Toolbox: Ten Tools You Won’t Want to Live Without

Toolbox: Ten Tools You Won’t Want to Live Without

In the Make: Online Toolbox, we try to focus on tools that fly under the radar of more conventional tool coverage: in-depth tool-making projects, strange or specialty tools unique to a trade or craft that can be useful elsewhere, tools and techniques you may not know about, but once you do, and incorporate them into your workflow, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them. And, in the spirit of the times, we pay close attention to tools that you can get on the cheap, make yourself, refurbish, etc.

For this week’s column, I put the call out to the Maker Media staff, maker friends, and my cohort at Dorkbot DC and HacDC. I wanted to know what tools makers couldn’t live without, tools they might have gone years before discovering, but once the tool was in the box, they couldn’t bear the thought of not having it around. I got a very respectable response, with many passionate declarations for a lot of beloved tools. Thanks to everyone who sent me suggestions. I’ve chosen ten of my favorites amongst them. If you acquire any of the tools here and they become an indispensable part of your arsenal, or if you just want to second that emotion on a tool listed here, please chime in with comments.

[BTW: If you sent me a tool suggestion that can be considered a clamp, a jig, or a “third hand,” I may have held it back for next week’s Toolbox, which’ll be on those mechanical shopmates.]


Leatherman Tool

Hands-down, the most passionately celebrated tool in the bunch was the Leatherman multi-tool. At least five people suggested it. You hopefully already have one, but if you don’t, I can tell you that those who do (me among them) can’t shut up about it for a reason. As I’ve said in previous reviews: look on the belts of every firefighter, law enforcement officer, emergency response person, forest ranger, or anyone else who deals in critical, life-death situations, and you’ll find a Leatherman on their hip. If that doesn’t tell you something…

Here’s what tech-artist Datamancer had to say: “This one is easy: my trusty, beat-up, broken-in Leatherman! No tool enables pure MacGuyveristic, Makerrific ability like this trusty super-tool. On those very few days that I forget to wear it, I feel like an amputee. I use it for everything, even the little snap-out Phillips head screwdriver, which I will actually use instead of a full-sized screwdriver most of the time. The saw is still as razor sharp as the day I bought it and can take down a sapling in about five good strokes. The small leather awl is made of the hardest steel I have ever encountered and the knife blades keep their edge. Come the zombie apocalypse, it’ll be me, my Leatherman, and my Mosin-Nagant M44 against the world.”

Doug Repetto, Dorbot founder, recounted this funny story: “I had jury duty in NYC a couple years ago, and I was pulled aside after putting my bag through the metal detector. A very tough looking police woman said ‘show me your leather, man.’ I just looked at her blankly. She said it again: ‘show me your leather, man.’ Whaaaaa? I had no idea what she was talking about. Did someone put a gag fetish item in my bag or something? Was I wearing something embarrassing under my clothes that I had somehow forgotten about? I told her I wasn’t sure what she meant. She said, ‘your Leatherman, your multi-tool.’ Up until then I had never heard the brand name. Boy was I relieved! But then I forgot to remove it from my carry on bag before a flight and it was confiscated. Ack!”



Besides the Leatherman, another popular tool amongst the makers I talked to were hemostats. When I did a toolbox piece for The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, back in 1994, several people I interviewed swore by them too. I’ve been a fan ever since. Hemostats, or hemostatic clamps, come in a variety of sizes, some with straight tips, some angled. They look like a pair of scissors crossed with needlenose pliers, needlenose pliers that clamp. It’s useful to have several clamps, of several sizes, on hand. They’re called hemostats because they’re used in medicine/surgery for hemostasis, or stopping bleeding. But they can also be used to stop any fluid from hemorrhaging, or wires from going where they’re not supposed to, or for holding components where they are supposed to, or holding things together for bonding, all sorts of uses. They make handy clip-on heat sinks, too. Good ones used to be rather expensive (being medical equipment), but now they’ve become popular enough in the tech and hobby realms that you can get them through tool channels for as little as a couple of bucks (tho you’re better off getting slightly more expensive ones. The cheap ones are really cheap.)


One-Step Wire Strippers
Another tool mentioned more than once was a pair of “automatic” wire strippers. Stripmaster is a popular brand (seen above). The pair below that are our very own John Park’s strippers. He writes: “I’ve got mine from Fry’s (designed in Italy, made in China) and they changed my life! You can strip a wire one-handed with them. The jaws grab your insulation and pull it across a little pair of blades. Stripping one handed in a deft move alters the entire project building landscape for me.”


