Must-Have Tools for Beginner Auto Mechanic | Essential Tools part 1

This post is the first part of the “Essential Tools for Auto Mechanics” post series:

I still remember my first day as an auto mechanic. I was ready to tackle anything they would throw at me. At least, that’s what I was trying to convince myself.

I had bought as many tools as I could with the small amount of money I had at the time. Trying to figure out what tools I would need the most in the first few days or until I get my first paycheck. I ended up buying an overpriced Snap-On impact gun and other tools I wouldn’t even use in years. Seriously, I even had a piston ring compressor. Not sure what I was thinking. This is not beginner stuff at all!

Anyway, here’s the tool shopping list I should have used then!

This is every tool you’ll need to be ready for your first day as a beginner mechanic in an auto repair shop.

On day one, you don’t all need fancy tools. Leave that expensive Snap-On gun for later. Just make sure you have the tools on this list and you’ll be able to perform all the tasks handed to you by your new boss. Brands may differ as every mechanic as his favorite tool brand so buy the one you want but remember that some tools may be bought cheap while others just can’t.

This list is made from my own experience as an auto mechanic for the last 15 years but, obviously, everybody walks a different path. If I missed a tool that should be included on this list, leave a comment in the section below and I’ll add it to the list right away.

1. Oil Filter Wrench

As a beginner mechanic, you’ll mostly be assigned to maintenance work such as tire mounting, inspection and, of course, oil change. This is an unavoidable thing. Every new mechanic has to go through this period. To be a pro one day, you first have to learn the basics. That and also because nobody else wants to do it. Anyway, get used to it. Work hard, learn everything you can and, one day, you’ll be happy the new guy is doing all the tire work too.

In the meantime, make sure you get yourself a good oil filter wrench. I personally use 2 or 3 differently sized oil wrenches. They work better than strap wrenches or plier models but you’ll need to get a couple of them to fit smaller or bigger oil filters. It all depends on where you work. Honda and Toyota, for example, almost use the same filter size for all models but Ford, on the other hand, uses a wide range of oil filter sizes.

I suggest you buy a medium-sized one first. Honda Civic size is perfect and will fit most cars, which is good enough to start.

2. Ratchet and Sockets

We’ll go through the obvious ones first. You’ll need a ratchet, in fact, three.

You’ll need a 1/4in, 3/8in, and 1/2in ratchet with matching socket sets. This is probably the tool you’re going to use most so buy a good one. I strongly suggest you buy one of those complete ratchet set. They are always on sale somewhere and you can buy them for half price. You’ll buy a kit like this only once in your life and add more stuff to it with time. I am still working with my first complete set up to this day. I may have bought a lot of 10mm sockets since then, though.

If you are on a tight budget, just buy the 3/8 ratchet with only the metric sockets. As for most of the tools on this list, you can always only buy the metric set since the vast majority of cars you will be working on in real life will require metric tools.

I always wonder why I bought a standard socket kit. Probably because it came in the complete set I bought 10 years ago…

You’ll probably never use it except when your 19mm won’t fit on a rusty bolt. You’re better using the money for mechanics tool sets you need now and leave the standard kit purchase for later.

3. Wrench set

Pretty obvious too. You’ll need a good wrench set.

Once again, you can buy the metric ones first. If money is not a problem, buy a set of ratchet wrenches too but know that these don’t replace the normal ratchet set. Ratchet wrenches are super useful for numerous tasks but their heads tend to be a bit thicker and won’t fit everywhere so make sure you buy the normal set first.

4. Impact Gun

I’ll never say it enough. Buy a quality impact gun from the start.

And because we now live in the future, buy a cordless one.

You just can’t imagine how free you’ll feel until you get one. 10 years ago, when I started as a beginner auto mechanic, I bought a standard Ingersoll-Rand gun. Cordless models were super expensive then and weren’t that powerful compared to air-powered ones. But not so long ago, after seeing everybody on Instagram using the Milwaukee cordless model, I bought one and, wow, what a difference!

It’s probably the best thing to happen since forced induction!

Worth mentioning, check out the Milwaukee ONE-KEY impact gun. They feature 4 customizable torque settings you can set up using an app on your phone or your computer.

If you want more info on the ONE-KEY function, check out this excellent review on the Milwaukee ONE-KEY toolset.

