Home-Improvement Essentials

Here are some new-fangled tools and gadgets you'll want to add to your wish list.
Derick Belden

The do-it-yourself home-improvement craze continues. Folks are tackling more difficult tasks around the house themselves, and as with any project, having the correct tool is a must.

Once you stock your toolbox with our list of must-have basic tools, look to some of these neat ones to help speed up your weekend projects. As you might expect, some are expensive due to the technology involved, but higher demand has lowered prices on many tools once thought to be only for professionals.

Digital Tape Measure
For those of us who have to count the marks to determine the difference between 1/16 and 1/8 of an inch, the digital readout on this item can be helpful. Just a glance gives automatic feedback, and with the punch of a button, you can convert inches into centimeters.

Be aware that in tight spots you might not be able to get an accurate reading. And the LCD readout is not tested for a fall from the top of a 6-foot ladder. It costs a little more than a basic tape measure--around $20--but if you need to know an exact measurement, it's nice to have.

Power Miter Saw
A wooden miter box and handsaw are becoming a thing of the past. Sure, they're still good for small pieces of molding or craft projects, but once you get a circular saw and cordless drill, go for a power miter saw. It makes accurate cuts and is a must for picture frames or crown molding. You can find a good 10-inch one for around $125.

Circuit Detector
No need to leave your child in the den to yell "off" when trying to locate the correct circuit in a breaker box. With a circuit detector, you can figure out which circuit goes to which rooms by plugging the transmitter into any outlet and running the receiver over the breakers in the box. These are available for around $20.

Stud Sensor
Old stud sensors--plastic frames holding magnets that moved when you slid them across a stud--were about as accurate as a newborn trying to feed itself. New stud sensors really work. They use sound wave technology to determine varying thicknesses along a wall. Higher end versions detect the location of plumbing and electrical wires, so you'll be sure to miss them when you drill a hole. Units start at $10.

Must-Have Basics For Your Toolbox
For some people, any type of home improvement or maintenance can be a form of torture. However, no home should be without an essential set of tools to accomplish basic tasks.

  • Drill--A power drill is a common tool for the weekend handyman. Corded versions are inexpensive (less than $20), but spend a little more (less than $100 for some versions) and get a cordless one. It will drive screws and drill holes with the convenience of rechargeable batteries.
  • Hammer--If you own just one tool, this should be it. Look for one that has a cushioned grip and tempered steel head, even though it may cost more. If budget is your highest priority, a wooden handle is fine, but be sure it's hickory or another hardwood.
  • Level--Levels come in many shapes and sizes from the 6-inch torpedo to a 4-foot carpenter's version. A 2-foot metal multipurpose level should be all you need for most household jobs.
  • Pliers--Two pairs will suffice. One should be an all-purpose pair of slip-joint pliers to help you grip an elusive nut or bolt. The second set should be needle-nose pliers. They can reach a tight spot or clip the end of a wire. Make sure both pairs are tempered steel and have rubber grips for comfort.
  • Saw--Saws come in many shapes and sizes. If you don't do much cutting, then a handsaw may be all you need. But a power circular saw can be purchased for as little as $20 or $30 and is quite versatile. Look for a 7 1/4-inch size with a wide base for stability.
  • Screwdriver--A staple in anyone's toolbox, screwdrivers can be used to pry off a paint can lid, chisel a hole, and, of course, tighten a screw. Not all screws are created equal, so look for a set that accommodates different head types. They are not much more expensive than a single screwdriver and come with an array of sizes.
  • Wrench--An adjustable wrench is great to have. Because it does not rely on hand strength for gripping power, you'll be able to get a better hold on a nut or bolt than with a pair of pliers.