Using the right tools when working on your car will make the job easier. An ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certified technician typically has hundreds of common and specialty tools to work on a variety of vehicles. However, every auto owner should have some basic hand tools and safety equipment to perform periodic maintenance and minor repairs.
When working on vehicles, think safety first. You should use the proper tools and clothing to protect yourself.
Eye Protection is a must when working on cars. Eyes are so fragile. Safety glasses and goggles will help prevent foreign materials from entering your eyes. These are especially important when inspecting the underbody of a vehicle and working around chemicals. Goggles can be used over prescription glasses.
Use earplugs or earmuffs when the work area is excessively loud. Noise with high decibel levels can damage your hearing.
Use work gloves when you are performing work on tires or exhaust. Extremely worn tires can have sharp steel belts poking from the tread. Exhaust systems can be hot and have rusty holes that can cut your hands. Use disposable latex gloves when you are working with chemicals, oils, and grease.
Common Hand Tools
Common hand tools such as wrenches, ratchets, sockets, pliers, screwdrivers, hammers, and pry bars, are necessary when performing basic vehicle maintenance and repair work. You may find that you already own many of these tools.
Wrenches come in various sizes and designs. Adjustable, open-end, box-end, combination, and specialty wrenches are important tools to have when performing basic maintenance and repair. Both metric and standard (aka SAE) fixed jaw wrenches should be included in a basic tool kit.
Metric sizes commonly increase by 1 millimeter (mm) for each wrench size increase. For example, a metric wrench set may have the following sizes: 7mm, 8mm, 9mm, 10mm, 11mm, 12mm, 13mm, 14mm, 15mm, etc. Standard wrenches commonly increase by 1/16” for each wrench size increase. Note: A quote mark ( ” ) is a symbol for inch units. For example, a standard wrench set may have these sizes: 1/4”, 5/16”, 3/8”, 7/16”, 1/2”, 9/16”, 5/8”, 11/16”, 3/4”, etc. The size corresponds to the distance between the two jaws in an open-end wrench.
An adjustable wrench is versatile. The jaw can be adjusted to fit metric or standard nuts and bolts. However, it does not fit as snugly on the fastener as a fixed sized jaw wrench. In addition, the head of an adjustable wrench may not fit in all locations and is not as strong. An adjustable wrench is sometime called a Crescent wrench (an industry brand name). If you are going to have only one wrench in your tool box, choose an adjustable wrench.
The two most common types of wrench ends are box and open. A combination wrench will have a box-end on one end and an open-end on the other. The box-end usually has 6-points or 12-points. Use the box-end 6-point when a great amount of torque is required to reduce the chance of stripping the fastener (i.e., a nut or bolt). An open-end is handy when the fastener position will not allow access with the box-end.
Flip the Wrench
If you are trying to loosen a fastener with an open-end wrench in a tight location always remember that you can flip the wrench. Since open-end wrench ends are offset, you can flip the wrench over and then grip the fastener in a different location. You may need to flip the wrench after each turn if you are in an extremely tight situation.
Ratchets in combination with sockets are used to quickly turn nuts and bolts. A ratchet is basically a lever with a pivoting mechanism. The pivoting mechanism allows the user to tighten or loosen a fastener without removing the tool. Ratchets are sized according to the square driver head. For example, 1/4” drive ratchets have driver heads that are 1/4” x 1/4”. Common ratchet sizes are 1/4”, 3/8”, and 1/2”. A 3/8” ratchet is the most common size that many do-it-yourselfers include in their basic tool kit.
Sockets can be directly connected to the ratchet or first connected to a universal joint or driver extension. Sockets are classified as regular or deep well. Deep well sockets can fit over the threads of a long bolt. Sockets, like wrenches, have points inside that fit over the fastener and come in both metric and standard sizes. Common sockets will have either 6-points or 12-points.
6-Point or 12-Point?
You should only use a wrench or socket that fits the fastener snugly. If it is even a little loose it may round the fastener corners. If the head of a nut or bolt is slightly rounded, use a 6-point socket or box-end wrench. The 6-points lessens the likelihood of stripping the fastner head. In contrast, use the 12-points if you have a limited amount of space for movement. The 12-points allow for twice the number of placements on the fastener.