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see also: 10 Best Books to Learn Auto Mechanic by Yourself

5. Screwdrivers

Of course, you’ll also need screwdrivers.

You don’t really have to buy a full set of screwdrivers since you’ll only use the flat and Phillips (cross) screwdriver. Sadly, most of the time it’s cheaper to buy the complete set. This is dumb but what can you do. I have a full bag of square-headed screwdrivers at home and I don’t know what to do with them. Except for the one I ground and bent to use as a rear brake adjustment tool.

You may want to buy a big flat-headed screwdriver too. It’s a pretty handy tool when nothing else works.

6. Pliers

When it comes to pliers, it’s really difficult to choose. There are so many different pliers models, shapes, and lengths. To each is own. But as for the bare minimum, make sure you get at least a pair of these 3 pliers: normal, long-nosed, and cutter pliers.

You’ll never have enough different pairs of pliers but get those three first. You can buy more later on.

7. Vise-Grip

I included the Vise-Grip pliers separately because you absolutely need a pair of these. And don’t take the fake!

A good pair of Vise-Grip can save your life one day!

Seriously, even if you’re on a tight budget, I strongly suggest you buy at least one pair of Vise-Grip. Especially if you work in a small auto repair shop and often fix older car models. They often come in a set of 4 but you don’t need to buy the full kit right away. Just get the classic one.

These pliers serve as last resorts and will be your best friend when working on tough nuts and bolts!

8. Funnels

Funnels come in all shapes and sizes but you really need only two. A small one and a long one. The long one is for filling transmission fluid. The other one is for oil changes. Ideally, you’ll want a funnel with an opening the same size as most common engine oil fill plugs.

Personally, I used to have a super clever funnel with different threaded adaptors that would perfectly fit most car’s oil opening but I drove on it once and now I just can’t find one anywhere. I now use an empty 1-liter oil bottle cut in half. It doesn’t look as professional as my last one but it does the job just fine.

Whether you buy a specific funnel or make your own is really up to you. You absolutely need to find one you like to work with, though.

9. Hammer

Once again, this is a tool you need to buy in two different sizes. You need a small one and a big one. The big one is used to remove drum brakes, ball joints and tie rods or whenever something doesn’t go as plan and you need a little convincing. The small one is used for all those other jobs where a hammer is needed but you don’t want to break things.

Just get two hammers you’re comfortable working with. You’ll use them a lot so don’t buy cheap ones.

10. Pry bar

You’ll also need a small pry bar. Once again, I suggest you buy a quality one because cheaper models will bend and won’t be of any use. Don’t buy a full kit if you can’t afford it but instead, buy only one good multi-use pry bar.

Small pry bars are very versatile and will help you perform numerous tasks. They are perfect to remove calipers, wheel caps, drive shafts and drum brakes but also to give you a hand whenever you need to pry or break something in place.

You’ll never realize how much you need a good pry bar until you have to work without one. Trust me.

You may also need a bigger one for removing ball joints and control arms but I suggest you wait before you buy it. They tend to be expensive and you can still borrow one from a co-worker in the meantime. Sometimes you’ll have to work beside a pro mechanic who thinks he knows it all and won’t lend you their tools and be a bitch about it but most mechanics will be more than happy to help the new guys out.

I still remember how it was when I started. I didn’t have much money to buy all the tools I needed and all I had was an impact gun and a toolbox the size of fishing bait box. Thank God, I was lucky enough to have a pro mechanic willing to help me out working in the stall beside me.

Never underestimate the help you can get from more experienced guys working with you.

Experience is golden!

11. Door Trim Removal Tool

This tool is not absolutely necessary. I decided to include it for two reasons: 1- it will help you remove plastic clips without getting frustrated and 2- it will prevent you from breaking trims and upholstery which doesn’t really look good when you start working somewhere. Trims are super expensive and your boss will hate you if you break lots of them. I broke my fair share of trims in my early days, especially in winter when you work on frozen cars. These things tend to break like glass…. or frozen plastic.

You can find a good trim removal tool almost everywhere and they are pretty cheap. Just buy one and save the hassle of sticking a screwdriver through your finger and remove clips and trims like a pro from the start!

12. Pocket Screwdriver

A pocket screwdriver will probably be your most useful tool. I know I said that already but seriously, buy one. I don’t know about you but my nail game is not really on point so my pocket screwdriver is pretty handy. You’ll use it to remove and install oil seal, trims, and small parts. It also works as a small prybar, a scrapper, a centering punch, a marking tool, etc.

