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The two things that would probably top the wish-list of home mechanics are a hydraulic hoist to lift the vehicle and to be able to work underneath it in a comfortable standing position, and a double-jointed midget contortionist as an assistant .
But those of us on a tight budget will have to make do with a basic toolkit. Where do you start when you want to build up a toolkit? A good set of spanners would be the obvious starting point, but spanners are not cheap and a full set is expensive. The spanner size used most often is 13mm, followed by 10mm, 11mm, 12mm, 14mm and 17mm.
If you buy a combination spanner - ring at one end, open jaws at the other - for each of these sizes, it would be a good beginning. Try to get spanners with an offset ring. The first time you want to change spark plugs, buy a decent plug socket with a rubber insert to hold the plug safely and firmly, but this would entail a T-bar and an extension to fit on the socket. At this stage you have to decide on which drive size you are going to standardise for your sockets. That is the size of the square hole at the end of the socket into which the square tip of the T-bar or extension fits.
Common sizes for medium- duty work are half-inch and three-eighths of an inch. Half-inch equipment is more freely available so this size is recommended. A smallish shifting spanner, on which the jaw width is adjustable, is useful for holding a nut while the bolt's head is being turned.
A ratchet is a great time-saving device and a pair of locking pliers - commonly known as a vice-grip - will often save your bacon, though they have the unfortunate habit of rounding bolt heads. You will soon feel the need for a few good screwdrivers, at least one each for straight-slotted, Phillips and posidriv screws.
The first time you tackle a job where tightening torque values are specified, you will need a torque wrench. A decent torque wrench is expensive, and it can also be damaged by careless handling.
A sturdy bench vice with jaws at least 100mm-wide is worth its weight in gold, especially if it's mounted on a strong workbench.
It is often said that one doesn't get cheap and decent tools. But if you are willing to scratch around in pawn shops you can find spanners from the top-line German and American brands - and our locally produced, good quality Gedore range - all in mint condition going for a song.
The Chinese equipment of steadily improving quality has made it possible to buy tools that were previously beyond our reach. Be selective, though. Remember that with spanners, slimmer and thinner is usually better because they will allow you to get into spaces where a bulkier spanner will jam.
Those of us who have to work on vehicles using bolts in imperial - inch - sizes wonder whether we should buy imperial-sized spanners, and which ones. Again visit a pawn shop. The sizes half-inch, which converts to 12,5mm, seven-sixteenth inch and nine-sixteenth inch, are the most commonly needed ones, but often there is a metric size close enough to work.
The nine-sixteenth inch converts to 14,3mm and you will usually find that a 14mm spanner will fit on a nine-sixteenth inch nut.
If you buy imperial spanners, make sure that they are marked AF - across flats - or, failing that, check that a spanner marked half-inch, for instance, does indeed look like it will fit on a bolt head measuring 12,5mm across the flats. Steer clear of spanners showing the markings W or BSW or BSF or BA. These all refer to a confusing maze of British peculiarities best avoided.
I have had excellent service from a set consisting of a small quarter-inch drive ratchet with sockets ranging from 5mm to 13mm. Being light and handy, it allows you to get in everywhere and I find I use this set more often than my full-sized sockets.