Spark Plug Sockets
Some sockets are specially designed. For example, spark plug sockets have rubber boot inserts to protect the plug from cracking and to keep it centered.
Impact sockets should be used to avoid shattering standard sockets in situations where high torque and speed are needed, especially when using an electric or pneumatic (air powered) impact wrench. Impact sockets can be identified by their black color and thicker sides.
Pliers are handy adjustable tools that can be used in a variety of situations. Pliers are used to grab, turn, cut, or bend. Several types include: slip joint, locking, groove joint, needle nose, and diagonal cutters. Pliers consist of two levers that pivot at one point. This pivoting point is called a fulcrum.
Slip Joint Pliers
Slip joint pliers are one of the most basic and versatile hand tools. However, do not use slip joint pliers in situations where a wrench would be better (e.g., turning a nut or bolt). Trying to loosen a stubborn nut with slip joint pliers can strip the head or if the pliers slip, bruise your knuckles.
Locking pliers are sometimes called Vise-Grips, a brand name in the industry. Locking pliers are used to tightly grip and then lock on the fastener. These pliers come in handy when a bolt or nut is already stripped beyond the point where a wrench no longer works. Grabbing onto flat pieces of metal or oddly shaped items are additional functions of locking pliers.
Groove Joint Pliers
Also called adjustable pliers or Channellocks (an industry brand name), groove joint pliers adjust to a wide range of sizes. These are especially useful for gripping cylindrical objects, like pipes.
Needle Nose Pliers
Needle nose pliers have long pointed jaws. These can be used to grip or pull objects that are in hard-to-reach areas. Next to the fulcrum is also a cutting mechanism to cut wire or other objects.
Diagonal Cutting Pliers
Also called side cutters, diagonal cutters have sharp cutters instead of gripping jaws like most pliers. They are commonly used for cutting wires.
Just about everyone is familiar with screwdrivers. They turn screws or other fasteners. Some screwdrivers have magnetic tips to help with positioning fasteners in tight spaces. The head of a fastener determines the type and size of screwdriver tip that is needed. The proper tip will fit in a fastener head snugly. Damage or tool slippage may occur if an incorrect sized tip is used. Common types of screwdriver tips include Phillips, slotted, square, Allen, Torx, and hex. Various types of screwdriver tips are also made as bits that can be placed in a 1/4” socket for ratcheting in tight places.
Sometimes what you are working on needs a little more persuasion. Using the correct hammer will ensure that you don’t damage components. A ball peen hammer, a favorite hammer by many technicians, is commonly used to drive a chisel or a punch. A rubber mallet, a hammer with a rubber head, comes in handy to drive on stubborn wheel covers and other parts without damaging them.
Pry bars are long bars with handles that come in a variety of sizes and styles. They can be useful when trying to leverage a component that is heavy or stuck.
When performing work under a vehicle it is often necessary and convenient to raise the vehicle off the ground with a floor jack and jack stands or drive-on ramps. Work safely by using lifting equipment on a surface that is solid and chock at least one wheel still on the ground. Warning: Lifting equipment ratings should exceed the weight of the vehicle being lifted.
A floor jack is used to lift a vehicle. Be sure to place the jack’s lifting pad under the frame or other solid chassis component. Lifting the vehicle by the body’s sheet metal underbody will damage the vehicle and make it more likely to fall off the jack. Warning: To prevent serious injury or death jack stands should be used. Do not go under a vehicle that is only supported by a jack.
Drive-on ramps can make raising one end of your vehicle very easy. All you need to do is line the ramps up in front of your tires, drive onto them, set your emergency brake, and chock one wheel remaining on the ground. Since the vehicle is still resting on its tires, don’t plan on doing any wheel work. Ramps are convenient for oil changes and undercarriage inspections.
To prevent a vehicle from moving forward or backward, wheel chocks are used to block a wheel when jacking. Place the wheel chocks in front and in back of a wheel that is not being lifted.
Jack stands are used to hold a vehicle up after a jack has raised it. Warning: Do not use concrete blocks or other non-approved stands to hold up a vehicle.