Digital Calipers
This definitely fits into the category of a tool you might not think you need until you own a pair. This used to be an expensive tool as well, but now you can get a pair for under $20. Paul McCord, of Dorkbot DC, writes: “My wife bought me a pair for Christmas because I asked for them. ‘What are you going to use them for?,’ she queried. Turns out the answer is: everything!” Fellow DC Dork, Matt Billings adds: “I second the digital calipers. I got a decent pair on eBay for $20 a while back. I use them for everything. I had to replace a screw from my dryer and was able to take it to Home Depot to find the perfect match.”


Plastic Pry Bars
Jason Schlauch, of Dorkbot DC, writes: “Great for disassembling relatively “soft” items (iPods, laptop bezels, dashboards, cameras) without marring them. Google “plastic pry bar.”


Keychain LED Micro-Light
When I did my Toolbox column on portable lighting, I forgot to mention my LED keychain micro-light. I’ve had one on my keychain for years. The one I have (different from the above) claimed to have a lifetime replacement guarantee. After several years of use, the casing broke. I sent it back, and within a few weeks, I had a new one. Jon Singer, of Dorkbot DC and the Joss Research Institute, writes: “Another little surprise: the Photon MicroLight (or any other brand of ‘sub-miniature’ LED flashlight that takes a pair of CR-2016 cells, and has a real on-off switch in addition to the usual ‘squeeze to light’). I have a white one hanging off my collar, and I probably use it ten times a day. I’ve replaced not only the battery several times, but also the LED, as brighter ones became available.”


Panavise, Jr.

If you’ve done any electronics work, you likely already have a third hand tool, or several. If you don’t, you should. In addition to those invaluable tools, you need one of these, a Panavise, Jr. Universal Vise. Digikey, Amazon, and others sell them for under $30. You use this device to securely hold and position your PCB while the third hand holds the components (and you hold the solder and the iron). Don’t breath lead without it!

[One of my respondents was Nate Bezanson, who used to write tool reviews for Toolmonger. He sent me a link to this piece he wrote on the Panavise Model 367 with the extra-wide opening head.]


Ever heard of a spudger? If you work in the telecom field, you probably have. And if you work with any sort of electronics/digital technology, you’ll want to know what this strange word points to. Basically a spudger is a small pick-tool used for manipulating wires, throwing DIP switches, removing jumpers, cleaning crud from contacts, any task that requires close-in picking, pushing,prying, or scraping. Spudgers comes with a variety of tips optimized for different tasks. They are also sometimes called a “soldering probe” or the far less dignified “booger picker” or “booger hook.” Here’s Nate Bezanson’s article on bogger hoo… I mean spudgers on Toolmonger.

[BTW: A lot of makers keep a set of dental picks in their toolbox to serve many of the same functions as spudgers.]


Set of Step Bits

R. Mark Adams writes: “I like step bits. Like these. I now know how to make perfect holes in sheet metal — especially nice for synth cabinets, robot control panels, etc.


Solder Tip Cleaning Genie

This is one of those simple, cheap tools that I just love. I threw it into an electronics order years ago to get free shipping and I haven’t wet a sponge for soldering since. It’s just a little pot of “metal wool.” On the Weekend Project for Feb 27, 2009, Kip shows how easily you can make your own by putting a copper scrubby inside of a small container. Besides not having to dampen your sponge for soldering, the Cleaning Genie doesn’t lower the heat on your iron’s tip and doesn’t retain all the crud from your iron like a sponge does.



Butane Micro Torch
I first got one of these like ten years ago and I’ve had one in my toolbox ever since. Great for heat shrinking, high-temp soldering/desoldering, light brazing, fusing plastic rope, loosening bolts, terminating connectors, lighting anarchist ball-bombs, all sorts of uses. I use one of the cheap Master Appliance MT-11 models (under $10 at Amazon). Jake von Slatt swears by by the 2-in-1 HD Butane Powered Soldering Tool and Torch.


44 thoughts on “Toolbox: Ten Tools You Won’t Want to Live Without

  1. moylan says:

    didn’t macguyver carry a swiss army knife. better multitool in my opinion, at least for me.