Most of the time, you don’t even have to buy one since most auto part shop and suppliers will give out some for free. Personally, I seem to be really good at losing them so last time I went to the part store I just bought 10 pocket screwdrivers and left them in the top drawer of my chest. Best idea ever!

13. Big Channellock Pliers

You may not have heard of Channellock pliers before. They are not as widely known as Vise-Grip pliers but they are definitely as useful, if not more. You won’t use them as often as your Vise-Grips but you’ll be happy you have them on tough jobs.

The shape of the teeth really bites into the metal allowing the jaw to grip on almost everything. They are perfect for more specific jobs or when everything else failed.

I personally use two of them: the 12″ Straight Jaw and the 9,5″ Nutbuster.

The Straight Jaw works well to compress front calipers when installing new brake pads, removing oil filters when you don’t have an oil filter wrench of the correct size, or grip and remove almost anything covered with rust. I use them a lot for alignment jobs. They do wonders to hold the tie-rod end while adjusting the toe. These pliers also work as the go-to tool for every time you don’t have a tool big enough to do the job. The adjusting jaw is perfect to hold big stuff while still having a good hand grip.

The Nutbuster, as the name implies, is for busting nuts. The parrot nose is designed to grip on a round surface and it works really well. This is another last-resort tool but you’ll be happy you bought a pair whenever you are having a tough time with a rounded bolt.

14. Tire Pressure Gauge & Inflator

One of the most common task you’ll have to perform when beginning as an auto mechanic is maintenance and tire jobs. You’ll have to check and adjust air pressure on cars you are working on maybe 10 to 20 times a day.

Make sure you buy yourself a good air pressure gauge & inflator.

They make these in all shapes and forms. Some tools check the pressure and inflate at the same time to speed up the process while others are digital for a more precise application. Cars with TPMS (Tire Pressure Monitor System) can be tricky to inflate correctly and you may trigger the TPMS light if you use an inappropriately calibrated tool.

Choose one to your liking. Nobody knows what’s best for you better than yourself. Buy one you are comfortable using as you’re going to use it a lot.

15. LED Work Light

This one may be optional. Some auto repair shop will provide it for you. Personally, I like to have my own work light. Most of the time, when the shop provides it, two things happen. It’s either an inexpensive, bulky model that won’t fit anywhere or it’s an expensive one and you’ll have to pay for it if you ever happen to break or lose it. I say keep that one in your tool chest and buy another one.

I like to buy a not so expensive brand so it doesn’t bother me too much when I drive on it with a car. I don’t know why I keep doing this but it happens on a regular basis. I also like to have one of those super inexpensive little pocket flashlights you can buy everywhere. They are perfect for brake inspections and they are small enough so you can keep one in your pocket. Really handy.

I think it’s better to buy a cheaper one and replace it more often. You are going to let it fall and break it anyway.

And you can find pretty powerful LED work lights online for a really good price so why bother?

16. Pick Set

Pick sets are cheap and useful for various applications. Either it’s for removing oil cartridge filters’ seals or door handle locking pins, you’ll find plenty of use for small picks. They don’t cost a lot of money so just buy a set.

You won’t regret it.

17. Test Light

Test lights are perfect to quickly inspect for blown fuses and other simple electric problems like light bulbs not working and starters diagnosing. I personally really like dual polarity or “smart” test lights. They let you test for positive and negative at the same time, eliminating the need to switch the probe from negative to positive everytime you want to test for ground or 12v. This really gets annoying when you need to switch back and forth multiple times. Make yourself a favor and just buy a dual polarity test light.

I didn’t include a multimeter here because most beginner auto mechanics won’t have to perform electrical diagnosis work but if you do, I strongly suggest you buy a quality one. With today’s electrical systems being always more complexes and becoming more electronic than electrical; cheaper, less accurate multimeters may mislead you during the troubleshooting process. Don’t let that happen. Nothing is more frustrating than having a come-back due to a wrong diagnosis because of cheap equipment.

Some tools can be bought for cheap, others just can’t.

18. Automatic Wire Stripper 

If you happen to do electrical work, this one is a must-have. An automatic wire stripper will save you time and work while keeping your fingers safe from razor blades. These strippers are self-adjusting to quickly remove insulation from wires and will work on almost every wire sizes.

