If we had our way we would own two of just about every tool ever made, storing them on every shelf, toolbox, and cart inside our garages and shops. Tools make tackling projects on our 4x4s easier, and we lean on some tools a lot more than others. Sure, that left-handed metric adjustable wrench is helpful when you need it, but we (and you) use some tools so frequently that just about any job would be sunk without it. We asked the staff and some of our best freelancers about their favorite shop tools. Some of these are required for nearly every job, some are really handy for what we do (even if we don’t do it often), and others are quality tools that work at a fraction of the cost of one or several other tools that you may find yourself needing.
Yukon Bearing Puller
No bearing puller we’ve ever used works as well as the Yukon Gear & Axle Carrier Bearing Puller (PN YT P22). With clamshells and rings for a variety of common bearing sizes, just assemble it over your bearings, select the right cup, and grab your impact. It perfectly removes your bearing with no damage to the race or rollers every time. Once you use one you’ll never go back to an old-school split bearing puller. Source: Yukon Gear & Axle, 888.905.5044, yukongear.com
Miller Plasma Cutter
The Miller Spectrum 375 Spectrum X-Treme plasma cutter is a must-have if you do more than one build a year. Cutting out brackets from plate steel with a saber saw and grinding off frame or axle brackets with a grinder gets extremely tedious. The Miller Plasma cutter uses your shop’s or garage’s compressed air and a 110- or 220-volt electric outlet to slice through steel up to 3/8 inch thick like a hot knife through butter. Source: Miller Electric, 920.734.9821, millerwelds.com
Snap-on Crud Thug
There are wire wheel attachments you put on your drill, and then there’s the Snap-on Crud Thug. We mostly use the wire wheel attachment, technically dubbed a “material removal tool,” for stripping off years of caked-on grease and sconge, but a variety of abrasive and nonabrasive wheels are available for removing paint, automotive adhesive, and more. The paddle trigger allows you to vary the speed of the tool. Despite its powerful performance, it doesn’t use a ton of cfm, so most at-home compressors can keep up. Source: Snap-on Inc., snapon.com
Harbor Chop Saw
We’ve beaten Harbor Freight Tools’ chop saw like a redheaded stepchild and it just keeps coming back for more abuse. When we bought ours almost 20 years ago it came with a set of replacement brushes for the electric motor, which we had to install about nine years ago when the motor just stopped working one day. A quick turn of a Phillips screwdriver and we had the new brushes installed, and it has been flawless ever since. Although the base may not be as fancy as other higher-price options, we have used it to build countless rollcages, chop axletubes, make bumpers, and work on tons of other projects. Source: Harbor Freight Tools, 800.423.2567, harborfreight.com
Harbor Engine Hoist
Yes, another Harbor Freight Tools selection. For over 16 years our 2-ton Harbor engine hoist still operates as well as it did the first time we used it. It’s fairly common for hydraulic rams to lose lift performance and bleed down after a couple years, but not this ram. It works perfectly when we need it, and it folds up nice and tidy and out of the way when we don’t. Source: Harbor Freight Tools, 800.423.2567, harborfreight.com
Our very own Trent McGee gave us this old bench vise. We don’t remember where it came from, but probably one of his relatives had it. It was missing its crossbar and the screws to secure the jaw pads. Either way it’s a good vise, and it just may be older than anyone on staff at 4-Wheel & Off-Road
magazine. A vise makes a great burn-proof third hand for just about anything you are working on. Having a good one is not optional. We’ve used it to hold delicate scale rockcrawler parts while silver brazing, make small brackets for our fullsize 4x4s while tack and finish welding, remove worn bushings and U-joints, hold differential carriers, hold tubing while coping it for rollcages and rocker guards, and so much more. The vise never complains and is always ready to work.