  2. Peter says:

    ’cause it has *pliers*!

    1. David says:

      I own everything other then the Digital Calipers and the solder Cleaner tool. I need to buy that when I start soldering more.
      I would add a Solder Sucker tool (so awesome) and I would take a different multi tool, the Power play from Paladin tools. The Powerplay was designed by SOG (my fav knife maker) and built by Paladin tools. The thing has both major punch down tools for emergencies, a 1/4 socket, wire cutter, stripper, and more.

  3. garethb2 says:

    Uh-oh. I was afraid of this: the Mac vs. PC flame war of the tool world: The SAK vs. The Leatherman!

  4. John Park says:

    I’ve got both and use both! The same Swiss Army knife my Dad gave me for my 14th birthday, in fact, has got my favorite scissors in the house. I think I’ll weld them together in support of bi-partisan tool usage.

  5. Anonymous says:

    My SAK travels in my pocket, always (except for air travel). It has pliers which do come in very handy.

    The Leatherman Wave is usually around, but not in my pocket or on my belt. The only thing on the belt, always, is a flashlight (Nitecore D10 currently).

  6. AndyL says:

    My swiss army knife has pliers.

  7. sfriend says:

    Fiberglass Scratch Brushes Great for tight places and electronic applications also for cleaning up corrosion from leaking batteries in electronics. If you have never seen one here what they look like.

  8. Frenzy says:

    i carry two pairs of leathermens on me at all times, one being a standard pliers set and the other being the squirt E4.

    The panavise has changed my electronics experience a lot from ending frustration when working with PCBs

    I made this instructable about making your own LED flashlight, check it out!

  9. auto says:

    what auto wire strippers would you all recommend for small guage wire- like cat5 or small hook up wire? do these things work well?

    btw – i use a SwissTool rs (swiss ‘leatherman’). notice how the blades etc open from the outside as opposed to opening the pliers to get to em.. yeah, much better.

    1. frankt says:

      I highly recommend the second one handed stripper. Not only does it strip insulation from wires, it can also strip the outer sheath off cables (be careful though, I broke a cheap chinese tool doing this).

      It can also strip ribbon cable, about 10 wires wide at a time.

  10. alanv73 says:

    At an Ultrasound company where I used to work, we called the “Solder Tip Cleaning Genie” a “Pubic Award”… for obvious reasons.

  11. Gilberti says:

    Sometimes, all you need is a big honking knife when all you want to do is to get into something and you don’t need to be dainty about it. For that, I personally recommend the Buck 110T, which has existed in one form or another since the mid ’60s.

  12. Dave says:

    I always remember watching This Old House with my dad and wondering how they could strip wire so fast. Now in class we use the one handed strippers with the blue handles, best tool ever. Takes so much of the tedium out of any electrical project!

  13. Gareth Branwyn says:

    >we called the “Solder Tip Cleaning Genie” a
    >”Pubic Award”… for obvious reasons.

    To go with your booger hook. Nice.

  14. Eddie says:

    Bought some digital calipers last year and *still* haven’t found a use for them :) None are listed either (except measuring screws so you can take your calipers into Home Depot … instead of the original screw!)

    As for the Butane torch – I’m a smoker so I carry this little “cigarette lighter” everywhere I go. The torch-like ones are the best and a fraction of the size of the kitchen ones.

    I had some cheap one-handed wire strippers and literally threw them out this Sunday because they were taking up space and didn’t work. Might have to try a better brand of these since stripping wires is a pet peeve of mine.

    No mention of my most-often used tool though – the mighty Dremel 800. Cuts, drills, sands, files … and that’s just the first four tips! Just got a drill press for mine too.

    Anyway, please repost this in Oct/Nov so I can give it to my wife as an Xmas list :)

  15. The Steven says:

    Yes, there is the old reliable SAK, in its’ 1,001 flavors, and I have two of them (Champion & Tinkerer), and yes, I have a Leatherman (Wave) But I have to give Profs to Leatherman for the optional Bit Holder attachment.

    With it, I can use any “standard” bit, and its’ carry case that hold any six bits I might need to carry that day. Giving me the flexibility to have just enough torque in a convenient pocket sized package.

    (yea Leatherman!)

