Every Saturday mechanic needs more tools. Oh yeah, you’ve got the basics in that Craftsman toolbox of yours—the wrenches, pliers, drivers, saws and of course those 17 rolls of duct tape that help you take care of the niggling tasks around the home. But fixing your car, truck, motorcycle or minivan requires some specialized stuff. No, you don’t need to go order everything in the entire Northern Tool and Equipment catalog. But there are a few items that will make that weekend wrenching session on the Ford truck a much easier and more satisfying experience. These top ten might actually make that work seem, dare I say, fun. Now wouldn’t that be a change?
1. Ratcheting Box Wrenches:
Save time, effort and a lot of trips back and forth to the toolbox with a set of ratcheting box wrenches. I prefer the ones with a toggle to let them ratchet both ways, rather than the simple ones you turn over to tighten back up. And most of the time, on the tricky jobs, it’s better to have the box end bent-up a few degrees like it is on the switchable style. The flip-over type are, for obvious reasons, straight.
2. Glass Beading Cabinet:
I use this almost every day for cleaning just about anything down to bare metal. It’s perfect for decarboning cylinder heads, valve faces and pistons. Just a few minutes will remove everything from steel or aluminum without even minutely changing the dimensions. Oh, you don’t rebuild a lot of engines? It’s still handy for stripping paint or removing rust from brackets and hardware. Sometimes I fill the cabinet with glass beads, crushed walnut shells or just sand, depending on how aggressively I need to clean something.
3. Acetylene Torch:
I own five different welding machines. If I only had one to use for the rest of my life, it would be the torch. It’ll cut steel a half-inch thick, or solver solder delicate fittings. I can weld or braze mild steel readily and even preheat and braze cast iron. It’s just so incredibly versatile. Go get one.
They’re not just for checking voltage. I’ve got a couple of them with more scales than a Weight Watchers franchise, and they’re essential for troubleshooting or diagnosing almost anything electrical on a car. Electrical work is classic systems analysis, and a sharp technician can locate a bad connection or a shorted wire fairly quickly. I even carry one on the motorcycle. (Not that there’s ever any problem with the electrical system on my bikes, of course, but sometimes I ride with friends whose bikes need help.)
5. Non-Contact IR Thermometer:
I use one of these constantly. You can check for a partially-plugged radiator, a malfunctioning viscous-coupled fan hub or all sorts of cooling system ills. But I use this device to find misfires—the misfiring cylinder’s exhaust manifold will be cooler than the rest. I keep the thermometer in the console of my truck whenever I’m towing, to check for either dragging brake shoes—which will be hotter than the others—or a lazy brake, which will be colder—and failing or underlubricated wheel bearings on the trailer. And while it’s no substitute for a tire pressure gauge, an underinflated tire will run hotter than the rest. 6. Ball Drivers:
Allen screws are great, but I hate using one of those Swiss Army Knife-style Allen key wrench sets for even the simplest tasks. I prefer a T-handle Allen ball driver—the end of the hex is ground into a semblance of a sphere, which allows the shank of the driver to be held at a substantial angle from straight along the bolt. That’s amazingly handy when you can’t get a straight shot along the bolt’s axis, allowing you to cant the driver as much as 30 degrees and still spin it.
7. Air Ratchets:
Maybe it’s just old age setting in, but my hands hurt too much and I just don’t have the patience to run a handful of bolts in the full couple of inches. So I use an air-powered ratchet. Just be careful, because it’s way too easy to overtighten a smaller (6 or 8mm) fastener with a 3/8-inch air ratchet. I usually use a tidier 1/4-inch ratchet.
8. Plasma Cutter:
It’s literally a disintegrator ray. The jet of blue plasma squirting out of the cutter’s head is ordinary air heated to 15,000 degrees. It’ll cut through virtually any metal and leave an edge that’s clean enough to weld without any other prep, at least if you’re skilled enough. Amazingly, it does this without seriously heating up the piece very much, unlike and acetylene cutting torch. Bonus: there’s no acetylene or oxygen cylinders to buy, rent or shuffle.
These are hard to explain, but oh-so-easy to use. They started in the aircraft industry and wound up being used a lot in race car fabrication, which is where I picked up on them. Imagine a re-usable pop rivet. Just pinch a cleco, in one of several sizes, in a pair of cleco pliers, and its shank shrinks down to allow the end to be inserted into a corresponding hole in a piece of sheet metal—or, actually two pieces of sheet metal about to be riveted together. Release the pliers, and the cleco shortens and expands, drawing the two pieces of sheet together. Why not just rivet the two pieces together and be done with it? A lot of assemblies need to be trial-fitted a number of times, and clecos make that easy. When the parts are ready to assemble, remove one cleco at a time and replace it with a rivet. The remaining clecos will hold the parts in close alignment while you set the rivets one at a time.
10. Fluorescent Drop Cord:
I can’t tell you how may times I busted a light bulb in my drop cord while working underneath a car. Or how many times I burned some part of my anatomy on the hot bulb before I broke it. The latest crop of compact fluorescent drop lights run cool and are almost unbreakable. To top that, they throw a lot of light and not much glare.