Good tools ain’t cheap, but from a simple fix to a huge fabrication job, the feeling of completing garage project yourself is priceless. Having the right tools to take on any task and having the skills to pull it off is something to which all off-roaders aspire. Most of us have started off with nothing more than a simple starter kit with a few wrenches, a socket set, a couple hammers, and maybe some specialty tools like a pitman arm puller. And thanks to continually hunting down the Snap-On van like a fat kid chasing after an ice cream truck, or sneaking off to the Harbor Freight Midnight Madness sale, the most needed thing in our arsenal is space to put it all. So if you’re just starting in this hobby, or even if you’re a well-seasoned veteran with a four-car shop’s worth of gear crammed into a two-car package like us, we figured we’d mosey through our well-used garage with camera in hand to share some tool selection tips.
The biggest problem with an engine hoist is what to do with it when you’re not using it to lift engines, axles, chassis, or other heavy items. One of the best hoists we’ve had is the 2-ton-capacity folding shop crane from Harbor Freight. In the 10 years or so since we got ours, the company has tweaked the design a bit, but after all those years and all the abuse we’ve dealt it, it still works perfectly and the ram doesn’t bleed down at all. The legs fold up so it can be stored out of the way. Newer models have casters on the forward end of the outrigger legs, not the fixed wheels shown on ours. That makes it much easier to position engines and other items in the chassis while building, fabricating, or just plain wrenching.
Whether brand new or a 40-year-old model bought from Craigslist, a quality toolbox is something no gearhead garage should be without. No matter how big you buy, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you fill it -- and then some. Go for a toolbox with sturdy roller-bearing drawers that will open smoothly with a couple hundred pounds of tools in them. Flimsy toolboxes will do the job, but if you’ve got to fight and struggle to open a drawer every time you need a socket, it’ll make your garage projects suck. Depending on size and quality, new box systems cost $250 and up, but you can often find good used boxes for between $50 to $5,000. To give you an idea, the twin Matco two-bay box shown can be found for about $4,500 used and the triple Craftsman single-bay next to it can be snagged for as little as $150.
Sockets of every size, wrenches, pliers, cutters, screwdrivers, adapters, and more can be found in most off-road addicts’ garages. Shop around and fill your toolbox with what you need. However, there are generally several schools on whether it’s better to buy cheap and replace when broken or to buy quality and then replace when broken. Sadly, there really aren’t that many truly USA-made hand tool options. You can check online places like toolbarn.com or do a Google search if you’re a stickler for USA-made tools. Or if you’re just looking for some decent tools at decent price, Craftsman (Sears), Kobalt (Lowes), Husky (Home Depot), and even Pittsburg (Harbor Freight) tools work well, and replacements can be had at nearly any major town across the USA.
If there’s one area in which you don’t want to cheap out, it’s a welder. You want a name-brand model that’ll get the job done every time you pull the trigger. Inexpensive Lincoln arc welders can be had at most hardware stores for under $200, but do yourself a favor and go MIG. You’ll be able to tackle almost any 4x4-related welding job with a 180-amp MIG welder. There are several units from Lincoln and Miller on the market nowadays that’ll work with either 110 or 210-volt input, but if you have to choose between the two, get a 210-volt model since the duty cycle and power will be greater than a 110-volt. The Millermatic 212 MIG shown in the photo features a 60 percent duty cycle at 160 amps (6 minutes continuous welding with 4 minute cool-down), which is more than enough for any home use. The Miller Diversion 180 TIG unit works with dual voltage input (110 or 210-volt) and is geared more towards the hardcore home hobbyist. It’s a welder we’ll show you in more detail in the future.
Drilling holes in steel requires a very slow chuck speed. Otherwise, you can burn up your drill bits. A friend of ours got a great deal on this Craftsman drill press online, but when his wife got wind of the purchase, it soon became ours for a song. Our 17-inch ¾hp press with can be geared down to 250 rpm by adjusting the belts and features an onboard light and laser crosshairs -- neither of which we really use. In short, leave the gimmicks at the door and look for a quality new or used unit with a good sturdy base, a low-rpm belt system, and a long throat depth so you can fit bulky things like axle housings or transmission cases on the base.
Get the biggest, most powerful air compressor you can manage. There are many good hardware-store offerings nowadays, but we’ve always had decent luck with Craftsman compressors. For years, we ran the pants off a 110-volt Craftsman single-stage compressor. When it got wheezy, we popped in a piston rebuild kit and soldiered on until stepping up to this two-stage model about eight years ago. A two-stage compressor is nice because it can generally operate faster and at a higher pressure than a single-stage. They also run a tad quieter. That said, if your garage or shop will accommodate it, go for a big 210-volt motor with an 80-gallon tank. You can never have enough volume!
Three words: Milwaukee Hole Shooter. If you can only buy one drill, make it one of these. We’ve been hammering (quite literally in some cases) on our 5.5-amp, ½-inch variable-speed Magnum Hole Shooter (PN 0234-6) for over 10 years now with nary a whimper out of it. You can find ‘em for under $140 at most hardware stores. It has impressed us so much that when we needed a right-angle drill for confined spaces, we snagged a Milwaukee 3.5-amp, 3/8-inch Close Quarter Drill (PN 0370-20) for about $130. Of course, when you’re talking cordless drills, it’s hard to do better than a DeWalt 18-volt drill. Nowadays, the lithium-ion batteries outpace the Ni-MH-Cd batteries our unit came with, but we’re still happy with our drill’s performance and battery life.
