Overview: Our top automotive tools cast of experts
Doing your own car repairs saves a boatload of money
and gives you bragging rights on Monday morning.
(Yeah, I replaced my crankshaft over the weekend—so
what?) But let's be honest here—you're really in it for
the tools, right?
That's what I thought, so I asked three shop owners,
our auto mechanic field editors and my gearhead
friends to tell you about their favorite tools. As you
might expect, some are pricey. But they're simply the
best tools around.
I've also added all
the special tools I wish
I'd had when I first
started bustin' bolts
(and knuckles). Most
are less than $100.
And you can use them
projects too. There,
isn't that all the justification
you need to buy
Tool 1: David's portable power
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Close-up of battery-powered impact wrench
Blast off any nut or bolt with
a heavy-duty, battery-powered
impact wrench like this 1/2-in.-
drive Snap-on wrench.
David Marofsky and his auto salvage
yard crew spend most of their time
out in the yard yanking major components
out of junk vehicles. So it’s
no surprise that his tool of choice is a
impact wrench. What does
surprise me is that all the
featured in this story routinely
impact wrenches—and not
just when they’re outside.
In fact, David owns several
of these workhorses and
always keeps one near the
hoist. He also owns a few Snap-on 3/8-in.-drive impact wrenches
for working under the hood (No. CT4450A; $422 with one
14.4-volt battery, case and charger).
I never thought I’d see the day when battery power replaced
compressed air. But David raves about the bolt-busting power (a
whopping 620 ft. lb. of breakaway torque) of the CT6850. He
even uses it on large 32-mm axle shaft nuts. “It hasn’t let me down
yet,” he says. If you’re ready for power on the go and in the shop,
check out a battery-powered impact wrench.
Meet a Pro! David Marofsky
David has owned Marco
Auto Parts, an auto salvage
yard, for 10 years.
Tool 2: Kurt's bolt blaster
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Close-up of air ratchet
Zap out nuts
and bolts with
Kurt Spohn shares my
love of tools, so it’s no
surprise that he picked
the same 3/8-in. drive
Snap-on air ratchet I
own. Spending over
$400 on an air ratchet may seem excessive,
but not if you’ve tried this baby. It puts
out 65 ft. lb. of nut-busting torque. That
means you can slip a socket onto a bolt head
and just press the trigger. The FAR7200 will
break it loose and spin it out in seconds.
But be careful when reinstalling nuts and
bolts. Make sure the threads are fully engaged
before you hit the trigger. Because if they’re not,
this ratchet is powerful enough to ram a cross-threaded
bolt all the way home.
Meet a Pro! Kurt Spohn
Kurt owns Action Auto
Repair in Minneapolis.
Tool 3: Paul's bolt spinner
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Close-up of flex-head ratchet
handle of a
it's at a right
angle to the
Paul Selbitschka spends quite a
bit of time under the hood doing
tune-ups and computer diagnostics.
Since I already had nominations for power
tools, I asked him for his favorite hand tool.
He didn’t hesitate for a second. He simply
loves his flex-head ratchet. The ultra-thin
head lets Paul squeeze into tight spaces,
and the flex feature allows him to pivot the
handle to get maximum leverage for loosening
fasteners and spark plugs. The large
plastic handle lets him put more muscle into
the “break.” The ratchet really goes to town
once the bolt is loose. Paul just twirls the
handle 360 degrees and spins the nuts and
bolts out in seconds. It’s a cool tool—one
that belongs in every DIYer’s toolbox, gearhead
Meet a Pro! Paul Selbitschka
Paul owns a Precision Tune
Auto Care shop that specializes
in auto diagnostics.
Tool 4: Rick's super-sensitive listening device
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Wireless stethoscope in action
Track down annoying hard-to-find
noises with a wireless stethoscope.
Clamp the microphones near the
suspects and go for a drive. Then
note which transmitter is capturing
the offending sound.
