Should you travel without any tools and hope to find a reasonably priced RV shop when it comes time for even simple repairs? Or should you carry a professional master tool set, which will take up valuable storage space and carrying capacity?
By Brian Speer, F236388
As the great television DIY philosopher Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor has said many times, “Tools provide everything in life!” That may seem a little overstated and oversimplified, but think about it. What in life isn’t touched or affected by a tool of some kind?
So what kind of tools should you have to survive on the road? The following suggestions and lists could help you with that decision, whether you opt for a minimum kit (#1), an essential kit (#2), a recommended kit (#3), an advanced kit (#4), or an in-between tool kit, depending on your comfort level. One thing to remember, however, is to add the tools in the lower-numbered kit to the tools in the higher-numbered kit if you’re moving up to the larger tool kit. We’ve done this in the interest of saving time and space “” no sense in relating all the tools again with each succeeding kit.
We’ll also look at cordless drills, which are highly recommended and convenient, although not really necessary since many of us carry a generator everywhere we go, along with air compressors and storage boxes. Everyone has a favorite brand; however, I strongly recommend name-brand hand tools with lifetime warranties. They fit fasteners more tightly, providing less chance of slippage. More importantly, because they grip and don’t let your knuckles hit the gravel, good tools provide you more chances to avoid saying something you wouldn’t want your grandchildren to repeat! A hint: If you lose things easily or have a neighbor who borrows things permanently, then buy cheap imports, but expect damage, slippage, and those “blue words.”
For this article, we’ll reference Sears frequently due to the tremendous warranty on Craftsman hand tools, the extremely wide selection of tools, and the fact that they have a location in almost every hamlet in America. Sears offers Craftsman, Sears, Companion, and other name-brand tools, individually or in sets. Professional tool companies such as Snap-On guarantee many of their tools against wearing out.
Bare Necessity Kit (#1)
- Tire pressure gauge
10 psi to 150 psi dual head (Snap-On #GA355, GA246, or equivalent, as these models have been
consistently rated as the most accurate).
Such as Leatherman model PST or similar item.
7-inch curve jaw or equivalent locking pliers.
- Scrulox (square-drive screwdriver)
#2 x 5-inch.
Mini Maglite or the new white LED style.
- Roll of quality duct tape, mechanic’s wire, wire coat hanger, disposable mechanic’s gloves, and safety glasses.
Essential Kit (#2)
Flat tips: 1/8- x 3-inch, 3/16- x 4-inch, 1/4- x 6-inch, 5/16- x 10-inch;
Phillips: #1 x 5-inch, #2 x 8-inch; Torx (star shape): #15 x 6-inch; or a
magnetic set that includes the above interchangeable tips. (Cordless
or ratcheting screwdrivers with storage in the handle or small plastic
cases are the handiest, but they can be too large in many instances,
requiring the use of a regular-handled screwdriver.)
6-inch adjustable (crescent), open/box combination kit (inches “” 1/4
to 7/8 “” and metric “” 10mm to 16mm).
6-inch or 8-inch diagonal cutters, needle nose, and combination slip
joint; Vise-Grip, or equivalent 9-inch long nose.
- Socket sets
1/4-inch drive ratchet with 3/16- to 1/2-inch sockets and one 2-inch extension; 3/8-inch drive ratchet with 10mm to 15mm, 3-inch extension. (Note: If possible, include shallow and deep sockets in a plastic box or socket holders.)
16-ounce ballpeen or claw hammer; 12-inch or 18-inch prybar; fluorescent worklight; 12-volt test light; small selection of your specific fuses, bulbs, and tie wraps; hand cleaner; rags and/or paper towels; aerosol spray penetrating oil; and a strong cleaner (Mean Green is an excellent choice). Use an old shower curtain (or similar) to lie on the ground, coveralls to protect your clothes, safety glasses to protect your eyes, mechanic’s gloves to protect your hands, and a 16-foot tape measure. Just for grins and giggles, don’t forget large-gauge jumper cables “” the cheap, bargain type won’t flow enough juice to start a big block V-8 engine “” and several lengths of light-gauge jumper wires for testing circuits.
Recommended Kit (#3)
Flat tips: 3/16- x 9-inch, 1/4- x 12-inch, 3/8- x 10-inch, pocket size; Phillips: #0 x 3-inch; Torx (star shape): #10 x 4-inch, #20 x 4-inch; magnetic ratcheting kit with master bit set; cordless is handy.
Open/box combination kit (metric, 8, 9, 17, and 19mm).
