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I am looking into getting more serious about doing my own automotive repair and maintenance, and am working toward gathering the appropriate tools. However, I am admittedly can be a bit of an organization nut and hate clutter; I do not want more tools than I will actually use (even if only rarely). Specifically, I have the following questions:

  • What is the advantage of having 1/4", 3/8", and 1/2" socket wrench handles versus having a single handle and adapter? I believe sockets from all three sizes may be used in a vehicle, but is there a need for three handles or will a single handle with an adapter work fine?
  • On a related note, is there truly a need for a fixed wrench set or not? I know I tend to turn to socket wrenches, probably due to their versatility.
  • What requirements does one need in a multi meter for diagnosis? I am looking at very cheap one (I certainly do not plan on getting to deep into an automotive's electrical system); will such generally suffice even if it is not 100% accurate?
  • What drive size is recommend for a torque wrench and breaker bar?

Obviously, I realize I could probably get some answers based upon the specific vehicle I drive at present (91' Astro); however, I would much rather these tools have wider usage. If it does help, I will almost certainly be working exclusively or primarily on older, North American vehicles.

Thanks much.

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First off, there is a book which I found on amazon which deals directly with this subject, How to Design, Build & Equip Your Auto Workshop on a Budget (SA Design).

One thing I'd like to address more directly though is the multimeter issue. I would strongly recommend getting a decent mid-range multimeter that also has a clamp that can measure both a/c and d/c current, as it will make diagnosing both alternator and starter problems much easier. There is so much electronics in modern cars that a decent quality multimeter and set of auxiliary clamps and probes to go with it is a must.

I can recommend a specific one, the UNI-T UT210E. It's only around $35 and supports just about any function you might need when working on a car.

I also can recommend a set of clamps and probes. Many times you might need to back probes sensors and see what voltage there are giving.

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A lot of it comes down to size and access - you will need fixed spanners/wrenches because sometimes you simply won't be able to get a socket onto the bolt you are trying to undo. Similarly, a 1/4" ratchet is much smaller than a 1/2” one, and so can get into smaller holes - but can only take a small amount of torque, whereas the 1/2" one can take a lot.

I have a 3/8" torque wrench, and both 12" by 3/8" and 36" by 1/2" breaker bars - again, the bigger one will undo almost anything, but often won't fit, so the smaller one gets used more...

A decent mid-range multimeter should cover pretty much everything you need for automotive work, cheap ones are fine for leaving in the car for emergencies, but don't tend to be very robust in a garage environment...

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Based on my experience, if you plan to do relatively light work, a compromise of the 3/8" socket drive should be fine. You will rarely use the smaller sockets say under 10mm in auto work unless you're taking a subsystem (like a radio) apart and would rarely get anything larger than say 17mm unless you're doing major engine/trans work. Also, for my car, 99% of the time I'm using 10mm, 12mm, 14mm so most of the other sockets are unused. Your experience will probably be the same - certain sizes will be frequent. As for wrenches, if I'm in a bad position for torque, it is better to bang on the end of a wrench than a ratchet due to the damage you could do to the pawl and ratchet teeth.

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Unless you need to keep things short, you can pretty much use one size drive with adapters. Having to have to use adapters basically means you always have a extension though. I use mainly 3/8" with adapters and it handles pretty much everything. 1/4" comes in handy for smaller components and I would say you should have both 3/8" and 1/4" ratchets. Need 1/2" if youre dealing with huge torque.

Small fixed wrenches are useful/needed for things you cant use the 3/8" ratchet on. Thin and short. Handy for bleeder screws and really tight spaces.

I use a cheap $5 multimeter. Does resistance and volts. Having current measuring capability would be nice but not required.

3/8" drive torque wrench can handle pretty much everything. Need 1/2" if dealing with huge torques. Most of the 1/4" drive stuff, I usually torque by hand even though I have a 1/4" torque wrench.

Depending on the car, you should have a wobble extension, socket u-joint, extensions, etc. You should also have a big pipe to leverage your breaking needs.

You can pretty much get by without any 1/2" stuff unless you are working on really high torqued components. Sometimes you even want 3/4" for those.
Everything else is just based on access space and convenience.

That is pretty much how I started when I was super super poor.

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