Screwdriver set: From prying the lids off of paint cans to opening child-proof battery compartments, screwdrivers are must-have tools. Aim for flat- and Phillips-head screwdrivers in various sizes; you can often buy these in kits. Look for magnetic tips and comfortable grips to make screwing or unscrewing easier. See Art of Manliness' how to use a screwdriver for more about screwdrivers than you might care to know.
Claw Hammer: No toolbox would be complete without a solid hammer. One end is used to drive nails in, the other side to pull (usually bent) nails out of wood or a wall. Bob Vila recommends, in general, a hammer with a 16-inch handle weighing about one pound. Rubber, plastic, or vinyl handles offer shock absorption and a better grip.
Pliers: Locking, adjustable pliers also known as plier wrenches, lever-wrench pliers, and vise grips are very versatile. Because they lock in place, they can be used as a clamp, or, as mentioned above, in lieu of a wrench, wire cutter, or more. The Art of Manliness recommends a standard 5-10W size for this plier.
Adjustable Wrench: An adjustable, crescent wrench is like having multiple wrenches in one. You'll need one to tighten nuts and bolts and loosen plumbing fixtures.
Tape Measure: You might have heard the saying "measure twice, cut once." Well, you need a tape measure for that and to do other things like make sure furniture will fit in a room and measuring windows for blinds. Tape measures come in varying widths (from ½ inch to 1-inch), with the wider widths easier to support with one hand when extended. According to Vila, a ¾-inch wide, 16-foot long tape measure is a good size for most jobs.
Level: No more crookedly-hung photos! A level ensures you don't hang or install anything (including your flat-screen TV and shelves) less than horizontally perfect. In a pinch you could use one of many mobile apps that serve as a virtual level, but a longer 3- to 4-foot metal level (which can double as a straight edge) will go a long way. For hands-free leveling, a laser level is your friend.
Utility Knife: For opening boxes, sharpening pencils, and more, the utility knife is a toolbox workhorse. This Old House recommends buying one with built-in blade storage and rubber-covered handles for comfort.
Work Light or Flashlight: You'll need a flashlight for your emergency kit anyway, but you could get a dedicated LED light, head lamp, or work lamp to make sure you're sawing/screwing/nailing or otherwise DIYing correctly in low or no light.
Electric Drill: Although you can go without a drill for a while or resort to borrowing one when needed, sooner or later, most handypeople will need a drill—and after getting one, find it indispensable. Cordless drills are convenient for working anywhere, but the corded kinds cost less and don't require expensive battery replacements. Whichever type you get, an electric drill not only drills holes and drives screws, but, with different bits, also sands and grinds materials, stirs paint, and even super-powers your pepper production. Recently launched home shopping advice site Thesweethome recommends the 12-volt Porter-Cable Drill/Driver (about $86).
Hacksaw: A hacksaw cuts through wood and even metal and plastic pipes. Look for the kind you can easily replace with new blades.Other: Though not your standard tools, a well-outfit toolbox should also include: safety goggles, work gloves, rags, pencil, superglue, and, of course, duct tape and WD-40.Want a shopping shortcut? Thesweethome recommends the 76-piece Home Depot's HDX Homeowners Tool Kit ($30), which includes a hammer, 12-foot tape measure, screwdriver with 30 magnetized heads, allen wrenches, level, needle nose plier, utility knife, adjustable wrench, slip joint pliers, and light duty clamps. For a step up, with more and better quality tools (including hacksaw and drill bits), invest in the Denali 115-Piece Home repair Tool Kit ($55).Level up with upgraded versions of the above tools, plus some inexpensive specialty tools for tackling more types of projects.
Stud Finder: A stud finder will help you secure shelves, cabinets, expensive TVs, etc. to studs in the wall—and avoid surprises when cutting into one.
Ratcheting screwdriver: This type of screwdriver locks into place when you turn it clockwise and loosens when you turn counter-clockwise, which lessens the stress on your wrist. Most store a variety of screwdriver heads in the handle and may also bend 90 degrees or more for greater versatility.
Set of pliers: Beyond the adjustable pliers, other pliers to pick up include needle-nose and wire-cutting (or diagonal) pliers, for more exacting gripping work (like fixing jewelry) or, well, cutting wire.
Socket Wrench: For large projects where you have to tighten or loosen many nuts and bolts, a socket wrench set with a ratcheting handle is the way to go.
