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.

5 Answers 5


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.


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...


As a 30 year automotive technician who is eccentric about everything having a place. It's absolutely necessary to have all 3 sizes of ratchets. You will need 4mm to 13mm in 1/4 drive that's both deep and regular size sockets. In 3/8 drive 10mm thru 19mm both standard size and deep sockets and for half inch drive deep only will work from about 10mm to 24mm and if you need bigger get a hub socket set with 28 to 36mm. There usually 6 sockets in that set. The open and closed end combination wrench's you will absolutely need. Size 10mm thru 19mm and I would recommend as many sizes you can get up to 30mm. A very large Crescent wrench can be used for anything bigger. You will need a big pipe wrench also. They have either online or at harbor freight socket organizers where you can put them all in either smaller sets or a few bigger ones. I recommend into sets grouped like above. Also there are wrench set organizers for your drawers of the tool box.

A long magnet is good to put in there for misc things. A breaker bar of 1/2" and a good 18" in length is good. If you need more always a cheater pipe. A cheap multi meter that has ohms and DC volts is all you will ever use. A test light also is good to have. Especially for finding a draw. Everything is going to be metric on your van. PS the diagnostic link on those vehicles can be done by jumping terminals A and B with anything that conducts electricity, wire, paper clip. It will display your trouble codes on the dash in the form of a flashing light. The check engine light.

You can store all the above mentioned tools in a small waist high tool box and still have tons of room. If you want to get fancy you can get styrofoam and cut out the shapes of your screwdrivers and wrench's (pliers types) this works well with something around 1" thick. Cut them close though or you will run out of room quick. Leave the extra space there so you can add tools to the drawer as needed, just cut a new hole for it. Your tool cases are usealy too big so get rid of them as this will eat up room in your box. Lastly make sure your toolbox rolls. It's so much easier to just roll it next to you then you can use the top as a workbench while doing repairs. So you don't have to go constantly go back and forth.

Take pictures before you start of what your working on. It's invaluable later when you forget something. Also a small magnetic tray helps with small parts while your working so they don't get lost and if your doing some large project a small space organizer with a bunch of compartments works well. You can add notes or number them and even makes numbers on the engine as well with a paint marker.


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.


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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