Photo: Sarah Leon
In June 2021, I didn’t know anything about home renovation. I had owned the same Ikea tool kit since college, which I used to hang things on the wall and install Ikea shelves that one time in my old apartment. But when my husband and I closed on our first home, we quickly stocked up on all the tools we thought we’d need to do demo in our home and eventually put things back together — including a sledgehammer, which we barely touched. We’re not experts, but after a very intensive year of home DIY, we’ve learned what tools you really can’t live without for specific projects — and where you can save by buying a cheaper option.
I know we’re not the only first-timers tackling projects like demoing tile and removing cabinets. We’ve been posting about our home renovation on Instagram and TikTok, and have seen a large community of first-timers doing extensive home-DIY projects. I’ve been especially impressed with Gabby Dolechek and her husband (who accidentally purchased a rat-infested home and are rebuilding every inch) and @Elm_Street_House, where the owner has been removing old insulation with her family every weekend for, it seems like, an eternity.
So, if you’re planning on embarking on a home-DIY project — big or small — here are some tools that are worth the money and will make your life so much easier.
I had a hammer from the previously mentioned Ikea set, but when we started this project, we were advised by a more experienced friend to get not just one hammer, but two. He said to get one that’s more expensive to serve as your main hammer and one that’s cheaper as a backup. And he was right: When doing any of these projects, you will misplace your hammer at some point. And sometimes you don’t want to take the time to stop and find it. I have no regrets about this purchase.
We also upgraded our screwdrivers to include this set, which is useful for any kind of home project. They won’t take up much space, and you can do it all.
It’s more expensive than a hammer and a screwdriver, but if you’re planning to tackle DIY projects at home, you’ll want a drill and an impact driver. We bought the DeWalt 20 Volt Drill and Impact Driver and drill bits, and have no regrets about this spend.
The one thing everyone should own is a ladder. Get one that’s appropriate for your ceiling height to save yourself from climbing on top of furniture to paint, change light fixtures, or anything else you might want to do.
If you don’t want to damage the walls, use the DeWalt 20-volt impact driver to carefully take them off the walls. If the cabinets aren’t in good enough condition to donate or sell, they can be bulky to deal with. Break them up with a hammer and cut down the larger pieces with a reciprocating saw or a Sawzall. There are so many uses for this tool, so it will serve you well in future projects.
Our favorite tool, by far, was the 30-inch Gooseneck Wrecking Bar. When a lot of people think about demo, they imagine sledgehammers — myself included. But more often than not, a pry bar and a standard hammer are what you need. I purchased a longer wrecking bar, so it could serve multiple functions: ripping out plaster, removing damaged trim, chiseling off bits of tile, and as a lever to remove all sorts of things that are nailed, glued, or just painted down.
Obviously, you’ll need to be more careful if you’re working with something that you want to keep. Use a hammer and a three-piece pry-bar set to slowly work each piece off the walls. This set will also be useful for other tasks, like pulling nails out.
One of the first projects we tackled was removing the drop ceilings in our home. But we didn’t realize that one of the main problems with this otherwise quick demo task was ending up with a lot of long pieces of lumber. Use a circular saw to cut the extra pieces down, so you can easily dispose of them.
If the tile is in good condition, but the grout is not, save yourself some time and remove the grout with an oscillating tool or this stand-alone tool. Once it’s gone, add new grout — and it’s good as new!
If the tile is in bad shape (like ours was) and you need to remove it, it’s worth investing in an SDS Plus Hammer Drill with a tile chisel. These are a little expensive but will save you a ton of time if you have a large space. As a bonus: The large handheld drill has several functions, including a spinning mode, which is really useful for mixing things like drywall compound and mortar.
You’ll want a pipe wrench, which easily grabs onto pipes or plumbing so that you can attach to the valves. This is helpful if your steam heat is leaking because of a loose valve, or if you need to temporarily remove a radiator to repair or update your flooring. Longer wrenches provide more leverage for really stuck valves but can be harder to fit in a tight spot.
Whether you’re changing a light fixture or repairing an old plaster wall, be very careful not to touch your electric. Turn it off, and then make sure it’s turned off with a noncontact voltage tester that allows you to see if wires are live. And so you aren’t doing anything in the dark, grab a couple of long extension cords and a set of work lights. These don’t need to be fancy, so it’s a great place to save.
Get a few plastic sheets to protect furniture or create a division between spaces.
Purchase more contractor bags than you think you’ll need. You can never have too many — and they are better for these types of projects than standard residential trash bags because they are thicker and won’t tear as easily, even when punctured.
If you’re protecting your floors, one great hack is to use drop cloths and moving blankets. It’s a cheaper solution to other floor protection, and you’ll be able to reuse them in the future for other home projects.
You’re probably sick of wearing N95 masks, but you’ll want to be wearing one for most demo activities, such as removing drywall or plaster, scraping wallpaper, cutting paneling off of walls, and removing tile. If you’re working in hot weather, you can buy the valved version that lets you exhale a bit easier. It’s not safe for COVID, but will work for these circumstances. You’ll also want a set of inexpensive safety glasses, disposable gloves or full-grain leather for extra protection, sturdy pants like Carhartts, and boots with a thick sole and preferably a steel shank like this pair of Blundstones because you will step on nails at some point.
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