Did we mention that we like tools? Tools are awesome—except that guy down the hall who you hardly know who posts lots of selfies, or the tool driving the BMW like, well, a tool. We’re talking about handtools and power tools, not the douchey two-legged type. Tools help get the job done, and as they say there’s usually a tool that makes just about any job easier.
Of course, having the tools you need is only part of the solution to whatever project is at hand. Knowing how and when to use a tool is critical. Without tools and the knowhow on how to use them you’ll never get to the end of that project.
At any rate, we like tools so much that we should probably work for Petersen’s Tools Monthly magazine (we wonder if they’re hiring), but in the meantime we will continue to search for, buy, beg, borrow, or steel, use, bend, break, maltreat, and test tools. Here are some of our favorites combined with a little snippet on how to use said tool, or how to make it work better. Think of it as analog click bait, without (too many) annoying popup ads.
Feeling fat? Check your weight with a race scale. The truth is these scales can help you figure out how best to shed pounds off your trail rig. Sure, some weight is necessary for traction and some heavy, heavy-duty parts are necessary, but the key to making a rig feel peppy is in maximizing that horsepower-to-weight ratio. Also, getting an accurate corner weight of a vehicle with a custom link suspension is key to getting the right shocks, shock valving, and spring rates.
Hole saws allow us to cut nice holes in metal. This would have to be done when a rollcage runner or bumper needs to pass through sheetmetal, when you’re adding a steel sleeve to the frame, or when you’re trying to get that perfect cope for two tubes to join. Either way, having the right tool for the job is critical. We like to predrill a center hole (generally 1/4 inch in diameter) and use plenty of lubricant to keep the teeth of the hole saw happy. This is really more than a hole saw, but rather a hole saw mounted in our old and well-used JD Squared tubing notcher, a specialty tool for getting nearly perfect notches in tubing for rollcages, rocker guards, and other tube work.
You’ve got to have a vice—no, a vise . . . yeah. Although you can get away with clamping things to the bench or your front bumper with locking pliers and C-clamps to work on them, but a big old heavy-duty vise cannot be beaten. Well, it can be beaten upon, but it’s great for holding things when you need to cut them, hammer them, hold them in place when that bolt will not budge, or you need that bolt to be very tight. Vices are a third hand, a rudimentary metal brake, and much, much more. Keys to a good vice is the older the better, the bigger the better, and a good vice is only as secure as the bench it is mounted too.
Owning and using a tubing bender was once a fairly expensive and exclusive step in the off-road hobby, but with more and more benders available and plenty of info and programs on how to build with a tubing bender, we’re surprised more wheelers don’t have one. Using a tubing bender involves some detailed knowledge (a bit more than we can fit here), but it’s fairly simple once you get it figured out. Keys to getting the bend you want are understanding how to measure where to make your bends (that involves your eyecrometer), and sample test bends that allow you to chuck the tubing into the bender precisely and repeatedly. Another key tool is an angle finder (see below) and understanding metal spring-back; spring-back is why you must bend the tube (and metal in general) usually 3-5 percent farther than your desired bend angle.
If you’ve ever needed to enlarge or change the taper on a tie-rod end or pitman arm then you know it can be a bear. The key is to chuck what you’re drilling firmly into a big well-anchored vise and go slow. Don’t force the tapered drill bit into the metal. Let the drill slowly cut the metal. We also like to leave the drill’s chuck loose enough so that if the bit bites too much the drill spins on the shank. This will keep the drill from spinning out of your hands.
If we were in a situation where we could only have a few tools that could do a lot of different jobs, an angle grinder (and specifically a 4 1/2-inch electric) would be near the top of our list. Whether electric or pneumatic, this is one handy tool. You can use it to cut metal, shape metal, clean metal for welding, sharpen drill bits, trim toenails, cut and shape plastic, sheetmetal, wood, and more. We use ours for so many things that we have burned up our fair share of angle grinders. We love flap discs and sanding pads, and both can be used for plenty of jobs. Flap discs are great for cleaning and shaping metal, while flat sanding pads are great for working on surfaces you want to keep flat. Just be extra careful because like thin cutoff wheels, flat sanding discs can grab an edge and corners and literally tear the tool out of your hands.
