The one-case tool kit, part 1


It would be pretty easy to bring along all the tools you’re likely to need on even an extended overlanding trip, covering virtually any repair not involving a new long block. What’s that? Oh—you also want room for, like, food? And maybe a tent and sleeping bags? Hmm . . . now that’s a problem. 

The size of tool kit you carry (or should carry) is subject to a bunch of variables. The length of the trip and the remoteness of the route are two obvious considerations. The age of the vehicle is certainly a factor—even reliable vehicles need more attention as they get older. If you can just go out and write a check for a new Land Cruiser every time you leave on a major trip, your need for tools should be minimal. On the other hand there are people like, well, Roseann and me. A brief survey and some arithmetic established that the average age of all the four- and two-wheeled vehicles currently in our fleet—1970 Triumph Trophy, 1973 FJ40, 1974 Series III 88, 1981 BMW R80 G/S, 1982 Porsche 911SC, 1985 Mercedes 300D, and a practically spanking-new 1987 Honda NX250—is 33 years. All solid vehicles, but inevitably in need of attention now and then, especially the . . . (Ha! you were ready for a facile brand quip here, right? Not this time.)

You might think, if you’re utterly mechanically ignorant, that it makes no sense to waste money and space on tools you don’t know how to use anyway. Au contraire—if something goes wrong and you need the assistance of strangers, the least you can offer them is the tools to render that assistance. At a minimum, even on a brand-new Land Cruiser you should carry enough to make what I call generically “rubber repairs,” involving the replacement of pliable things such as fan and serpentine belts, and radiator and heater hoses. These are items that can fail or be damaged even on a new vehicle. A set of standard and Phillips-head screwdrivers, a socket and ratchet set, and a set of combination wrenches will suffice to start (note that for our purposes I consider tire-repair tools a separate subject). But if you want to cover more than first base, you'll need a few additional items. 

Okay, so you’re going to buy some tools. You take a look around the web and find, for example, one set of metric combination open/box-end wrenches, from 10mm to 19mm, for $14.95, and another set of the exact same number and size wrenches, from a different manufacturer, for $298 (I am not making up these prices). You’d be forgiven if your brain texts to itself, WTF? We’re not talking about the difference in value between a Corvette and a Carrera here—this is more like Tata Nano versus Aston Martin Vantage. At least with the cars it’s easy to spot a few differences besides the fact that they’re both designed to go from point A to point B. The wrenches don’t even have any moving parts, and appear more or less identical. What gives? 

Three factors contribute to the discrepancy: quality, reputation, and pure status. 

Quality on even something as simple as a wrench can vary tremendously. Consider what goes into its manufacture:

  • What is the alloy used in the steel—plain carbon?  Chrome molybdenum? Chrome vanadium? 
  • How is the tool formed—is it machined, cast, or drop-forged? Drop-forging helps align the internal grain in the steel, increasing strength.
  • How is it finished? If chromed to resist corrosion and dirt, what process was used? 
  • How precise are the tolerances? This is a critical factor in how well the wrench performs—sloppy tolerances increase the chances the wrench will strip a tight bolt or nut. 
  • Does the box end of the wrench employ the superior “Flank Drive” system pioneered by Snap-on and now copied everywhere? Look for rounded rather than sharp teeth; these bear on the stronger flats of the nut rather than the corners. (The Flank Drive Plus system on new Snap-on wrenches adds the same capability to the open end of the wrench via grooves on the flats. This has been copied by other makers as well.)
  • What about ergonomics? Is the wrench long enough to provide adequate leverage (unless it's a shorty designed to fit in tight spaces)? Fully chromed and polished tools don't just look nice and resist corrosion; they're easier to keep clean as well. 
  • Finally, how socially responsible is the tool? Was environmental protection a factor in the mine-to-maker-to-consumer chain? Do workers in that chain earn a fair wage? 

Flank Drive wrench head on the left, standard head on the right

It’s nearly impossible for a consumer to evaluate many of these parameters accurately. A tool marked “drop-forged” could be forged to low tolerances with poor-quality steel. One has to wonder if the wrenches in that $14.95 set were made by a laborer in his or her 60th hour of work that week, and if the smelter or factory do anything to reduce their emissions. It’s sheer common sense that for ten wrenches to be produced in Asia, shipped across the Pacific Ocean, trucked to a Harbor Freight store in Topeka, and sold at a profit for 15 bucks, something along the line had to give: quality, ethics, or both. 

That’s where reputation figures into the equation. Although it’s not a guarantee, buying tools from manufacturers with solid reputations for quality at least makes it far more likely you’ll be getting a good product either produced in the U.S. or under decent conditions elsewhere. I’m referring here to such makers as Sears Craftsman, Kobalt, Proto, S-K, and Husky. A set of wrenches from those makers will cost more than $14.95, but it’s very probable the extra expense will be worth it on several levels.


Finally, there’s status. The “boutique” tool makers such as Snap-on (the producer of that $298 set of wrenches), and to a lesser extent Mac and Matco, have transcended reputation and moved on to the level of status symbol. There’s little doubt that that set of Snap-on wrenches (which are, just to be clear, certainly the best on the market) could be duplicated in every detail and sold for much less, but the Snap-on (or Mac or Matco) label adds a premium eagerly paid by both professional mechanics and well-to-do (or savvy, see below) amateurs. The reason is that, tool snobbery aside, these companies have stayed at the very forefront of tool development and quality. If you pay the premium prices for tools from these manufacturers, you can be absolutely certain you're getting the best tools with the most advanced features. 

