job I do has me travelling to a local store to grab another bag of different size fixings for the current job. That said, if you would rather have something in storage rather than nothing, it can't hurt to grab a mixed assortment of different sizes and maybe you will cover your bases. I keep a tower of little drawers filled with bits and bobs for every job, plus I reclaim any old screws in good nick because you never know when one will come in handy again.

The other bits you are more than likely to need

So that just about covers the absolute basics, but there are a handful of items I personally use a lot and I would recommend having them around, especially if you are a home-owner. Firstly, ladders are pretty much essential and I guarantee you are going to want them eventually - they aren't necessarily cheap but I'm not sure I'd want to own a seriously cheap set of ladders anyway. Little 3-step ladders may be good for a lot of jobs but eventually, you will want a proper set too. A decent workbench is a really nice thing to have as well, having somewhere that is dedicated for work (and you don't mind getting messy) sure beats cluttering up the dining table - depending on the type of DIY you expect to do, the kind of table you will want will vary, I have a set of the Triton SuperJaws that I just clamp a piece of wood in when I want a more traditional workbench and that works for me, but having something you could potentially mount a vice to in the future is well worth it too.

Hand protection is always a good idea but for the general-purpose jobs its important to strike a balance between hardiness and dexterity. Ever since I got my first pair of Mechanix gloves I swear by them, plenty tough enough for most jobs but I can actually hold screws and bolts without dropping them 30 times and getting sweary. That said, the super lightweight gloves with the grippy front are good for most purposes and are usually incredibly cheap. If nothing else, it's nice to be able to throw a pair of cheap gloves on before a painting session and not have to worry about scrubbing your hands afterwards.

When it comes to finishing your home, you are more than likely going to want to wall-hang some bits and pieces but the last thing you want is a wonky shelf spoiling your wonderful new home. If you are going to wall hang, you are going to want to do it right. Get a stud and wiring detector, so you can mount the heavier stuff safely to the stud and avoid giving yourself a shock as you drill through your mains supply. Of course, you are going to want a spirit level to double-check your work before you start drilling holes. Finally, rawl plugs will come in handy to help keep everything secure for years to come.

Finally, at some point you are going to need a hole drilling, so owning a drill is pretty essential. As long as you aren't going to be spending all of your time trying to drill through masonry, then a reasonably affordable combination drill should see you able to complete most jobs with ease! I don't think I need to convince you much on buying a drill - if you need a hole there aren't many options!

That handful of little bits and pieces will likely see you through a good number of jobs but there will always be more appropriate horses for courses. But there will always be a specific tool for a specific job and we also need to delve into the things you are going to want to keep your house in ship-shape. Let us begin with the one I am currently shopping for at the moment...

Keeping a garden in check

Even if you are an avid tinkerer like me, if you haven't owned a garden before then you haven't had reason to accumulate the tools required. Sadly, the essentials that are needed for keeping a garden in check can be a little pricier but it is important if you want to keep things looking good. While I haven't personally owned a garden yet, I did work for a few years as a gardener/landscaper on the side doing everything from tree removal to completely gutting gardens that had been left unattended for years and let me tell you: you should really get on top of these things before they get on top of you.

First, we will quickly check off the obvious - if you have grass, you will need a mower. There are pretty much three choices in mowers: electric, petrol and ride-on. How you decide between them is pretty simple, look out at your back-garden and answer these questions:

  1. Do you have a smaller patch of garden, one with intricate sections that may be difficult to manoeuvrer around? You want an electric lawnmower.
  2. Do you have a garden with long straight stretches, sections where you can walk and turn easily, and not too much else to the shape of the garden? You can opt for a petrol mower (make sure it's self-propelled!) if you prefer.
  3. When you look at your garden, can you barely see the edges of your lawn as it sprawls out in every direction? You'll want a ride-on mower.

Most folks do not need a ride-on mower, and Petrol mowers are great to just stand behind and hold on as it does the work but they can be heavy and cumbersome so they don't often work well when you have to turn around a lot. Most folks, myself included, will want an electric lawnmower, and usually a small one at that. The lightest ones will generally not have a catching box, which is fine if you don't mind raking afterwards; I absolutely despised raking, especially if the grass was even slightly wet before mowing, so I'll have a catching box.

You will also want a strimmer, in the past, I have got away with skipping strimming on lawns that have perfect edges that link up to slabs, but more often than not you will end up with tatty edges if you have things like flower borders. The odds of you needing much more than a small electric strimmer are pretty slim, as the big petrol-powered ones are more for ripping through brambles than edging a back-garden. Pick one up, and maybe a spare spool of strimmer wire, to keep your lawn looking sharp.

If you have borders to maintain then you will only need a few different tools to keep them in check. Firstly, grab your digging implements: a shovel, a spade and a trowel - they mostly do the same thing, it just depends what size of hole you want (a flat-edged spade can also be used to line the edge of a lawn, for that extra sharp finish). You may want a fork if you plan to replant anytime soon, plus a pair of secateurs and some hardy gloves to keep plants in shape and weeds away; when it comes to gloves for gardening I would recommend going for the big-thick Gauntlets over the more dexterous, but thinner, alternatives - thorns can rip through most of those lighter style gloves. You may not use all of these things all of the time, but they're nice to have and generally can be got for really cheap.

The final piece to general garden maintenance is keeping your trees under control, I have done enough tree removals to know I never want to have to deal with a tall tree again, but if you are the owner of an ever-growing monster then get it under control as soon as possible. Loppers are a good start, try to remove errant branches and keep the top short - you'll want regular and maybe a telescopic pair if the tree is extremely tall. If you have a lot of trees, all trying to reach for the sky, then you may want to consider a reciprocating saw to make your life easier. If your trees are still too tall then removing them might be your only option, to do that safely it is a two-man job and you will likely want an axe or chainsaw to finish it off (depending on the trunk size) - you may just want to price up the cost of a professional as chainsaws can get pricey and are damn scary in inexperienced hands.

Looking after the waterworks

For the most part, you will probably want a professional to sort out your waterworks if you have a pipe burst or some other catastrophic disaster - but if you have a dripping sink drain then you can absolutely sort that kind of thing out yourself and for the most part, you will be able to do it with simple tools. Most pipes can be disassembled and reassembled using vice grips, swan-neck pliers and maybe a monkey wrench and other than that a roll of PTFE should see you through most home jobs.

Beyond the basics

Those are just about all of the bits and pieces I would consider pretty essential in a home, of course, you don't need to go out and buy everything today and there are so many things beyond this list that I could write pages and pages on every possible tool for every job. I haven't even spoken about storing these things, with toolboxes, bags and chests spanning the price range - my only advice would be to avoid plastic where-ever possible! Most plastic toolboxes do not last, even well-known brands will disintegrate the second you put a bit of weight in them. Even silly stuff, like accumulating old bits of clothes and bedsheets so you have covers for when you paint and rags for cleaning when the work is done, is something you will find yourself doing as your little DIY kit grows and you become an artisan of all crafts. Hopefully, you have enough here to keep your house in shape and you can expand into the extra bits as you discover a need for them - happy DIY-ing!

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