Combination wire strippers/crimpers, mini long needle nose (electronic pliers); Vise-Grip or equivalent 5-inch curve jaw; diagonal cutters bent head (15-degree).
- Socket sets
1/4-inch drive: 4-inch and 8-inch extensions, universal, and 1/4-inch hex magnetic bit socket; 3/8-inch drive: sockets 16mm to 19mm, 6-inch extension, universal.
High-impedance multimeter, wire nuts, and splice connectors (for 16-gauge to 10-gauge wires), shrink-wrap tubing, and heat producing device. Small soldering kit (pencil-style at RadioShack), 8-inch flat and round files, medium punch, medium chisel, flat bar nail puller, telescoping magnetic pick-up tool for the inevitable dropped items, small folding step stool/seat for comfort, medium grit sandpaper/emery cloth, magnetic parts tray, high-tension 12-inch hacksaw, soft-face hammer (rubber, lead, etc.), 25-foot SJT 12-gauge minimum extension cord.
- Cordless drill
9.6-, 14.4-, or 18-volt drill/driver kits (charger, extra battery, driver bits, and carrying case) with variable speed, adjustable torque settings, keyless chuck, and 1/16-inch to 3/8-inch drill bit set.
- Air compressor
12-volt high-pressure (125 psi+).
Serious & Heavy-Duty Kit (#4)
Cabinet tip set, micro precision set, and Phillips #3 x 6-inch.
10-inch adjustable (crescent).
Long reach (stork) needle nose straight, bent tips, and diagonal cutters.
- Socket sets
1/4-inch drive: 5.5mm to 14mm deep and shallow sockets; 3/8-inch drive: 3/8- through 7/8-inch deep, 10-inch extension, spark plug socket; Torx socket no. 45 and 500; 1/2-inch drive: ratchet, 18-inch breaker bar, 3-inch and 10-inch extensions, 9/16- through 1-1/8-inch-deep sockets, Torx no. 55 and 60.
Bottle jack 6-ton to 12-ton, 0-6-inch calipers, 48-ounce hammer, starter jumper cables, 12-volt jumper leads.
- Impact tools
1/2-inch electric, 3/8-inch cordless and/or air-powered. For safety reasons, be sure to use with approved impact sockets.
- Air compressor
120-volt with storage tank and 25-foot hose.
These kits are composed of the tools most commonly used by mobile RV mechanics. They are rated (kit #) with your experience and comfort level in mind. Your RV may require a special tool not mentioned, but these types of tools should be minimal.
A good repair manual is advisable. Take a digital photo of your repair project before you start disassembly. When CRS (can’t remember stuff) kicks in, you’ll have the original layout at hand, and your grandchildren won’t hear those words again.
I’ve found through the years that the high cost paid for a quality item is quickly forgotten, but I’ll always remember what I paid for a cheap item that fails quickly. Test your own memories with your buying experiences. Bargains are available and you can pay more for just the name. No matter what you want to purchase, ask around to see what others recommend, and why. I bet you’ll find that for what really works, cost is forgotten. But for tools that didn’t work, your neighbors will remember exactly the prices and probably where they were purchased!
Under “Specialty,” tools and accessories are listed. Duct tape, electrical tape, mechanics wire, etc., are indispensable on the road. From temporary “get me down the road” fixes to permanent repairs, they should be among your first purchases. These items come in all different quality grades; American-made 3M or Scotch (to name two) last longer and stick better than the bargain brands. Don’t forget the cleaners: hand, electrical, parts, rubbing alcohol, shop towels, and extra-strength multi-cleaners such as Mean Green and Castrol Super Clean. You’ll use spray lubricants often; Tri-Flow is one of the best. WD-40 is okay but doesn’t last very long (it does work great on fishing lures for you fishermen!). A good silicone spray can be used on a multitude of items. (Even Pam, the all-purpose kitchen spray, can be used in a pinch as a lubricant.) Store lubricants in plastic tubs with tops for protection.
Depending on your motorhome’s storage compartments, health and preferences will help determine how you store your tools. Toolboxes not only offer storage, but when properly set up they will save work time and alert you when something is misplaced. Metal, plastic, or combination toolboxes are your choices. Remember the weight of the box and tools when choosing. Will you be able to carry the box? Will it be stationary or removable? Kit #3 can easily weigh 35 to 42 pounds, plus the box, so eat your Wheaties.