Woodward Fab Band Saw
Our good buddy Mike Tarvin bought this Woodward Fab band saw for a song and left it with us on an extended loan. He won’t sell it and won’t take it back as long as we can still use it. It makes cutting steel and aluminum easy and yields professional results. The saw uses a 64 1/2x1/2-inch blade that you can replace at the hardware store up the street. What Mike doesn’t know is we use it a lot and will probably will have to buy it from him once we’ve worn it out completely. It’s one of those tools that we figured we could use and now can’t live without. You can use it as a chop saw (it has a hydraulic feed and automatic off switch for that), or you can lift the arm all the way up and use it like a standup band saw. Lucky for us when we wear it completely out, we can buy a new one for Mike from Summit. Source: Summit Racing Equipment, 800.230.3030, summitracing.com
No shop is complete without a variety of hammers. Call them what you like—speed wrenches, hitters, beaters, pounders, whatever—you need one or many. And while there are ways to make do without some tools, a hammer is next to impossible to do without. Sure, you could pound on things with a wrench or a rock, but it just ain’t a hammer no matter how hard you swing. We’ve got body hammers, 3- and 5-pound sledgehammers, sometimes MC Hammer, and clawed hammers, but a stout ballpeen hammer is what we use 60 percent of the time we’re swinging a hammer.
12-ton Harbor Shop Press With Swag Off Road Brake
It’s great having a shop press to press out old bushings and new ones into control arms, press on and off bearings from axle carriers, axleshafts, and pinions, and more. This inexpensive 12-ton shop press from Harbor Freight Tools is simple and works. With a few intelligent add-ons from Swag Off Road (like the 12-ton brake kit and machined arbor plates), the tool becomes that much safer and more versatile. It’s great for making bends in flat bar steel to make tabs for hanging shocks, underhood parts, lights, and more. Source: Harbor Freight Tools, 800.423.8567, harborfreight.com
For us, a good electric angle grinder is irreplaceable. We use ours with a metal brush mounted to the arbor to clean metal prior to welding or to remove paint, bed liner, and stubborn dirt from many projects. Add a 4 1/2-inch metal cutting wheel to the arbor and our grinder becomes a mini handheld chop saw for cutting sheetmetal or heavy steel for brackets and the like. A hard grinder stone makes short work of cleaning up ugly welds and removing brackets and tabs from frames and axles. A flap wheel or sanding disc smooths cuts, rounds edges, removes plasma slag, flattens what’s left of old welds (like on an axle), and can be used as a rudimentary mill or lathe to machine parts to fit. We’ve used and abused grinders from various companies, but it’s hard to go wrong with a Dewalt. Source: Dewalt, dewalt.com
We thoroughly enjoy liquefying metal, and our go-to tool for that is our Millermatic 190 MIG welder. We generally run 0.030-inch solid wire with CO2/Argon mix shielding gas. We use that for welding together everything from 3/8-inch plate to 18-gauge body panels. We were leery in the beginning about the Autoset feature on this welder, but it’s all we use now. You just tell the machine the thickness of the material you’re welding on, and it does its magic. Welds are clean and strong without being too hot or cold. We also use a Miller Auto Darkening Helmet, Miller gloves, and a Miller welding jacket. With clean metal, a little experience, and some patience, you too can learn to stack dimes, creating welds like a pro. Source: Miller Electric, 920.734.9821, millerwelds.com
Nuts & Bolts Author
Clamshell Bearing Puller
This is one of those tools that, we admit, we don’t use a whole bunch, but those few times we have, nothing else is our arsenal would have done the job. While it’s a pretty specialized tool, it’s not expensive and should be considered a mandatory accessory for anyone who owns a shop press. We’ve used it to press bearings of off axleshafts, transfer case output shafts, and for assorted other items where you need to get behind a bearing but don’t have much room. It paid for itself the first time we used it and has been paying us back ever since.
There’s nothing you can’t diagnose with a good multimeter, the Swiss army knife for electricity. Without one it’s all just a guessing game. Sure, a test light will tell you a fair amount about a problem you’re chasing, but a multimeter can measure voltage, ohms, and current, which enables you to do so much more. A nice one from Fluke is a good investment if you do a fair amount of electrical work, but we keep one of the free or nearly free ones from Harbor Freight Tools in every 4x4 we own. Even those are better in our opinion than a test light. Give us a multimeter, a couple lengths of wire, and a few butt connectors, and we can fix just about any electrical problem you could encounter in the shop or on the trail.
Whether you call them Rivet nuts, Rivnuts, Nutserts, or whatever, we’re talking about the little inserts that make it possible to add a threaded anchor to sheetmetal, tubing, and many other materials. They are becoming more common with aftermarket accessories, and if you’re adding any sort of body armor to a JK, you are guaranteed to run across these evil little inventions. They actually work pretty well when installed properly, but that’s the problem—most of the time a cheesy install tool is supplied that is both cumbersome and failure-prone. It’s also a one-shot deal; if an install goes wrong you’re left hating life with a worthless piece of crap and a hole you didn’t want to drill in the first place. Do yourself a favor and buy a proper installation tool if you ever have to install even one. You can get them online for $30-$50 and they’re worth every penny for avoiding hurled tools and expletives.
