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11 Essential Tools for Carpenters

I've been a carpenter for 40-plus years, but the carpenter tools I use daily haven't changed much from day one. Here's a look at my go-to tools.

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Claw Hammer

I still drive a few nails today, but mainly I use my hammer with a chisel or nail set. A hammer can also be a demolition tool or for making adjustments that take more force than a bare hand can provide. I choose a curved claw model with a steel handle. The size depends on the task, but a 16 oz. Estwing is a good multipurpose hammer.

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Tape Measure

A tape measure is my most used tool. They come in lots of widths and lengths but 25 ft. long and one inch wide works for most jobs. I like the standard slide lock. Don’t be tempted to go cheap — a rigid blade and reliable spring are important. A basic tape measure will show 16-in. centers plus feet and inches down to a 1/16th inch. More information than that can just be confusing. This Stanley tape measure is a solid option.

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I own chisels from 1/4 to 1-1/4 wide but I carry one 3/4 wide every day, such as this Stanley chisel. A chisel is a cutting tool, but at times I’ve used mine as a pry bar, putty knife and paint can opener. I buy middle-of-the-road quality but make sure it has a metal cap for when you need to hit it with a hammer.

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Combination Square

This IRWIN combination square is a multipurpose tool. It marks the most common cuts, square and 45 degrees. But since it’s adjustable I also use mine as a marking and depth gauge; I always check that a saw is set up to cut square. They come in several sizes but I use one that’s small enough to fit in my nail apron.

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Utility Knife

I still like a utility knife with a retracting blade, not the folding ones. I think simpler is better, so skip the quick-change models. I use my knife for cutting drywall, floorpaper and plastic, shaving wood and pencil sharpening. Always buy high-quality replacement blades. By the way, it’s also my go-to for splinter removal.

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Diagonal Cutting Pliers

These are a mainstay for electricians, but I use mine all the time for removing nails when something goes wrong, repairing cords or on demo work. I use them to grab a nail and work it back and forth until it breaks off, or to just cut a stubborn nail off. They should be eight inches long. Don’t be disappointed — spend the money for a good pair, such as this pair from Klein Tools.

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Nail Set

You almost have to buy these in a set, but the one I carry is 3/32 inch, included in this DeWalt three-piece set. Everyone uses nail guns today, but they aren’t perfect — sometimes you still must set a nail into the wood. I also use it to pop up hinge pins and to mark the starting point for a drill bit. I’ve even used mine to punch a nail through wood on demo work.

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Pry Bar

No one is perfect so occasionally I have to take something apart, and of course there’s always demo work. Most of my work is trim carpentry, so I carry a small, flat bar all the time. The thin edge helps me remove trim with minimal damage. The Red Devil pry bar works pretty well as a scraper, which can be sharpened with a belt sander, and as a putty knife, too.

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Vice Grips

Vice grips aren’t for carpentry, but I use my small vice grips to adjust and repair all sorts of carpentry tools. The five-inch vice grips I keep in my nail apron, like this locking pair from IRWIN, save me a lot of trips to the truck for everything from quick repairs on a nail gun to getting the cap off a glue bottle.

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Sometimes I wear a lot of hats. I might install doorknobs, adjust cabinet hardware, repair a tool and set appliances all in one day. I carry a screwdriver that’s a multipurpose tool. By swapping out or removing tips, this nine-in-one screwdriver covers two sizes of Phillips and straight blade, as well as two nut driver sizes. I like this size tool in particular because it perfectly fits one of the slots in my apron.

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Block Plane

If you do any trim carpentry or finish work, a good block plane is a must. I use mine to fine-tune trim joints, ease sharp edges and remove saw kerfs. A good low-angle block plane will cost almost as much as all your other tools combined, but the cheap ones aren’t worth unwrapping. A good one will last a lifetime if you take care of it.