5 Essential Tools for Tackling DIY Projects

I’ve been a city-dweller my whole adult life – in NYC and now Chicago since graduating college. I bring this up because I am not one of those (lucky) people that have a whole garage workshop with space and tools and room to keep extra things. That would be incredible, and maybe one day that will be me, but for now, space is at a premium and that means keeping the tools and materials under control.

With that, I have to be very realistic about the tools that I have. Before I look to buy something, I always consider: 1) how many projects am I really doing, and can I justify the price of buying this tool and 2) where / how will I store this after this project is done?

As much as I would love a table saw or a nail gun (does not get a green light on either of the above questions), it’s just not realistic. Plus, there are some very basic tools that you can purchase (or borrow, etc.) that will get the job done just fine.

I will say, some of the larger power tools would definitely make some jobs easier, but who ever said we’re here to do things the easy way! A little sweat equity never hurt anyone.

So in my closet (yes, all of my tools are in a closet in our condo), we have one shelf for tools / miscellaneous house things and one shelf for paint cans. Here are the five tools that I could not live without and that I highly recommend to anyone looking to tackle any size house project.

  • A Super Basic Toolkit: I have an older version of this very basic Ikea FIXA toolkit and to this day I use it more than anything else. It was a highschool graduation gift when I graduated college and at the time I thought it was a bit strange, but don’t underestimate how much use you’ll get out of a good basic toolkit!
    • You absolutely need a hammer, screwdriver set and pliers. The wrench is good too, although used less frequently (and frankly, I had to buy another one that was larger as this one is fairly small).
    • I would add to this that you do also need a level. Even (especially) if you’re just hanging pictures, you need to know that it’s level. You can do a lot with a very small, simple level like this KAPRO Level ($3 at Lowe’s).
    • I did “splurge” recently and buy a new screwdriver set (this Craftsman 12-Piece set). Some of the newer screws have different shaped heads – squares and stars, for example – and my basic toolkit didn’t have those bits. This was only $15 and I highly recommend. Just make sure you have a good selection of different screw bits so you can use it on any type of screw.
  • Tarps / dropcloth: this is really so whatever you’re working on (perhaps you’re cutting something, or staining something) doesn’t damage the floor or table top that you’re working on. It’s tempted to just say “oh, I’ll be careful,” but that never really works out as well as you want it to.
    • We have both canvas and plastic dropcloths. Canvas is nice if you’re trying to protect your surface from dings. Maybe you’re putting some furniture together or cutting something – it’s an easy way to protect your surface. Keep in mind, if you’re painting or staining, that will seep through canvas and will still get on your floor. We have this type of dropcloth in two sizes – a smaller one that is easy to pull out any time, and a larger one when you need to cover a whole room or piece of furniture.
    • Plastic dropcloths are cheap, which is great, as you pretty much ruin them any time you use them. They’re also better for paint or stain since it won’t seep through to your floor. Do keep in mind they are slippery so be more mindful when you’re walking on plastic. We have a few of these simple plastic dropcloths from Lowe’s on hand for any project.

If these five things are all you have the room or appetite for, you’re good to go! With this, you could easily make minor home repairs, install small things, change a light fixture, change a doorknob, hang pictures, etc. – most of the normal things that go with moving into a new place.

For me, the next step was to get a few more things that really expanded my project capabilities and the ease of doing a few things:

  • Hand Saw: I started getting to the point where I was needing to cut wood (or pipe) and wanted to do it on my own rather than having the hardware store do it for me (Lowe’s and Home Depot will make big cuts for you on their oversized saw, and there is a small saw for cutting trim to length, but it’s not set up for you to be there making cuts for a project.
    • I bought this super basic Craftsman Hand Saw with Miter Box. The box helps you make straight cuts or angled cuts by hand, and it also protects you a bit, rather than just cutting freely with a saw. I won’t lie – it’s not easy and you’ll burn some serious calories doing all your project cuts with this, but I was not (and am not currently) interested in buying a power tool that was way more expensive and harder to store. Maybe one day, but this does the job for now!
  • Cordless Drill: A bit of a game changer when you can finally drill your own holes. Plus, you can also drill screws with this which makes a major difference if you’re doing a lot of them. I have a Black+Decker Cordless Drill (an older version of the one linked here).

I also recently bought a Craftsman Stud Finder (yessssss! When you have a reason to get one, do – it’s so easy to use and way better than making random holes in the wall) and a Craftsman Laser Level – some new toys! Very optional pieces, but slowly building the collection as we go along. I also picked up a Ryobi Sander (an older model of this one) on Facebook Marketplace for a steal.

  • If you’ve not used Facebook Marketplace before, definitely look it up. It’s essentially a garage sale for people in your area and you can get great things for great prices. And especially for tools, they’re still in great shape – they may be dirty, but it’s a tool and you can clean it. It’s also a really great way to get rid of some odds and ends. You can either sell or list for free, but I recently got rid of some leftover garden soil, a barely used gallon of deck stain, and a 2/3 full bucket of tile mortar — all of which I’m happy to no longer have to store, and hopefully helped someone along in their own project!

We also have a basket in our closet full of odds and ends. Random screws / nails / fasteners / allen wrenches, etc. that I have accumulated over the years. You always have a few leftover from every project (even if it’s putting together a piece of furniture you bought) and I keep them as you’ll never know when you could use them!

But that’s it! That’s what’s in my “workshop” i.e. hall closet and that’s how I get all of my projects done. You don’t need to have a huge tool stash or a bunch of power tools to tackle some great DIY projects! I’ve built up my small “collection” over the years but honestly, start small, and tackle projects in the space that you have. Get the very basics and then slowly add on as you do different projects or need something else to get the job done.

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