An abrasive chop saw is critical to doing anything with metal and should be a tool that is in your garage if you plan on doing any metal fabrication. You can do its job with a cutoff wheel in an angle grinder, or even a hacksaw, but it will not be as precise or as fast as the good ol’ spark-shooting chop saw. Chop saws are also great for notching tubing in a pinch, and more.
Horizontal Band Saw
When Tech Editor Verne Simons got to use this pre-owned horizontal band saw the first few times, he was hooked. It’s easy to use and does just about everything a chop saw can do and more—without all the ouchy sparks and potential for fire. Also, it has an easy-to-read angle adjustment for making a wide variety of angled cuts. The hydraulically controlled fine feed allows the saw to slowly cut while you go do something else. The blades are available online and at most local hardware stores, and they do wear out surprisingly fast, but they are cheap and easy to replace. Simons cuts mostly mild steel, but the saw will also cut aluminum easily; some spray lube keeps the saw blade’s teeth from clogging with the softer metal.
Vertical Band Saw
So your high school woodshop class might be the only time you’ve even thought about a vertical band saw, and back then you were only worried that you’d accidentally cut off your thumbs like in that cheesy safety video. Well, what if we told you that a vertical band saw with a metal cutting blade is a great fabrication tool? Sure, everyone could use a CNC-controlled plasma table, but a good vertical band saw can be used to make some really professional-looking tabs and brackets. Just remember that you can still cut off your thumbs if you’re not careful.
One of our favorite rules is KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Hacksaws, when used properly, can be faster and more precise than other cutting methods, but they often get overlooked because they seem archaic. Using a hacksaw is also not exactly intuitive. Long steady strokes are key. Don’t push down on the saw; instead, let the blade do the work. Hacksaws have the teeth aiming forward and cut on the push stroke. Pushing down on the back stroke (like a metal file) can damage the teeth.
You might think a handheld jigsaw belongs only in a woodworking shop, but you’d be wrong. Sure jigsaws are great for cutting up plywood and the like, but they also make short work of steel and aluminum sheet or plastic and fiberglass. Of course you’ll have to have a metal cutting blade, and spraying the blade with lube will help with cutting aluminum, but this simple tool can be used to make some pretty professional-looking cuts in your 4x4’s parts.
Air Body Saw
Yes, you can cut out your 4x4’s fenders using a plasma cutter, an oxy/acetylene torch, a sabre saw, tin snips, a jigsaw, an air nibbler, and more, but for a really clean and controlled trim in plastic or sheetmetal it’s hard to beat an air body saw. These tools use a thin controllable hacksaw type of blade to make short work of body panels, yielding a clean-looking cut. Just take your time.
Air nibblers are the kind of tool you don’t know you need until you use one. They come in pneumatic and electric versions and make short work of cleanly cutting thin sheetmetal. The result can be a very professional-looking cut in your fenders or transmission tunnel cover, but don’t slip! These things can easily get out of your hand and make cuts you never intended.
An air compressor might be the first shop-based tool any off-roader should buy. From running pneumatic tools to filling low tires with air, these things are downright indispensable. You gotta have one. Air grinders, impact wrenches, sand blasters, air sanders, air ratchets, air hammers . . . heck, half the tools on this list are useless without a source of air. Bigger is better.
Box End Wrenches
Whether on the trail or in the shop, box end wrenches are a must-have. We like 12-point wrenches and have a bunch of different ones. Don’t be afraid to modify cheap ones with a grinder or chop saw for a specific job. And if you need more torque, most can be doubled up (shown) to get that stubborn bolt loose or that critical bolt plenty tight.
Holes. They’re important, and getting them right where you want on a delicate part or multiple simple parts with a handheld drill can be tough. If you have a bench-top or floor drill press you’re set to make much more stuff. We’ve even used a bench-top drill press to make a carburetor-to-fuel-injection adapter plate. You can also use a drill press as a light-duty rudimentary lathe to polish round tube or fine-tune a part that’s a little too big. And don’t forget you can always use a drill press as a drill.