I don’t even know why they keep selling the older models where you had to select the correct wire size. And they are almost the same price. Just buy an automatic one.

19. Socket Extension Bar

If you bought a complete ratchet and socket set, you may have one or two extension bars already included. Make sure you have a couple of them and if not buy them separately.

You’ll need a short one, a medium one, and a long one. Maybe two long ones so you can mix them up with the shorter ones for really hard to reach bolts.

Worth mentioning, if you have to buy extension bars separately, check out those “wobble” extension bars. They allow the socket to pivot for difficult to access work areas. I don’t really like them but I know some mechanics who just can’t live without them. Try them and see for yourself.

20. Extensible Magnet

This tool could save your life one day. It’s all fun and games until you drop a socket or a bolt into something it’s impossible for you to reach into and really can’t just leave it there. I once dropped a bolt in a spark plug hole when the spark plug was removed, indeed. There’s no way I could’ve got that bolt out of the cylinder with a pair of long-nosed pliers. My boss would have killed me if I had to tell him I now needed to remove the engine head for the price of a spark plug replacement.

My extensible magnet was worth every penny that day!

And the day I dropped a socket in a catalytic converter while removing an exhaust manifold. And that other day I dropped it in the radiator fan. Get it? Just get yourself one!

I use the exact same model as the one displayed above. It works just fine. You really don’t need to buy something any more expensive than that.

21. Die Grinder

You will need, at least, one good die grinder. If you can afford it, I suggest you buy two: one 90 degrees die grinder like the one pictured above and a straight die grinder.

You’ll use the straight one equipped with a metal brush for brake system maintenance and exhaust work but you can also use it with a small cutting disc for various cutting purposes.

On the other hand, you’ll use the right angle die grinder to clean rims and wheels, valve covers and wheels hubs.

You can easily work with only one of them and switch from brush to cutting disc back and forth but you’ll quickly realize that, on some jobs, the straight one just won’t work. And they are pretty inexpensive compared to other air tools so treat yourself for once!

On a budget? You can always buy cheaper brands. They will do the job just fine until you’re able to buy your dream grinder. Be aware that on some cheaper models the trigger may not be as sensitive, though, which can be a bummer sometimes.  Just so you know.

22. Jumper Cables

Last but not least, this is actually one of the most important tools for auto mechanics!

Jumper cables work as a bridge to supply 12v from a working car battery to a dead one. If you work in an auto repair shop, humper cables may be supplied by the shop owner but if you work on your own, we strongly suggest you buy a set.

Customers often come to the repair shop for a dead battery problem and no matter if they came on a tow truck or if they boosted their car at home using a booster pack, they will irredeemably leave the car in the parking lot and turn the engine off before walking inside. You’ll then need to jump-start it again to bring it into your working bay and fix it.

Having a set of jumper cables ready will simply make your life a lot easier. To get the most bang for your buck, we suggest you buy the best jumper cables available on the market. Make sure to shop around and find one fitting your needs and budget. It’s often better to pay a little more for a set who will last you a lifetime than to buy cheaper ones and having to buy another set in a year or two.

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That’s it!

If you get most of the tools on this list, you should be as ready for your first day as a beginner auto mechanic as you’ll ever be. Never forget that no matter how good you were in auto mechanic school, you still have a lot to learn.

You have no idea.

Becoming a pro mechanic takes time and dedication, hard work and sweat. You can’t fast forward the process. A wise man once told me: “It takes about 5 years to become an auto mechanic, but it takes 10 years to become a good one.”

How to Become an Auto Mechanic | Quote

My best advice is to find a more experienced mechanic and learn by working beside him. There’s a lot you can learn by watching a pro do his thing. And if you’re lucky enough, you’ll be able to borrow the tools you still haven’t bought yet. Don’t worry if your tool chest still feels empty, 15 years later, I still buy tools on a regular basis and there’s always more tools I need.

I hope it helps!

Oh! And yeah, in the spirit of full disclosure, we just want to make sure you are aware that some of these links are affiliate links. Meaning that every time you click on one and buy something, we do get a small commission. We don’t want you to feel obligated to buy something in any way ever but just know that if you plan to buy one of these anyway, we would greatly appreciate it if you do use one of our links!

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Cheers and have a nice day!

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