Benches and Vises
Along with a sturdy bench that you can put heavy stuff like cylinder heads, axle housings, transmissions, or T-cases atop without having it fold like a house of cards, a solid vise with a minimum throat depth of 4 inches should be on your list. We picked up our 5-inch Alltrade Tools vise (PN 835273) at a local Orchard Hardware Supply about 15 years ago, but similar models are still available through Northern Tool and Equipment. One side features a traditional flat vise jaw, while the other has a V-shaped jaw for securely holding tubing.
We don’t know about you, but one of our least favorite things is drilling holes. It’s a pain. And if you’re working with dull bits, it can be a maddening experience. We bought this Drill Doctor (PN DD500) several years ago and have probably recouped the $100 or so we paid for it in saved drill bits. We’ve also used it to sharpen broken bits, bringing an otherwise ruined tool back to life. The company has changed the design a bit since we bought ours, but essentially the function is the same. The current DD550X will do 3⁄32- to 1⁄2-inch bits, but if we had it to do over again, we’d pop the extra $40 for the DD750X so we could sharpen bits up to ¾-inch.
Cut, Chop, Cut
You can build a whole 4x4 with nothing more than a saber saw, a grinder, and a welder. We know -- we’ve done it. Many are content to run a cheapie $20 grinder until it dies in their hands, but we’ve had stellar luck with our 4.5-inch, 10-amp DeWalt angle grinder (PN D28402). We bought it so many years ago we don’t even remember the price, but its powerful motor and ergonomic paddle trigger (rather than an on/off button) allows for excellent control. For a saber saw, look for a keyless chuck and a variable-speed motor sporting at least 9 amps. We’ve beaten and abused our Craftsman Professional model for over 15 years, but to our knowledge, a comparable unit isn’t offered by the company anymore. Look for good saber saws from DeWalt, Milwaukee, Ingersol Rand, and others. As for chop saws, our little Harbor Freight 14-inch unit has been amazing. We probably paid $40 with a coupon, and it’s lasted through 15 years of heavy fabrication. When the motor stopped one day, we popped in the replacement brushes that came with it and soldiered on. The company’s new units sport a different look, but the same durable housing and 2hp motor.
Most of the 4x4s we work on are pretty tall and heavy, so you’ll need a decent floor jack. The aluminum model shown is an old 3-ton unit from Harbor Freight that isn’t made anymore. It’s super lightweight, but it doesn’t lift so smoothly and the ram bleeds down, so we use it mostly for lighter vehicles like small Jeeps. The steel unit is a solid, durable 3-ton model from Harbor Freight (again, not made anymore) that’ll lift up to 20 inches. Even at that height, we sometimes have to run a homemade extension to get enough lift out of it, but it lifts quickly and the ram holds tight. In the foreground is a smooth 800-pound Harbor Freight transmission jack. We held off for years before getting one, but now that we have it, we can’t imagine why we waited so long. The only caveat is it only lifts to about 23 inches high, so sometimes we have to deflate the tires of our bigger rigs to get enough throw to reach the back of the engine.
There are a lot benders out there ranging from exotic, pneumatic mandrel to cheesy kink-prone bench-top models. However, it’s hard to go wrong with a middle-of-the-road mechanical mandrel bender like those from JD Squared or M-Tech Supply. Generally, the benders themselves can be had for under $300, and then you buy the die sets for whatever size tubing you run. We’ve been running the same M-Tech Supply Model 3 bender for about 13 years with great success. We normally use either 1¾, 1½, and 1-inch dies. It’s usually bolted to the garage floor, but for some cage builds involving complex or compound bends on big hoops, bolting it to our trailer deck gains some nice working space.
Space Not an Option
For most working out of a carport, or a one or two-car garage, space is at a premium. But if you’re one of the lucky ones with a cavernous barn, shop, or garage, here are some wish-list items high on the want and need list.
Hydraulic Press: Good for tackling small jobs like pressing bearings on axleshafts or transmission main shafts or bigger items like using it as a press brake to bend sheetmetal
Press Brake: Whether a hand-operated manual or a fully hydraulic model, a press brake makes clean and easy bends in sheetmetal and (depending on the size of the brake) thicker steel to fabricate anything from body panels to suspension or bumper brackets
Plasma Cutter: No longer the stuff of exotic wants, plasma cutters are available in affordable packages to allow you to zip through metal with the pull of a trigger.
Plasma Table: A trace cutter on a plasma table and/or hooked to a computer running a CAD program would be the ideal way to cut out brackets and other stuff for your 4x4 build.
English Wheel: Make compound curves, bends, and smooth sheetmetal to build truly unique projects. Quality sheetmetal work is what separates the men from the boys in this hobby.
Band Saw: A quality band saw designed to cut metal is a great way to buzz out brackets and make complex curved shapes (to a certain degree) without the hassle and setup of a plasma cutter
Ring Roller: Now that tubing benders are gaining in popularity, fabricators are turning to ring-rolled tubes for their projects to set them apart and gain more pleasing aesthetics.