Hydraulic Shop Press
Pressing bearings onto differential carriers, or wheel studs into hubs and rotors. Adding dimples to holes cut in metal. Bending metal like a press brake. These are just a few of the jobs a shop press can do. This is one tool it’s hard to imagine life without once you have owned one. The good news is they’re inexpensive and can be built at home if you own a welder and a drill press. Our 12-ton press was inexpensive, and with press plates and a press brake from Swag Off Road (swagoffroad.com), the press can bend up to 6 inches of 1/4-inch plate to 90 degrees.
Lying on the ground under a 4x4 is one of our favorite things to do. For some reason we find it very calming. Still, once we’ve gotten down on the ground and wormed our way under a 4x4 for the fourth or fifth time in an hour, our body starts to protest. The solution is a creeper cart. With a creeper cart you can seemingly glide under your project rig quickly and easily, only to realize you forgot that one tool on the work bench.
Like most wheelers, we went many years before buying a plasma cutter, but we’ve wanted one for years before that and now cannot imagine life without one. These things are great and use compressed air and electricity to quickly cut steel and other metals like butter. They’re great for quickly trimming sheetmetal, removing damaged brackets, and stripping old body mounts and suspension points from frames. Prices are high, but with more demand and newer technology prices keep dropping.
These come in both digital and analog styles and can be used for all kinds of stuff in your shop and on your 4x4. We use them when building rollcages, setting pinion angles, checking sameness of shock brackets, and more. Here’s a tip: Your smartphone probably has an angle finder build right into the compass app.
A bench-mounted disc sander like this one sure is nice for cleaning up any tabs or brackets you might be making. Heavy-duty units are also great for fine-tuning tube notches. To use a bench-mounted disc sander, turn it on and hold whatever you want to sand on the flat surface where the sanding disc is rotating downward. Trying to sand something on the other side of the disc, where it’s spinning upwards, or by holding it freely against the sanding disc somewhere near the middle, will cause the part to take flight, putting your fingers against the sanding disc.
Pneumatic Detail Sander
OK, even we will admit this thing doesn’t look like anything you would expect to see in a home fab shop, but given the right job (for example, you need to remove material from a very specific area of a fender or rollcage) a pneumatic detail sander is your friend. The narrow sanding belt is about 1/2 inch wide, 7/8 inch tall, and about 3 1/2 inches long, so it will fit into tight spots.
Ball Joint Press
Ball joints go bad, especially with big tires, heavy wheels, shallow offset wheels, and heavy off-road use. And when good ball joints go bad drivability and steering go along for the ride, ruining your once safe and fun 4x4. The best way to swap ball joints out is with a dedicated ball joint tool. Shaped like an overgrown C-clamp, a ball joint press has lots of parts that allow you to push ball joints in and out of knuckles and axles. It can also be used to remove U-joints from drive axles and driveshafts.
Yukon Bearing Puller
Every time we talk about doing an axle regear or adding lockers or limited slips to axles at home, we talk about this bearing puller from Yukon Gear & Axle (yukongear.com). For that task, this bearing puller is indispensable. Why? Well, setting up a ring-and-pinion can mean pulling and installing carrier bearings and pinion bearings multiple times. Setup bearings can help but can also get stuck and sometimes give false readings. This bearing puller will pull those expensive bearings without damaging them and turning good new parts into scrap.
Tech Editor Verne Simons has a love/hate relationship (mostly hate) with slide hammers, and we have no doubt why. A finger in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to severe pain and a scar that has lasted for 12 years. Still, these tools are indispensable when it comes to a few jobs, such as pulling axle bearings from an axlehousing or roller bearings from transfer cases and spindles. They are also helpful for straightening out dings and dents if you have them via sheetmetal screws or spot-weld studs. This particular slide hammer is no prize; in fact, it’s a pile of poop seemingly made out of compressed rust and broken dreams. We believe the brand name to be Snap Off.