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Close-up of wireless stethoscope
This wireless stethoscope kit contains four microphones.
Every day, customers ask mechanics to
find and fix strange vehicle noises. Lazy
mechanics just guess at the cause and
replace parts until the noise goes away
(on your dime, of course). But professional
mechanics use a stethoscope. So I
wasn’t surprised that several field editors
picked the automotive stethoscope as
their favorite tool. It’s an invaluable tool.
But it does have one drawback—it can’t
help you find a noise that occurs only
when you’re driving. So some mechanics
(like me) are jumping on the wireless
bandwagon. To find the source of
clunks, thumps and whirs, I
use a wireless stethoscope.
This kit comes with four
transmitters and microphone
clamps, a receiver,
headphones and hook-and-
loop straps. Just
clamp the microphones to
the most likely suspects
in the general
vicinity of the noise. Then take the
vehicle for a spin. Listen to each microphone
until you hear the noise. That’s
If you’ve got an annoying vehicle noise
but aren’t up for buying one of these kits,
find a shop that owns one.
Steelman No. STE97202Wireless Chassis
Ear Kit; $200 from tooldiscounter.com
Tool 5: Three great socket innovations
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Extension bar lock
The locking ring anchors the socket on the extension bar.
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Close-up of locking extension bars
Locking extension bars in 3-, 6- and 10-in. lengths.
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A 20-in. extension bar
Try this extension bar with a 20-in. reach.
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Their short profiles let you reach into awkward spots.
Locking extension bars hold on to sockets
It’s a drag when you pull your ratchet and extension
bar out of a tight spot only to discover that the
socket is still stuck on the bolt head. That’ll
never happen if you use locking extension
bars. Pull back the locking ring, snap on a
socket and let go. The socket is locked on
and will always come out with the
Neiko Pro-Grade Locking
Extension Bar Set (3-, 6-, 10-in.),
about $20 at amazon.com
Save your back with a 20-in. extension bar
I was leaning over the fender and elbow deep
into a tune-up when an old pro suggested this
tool. “Saves your back,” he said as he handed me
a 20-in. extension bar. Now I use it all the time.
Just snap your socket onto the end and ratchet
Kobalt No. 337368, 20-in. Extension,
about $14 at Lowe’s
Flexible sockets get in tight places
With engine compartments more crowded than ever, I find myself reaching
for my flex sockets quite often. They have a much shorter profile than an
ordinary socket and universal joint combo. Yeah, they’re a bit pricey. But
they let you remove and install bolts in really inaccessible places. What’s
that worth to you?
KD Tool No. 80565 10-piece set, 3/8-in. drive, metric,
about $57 at tooldiscounter.com
Tool 6: Big impact wrench busts bolts
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High torque pneumatic wrench
This impact wrench has about twice the torque of ordinary wrenches.
You can buy an inexpensive impact wrench for less than $50, but you’ll
regret it every time you run into a rusted bolt. Instead, pony up about $200 for a
real impact wrench. This new composite impact wrench
from Chicago Pneumatic has all the power you’ll ever
need. Just slap on an impact socket and squeeze
the trigger. Rusted bolts give up the fight
when faced with 922 ft.-lbs. of reverse
torque. That’s almost twice the torque
of ordinary impact wrenches. So buy a
powerful impact wrench. Get the job
done. Go play.
Chicago Pneumatic No. CPT-7748,
about $200 at citrustools.com
Tool 7: Vacuum pump, bleeder, pressure-testing kit
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This multi-use vacuum kit contains parts for many tests and operations.
A hand-operated vacuum pump is simply a “must-have” tool. And
this Mity Vac kit is well built, reasonably priced and comes with all
the attachments you’ll ever need.
Use the vacuum pump to test your vacuum-controlled sensors
and motors. Or find a leaking vacuum line by plugging each
one and applying vacuum. If it holds, it’s good. You can also use
the gauge to find a vacuum leak. Just spray carb cleaner
around the possible leak sites. The gauge will
flutter if you spray a leaking area.
