Illustration: Elena Scotti (GMG)

Hello. It’s me, a guy who made a “sound financial decision” and purchased a home. I may no longer be “throwing money away” on rent, but here’s the thing people always forget to tell you about owning a house: it presents you with an infinite supply of things to throw money away on. I’m here to help you, my fellow homeowners, do less of that by teaching you about tools.

My wife and I bought our place in L.A. in 2013, when the market was way less insane than it is now, but still insane enough that we considered an aesthetically disastrous house where the plumbing just kinda worked and half the windows leaked to be a steal. But even if our house weren’t old and busted, I wouldn’t have been so naive as to think that once escrow closed I’d be done writing checks. Still, it was a shock to me just how much of that set-aside-for-furniture-and-emergency-repairs money went directly to Home Depot, and how quickly. After a month it was already funny to me how often I was there, and how much I was spending, so I started tossing all my receipts into a box. After a year there were more that 50. When I looked at them all I could think was, “This can’t be all of them.”

The dreaded receipt box.
Photo: Pete Keeley

Every weekend I was back—in some new aisle I didn’t even know existed when I was a renter just looking for a shower head and Command hooks—loading up a flatbed trolley with lumber or joint compound or elastometric roof coating or a toilet. And always, always, I would find myself in the tool section, essentially guessing about whichever item might best help me accomplish my appointed task (and also wondering what the fuck a “biscuit joiner” is and then forgetting to Google it). I guessed wrong often.

It bears mentioning that I possessed close to zero knowledge of building or repairing or DIY’ing of any kind when I first became a homeowner. I didn’t grow up around anyone whose job or hobbies involved power tools. My dad assembled a bookcase once, I think. But I am semi-competent when it comes to cars, competency I was likewise forced to acquire when I bought my first, a 20-year-old Volvo, and discovered in short order that Volvo mechanics are more crooked than angled screwdrivers! (This is a tremendous joke that will make sense 700 words from now.) Homes are the same: It helps to acquire a bit of knowledge, which will both allow you to fix things yourself and level the field a bit when dealing with contractors, who as a general rule make mechanics look like saw guides!! (900 words.) It took me probably two years to get to the point I’m at now, where I go to Home Depot strictly for materials. (I still buy tools, mind, it’s just now I don’t need the tools I buy.)

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So you’ve come from your apartment or condo with your bag of tools. You most likely have a claw hammer and some screwdrivers, needle-nose and/or tongue-and-groove pliers, a socket wrench, a putty knife and some spackle that you didn’t close all the way, a wide selection of duplicative IKEA Allen keys, a measuring tape, a torpedo level, maybe a stud finder. If you have any power tool, it’s most likely a drill/driver. But now you, homeowner, find yourself entering hour two of your second trip to “the Deeps” in as many days, wandering the tool section, the incessant beep of the security monitors having long ceased to intrude on your reverie, searching for the tool that, you imagine, must exist. All I can offer you is a list of tools I’ve purchased that have saved me from experiencing too many days like these.

A note on power tools.

I’m just gonna get this out of the way right up front, since this whole endeavor is partly about others learning from my mistakes: Under no circumstances should you purchase a battery-powered tool that you’ll want to run for more than, say, five minutes—which is roughly the amount of time a standard 18V battery pack will last before you have to waste an hour recharging it. I’m talking sanders, angle grinders, etc. I bought one of each before I caught on. I’m planning on making one of these eventually, but my general recommendation is to consider the corded version of any power tool first.

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Drill guide

A drill guide will allow you to bore perfectly straight holes into things with a handheld drill. It is such an essential improvement over trying to eyeball your way to perpendicular that I don’t understand why these things don’t just come standard with every drill. My most fervent recommendation.

Metal and masonry bits

Did you know that you need to buy special drill bits to bore into metal and rock? I didn’t! And if no one tells you, the only way you’ll learn is by completely fucking up a perfectly good wood-designated drill bit. There are plenty of bits that can drill through wood and metal both, so that’s something to consider if you don’t want to spend all the money, but in my experience one big project where metal drilling is involved will be enough to render a bit too dull to do much more than kind of lacerate its way through wood. Also I prefer brad point bits—which only work on wood—for wood.

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Hammer drill

My house is stucco, so I use masonry bits all the time. As such, I quickly determined that a normal drill/driver is essentially useless for drilling holes into anything rock or rock-adjacent. But no matter your home’s cladding, my thinking is this: Since non-hammer drills and hammer drills are pretty comparable in cost, and since the hammer setting can be switched off, you might as well just get the hammer drill, eh?

Impact driver

You are a grown man now and shouldn’t be driving screws with a drill. Impact drivers are built to do one thing, which is make you feel dumb as hell for ever trying to screw two pieces of wood together with anything else. It’s the ultimate example of “Let the tool do the work.” You just pull the trigger and the screw practically leaps into the wood. It also makes a very satisfying BRAAAAP sound that lets all your neighbors know that you are not fucking around in the least.

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I do not recommend you buy one of those cordless tool starter sets because they always try to sneak some trash in there, but if you were to purchase a set like this I would have no choice but to respect you.

More screwdrivers

Man, I have so many screwdrivers now: angled, stubby, ratcheting, precision. Just got a sweet manual torque driver, etc. I use all of them, it seems like.

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I recommend just going to Home Depot and pulling a Supermarket Sweep-type operation in the screwdriver section. Just indiscriminately toss different types of drivers into your giant orange cart, because here’s the thing about screwdrivers, I’ve found: You need them for every job, and lots of times a certain type of screwdriver is the only type that will work.