Tire Pressure Gauges
Tire pressure is measured with tire pressure gauges and should be checked often. A dial gauge is more accurate than a stick gauge. A recommended tire pressure is calculated according to the tire type, vehicle weight, and the desired ride. Look in your driver’s side door for a tire placard that lists the correct tire pressure. Maintaining the recommended tire pressure is critical to minimizing tire wear and optimizing handling stability. For every 10 degrees temperature drop, tire pressure drops by 1 psi. The inverse also occurs as temperature rises.
Tread Depth Gauge
A tread depth gauge is a simple measuring devise to help determine the actual amount of tread remaining on your tires. It provides a depth reading within 1/32nd’s of an inch from the top of the tread surface to the bottom of the tread groove. When that reading is less than 1/16th of an inch, new tires are needed.
Wear Indicator Bars
Tires come with wear indicator bars providing a visual, tool free, inspection of tread depth. Wear indicator bars run perpendicular to tread. New tires are needed when the tread wears to the same level as the indicator bars.
Tire Plug Tools
Tire plug tools make it possible to plug holes smaller than 1/4” in diameter in the tread of a tire without taking the tire off the rim. The plug rasp tool prepares the hole for the plug and the insert tool installs the plug.
Finding a Tire Leak
To find a leak in a tire, first look for any obvious sidewall, tread, or rim damage. Check for foreign objects embedded in the tread. If you can’t see the source of the leak, use a spray bottle with soapy water to squirt the tire and carefully watch for small bubbles to develop. Slowly work your way around the tire tread. Don’t forget to spray the valve stem which can also leak.
Bottle and Scissor Jacks
Most newer vehicles have a scissor or bottle jack stored in the trunk for emergency tire changes. These manufacturer supplied jacks are not as easy or as safe to use as a hydraulic floor jack. Save them for roadside emergencies and invest in a hydraulic jack for your garage.
4-Way Tire Tool
A 4-way tire tool is more versatile for removing lug nuts than the basic manufacturer lug wrench (aka tire iron) supplied with your vehicle. A 4-way has a different sized wrench on each end. It is also easier to use because the design provides more leverage and you can spin the lug nuts off quicker.
A piece of pipe (cheater bar) slipped over the end of a tool will create additional leverage. This can be handy when breaking free stubborn bolts or tire lug nuts that have been over tightened by an impact wrench. It might make all the difference in being able to change a flat tire when you have limited options. However, with additional leverage it is much easier to damage a tool or hurt yourself, so use caution.
Measuring accurately requires the use of measuring tools like rulers, gauges, and micrometers. In the United States two systems of measurement are often used: the metric (aka International) system and the English (aka Customary) system.
Rulers are used to measure linear distances. Measuring tapes are used to measure large distances whereas small rigid rulers are used to measure short linear distances.
A torque wrench, either beam or clicker style, can be used to tighten a fastener to a specific amount of force. For example, wheel lug nuts should be tightened to the manufacturer’s specifications. Lug nuts that are not tight enough could loosen over time, while lug nuts that are too tight are hard to remove, can warp brake rotors, and can damage the stud’s threads. A torque wrench is critically important when completing internal engine repairs.
A coolant tester measures specific gravity to determine if the cooling system contains the correct mixture of antifreeze to water. To draw coolant up into the tester, squeeze the bulb while the tube end is inserted in the radiator. An indicator inside the tester floats to give a reading based on the percentage of antifreeze in the coolant.
Spark Plug Gauge
A spark plug gauge tool has various diameter wires for checking the electrode gap and benders to adjust the gap. The gap is the distance between the center and side electrodes on the spark plug. A spark must arc across the gap in order to ignite the air-fuel mixture in a cylinder. The correct gap is located on the EPA sticker in the engine compartment.
Precision Measuring Tools
Feeler gauges, calipers, micrometers, and dial indicators are used to obtain very precise measurements. These tools can provide measurements to the nearest thousandths (0.001) of an inch or to the nearest hundredths (0.01) of a millimeter. Feeler gauges consist of flat metal blades that are a specific thickness. You can put several feeler blades together to obtain a desired thickness. For example, if you needed to obtain a thickness of 0.045”, you could put the 0.025” and 0.020” together. A caliper is an especially versatile measuring tool able to measure inside, outside, and depth dimensions. However, when extremely precise measurements are required consider using a micrometer. Micrometers are particularly good for measuring the diameter of objects.