Want to bleed your brakes yourself?
Just attach the fluid transfer bottle and
vinyl tubing to the pump. Next, use the
refill adapters to keep the master cylinder
filled while you suck brake fluid
out of the bleeder screws. Keep
pumping until you see fresh
fluid. You can also use the
pump to flush power-steering
Tool 8: Battery carrier
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Battery carrier in action
This battery carrier adjusts to fit most batteries.
Old car batteries weigh a
ton, and they’re always
wedged in tight. The days of
wrestling one out with your
nice clean hands are over.
Just open the jaws of this
battery carrier, slap it over
the battery, and lift up and
out. Now you can carry the
battery at your side and
away from your clothes.
Then use it to load in a new
battery. Your work’s done—and your shirt lives to see
Kastar B600, $19; amazon.com
Tool 9: Out-of-sight pliers
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Angled needle-nose pliers
Pliers that let you see what you're doing.
OK, so you alreadyown needle-nosepliers. But have youever noticed howyour hand is always in
your line of sight
when you’re trying to
grab small things
with them? Well, so
did the guys who
came up with these
Kiwi pliers. Grab one
of these pliers and go
after clamps, clips
and retainers and still
see what you’re
E-Z Red No. KWP2 2-Piece Kiwi Pliers Set, about $16 at sears.com
Tool 10: Ratchets that protects your knuckles
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Bent-handle flex ratchet
Ordinary ratchets are short, so you need lots of muscle. But longer ratchets don’t fit
well under the hood. GearWrench has the answer. Its bent-handle flexible-head
ratchet lets you get into tight places and still get the leverage you need to break
bolts. The cushioned grip makes it more comfortable, and the bent handle
lets you put even more distance between you and the engine. So
when the bolt breaks loose, your knuckles aren’t in the way. To
sweeten the deal, the three-piece set includes two spark
plug sockets with built-in flexible extensions.
GearWrench No. 81229 3-Piece Set, about $56 at amazon.com
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Reach into tight places with a ratchet extender
When you’re working in areas like engine compartments, sometimes you just can’t get your socket into the tight places. That’s where this Tite-Reach tool comes in handy. Slap your socket onto one end of the extension tool and attach your ratchet to the other end. Then loosen or tighten the “unreachable” bolt.
Tite-Reach extension tools are available for 1/4-in. and 3/8-in.-drive sockets/ratchets and range in price from low for the plastic consumer version to higher for a set of two metal professional versions. Find them at tite-reach.com.
Tool 11: Light up the hood
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Clip-on light in action
This fluorescent light clips onto most car and truck hoods.
Light up the entire
with this clip-on
light. The Underhood
Lite fits car
and truck hoods
from4 ft. to 6 ft. 6 in.
J-hooks snap it onto
the hood of your
vehicle. The hooks
so you can scratch
the scratch worries.
Central Tools No. 13003; $130 from amazon.com
Tool 12: Screwdrivers with hex bolsters
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Put a wrench on the hex bolster for more torque.
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Hex bolster screwdriver set
Slotted and Phillips hex bolster screwdrivers come in various lengths.
You won’t need hex bolsters very often.
But when you really need torque, they
do the trick. (What’s a bolster,
you say? It’s the place where the
shank meets the handle.) Just
slide a wrench down the screwdriver
shaft and onto the bolster. Then push
the screwdriver tip into the screw head
and lean into it while you turn the
screwdriver with the wrench. Your
“lean-in” will keep the screwdriver bit
seated in the head, while the wrench
gives you added leverage.
TEKTON No. 2757 Mechanic’s Screwdriver Set, 8-Piece, about $10 at amazon.com
Tool 13: Hang 'em high air tool holder
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Air tool holder
This air tool holder has a latch to keep the tools secure.
Air tools don’t come with hooks, and they don’t
nest well in drawers. So plunk down 23 bucks on
this locking air tool holder and your life will be complete.