An engine hoist is like a miniature crane that you can afford. The name seems to imply that all it does is lift an engine, but we regularly use ours to lift fully dressed axles, large tools, transmissions, transfer cases . . . heck, anything heavy you think you’d like to lift. We have also used some chain and our engine hoist to flex out suspensions on project rigs to check for tire clearance, driveshaft length, steering clearance, and suspension movement.
Engine Lift Plate
Now that you’ve got your engine hoist positioned and ready to pull the engine, how the heck are you going to attach it to the engine? The easiest way to do this is with an engine lift plate. Bolting this to the carburetor mounting surface allows you to balance the engine side to side and front to back. Just bolting a chain to two points on the heads or engine block will work, but might make the engine rotate sideways or front to back. That can be a pain when you’re trying to line up the engine with an engine stand or transmission.
Once you got that engine out of the rig you’re going to need to store it somewhere until your engine guy can get to it, or until you figure out what you’re going to do with it. The best place for it is an engine stand. We prefer the ones with four wheels because the three-wheeled ones can pretty easily tip to one side. That’s a lot of weight you don’t want tipping over.
Nonaerosol Spray Can
This is one tool we’ve run into at professional shops so often that we finally bought our own. Anyone who uses aerosol cans of brake/parts cleaner, is able to pour fluids, and has an air compressor should have a nonaerosol spray can. It replaces those cans of parts/brake cleaner that are always running out. The in-the-door price is a bit higher, but over time, if you’re like us and use lots of brake cleaner, this tool will save you money. Buy the handheld unit and 5 gallons of nonchlorinated brake cleaner fluid from your local parts store. Fill the canister with the fluid and pressurize it with your air compressor, much like you would fill up a tire. Aim and squeeze the trigger and you’re in business. Each fill-up lasts longer than an aerosol can, and you can fill the canister with whatever you like. For example, you can fill it with acetone, which evaporates completely and is good for cleaning metal for TIG welding.
Brake Bleeder Tool
Sure, you can make a brake bleeding tool out of an old bottle and some plastic hose in a pinch, but having the right tool is always better. Some brake bleeding tools are fairly simple, while others allow you to force brake fluid from the caliper up through the system.
“Torque spec for that rusty old bolt is two turns past sheer, and then back off a turn.” A torque wrench allows us to get bolts just tight enough to do their jobs without risk of breaking the bolt or stripping threads out of whatever we’re tightening. They come in several flavors, generally pound-inch and pound-foot. We have two old Craftsman torque wrenches for tightening bolts and one newer torque wrench with a dial for setting pinion preload when setting up ring-and-pinions.
A dial indicator is a pretty specialized piece of equipment generally reserved for machining and setting up ring-and-pinions. You can use it to check backlash on a ring-and-pinion, check run-out on a wheel or brake rotor, check deck clearance on your engine, and check rocker movement amount. The magnetic base and adjustable arms allow you to set the dial just about anywhere so you can see whether a part is moving and how much.
An air hammer, or pneumatic hammer, is a great tool for making heavy yet controlled hits on a stubborn body mount or rivet.
Bearing Seal Driver
Grease and oil seals are a great invention until they get brittle or hard and get cut or cracked, allowing oil and or grease to leave a sealed part. Alternatively, if a seal goes bad, dirt or water can make their way inside and wreak havoc on bearings and wear surfaces. Fortunately seals are usually pretty easy to replace as long as you know how to do this job without destroying the new seal. A seal and bearing driver can be a great help getting seals, races, and bearings installed in axles, transmissions, hubs, and more.
Working underneath any vehicle while the wheels and tires are off the axles, or the axles are out from under the rig, can be a serious hazard. Don’t rely solely on a hydraulic jack because they’re designed to lift a car and not necessarily hold it steady. We have about 20 sets of steel jackstands and use them all frequently. We use 3- to 4-ton jackstands under axles and these 12-ton stands from Harbor Freight Tools (harborfreight.com) under the frame or when an axle is out from under a rig.