There are few things that will be more useful to a designer throughout their career than a good set of hand tools. I find myself delving into my collection on an almost daily basis, for one reason or another. I have a decent collection of power tools as well, but I find the hand tools are the ones I use for quick fixes, small jobs and most of the projects I take on. I've assembled my collection of tools over many years, and at this point I have most of what I would ever need and a rolling tool chest to keep them all. But there was a time when my entire collection fit into a single tool box, and for all designers starting out there is a rather short list of essential equipment.
Design students often times don't have their own tools but instead use school shop tools for all their needs. But there are plenty of times when you won't have access to that shop, so you should take this time in your career to start assembling your own kit. The good news is you can start small, build your kit one piece at a time, and do it all on a budget. The photo above shows most of the tools we have in the Core77 office tool box, which is a good place to start. Here are my recommendations for essential hand tools for designers:
A selection of tools from the Core77 tool box
Pliers - A set of regular and needle nose pliers are essential. A pair of vice grips can substitute for an actual vise, and are also useful for many tasks. Linesman pliers are great, especially for electrical work, but they can come later. Channel locks are another type of plier that are great, especially for grasping large or round items.
Wire cutters - You should have at least one set of wire cutters, but it is good to have a large size and a small size. A wire stripper, which includes blades for stripping wires, crimping and cutting is also handy.
Hammer - An all-purpose framing hammer is one of the best tools you can own. Good of course for hammering nails, but also for removing nails, general demolition, and hammering chisels, hole punches and anything else that needs a good whack.
Screwdrivers - Every tool kit should have at least one Phillips head and one regular screwdriver. Different size heads are good, and short and long versions are good to have also. A set of eyeglass, or mobile phone repair screwdrivers are very useful, especially if you like to repair or upgrade electronics. Torx screwdrivers, sometimes called 'starbit' screwdrivers are especially good for working on electronics. If you can only buy one, you might try a multi-tip, ratcheting screwdriver, which takes the place of about a dozen separate screwdrivers.
Clamps - You can almost never have too many clamps. Spring clamps for quick hold, short clamps, long pipe clamps, and C-clamps of various sizes. If you are interested in woodworking of any sort then you're going to need a LOT of clamps. Corner clamps are good for making frames for artwork. Start with a few C-clamps and some small bar clamps like the one shown above and go from there.
Wrenches - At a minimum a single adjustable wrench will get you started. I have four adjustable wrenches, from small to huge, and I need them all. Eventually you should have a set of box wrenches, or two sets (one metric, one English). Allen wrenches are also essential equipment, in various sizes, both metric and English. Finally, a good socket set and ratchet driver is a super handy item to have, again, both in metric and English, along with a few different lengths of driver extensions.
Scraper - My scraper is one of my favorite tools. I use it for scraping paint, or any other material that has been dripped where it shouldn't be. But I also use it for prying things open, mixing materials, or even as a hack chisel when needed.
WD-40 - This magical liquid solves so many problems it is impossible to list them all. Often my first attempt at fixing anything is to hit it with the WD-40 and let it sit. Then try it again. Use it on hinges, locks, gears, anything that gets gunked up. Remember it is a solvent, and not a lubricant, so also apply silicone lubricant on metal surfaces after de-greasing with WD-40.
Files - A single flat file is good to start. But triangle shaped, and rat-tail files (round) are also very useful. Get them in various sizes. Closely related to the wood hasp, which is also handy for shaping foam and other model making supplies.
Cable Ties - A package of zip ties is handy, and can be used for cable management or even as a sort of clamp for soft or round objects.
Mat Knife - Good for cutting paper, cardboard, tape, plastic or what ever you need. Keep a supply of spare blades on hand and don't skimp. Crack the tip of the blade off frequently to keep your cutting end sharp.
Tape - The photo shows black electrical tape, which is very versatile. Close behind is duct tape, and black gaffing take. For painting you'll want blue painters tape, or masking tape.
Googles - Safety first! Goggles or safety glasses are another essential item in your kit.
Wire Brush - For rough clean ups and working with metal. Maybe this is not a requirement for starting out, but soon enough you'll need it.
Tape Measure - At least one tape measure is needed. A sturdy 25 foot Stanley tape measure is the standard of the industry. The 16 foot one shown above is good for interior work.
Level - A small level, around 12 inches, is a good start, but a 24 inch or 36 inch version is more useful.
Saws - A traditional crosscut saw is not necessarily the most useful for a designer starting out. A better choice for woodworking and model making would be a Japanese pull saw, which can make very fine cuts. A hacksaw is also a great tool for metal, of course, but also for plastic.
Tool Box - Options abound for tool boxes, but a simple sturdy box with a latch and a removable tray is a great start. The classic Stack-On red steel tool box is an inexpensive choice which will last for years.
Folding Workbench - For students or those living in small apartments, a large, sturdy workbench is probably not an option. But a portable workbench, like the Black and Decker Workmate, is a great substitute. The built in vise on the bench top can hold small or large items, it folds down flat for easy storage and can hold over 500 pounds. Plus they last forever.
The shopping list above seems like a lot, and it is, but the good news is that you have a lifetime to collect all the parts, and you can definitely do it all one piece at a time. I like to look for hand tools at garage sales, where you can usually find old tools for cheap. I look for quality pieces made in the USA, Europe or Japan. Once you have a basic set and you're looking for specific items, buying used on Ebay is also a good option.
By no means is this list complete, and certainly as you start to specialize in what you make or fix, you'll need specialty tools for that. Woodworking, metalworking, bikes, electronics, furniture, cars, construction - each has its own world of equipment. I'd love to hear what other tools our readers think should be in a starter tool box. Put your suggestions in the comments.