Having second thoughts about that neighbor
you entrust with your house key when you’re away?
Throw your bolt cutters in your suitcase and snap a
padlock on the rack. There, it’s done.
Lisle locking air tool holder, No. 49960; $23 from amazon.com
Tool 14: Quick-change chuck in air hammer
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Simply pull back the collar and slide in a new chisel.
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Air hammer with quick-change chuck
Air hammer set with quick-change chuck
If you’ve ever had to change air
hammer bits, you know what a pain it is
to mess around with the spring retainer.
Forget that. This new air hammer from
Ingersoll Rand comes with a quick-change
chuck and three chisels. Just
pull back the collar and slide in a new
chisel. Then hit the trigger and you’re in
Ingersoll Rand EDGE Series 114GQC Air Hammer, about $50 at Lowe’s
Tool 15: Flexible funnel keeps things clean
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Channel oil to your drain pan from almost any spot with this moldable funnel.
If you do your own oil changes, you
need this formable funnel. It bends,
molds and flexes so you can channel
the oil right into your drain pan.
But it’s not limited to auto repair.
You can use it for plumbing repairs
too. Comes in four sizes. Best of all,
you can flatten it and keep it right in
your toolbox. For more ideas, watch
the manufacturer’s video at formafunnel.com.
PIG Form-A-Funnel No. 18609, about $20 at
Tool 16: Screw pitch gauge
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Close-up of screw pitch gauge
This tool helps you measure both English and metric screw sizes.
You’ve lost a bolt and now
you’re rummaging through
your old bolt collection and
trying every one that looks
like a contender. It turns in a
few threads and then
stops. Darn, you’re trying
to ram an “English” bolt
into a metric
and buy an
gauge. The gauge
reads both metric and
English thread sizes. Every shop owns
one and you should too. Just find the
“leaf” that mates to the threads on the
nut or bolt and read the screw “pitch”
(for metric fasteners) or the teeth per
inch (TPI) for English fasteners. Record
the number and run to the hardware
store, or use the measurement to match
up an old bolt from your collection.
Hanson pitch gauge, No. 12017; $7 from toolsource.com
Tool 17: Disconnect stubborn electrical connectors
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Wire lock-picking tools
Release auto wiring electrical connectors with this pick set.
Many electrical connectors in late-model
vehicles are locked
together with plastic pins and
slides. Going after them with needle-nose pliers can wreck those
“locks.” But you can easily finesse
them out with one of these picks.
They’re also good for snatching
O-rings and hors d’oeuvres.
Pratt-Read No. 82061B Precision
Hook and Pick Set, 4-Piece,
about $10 at amazon.com
Tool 18: Finger ratchet for tight places
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Close-up of finger ratchet
This pint-sized ratchet can get screws out in tight spots.
Carmakers love to install relays and control
boxes in deep, dark places under
your dash, and there’s no way to get big
tools in there to loosen the hex-head
screws. That’s where this 1/4-in.-drive SK Hand Tools
handy. If you
can get your
hand in place,
you can get the
fastener out. The
fine-tooth ratchet mechanism
lets you rotate backward
to get another “bite,”
without turning the screw
back in. You won’t use this
tool often, but when you
need to, it pays for itself.
SK Hand Tools 1/4-in.-drive ratchet, No. 49270; $20 from toolfetch.com
Tool 19: Spark plug pliers prevent boot and wire damage
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Spark plug pliers
Remove spark plug wires without tearing the boot.
Grab hold of plug wires
with pliers and you’ll for
sure damage the boot.
But the padded jaws on
this spark plug boot
pliers let you get a firm
grip on the spark plug
boot without tearing it.
Slide it onto the top
portion of the boot near
the wire and clamp
down. That’ll apply
force to the metal clip
inside the boot. Then
twist and pull. No more
torn boots or wires.
Lisle No. 52990 Spark Plug Pliers, about $11 at amazon.com