The new-style plastic toolboxes/storage units work great in RVs. They are lightweight, rustproof, tough, and don’t scratch. Many offer drawers, lift-out trays, and unique storage compartments. I use three of them plus a Rubbermaid-brand tub. Two of the toolboxes hold all my hand tools; one is dedicated to electrical repair items (the most common one I use). The tub holds large tools, cords, hoses, power, and other specialty tools. My cordless drill and magnetic ratcheting screwdriver kit have their own cases (other than electrical, they are my most commonly used tools).
Cordless tool selection can be confusing due to quality, power, and weight. Makita and DeWalt offer many different units, viewable at their Web sites. Both are sold at Sears along with store brands. Each brand has an assortment, from “Entry Level” through “Professional Level.” Don’t be fooled by copycat brands with similar colors and names.
Your choice depends on how much you think you’ll use it (a lot more than you think), quality (life expectancy), and cost. One major concern is weight. Sure, you want to be Top Dog to impress everyone and purchase a new 18-volt unit. You climb the ladder to install something, hold out your arm and start to drill. Soon (10 seconds), the 15-plus pounds of tool becomes a lead weight. You drop it as your hand and forearm convulse in pain, just as someone is bringing you a cool drink. Murphy’s Law kicks in! The drill hits the person right on top of the head and you go from Top Dog to the doghouse in under 15 seconds! So pick up and hold at arm’s length the unit you are considering and see how long it takes to become heavy.
The better units will have metal gears, copper-wound motors, variable two-speeds, keyless chucks, longer life, extra batteries, case, and adjustable clutch settings for screwdriver mode. Lights that use the same battery pack as your drill are very handy and are worthwhile additions.
Powered impact wrenches have improved considerably, and they add speed and versatility. Again, whether to use one depends on your comfort level. A cordless 3/8-inch impact wrench offers more power and speed than your drill but can damage fasteners when reinstalling them. A 1/2-inch electric impact wrench is a lifesaver when working on wheels, brakes, shocks, or large fasteners. If you spring for a small air compressor, the air tools available to use with it are staggering. They offer incredible power and speed, but add substantial weight to your tool collection. Match their power consumption (__ cfm @ __ psi) to your compressor; ask for help if you need it. You will find that higher quality tools use less air than the bargain ones to get the job done.
Warning: As advanced conveniences are added to our new coaches, many are controlled by complex and sensitive electrical components. These include the house systems, entertainment devices, appliances, engine, transmission, and brakes. Many are too sensitive for checking with the old-style test light as they could damage or destroy them, voiding their warranties. To be safer and more accurate, use a high-impedance (draws no power or offers a ground to circuit tested) digital multimeter. These are self-powered with a 9-volt battery (usually) that should read AC (shore power) and DC (battery) volts, ohms (resistance), and small amperage draw at a minimum. Please note: just because it’s a digital meter, do not assume it is a high-impedance meter; it will say so if it is. Sears and RadioShack sell high-quality units, including their own and the Fluke brand.
Meters with the following extras, though expensive, are worth considering: True RMS (Root-Mean-Square) voltage readings, diode testing, temperature probe, inductive amp, and protective case. I strongly recommend a meter for all testing. A test light will illuminate even though it has low DC voltage available, compromising your test procedure. RMS is a standard method for determining the effective value of a varying or alternating voltage. (The RMS value is the DC voltage that would produce the same amount of heat as the voltage you are measuring, if you were to apply both voltages across identical resistors.) The true RMS value is helpful when you need to measure an AC voltage that is not a pure sine wave. Most meters use average-responding AC convertors. These meters are calibrated with pure sine waves. If you measure a sine wave that does not have harmonic distortion, the meter gives an accurate reading. But, if the sine wave is not pure “” there are distortions within the waveform, or you measure triangle waves or square-waves (the average) “” responding meters display an incorrect value. For example, a 2-volt peak-to-peak, 50 percent duty cycle square wave measures correctly as 1.000 VAC on this meter. An average responding meter displays 1.111 VAC “” an error of more than 11 percent.
My air compressor runs two or three times a week! If not for our own use, then a needy neighbor borrows it to air up the many wheeled items owned. Compressors are invaluable for everything from cleaning small items to blowing off awnings. At a minimum, invest in a 12-volt-DC Max Model from Sears or ACD Inc. Sears also offers AC-voltage models from small (no storage tanks) to an RV-serious 3-horsepower model with a 4-gallon storage tank. Units with no storage tank are great for filling up inflatable things, moderate for blowing off things, and poor to useless for air-powered tools.
When you compress air to anything greater than ambient pressure, it produces heat. The compressor can become very hot and cause serious burns if accidentally touched. Before purchase, check out the protective covers. Be sure the compressor has adequate airflow around it while operating. They are all noisy when running.