If you plan to maintain a vehicle’s electrical system some electrical tools will be necessary. At the very least every vehicle should carry a set of jumper cables.
Multimeters make a great addition to any toolbox. Multimeters can be used to measure voltage, resistance, and amperage.
Fuses are fairly small, very close to one another in a fuse junction block, and often tightly held making it difficult to pull them out. A fuse puller is a small plastic device designed to grasp a fuse so it can be pulled out easily.
Wire strippers can be used to remove wire insulation, cut wires, and to crimp solderless connectors and terminals.
Battery Load Tester
A battery load tester is a specialty tool used to evaluate a battery’s condition. The tester should be set to the battery’s temperature and cold-cranking amperage (CCA) rating to receive accurate results. Note: Some automotive part stores will test your battery for free.
A battery can discharge simply by leaving your lights on or a door ajar. You should know how to properly hook up jumper cables in case of an emergency. For step-by-step procedures on safely hooking up jumper cables see your owner’s manual and the Jump-Starting Activity. Warning: Incorrectly jump-starting a battery can be dangerous. If cables are hooked up incorrectly the battery could explode or electrical components could fry.
Choosing Jumper Cables
All jumper cables are not created equal. Make sure your jumper cables have a cable diameter of at least 6 gauge, insulation which stays flexible in cold weather, strong terminal clamps, and are 12 or more feet long. If your cables are short, it may be necessary to line the booster vehicle’s battery up right next to the discharged vehicle’s battery and that can be dangerous on a busy highway.
Battery Terminal Puller
The battery terminal puller is designed to remove a stubborn or corroded battery terminal clamp, after the battery terminal nut has been loosened, without causing damage to the battery terminal post. The lower jaws of the puller are placed under the battery terminal clamp and then the top lever is turned to lower the center screw onto the terminal post until it forces the clamp free. This type of puller is only used on top post batteries.
Once the battery terminal clamps have been disconnected from the battery posts, use battery brushes to scrape off any visible white or light colored corrosive powder. Rotate the external wire battery brush inside each clamp and the internal wire battery brush over each post.
To slow down the terminal corrosion process, scrub the surface of the battery with a water/baking soda solution and a parts brush or an old toothbrush. Afterward, rinse with clean water, dry, and coat the terminals with an anti-corrosion spray. Warning: Battery electrolyte irritates skin and will eat through clothing. Always wear safety goggles. See the Battery Cleaning Activity for step-by-step cleaning instructions.
Battery Terminal Spreader
The battery terminal spreader is specially designed to spread battery terminal post clamps. They can also be used to scrape corrosion from the inside of terminal clamps.
Oil Change and Lube Tools
To perform an oil change and lubrication you will need a socket or wrench to remove the drain plug, lifting equipment, an oil drain pan, an oil filter wrench, a funnel, and a grease gun.
Oil Drain Pan
An oil drain pan helps to keep used oil from spilling on the floor. A good oil pan will have a wide collection area, a place for the oil filter to set while draining, enough capacity to hold at least one oil change, and a cap to prevent spilling during transportation to an oil recycling facility. Used oil is considered a hazardous waste.
Oil Filter Wrenches
There are mainly two styles of oil filter wrenches. The band filter wrench is made to adjust to several different sized filters within a range. For hard to reach filters get a filter wrench with a swivel handle. The cup oil filter wrench is used with a ratchet for leverage. Select the cup size that fits snugly on your filter.
Oil Filter Wrench Size
If you are unsure what size of oil filter wrench you need, go to a parts store and get a replacement filter for your vehicle. Then use the filter as a guide when selecting a wrench.
A funnel helps prevent spills when adding oil to the engine. Always make sure the funnel is clean so you don’t contaminate the engine with other fluids or dirt.
A grease gun, containing a grease cartridge, is used to lubricate steering, suspension, and drivetrain components. A vehicle’s service manual should identify the location of lubrication fittings (if there are any) and the type of grease recommended. As technology advances more automotive parts are being manufactured with a permanent seal, so grease can’t be added.
Cutting and Grinding Tools
Sometimes it is necessary to remove a piece of metal such as an exhaust pipe or a rusted bolt. To do this, cutting and grinding tools come in handy.
