The Essential Tool Bucket

A couple of months before I left the US Army I was offered a course in carpentry as part of my out processing. I’m not sure if they still do this for enlisted personel, but for the cost of serving an additional 3 months — voluntary extension was the term — it has paid me back in ways I cannot begin to calculate. The first project in that class was to build a carpenter’s toolbox from a blueprint to hold a basic set of tools; three kinds of saws, chisels, screw drivers, hammer, etc. We built them from pine sold to us by the civilian instructors and in a few days we each had one of those old timey looking carpenter’s boxes ready to be loaded up with the implements of our future trade.

In the thirty plus years since then I have used tools on a regular basis both professionally and as a homesteader. I’ve framed and finished, done form work for concrete, laid tile and shingled. I can hang doors and build stairs, build cabinets from scratch and hang and finish sheetrock. I’ve done most everything else as well from basic plumbing and electrical work to installing HVAC and septic fields. I’m handy with excavators and I’ve hung iron. Beyond that three week course at the end of my stint in the military, most of which was spent converting the instructor’s carport into a family room, I have no formal training. I’ve learned that the vast majority of tasks that seem difficult aren’t, that things which look like they require advanced skills merely demand attention to detail and a desire to do the job properly. As daunting as it may seem to most people, it is one of the most rewarding and yes, joyful experiences in life; to build something with your own two hands whether it is a dog house or a lake house. Human beings are designed to make and use tools and though I have heard people frequently comment over the years that they are ‘all thumbs’ or ‘not good with tools’, even a few minutes of supervised demolition or rough carpentry projects will dispel that notion. Of course there are those who simply do not enjoy it, but that doesn’t prevent them from doing what is neccessary to repair something simple with nothing more than a few tools and their own hands, often at an enormous savings when you consider the hourly wage of a skilled carpenter these days.

I have long since lost track of the wooden toolbox I built in that class only to replace it with a series of other containers for my hand tools. I now use a five gallon plastic pickle bucket with a nylon tool sleeve I picked up at a hardware store several years ago. The larger tools fit in the center section while the smaller tools fit in a series of pockets arranged around the outside edge. The number of tools I use frequently could easily fit in a tool belt and are kept there, draped over the bucket ready to use, while the rest of my set are arranged, well oiled and sharpened in the bucket. This is a list of those tools for anyone who may interested.

A good tool belt. This is a basic no one should be without. Mine is made of rough leather with four pockets and a special compartment centered between the two for a tape measure. The belt itself is an old army style web belt that can be adjusted easily. There are belts with suspenders and others with multiple pockets for nails and tools, but most of these are specialty types for framers and roofers. Find what’s comfortable; that’s key.

A solid tape measure, 30’ is a good size. A tape measure should have at least a 3/4 inch blade that retracts and locks. I use standard measure (feet and inches and fractions of inches to 1/16). Canadian carpenters I run into use metric. Be sure you get what you’re used to and learn how to read it. A good carpenter measures twice, cuts once and it always helps to say the measurement out loud or write it in pencil on the piece you’re about to cut. When you cut make sure to leave the pencil mark visible on the piece you are planning on using. A piece a little bit long can always be trimmed, but one cut short cannot be stretched back. I also carry a fifty foot tape for laying out larger buildings, but it is by no means a neccessity.

A square. I prefer a steel speed square, some people like the lighter plastic ones, others the old style framing square. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. Framing squares feature formulas for cutting risers for stairs and determining pitch on roofs, something most beginners will not be able to do without. The same functions can be done with a speed square once you’ve learned how to determine rise over run and it fits in your pouch. The framing square takes up a lot of room and usually remains at the cutting table. If you drop a plastic one onto a concrete floor from the rafters, it will break every time.

Carpenter’s pencil. Flat so it won’t roll off whatever surface you lay it on, heavy graphite so the mark shows up on whatever material you happen to be using. I long ago made a lanyard to wear the pencil around my neck (nothing is more frustrating than having to climb down a scaffold to retrieve a dropped pencil half a dozen times a day). I simply cut a piece of parachute cord about 24” long and use electrical tape to wrap around the pencil and two ends of the cord. Should it ever get caught on something the cord will pull out of the tape easily, the rest of the time it hangs right where you need it.

Hearing Protection and Safety Glasses. ‘Nuff said. Wait, I forgot to add that at my age the safety glasses with built in magnifiers are the bomb.

Utility/Razor Knife. I prefer a retractable, some folks like the fixed blade (too dangerous) others the quick change (too complicated). Extra blades should be kept in the body of the knife and blades should be changed regularly. WARNING: this is the single most dangerous tool you will ever use, bar none. I have a permanently bent left index finger from cutting through the tendon to the bone with a utility knife. I watched a carpenter score a piece of sheetrock with a utility knife along the edge of a T-square. About halfway up it hit a nick in the aluminum and continued across the square and directly up his leg about six inches exposing muscle and bone. Dan-ger-ous. Always be aware when you use this tool, always.

Screwdrivers. Screw guns have almost replaced these hand tools in most cases, but I can’t tell you how important it is to have at least three of each flat tip and phillips. One long and standard sized, one short and standard, one small tip. You’ll use the small phillips regularly to change utility knife blades and the regular flat tip to take off electrical outlet covers.

Chisels. I keep about four or five in sleeves, well sharpened. One wide one (3”), one medium (1 1/2”), one half inch and a couple of cold chisels.

Rip/Crosscut Saw. There are plenty to choose from, again a poor substitute for a 7 1/4” power saw, but indispensible for certain tasks and always greatly appreciated when nothing else will work. I have a short one — a sixteen inch blade — and it has served me well over the years. Kept sharp it is invaluable.