If shopping for an air compressor to use with air-powered tools, do not get caught up in horsepower ratings that many manufacturers push. Each manufacturer uses its own rating system with few standards. The important specification for comparison is how much air they produce. This is stated as: “Air Delivery in SCFM @ PSI” (example: 2.4 scfm @ 90 psi). Make sure each model uses the same “psi” rating. Many manufacturers will rate theirs at 40 psi, which is misleading “” 90 psi is the standard to look for.
With a small storage tank acting as a reserve, these models can run air tools that require more air than they can produce for short periods. Make sure it has an easy-to-use water drain on the tank bottom. Models with a built-in regulator, water trap, psi gauge, and quick connects are nice features to have. Don’t forget their weight, including accessories, and amp draw.
There are at least five different quick-connect couplers on the market. The 1/4-inch Industrial Interchange is the most common. Just make sure to use the same model on all your connections. They might not fit your pesky neighbor’s connections, which could be a blessing in disguise!
Can you fix everything with these kits? Of course not! But you will be better prepared and educated to save a lot of money, time, and frustration. The knowledge of your own RV will expand, allowing you to hear/notice when something’s amiss. You’ll have pride in doing your own repairs. One downfall may be that your “Honey Do” list will grow!
If you are inclined to purchase higher quality/professional tools, or just want to learn some of what makes one better than another, read on.
Nickel-chrome plating lasts longer with less chance of peeling and cutting your hands than standard chrome plating. Cadmium flash coatings are terrible, in my opinion.
These tools are made with superior high-tensile-strength steel. This allows sockets and box-end wrenches thinner construction with more concentric walls. These work better in tight quarters, which we never have in RVs, do we? For pliers, it offers longer life, doing their designed function.
Ergonomic handles on screwdrivers, ratchets, power tools, and pliers are for comfort and power.
Sockets and box-end wrenches that drive behind the corner or on the flank of a fastener offer 20 percent more turning force (purchase) than conventional sockets. They improve your chances of removing stubborn, damaged, or stripped things. A 12-point flank drive socket offers more turning power than a conventional 6-point socket. Chamfered openings help with easier engagement of ratchet and fastener. For those of us with vision problems, the new large numbering system is great. Extensions are thinner but stronger and will not bend or twist.
Ratchets with smaller, pear-shaped heads are stronger than round heads, but round ones offer less handle movement to engage the next tooth for tight quarters. Their reverse levers are easy to use, requiring only one hand to change direction. They will have comfortable handles that you can feel if your hand is near the end.
The open end of a wrench will have radiused edges with an arch design, just like all bridges; not a hex shape with a V cut in it. Remember science class … for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If you have a V cut that fits the head of the fastener, there is nothing opposite the V to counteract it. This causes a weak spot. More importantly, an arch style does not spread open, causing fastener damage. The box end will be offset to the handle, allowing hand clearance and a different purchase when turned over on a fastener.
Screwdrivers are also nickel-chrome-plated, except the end, which will be bare metal, not just painted. This way there is no plating to chip or peel off; the end is precision-fitted to the screw head and lasts longer. A hex bolster is included on the shaft for use with a wrench on stubborn fasteners.
A quick test when buying: take a #2 Phillips screw with you. Insert the screwdriver into the screw. There should be no slop. The screw should remain on the driver without any help at any angle. Straight blades that are ground horizontally (the hard, expensive, and precise way) instead of vertically are stronger, fit better, and last longer. You can tell in which direction the head is ground by the striation marks. If they are perpendicular to the blade edge, it was ground horizontally. If the marks go in the same direction as the blade shaft, it was ground vertically.
Good pliers are forged instead of stamped. They will have bearing surfaces for smoother and more precise use. This extends the time before they become loose and sloppy. Needle nose-style pliers, even small electronic and long stork styles, are guaranteed not to spread at the business end. Adjustable pliers have machined hardened teeth for better bite. The diagonal cutters will work like scissors instead of mashing their edges together. Quick test: Take a piece of paper and cut it with the side cutters; they should cut it cleanly. If it cuts only part of the paper and leaves marks in the rest, they will not last long cutting anything.
Good air tools use much more efficient motors, requiring less air consumption to do the same job. They have higher power and speeds, better warranties, and quieter operation than the bargain units.
I hope this article will help make your decisions about tools easier. And if not, it might help you understand some of the cost involved in any repair. Enjoy the wonderful lifestyle RVing affords us now that you’re tooled up to tool down the road.
(800) 4MAKITA (462-5482)
(800) 4-DeWalt (433-9258)
ACD air compressors (12-volt)