Hacksaws cut metal using thin blades. Blades commonly have 18, 24, or 32 teeth per inch. Blades with more teeth per inch cut cleaner and slower. Point the teeth away from the handle to cut mainly on the forward stroke.
A file can be used to smooth, shape, and de-burr surfaces by removing metal. Common machinist files come in square, flat, half-round, and round types.
To use a cold chisel place the chiseled end on an object, such as a seized/rusted nut or rivet, and hit the blunt end with a hammer.
Punches can be used to drive parts during removal or installation, mark points, or align objects. To use a punch, place the pointed end on the object you want to drive and hit the blunt end with a hammer.
An electric grinder can be used to remove metal much faster than a file. Warning: Grinding metal can create sparks. Be sure that all flammable materials are away from the grinding area and do not grind so that sparks go near the vehicle’s fuel tank. It is also important to wear the appropriate safety gear, including a full face shield.
Some tools make diagnosing problems easier for the technician. A work light and creeper are a must if you are going to spend much time maintaining and repairing a vehicle.
A creeper allows easier access to the undercarriage of a vehicle. With your head and body supported, you can comfortably roll around on your back in a low clearance space.
Seeing things in a quality light can really help when doing inspections and completing service work. Features to look for in a portable work light include: impact and chemical resistant, ample light, low glare, stay cool casing, and a hook or clip for positioning.
Shop towels and rags help you to keep your hands, tools, and vehicle components clean. If they have been used to wipe up combustible materials such as oil, fuel, or chemicals they should be stored in an approved container until they can be properly disposed or cleaned.
To prevent accidents and keep your work area safer, use floor dry to absorb oil and other spills. If you don’t have floor dry, kitty litter also works.
If you do not wear gloves you will probably want a good hand cleaner. Many automotive hand cleaners can be rubbed on and wiped off without water.
Vehicle Service Manuals
You may find as you perform more complicated repair procedures that you need a reference guide with information specific to your vehicle. Vehicle specific service information is available in books, CDs, and online.
Consumer Service Manual
Most individuals who do some of their own mechanic work will eventually purchase a general service and repair manual for their vehicle. These independently published manuals cover a vehicle through a range of years, makes, and models in a condensed format. They are written for the average mechanic and often contain detailed photos of your specific vehicle. Haynes and Chilton manuals are the most well known. They are sold online and at most automotive parts stores. If the information needed can’t be found in this type of manual, then a professional service manual should be considered.
Professional Service Manual
Professional technicians use auto manufacturer service manuals. Each professional service manual, often containing several volumes, is specific to one year of a vehicle make and model. They cover basically every component and system with detailed illustrations, diagnostic checks, wiring diagrams, and step-by-step repair procedures.
Specialty tools encompass a wide range of hand tools and testing instruments. Some specialty tools are used for only one purpose on one type of vehicle. Technicians commonly have many specialty tools which include part pullers, hydraulic presses, tap and die sets, pneumatic tools, slide hammers, scan tools, and the list goes on. If you plan to become a professional technician you will need to learn more about the tools that will make your work possible.
Quality tools can be expensive, but having the right tool can make a difficult job easier. Use fixed sized wrenches and sockets instead of pliers to tightly grip nuts and bolts. When torque precision is necessary, use a torque wrench. A ratchet and socket will speed up the process of tightening or loosening a fastener. Start off with a basic tool set and then periodically add more specialized tools as you see a need and as your budget permits. Remember that caring for and cleaning your tools will help them last longer. Having the proper tools makes working on a vehicle easier, faster, and ultimately more enjoyable.
Emergency Tool Kit
To better prepare for the unexpected, carry an emergency tool kit in your vehicle at all times. Some essential items are listed below.
- First Aid Kit
- Jumper Cables
- Flash Light
- Liquid Tire Fix Spray
- Locking Pliers
- Adjustable Wrench
- Phillips and Slotted Screwdrivers
- Duct and Electrical Tape
- Jack, Chocks, and Lug Wrench
- Work Gloves and Safety Glasses
- Warning Triangle and Road Flare
- Ice Scraper (Cold Weather)
- Fire Extinguisher
- Tire Pressure Gauge
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