Hack Saw/Keyhole Saw/Coping Saw. For metal, sheetrock and trim respectively.

Hammers. I once prefered a 32 ounce Eastwing waffle faced framing hammer but my elbows are too worn out to swing that hammer any more. These days I use a smooth faced 22 ounce hammer for virtually everything and carry a small sledge for heavier tasks. A tack hammer is another option, but certainly not a neccessity. With hammers ergonomics is key; does it feel right in your hands? Is it balanced and are you able to swing it with ease? Then it’s perfect for you. A mallet is also a good idea for when you want to smack the hell out of something and not leave a mark. Not neccessary, but nice to have as a persuader.

String. A good ball of heavy duty nylon string will last a lifetime and can be used for hundreds of tasks. No tool kit is complete without one, from establishing footings and foundations to leveling across uneven ground string is the thing.

Levels. I carry a four foot level on its own, but it accompanies the bucket everywhere so I include it here. A small spirit level between six and eight inches in length can easily be substituted simply by fastening it to a length of lumber to extend the levelling surface. A line level is small and can be used on a string with effectiveness for longer runs.

Folding Rule. This is one I carry in a side pants pocket every day. Along with a knife and a pencil these are the only tools I never leave the house without. I know plenty of carpenters who don’t even own one and who have never used it, defering to the tape measure, but carrying a tape measure everywhere is cumbersome and the folding rule is not. It can be used for fine measurements, like sizing hardware or interior spaces — the width of a door or window. A good one has a small brass six inch extendable rule for using as a depth gauge for tight space like lock sets, drawer depths, etc. It’s also the hands down favorite tool of every child I have ever met. They are endlessly fascinated by it’s clever hinge system that allows a six foot measuring device to fold up into a six inch block.

Adjustable Wrenches. I carry two, one large, one small because sometime the nut is large and sometimes it’s not and every once in a while you’ll come across two opposing nuts that require opposing forces of torque to unfasten. I cut the end of of my larger adjustable and welded a 5/8” box wrench sized for the nut on my 7 1/4” power saw to change blades quickly.

Vise Grips, Pliers, Wire Cutters, Needle Nose Pliers. One of each suffices for most everything, however you may find yourself pining for more than one vise grip in either a larger or smaller size than whichever one you initially choose because they come in so darned handy when you find something that’s been frozen by rust, something that needs to be compressed back into shape, etc. A must-have collection for any tool box.

Allen Wrenches. A set of these should include both metric as well as standard and these days you can get a nesting set with built in holder that contains them neatly. There were years when I never came across a need for these tools, but lately most pre-fabbed furniture sets — think Ikea — are based entirely on allen systems for fastening. If you do even a small number of mechanical jobs, like maintaining chain saws or working on small engines, they’re a neccessity.

Chalk box/plumb bob. Again a tool you won’t use all that often unless you work with sheet materials like plywood and sheetrock but which makes marking long runs possible even for hack with shaky hands. The chalk box doubles as a plumb bob- the most accurate tool for assuring something is straight up and down, but I still carry an iron one that’s been in my family for generations and just looks sweet. On the occasions when I’ve pulled it out for use — once we were placing floor anchors 20 feet below the timber frame of the hay barn and they had to be precise — I always get compliments from other tool type guys about how archaic and totally wicked it looks.

Flat Bar, Cat’s Paw, Glazing Bar. The essential demo kit, used for pulling nails, taking apart structures, adjusting and prying multiple materials. I recommend titanium as opposed to tempered steel because they last longer and perform better in the long run for a marginal difference in cost.

Rancher’s Pliers. It’s a hammer, pry bar, wire cutter, nail puller and pliers all in one. Essential if you ever build or repair fences or enclosures.

Clamps. Two C-Clamps, two spring clamps, two shorty bar clamps. If you work alone these serve as a second set of hands and if you are using adhesives these will keep your pieces fixed securely until the glue sets. Pipe clamps are handy as well, but they belong in the shop.

Nail Sets, Steel Punches. For setting nails beneath the finished surface and removing metal items locked in place.

T-Bevel. Used to trace or replicate angles in fixed objects for duplication.

Files/Rasps/Whetstone. I carry one of each, a flat metal file, a wood rasp and a stone for sharpening tools on site.

Compass. For marking circles and arcs. The tip can be used in place of an awl for marking points in material.

Tin Snips. For soft metals like aluminum and copper and the ultimate tool for cutting nylon and metal banding on materials.

Plane. I carry a small block plane for finishing surfaces to close tolerance or chamfering edges of heavily used areas like doors and windows.

Paint Brush. I use this for cleaning out sawdust, debris in areas where I am working, and for removing dust or waste. Beats wiping things off with your hands and winding up with a splinter.

A Good Rag. Heavy duty cotton rag is great for a multitude of tasks from wiping down finished surfaces to cleaning tools. Doesn’t take up much room and if sprayed with a little WD-40 serves as a way to prevent rust when it is humid or if your kit gets hit by a little rain.

Ratchet Set. Another kit that should include both metric and standard sockets, a large and a small handle, and an extension.

I have been able to refine this set over the years based on the types of jobs I have done and have added and dropped tools on occasion based on weight — no one needs a crow bar — and the appearance of multi-tools that replace two or three others just as effectively. I plan on doing an essential power tool list in the near future because in this day and age using something like a bit and brace in place of a lithium battery powered drill is absurd and deliberately neo-luddite. I’m not that guy.

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