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 for nonautomotive projects too. There, isn’t that all the justification you need to buy more tools?
Tool 1: David’s portable power
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 portable 1/2-in.-drive impact wrench. What does surprise me is that all the professional mechanics featured in this story routinely use battery-powered 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
Close-up of air ratchet
Zap out nuts and bolts with a heavy-duty 3/8-in.-drive air ratchet from Snap-on.
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
Close-up of flex-head ratchet
Bend the handle of a Mac Spinflex ratchet so it’s at a right angle to the head. Then spin the ratchet portion to zip nuts and bolts out.
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 or not.
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
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.
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 your villain.
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
Extension bar lock
The locking ring anchors the socket on the extension bar.
Close-up of locking extension bars
Locking extension bars in 3-, 6- and 10-in. lengths.
A 20-in. extension bar
Try this extension bar with a 20-in. reach.
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 extension bar. 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 away—while standing. 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
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
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 fluids.
Tool 8: Battery carrier
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 another day.
Kastar B600, $19; amazon.com
Tool 9: Out-of-sight pliers
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 doing.
E-Z Red No. KWP2 2-Piece Kiwi Pliers Set, about $16 at sears.com
Tool 10: Ratchets that protects your knuckles
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
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
Clip-on light in action
This fluorescent light clips onto most car and truck hoods.
Light up the entire engine compartment with this clip-on light. The Underhood Lite fits car and truck hoods from4 ft. to 6 ft. 6 in. wide. Spring-loaded J-hooks snap it onto the hood of your vehicle. The hooks are foam-covered, so you can scratch the scratch worries.
Central Tools No. 13003; $130 from amazon.com
Tool 12: Screwdrivers with hex bolsters
Put a wrench on the hex bolster for more torque.
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
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
Simply pull back the collar and slide in a new chisel.
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 business.
Ingersoll Rand EDGE Series 114GQC Air Hammer, about $50 at Lowe’s
Tool 15: Flexible funnel keeps things clean
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 amazon.com
Tool 16: Screw pitch gauge
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 hole. Stop wasting time and buy an inexpensive screw pitch 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
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
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 (1-1/2-in. diameter) finger ratchet comes in 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
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