Stubby to install a new cabinet hinge in a corner, angled to remove the circuit board from a fan so I can hose down the rest of it, precision to reset the earthquake sensor on my gas line, and so on. So just buy all of them (this set is pretty good), lest you be halfway through some project and there it is, the one screw that you cannot get to, and in its wake the dawning realization that if you want to continue you are going to have to get in your car and drive to a hardware store and go to the screwdriver section and survey all the myriad options until you alight upon the only tool that can surmount such an obstacle.

I also recommend getting a screwdriver magnetizer/demagnetizer, which cost like $5 and will save you that much worth of grief in a day.

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Levels

I wasn’t going to talk about levels, but when I was down in my workroom trying to decide what tools I should include in this thing, I was like, “Oh shit I have a lot of levels now!” So yeah, a post level and a line level are two pretty cheap tools that I’ve gotten a lot of use out of. And I have a 4-foot level that does double duty as a guide for cutting plywood. Levels, man. Pretty good.

A good circular saw

You want a sturdy base plate that will remain locked in place at a 90 degree angle to the blade. You want a powerful motor that will make ripping an inch off a salvaged oak door a meditative experience. It should have some heft so once you start a cut a slight tremor in your hand isn’t enough to jam the blade.

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I fucked up. I bought a cheap-ass Ryobi for 40 bucks and I don’t believe it’s ever made a straight cut on either axis. I have to check for square before literally every cut, and it’s pointless because the minute the blade hits the workpiece it somehow manages to torque out of true by a few degrees. There is a “guide laser” which, as far as I can tell, is impossible to line up with the kerf of the saw. I’m pretty sure it’s not even a real laser. Anyhow, the result is that every cut requires extra measuring, extra sanding, extra, just, time.

I should add that I am not terribly discerning in any taste. I can generally get by with the cheap stuff. So the first time I used a quality circular saw, the immediately apparent superiority kind of shocked me. “Oh hey look at that the saw just did exactly what it was supposed to do without incident!”

Get a good circular saw. I recommend a worm drive, which is better for rip cuts, i.e. the type of cuts you can’t do with a miter saw (which I also recommend, but I’m trying to keep this list to handheld stuff). And a positive stop at 0 degrees on the bevel is also a nice feature. And a non-decorative laser. Here is where I mention that Craigslist is a very good place for buying nice power tools.

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Also, get a saw guide, to help with cutting sheets of plywood. And — shout-out Bob Villa — a quick square works great as a guide for cross cuts.

Clamps

In maybe my greatest Craigslist triumph, I bought a guy’s entire massive collection of clamps for pennies on the dollar. Now I could build out the interior of an Urban Outfitters and glue everything up at once. But for starters, I recommend a pair of 12-inch bar clamps and a pair of clamps that look like this, which if there is a standard name for I don’t know it. Clamps always find a way to make themselves useful.

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Pickaxe

The well-heeled lobbying operation of Big Shovel has managed to make its product synonymous with digging in the mind of the American consumer. For decades we’ve been bombarded with propagandistic images of the noble farmer’s dusty, work-booted foot effortlessly pressing a shovel blade deep into the earth, and prying out a prodigious chunk of rich, heartland soil. And so we shuffle off to our local garden centers, draw a spade from its rack, turn it in our hands, and imagine our place in the unbroken string of humanity, back to the Bronze Age, that has gained mastery over nature. Then we go home, try to dig a hole, and hit a rock, or a root, or a patch of frozen soil, or any other of the obdurate things that render a shovel well and fucking useless.

A pickaxe is for digging. A pickaxe will glide through any substrate. A pickaxe is catharsis wrought in wood and steel. Get a pickaxe.

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Buckets

When I was a teen I loved GQ. One piece I’ve never forgotten was a 1998 profile of a guy named Eustace Conway, who went to live in the woods in 1978 when he was 17 and never came out. Now guys like him are all over the Discovery Channel and YouTube, but back then I recall it striking me as pretty fucking novel. I think about this passage a lot these days.

Late one afternoon, we were all working on the cabin. Eustace had announced that he wanted the floor finished by dusk, so we were working fast. He was using a chain saw. (Yes, he was using a chain saw. These days he will sometimes use modern devices. Some modern devices he actually loves. “Plastic buckets!” he rhapsodizes, for instance. “I love ’em!”) So Eustace was sawing through a log when the chain saw hit a knot, kicked back and jumped toward his face. He deflected it with his left hand, sawing into two of his fingers.

He made one quick sound like “Rah!” and pulled back his hand. The blood started pumping out. Christian and I froze, silent. Eustace shook his hand once, sending out a shower of blood, and then recommended sawing. He was back at work. We waited for him to say something or to try to stop the bleeding, which was prolific, but he didn’t. So we both went back to work, too.

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Anyhow, Eustace wasn’t kidding about plastic buckets, man. They are extremely useful to have lying around. I also bought one of these bucket caddies and haven’t used a tool bag since.

Aprons

I have a whole thing about aprons in general being way underutilized, so understand I am biased, but get an apron. Shop aprons basically take a tool belt and combine it with the best of all pockets—the front breast pocket—while offering unparallelled protection to all the main stain-attracting areas.

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One last thing

If all you’re after is store credit, Home Depot’s return policy is essentially unlimited. So if you do guess wrong, and buy some tool you never wind up using — and it doesn’t even just look cool hanging on a peg in your workroom (I’m sure I’ll use my coping saw eventually) — you can return it. Also why I recommend overbuying on materials in all cases. It is supremely satisfying to plan a project and get everything you need to complete it in one trip. I mean, I imagine. That’s the goal, anyway.

See you in the fasteners aisle, friends.