Toolbox Essentials

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Whether you're an experienced do-it-yourselfer or don't know a ratchet from a wrench, a well-stocked toolbox is a must for any homeowner or renter. When stocking your box, you'll be faced with a myriad of options from your local hardware shop or big-box megastore.

The trick is to keep it simple. A nail gun looks cool, and there's no denying that it's fun to use, but it's not an essential. Try a good claw hammer instead. And like everything else, you get what you pay for. You don't have to break the bank, but you also want to avoid the cheapest model on the shelf.

Our advice? Save the toys for later, and start with these five essential tools.

Essential Tool 5: Hammer

The hammer is man's oldest tool, dating back to about fourth century B.C., and rocks were used for the same purpose before that. That means that yes -- you need a good, old-fashioned claw hammer in your toolbox. Maybe even three, depending on what you want to use them for.

Hammers have different weights and handle styles, so before purchasing, hold a few different types in your hand and consider your comfort level. You can choose from wood, fiberglass and rubber-coated steel handles.

If you're pulling a lot of nails, steel is the strongest and a good option. Look for a weight of about 20 ounces. This is light enough for most novices but heavy enough to drive a large nail.

A smaller, light hammer is also a good idea for hanging pictures and crafting.

Finally, go ahead and grab a rubber mallet. They're great when you want to keep from damaging something that needs a tap and are also handy in putting together items from a certain Swedish furniture store we won't name.

Essential Tool 4: Cordless Drill Driver

You can get away with saving some money by purchasing a corded model, but a cordless drill is every homeowner's best friend. They range in power from 10.8 volts all the way up to a whopping 28 volts. If you're just going to be using it around the house for light projects, a 12-volt model is a good buy. It's light enough so your arm won't get too tired and will do any screwing and light drilling.

Keep in mind that that the more power a drill driver has, the heavier it is. And when you're working on something above your head, you're likely to get tired fast.

Most models come with a modest set of screw bits, but you should probably invest in a variety pack. Pick one with a mix of screw heads, drill bits and hexagonal heads. These come in handy when putting together wooden items that use bolts, like self-assembled furniture. You can always buy individual drill bits later specific to the job you're doing.

Essential Tool 3: Screwdriver Set

If you think you have your bases covered with the cordless drill, then think again. Many times there will be a screw that needs some attention, and you won't be able to reach with your drill. That's when it's best to do it the old-fashioned way. You can go anywhere from a two-piece to a 20-piece screwdriver set.

Not sure which set to go with? Think middle-of-the-road. A six- or eight-piece set will probably satisfy most of your screwing needs. Just like with drill bits, if you need a specific driver later on, you can purchase it individually. Any set will cover your basics -- flat heads are for single-slotted screws. Phillips head, named for businessman Henry Phillips who popularized it, has a crosshead to match the screw. You'll likely have a few versions of both of these in an eight-kit. Some are longer and lighter, while some are shorter and stubbier. Which driver fits which job is pretty self-explanatory, as some heads won't even fit into some screws.

Essential Tool 2: Tape Measure and Level

These are two different items, but they kind of go hand in hand -- there isn't a DIY project in existence that doesn't require either one or both of these tools. Accurate measurements are essential in remodeling and building jobs, from inside to outside the home.

Consider purchasing two tape measures: one standard size (typically 25 feet) and one smaller version to keep in your purse or glove compartment. These come in handy when shopping for anything from picture frames to furniture. You can buy an extra-long 100-foot tape measure for measuring landscaping jobs later if you need it.

A level is another must-have. A standard level is made of plastic or wood and uses an air bubble in a vial of colored liquid in three different spots along the tool to indicate if something is level, or plumb. You can also purchase a laser level -- you hold this against a wall, and it shines a light beam in a perfectly straight line along the wall in both directions.

These two tools are not only essential, but can reduce your frustration levels as you build, fix or remodel.

Essential Tool 1: Rotary Tool

A rotary tool uses a variable high-speed motor to turn any number of attachments that fit onto a spinning bit. This is a pricier essential, but well worth it because of its versatility. Plan on spending anywhere from $30 to $130, depending on the accessories you opt for.

With a rotary tool, you can cut light materials like fiberglass and ceramic tile. Use the sanding attachment for use in tight spots. Use a grinder attachment to remove grout or file down burrs on metal edges. Stripped screw heads can be cut off using a spinning blade. You can strip paint and varnish from wood with sanding attachments and sharpen tools with the grinder. They're also handy for arts and crafts, and you can even cut your dog's toenails if they don't mind the sound.

Note: The motor spins at speeds up to 35,000 RPMs, so you need to be careful and always wear eye protection when using this toolbox essential.