The air-operated and electric impact drivers are awesome, but manual impact drivers are worthy of their own spot on this list. They are great for attacking a stubborn bolt, but they are invaluable when you’re dealing with a frozen Phillips or flathead screw or bolt. The genius of this tool is that the impact from a hammer not only drives the tool deeper into the slot or hex but also introduces rotation at the same time. You’re much less likely to strip out the head of a screw or bolt, and they’re reversible so you can also use one to tighten fasteners. We picked up ours years ago at a tool store, and we became believers when we removed the Phillips-head windshield hinge bolts from a rusty 1960s Jeep without stripping out a single one. Ours can be used to drive screws or 1/2-inch sockets, and was under $40 new.
Here’s another tool that doesn’t get used often but pays for itself every time we break it out. Changing tires is a job that is easily accomplished at a tire shop, but most tire shops in our area won’t even touch beadlock wheels. As a result we find ourselves breaking out the tire pliers every time we need to swap new tires on a set of beadlocks. There’s a bit of a learning curve and technique to using them efficiently, but once mastered, there’s no better or quicker tool for breaking beads short of a commercial tire machine. Unlike many other homegrown techniques, they also do the job without damaging the tires or wheels. We don’t usually carry them on the trail with us, but they make the job of breaking beads around the shop much less labor intensive and unpleasant. We got ours years ago from Extreme Outback Products: Source: Extreme Outback Products, extremeoutback.com
Freelancer and Tactical Cameraman
Harbor Earthquake 1/2-inch Impact Gun
There’s no denying that air tools are a game changer, but they vary widely in quality and price. One of the best bang-for-the-buck tools in our box is this Earthquake 1/2-inch impact gun from Harbor Freight Tools. It costs under $100 and can generated 700 lb-ft of torque, yet it’s easier to dial back for smaller fasteners. If you can’t remove it with this impact gun, it’s time to get out the torch. Source: Harbor Freight Tools, 800.423.8567, harborfreight.com
Milwaukee Impact Driver
After borrowing an impact driver from a friend for the sixth time, we finally decided it was time to buy our own. We already had a cordless drill, but it doesn’t deliver nearly the torque of an actual impact driver. Features to look for include a keyless chuck and integrated LED lights. Also, compare voltage and torque specs when shopping. Several good brands on the market are comparable in price, but we are partial to the Milwaukee brand. Source: Milwaukee Tool, 800.729.3878, milwaukeetool.com
Prevost Air Couplers
Have you ever had to fight to get a tool on or off your air hose? We used to struggle with this until a friend gave us a Prevost pushbutton air coupler. They cost a little more than a typical air chuck, but it is money well spent when you can easily disconnect a tool with one greasy hand. Now that we have them, it is tough to go back to using clumsy traditional air fittings. We replaced all of our fittings, and now we are the one giving air couplers to friends just like our buddy did for us! Source: Prevost, prevostusa.com
LED Shop Light
You can never have enough light in the shop, particularly when a rollup door is open and covers much of the overhead lighting. This LED light from Harbor Freight Tools is rechargeable, rotates and swivels to provide light at any angle, and has a magnetic base to stay in place. The only downside is the size—in tight situations we prefer to just wear a headlamp. But for 90 percent of shop work this light is perfect. Just don’t forget to turn it off and recharge it when you are done. Source: Harbor Freight Tools, 800.423.8567, harborfreight.com
Pro Eagle Jack
We drive trucks, not cars, and the average tire size in our garage is 37 inches tall. Getting big trucks high enough in the air to remove tires, or droop out the suspension to measure or install shocks, is nearly impossible with a standard floor jack. Not to mention their tiny wheels can’t roll over a pebble, much less an air hose. Pro Eagle’s 3-ton Kratos jack doesn’t have any of those issues, and it is way safer than the ol’ wood-block-stack on top of your floor jack’s foot. The Kratos has huge tires (just like my trucks!) and an 8-inch adjustable extension that locks to the foot. The company even makes a cool racecar mount to carry the jack in your vehicle. Source: Pro Eagle, 310.513.8222, proeagle.com