Allen wrenches: Allen wrenches, a.k.a. allen keys or hex keys, are L-shaped tools used to drive bolts and screws with hexagonal sockets in the head. You'll often find these used in furniture kits and for bike repairs. Look for allen wrench kits in a range of sizes and both Imperial and metric measurements.
Pipe wrench: A pipe wrench, as the name implies, is used for turning plumbing pipes and other fittings. Although large-scale plumbing jobs are best left to the pros, you can save a bunch on small jobs like putting in a new faucet if you have the proper tools.
Putty knife: The putty knife, naturally, is for spreading putty (e.g., to patch holes in walls). Available with stiff or rigid blades, it can also be used to scrape off old paint or glue residue, pry up nails or can lids, clean paint smudges, and remove wallpaper.
Combination Square: When you want to make cuts that are at true 90-degree angles or otherwise precisely measure and mark the squareness of corners, you'll need a combination square. Wood Magazine recommends picking up both a 6" and a 12" combination square and lists eight ways you can use them.
Chisel: A set of sharp chisels comes in handy when you're working with wood or doing something like changing the deadbolt on your front door (where you need to carve out some part of the wall). There are many types of chisels, made for specialized purposes, but the basic design of them all is the same. See Galt Technology's chisel advice page, which recommends Dasco Pro and Stanley's Fat Max brands.
Crosscut Saw: The jack-of-all-trades saw (what most people imagine first when thinking of the classic saw shape), the crosscut saw is perfect for small jobs like cutting 2x4s and for cutting across wood grain. About.com's Home Repair site offers advice on different types of crosscut saws.Other: Wood glue, plumber's putty, dust mask, voltage tester, wheelbarrow, shovel, rake, step ladderSerious enthusiasts who do many projects around the house will want to invest in more specialized tools or more power tools to do everything more efficiently.
Crowbar: When you need to pry apart boards, remove stubborn nails, do some heavy lifting, or otherwise break things, reach for the crowbar, a.k.a., pry bar. A medium size bar between 2 to 3 feet might be best for most projects. For larger demolition projects, get a wrecking bar.
Rubber Mallet: A rubber mallet lets you hammer or tap without damaging the surface. It comes in handy when installing laminate flooring or ceramic tile, as well as other uses, and you can pick up a decent mid-range mallet for under $25.
Staple gun: A heavy-duty staple gun doesn't cost much (under $20) but has a broad range of applications: everything from roofing and upholstery to hobbies and crafts. It's like your standard office stapler but more powerful, and comes in manual and electric versions.
Circular Saw: One of the most common power tools today, the circular saw's toothed metal cutting disk cuts through masonry, tile, and steel. Prices range from $50 to $200. See This Old House's article for advice on selecting and using a circular saw.
Automatic Nailer: If you're going to be driving a whole lot of nails, a nail gun will help you save time and effort over using a hammer. Finish nailers are used to nail moldings and small trim boards (like baseboards), while brad nailers are for thinner or more delicate trim. Family Handyman says these two types of nail guns are complimentary, so if you can afford it, buy both a 15-gauge finish nailer and an 18-gauge brad nailer (together, they'll cost $300 to $550), otherwise a 16-gauge nail gun is a good compromise (ranging from $200 to $300).
Impact Driver: To fasten a lot of screws or drill a bunch of holes with speed and ease (for deck-building and other woodwork), an impact driver is a worthy investment (yes, even if you already have a fancy drill). They range in price from $90 to $300. See Popular Mechanics' review of 9 impact drivers for a cost/features comparison.
Cordless Dremel Rotary Tool: A Dremel (or other similar rotary tool) may not be a necessity, but it sure comes in handy for a great variety of applications. With different attachments, you can use the power tool for drilling, grinding, sanding, sawing, sharpening, routing, polishing, cleaning, carving, and engraving. It's like a toolbox in itself. This kit includes 30 accessories and is $80.
Table Saws, Miter Saws, and More: For more precise, specific cuts and slices, there are a slew of specialty saws for the handyperson. Bob Vila's Essential Tools for Woodworking lays out why you might want these saws and other items such as an air compressor, drill press, and table and belt sander. Expect to pay $500 to $1,500 (or much more) for the whole kit and caboodle.Other: plumb bob or plumb line (a weight on a string for creating a vertical reference line), clamps to hold wood pieces together, sledgehammer, extension ladder, sawhorse or workbenchThe lists above should certainly get your toolboxitude on and help you tackle just about any project around your home. For further inspiration (or just plain tools-gawking), check out MythBuster Adam Savage's list of 300 meticulously organized tools. Photos by mtneer_man, Daren, and Mark Hunter.