What to buy then? I’ll continue to repeat it for as long as it takes to make it into one of those 1001 Famous Quotes books: If you’ve brought out the tools, something has already gone wrong. Why risk compounding the situation by using cheap tools to try to fix it? I recently read an article on bush repairs in a respected Australian four-wheel-drive magazine, in which the writer opined, “Your tools don’t have to be good, just good enough.” And how, exactly, do you identify that fine line of “good enough” except when one breaks at the worst possible time and you’re left holding a handle and thinking, Hmm . . . not good enough. 

So, fine—just go stop a Snap-on truck, hand the driver your AmEx card, and say, “Tool me.” Except that very few of us can afford that option. Instead, I suggest prioritizing. 

The most critical component of an automotive tool kit is the ratchet and socket set. This is what you’ll be using for any serious repairs, and its various pieces are the most susceptible to poor quality control. The ratchet head encloses a lot of very small parts that can be put under enormous strain. It’s easy to make a strong ratchet head with a coarse (i.e. 24 or 36) tooth count, but such ratchets need to be turned many degrees to engage the next tooth—a real issue in tight spaces. The best ratchets these days have 72, 80, even 84-tooth heads, yet are immensely strong. The sockets themselves need to be as thin-walled as possible to fit over nuts in tight spots, yet stout enough not to split. That mandates the very best steel and the tightest tolerances. 

If you’re putting together a complete tool kit, you’ll probably want one socket set in 3/8ths-inch drive, and another in 1/2-inch drive. The 3/8ths set is for general use; when something big needs fixing or replacing the 1/2-inch stuff will come out, so that’s the most critical in terms of quality. 

Next are the wrenches, which do many of the same tasks as sockets but have the advantage of no moving parts. Nevertheless, quality is key—in many situations you’ll need a socket on one side of a fastener and a wrench on the other. I’ve only broken one wrench in my life, but I’ve used many that fit poorly. 

So my advice is to spend until it hurts on your ratchet/socket sets, a bit less so on the wrenches. Next on my list would be a really good set of screwdrivers. After that, you can economize on many pieces with little risk of failure in the field.

A good place to compare quality in one spot is a Sears store. Take a look at ratchets. Their new, green-handled Evolv series (what’s with the cute missing “e” anyway?) represents the price-leader, and it shows. Pass. Move up to the standard Craftsman stuff—non-polished, coarse tooth count, but smoother. Now look at the fully-polished, thin-profile handles. Nicer and more comfortable, easier to keep clean, although the tooth count still feels fairly low. Finally, look at one of the Premium Grade products: Sealed head to keep out grime, industry-leading 84-tooth ratcheting mechanism that goes snicksnicksnick instead of click click click. My only complaints are the lack of a socket-release button, and the fact that the feel of several I tried seemed to vary slightly, as though manufacturing consistency wasn’t quite spot-on. 

Standard Craftsman ratchet, top, fully polished, bottom. Both unfortunately have plastic selector levers, but are solid tools. The standard ratchet is now made in China.

For several decades I relied on Craftsman ratchets and wrenches, with only a scant few split sockets to their discredit during field repairs (replaced with no questions asked at Sears . . . after I got home of course). Recently I decided to up the ante. I started haunting eBay, looking at Snap-on socket  and wrench sets. There were a few decent deals, but nothing spectacular—until I realized that the sets on offer that were missing a piece or two went for much less than the complete sets. Soon I snagged a lot of current-production 1/2-inch sockets, from 12mm all the way up to a giant 36mm, missing only a 19mm, which I quickly added on an individual auction. Same thing with a wrench set from 6mm to 30mm, missing the 14 and 17, again easily replaced. 

My one retail splurge was the 1/2-inch ratchet handle. I consider this the single most critical tool in my kit. If I break out the 1/2-inch sockets, it’s usually because something significant has gone wrong with either my own vehicle or someone else’s. And if your ratchet handle breaks removing the 21mm bolts from a transmission bell housing, you can bet you won’t be getting them off with a pair of Vise-grips. So I went to the Snap-on website and plunked down $164.95 for part number SF80A: an 18-inch-long, flex-handle ratchet with a Swiss-watch-smooth 80-tooth mechanism—astonishing on a ratchet with a foot and a half of leverage, but Snap-on uses the same head on a 24-inch handle, so they obviously have confidence in it. The locking flex head gives this ratchet great flexibility, the length makes it an effective breaker bar for the tightest bolts, and the fine-toothed mechanism requires only 4.5 degrees of swing to engage the next tooth, a boon in restricted quarters. Every time I use it I’m impressed, and swear it makes me a better mechanic than I really am. It certainly makes me look like a better mechanic than I am.

Worth every penny: The Snap-on SF80A 1/2-inch ratchet.

With these two fine sets in hand, I began contemplating my entire traveling tool kit. Specifically, I started musing on a question that had been at the back of my mind for some time: Would it be possible to assemble a high-quality tool kit that could handle virtually any field repair up to and including such things as clutch or differential replacement, suspension work, hub disassembly, or cylinder-head removal—in other words, the types of repairs one might expect on an extended overland trip in remote areas—yet still fit inside one manageable case? 

Interesting idea. Time to look at some Pelican cases. 

Next: a compact, high-quality 3/8ths-inch socket set. Read part 2 HERE.