  16. Dan says:

    My favorite tool not listed above is a pair of micro tweezers. I got a nice pair from Digikey for under $5 (part EROP3CSA). The points are practically as sharp as needles and they can be used for everything from placing surface mount parts to bending wire-wrap wire. At the moment I can’t really remember what else I use them for except that I pull them out of the drawer at least once a week.

    Also, I have to second the vote for dremel. Another tool that I could not live without now that I know what it can be used for.

    Thirdly, I suppose I should mention the exhaustive set of screwdriver bits that can usually be picked up for $10. Very handy for taking things apart, although you may have to buy a special driver for the extremely small torx screws.

  17. metis says:

    give me a gerber scout. safer locking tools, a better pliers head, flick opening, and not painful to bear down on. i’ve broken several leatherman tools, but my original gerber is still going strong with one (free) replaced spring clip.

    i’d rather see a milwaukee tool(little adjustabel stripper with the gauge setting wheel on the inside edge) over the auto stripper, it’s much more versatile, and the klein 10-in-1 driver is a must.

  18. moylan says:

    but in pc repair i use the swa for everything

    a swiss champ for:
    * tin opener – flat screw driver fits most hex screws just right
    * hacksaw – locked pcs or shredded screws. not often but handy when it happens
    * tweezers – digging out lose components from akward spots
    * pliers – removing blanking plates or bending damaged cases
    * magnifying glass – reading micro print on add in cards to find drivers
    * pin – for unlocking cd drives
    * micro screw driver – for adjusting glasses. very handy last year when i was in hospital and was able to repair a pair for a guy who otherwise would have had no glasses for 3 days

    midnight commander:
    * led torch – used every where
    * philips screw driver – best philips screw driver ever
    * scissors – for cutting pretty much anything
    * blade – insanely sharp and great for precision work
    * pen – handy for signatures or quick notes

    tried a leatherman but it while it was nice i missed the magnifying glass the most i reckon.

  19. mrklaw says:

    fun post.
    I have an LED flashlight that I love. It is made by Fenix and it uses a single AAA battery, yet it’s tons brighter than my old Maglite Solitaire.

    I’ve always stripped wire with diagonal cutters. I’ll have to check out the one handed wire strippers.

  20. rjnerd says:

    I concur on the digital caliper, but I have two, a 4 inch and an 8 inch. The 4″ is easy to carry around, the 8 inch stays home, and the extra range helps.

    As to the Swiss army vs Leatherman, I went for the leatherman, because of the locking blades. Had a SA blade close on me once, now won’t use a folder that doesn’t lock.

    Now onto the most used tool list…

    Angle grinder. Have several, one good (15 amp variable speed) several cheap (harbor fright). The cheapies have wire brushes mounted, (one flat, one cup, both “stringer bead”), the good one gets the wheels.

    Drop bandsaw (horizontal/vertical combo) – for metal. Mine is the smallest sold (4″x6″ capacity, cost less than $200), and is great when I need to cut a bit of solid shaft, angle, etc. Its quiet, can be left essentially untended while cutting (near but not standing over it full time).

    Transfer punches – The way to match drill mounting holes. For those that haven’t seen them before, they resemble a rack full of drills (in stepped sizes, just like drills) except smooth, and ending in a center punch tip. Lets you mark the center of a hole when its time to drill, no more ovaling out holes to get the bolts to line up.

    Surface plate and height gauge – The best way I know to do layout on flat bits of metal. (lots of other accessories go with the plate, like v blocks, parallels, etc) You want to measure stuff, you really need a flat surface to measure from.

    Mig Welder. Hot glue for steel. A stick welder is cheap, and will let you deal with thicker sections. (but its a lot messier). For really thin section, I usually braze rather than weld. Be sure to get an auto dim helmet, its really nice to see the workpiece before you strike the arc.

    Oxy/acetylene torch rig. It slices, it can join things other than steel, it lets you heat lumps of metal so you can bend them, or case harden them. It a heat source for brazing. (and for the crazed, you can speed the lighting of charcoal with one, with the cutting head, the flame starts things, then you hit the oxygen lever to speed things up…)

    Engine lathe. Need a stepped shaft? That gear you salvaged is from a smaller shaft and needs to be bored out? Need an oddball threading, and Fastenall is closed? A metal lathe will rescue you. You can even do some light duty milling on it. I use mine to miter tubing (I make bicycles recreationally).

    There are lots more, but since we are picking favorites….

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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