Earlier this year in our Assorted Bits column, we showed you a picture of the latest invention for the avid auto mechanic/outdoorsman. It was called the “hatchet wrench.” It was just a joke, of course, but it made me think about all of the unusual or uncommon tools that are under-utilized in this industry.
Before we say to rush right out and buy a bunch more tools, we’ll point out there’s a fine line between tools you really need to have and ones you don’t. Throughout the course of a career as an auto technician, there will be a lot of tools you’d love to own, but cannot justify or afford, and there’ll be those you buy and 30 years later you never used them a single time.
Drawing the line between what to buy or not is part economics, part how many times you’ve borrowed it and part gut feeling. What we’re bringing to the table today is a list of tools that can and will save you a lot of time. Sometimes the most useful things get overlooked, in many cases, because we don’t know they exist. So, here’s to the unusual and hoping that some of these keep you some day from saying, “I wish I’d bought this 30 years ago.”
Have you ever tried to grease a joint and the grease just won’t go into the fitting? We’re sure the answer is yes and it’s usually because the grease has hardened in the fitting, or more often in the joint just after the fitting, so changing it doesn’t help. These tools, and we’ve seen a number of different brands, work by filling them with light oil, pushing them onto the grease fitting and then hitting with a hammer. It creates an instant high-pressure oil injection to blast through the hardened grease and you’re back in business.
Radiator Cleaning Nozzle
Dirty fins on a radiator or A/C condenser are easy to overlook because they’re hard to see and hard to get to. Cooling fins that don’t appear obstructed can have considerable dirt buildup where you can’t see it. A radiator cleaning nozzle is simply a long tube with a series of holes drilled to blast air out at a 90-degree angle. Slip them down between a radiator and condenser and you’ll make short work of cleaning out the fins. Restoring the efficiency and heat transfer of either of these components can make the difference between good performance and excellent performance for their respective systems, and they work great for blowing out air filters and screens as well.
Screw starters have been around for a long time, but still seem to lurk in the shadows. They grip either a Phillips or slotted screw at the head but not by the head, but in the slots themselves. The body is a knurled shaft and the result is an easy way to start screws in recesses or hard-to-reach areas, or simply a way to hold screws that are too small for your fingers. Inexpensive and small, they might collect a little dust in between uses, but when you need one, you need one.
Tail Pipe Cutters
Sometimes also called chain pipe cutters, these look something like a bicycle or motorcycle chain with each link holding a cutting wheel like that of a standard tubing cutter. Some varieties come with plier-like handles, others with vise-grip type of handles. They are quick, easy and efficient and give you straight, square cuts. You only need enough clearance for the chain to wrap around the pipe and a little bit of room to draw the tool back and forth. You’ll never want to use anything else again.
Air-Assisted Heater Core Flushing Tool
A stepped water nozzle works great for flushing old coolant, but when a restricted heater core is the problem, water pressure just isn’t enough. If you’ve never used one, you’ll be amazed watching clear water flowing out of a heater core and the second you give it a quick blast of air, how dirty the water gets. Water will normally just flow past any buildup, but the air disrupts and agitates the water flow, knocking loose any sludge or debris in the heater core. Many times, we’ve seen vehicles go from no heat to full heat instantly from using one of these. It’s one of those things that makes you look good, saves you time and makes your customers very happy.
We can’t really call these unusual anymore because they’ve been making an impact on auto repair since the turn of the century. What’s important is that they work, and they work really well. Not only do they provide a safer heat with no flame, but there are many different coils and accessories available to allow for multiple uses. Aside from the fact that they work well, as a technician, owning your own means fewer trips to use the shop torches, as well as quicker, safer and more efficient work.
Hose Clamp Pliers
Hose clamp pliers are equipped for grabbing onto hose clamps and taking them off and putting them back onto the connection without cutting or destroying them. Whereas regular pliers make it hard to grab onto hose clamps in confined areas, hose clamp pliers should have a recessed area and rotating tips that easily grab onto the clamp and maneuver between different angles without slipping. Now, the vehicle’s original hose clamps can be reused instead of being replaced by screw clamps. Using these pliers for this application can save you a lot of time and frustration from replacing these hose clamps.
We all prefer to use the right tool for the job. It’s easier, more efficient and it means you’re doing the job right without damaging any components. But the fact is that it’s not realistic to own every tool for every job, and more than once throughout your career, you’re going to run across a round object that you need to keep from rotating in order to get the bolts loose. Maybe you don’t have the factory tool, maybe they don’t make a tool and maybe there’s no access. That’s where a strap wrench or chain wrench comes into play.
Strap wrenches grip objects really well and generally won’t damage the surface; however, they will crush a delicate object or potentially leave a mark at the main head of the tool. Chain wrenches are the next step if a strap wrench won’t grip and they will generally hold some serious torque, but you have to be careful about the increased possibility of marring the surface. The bottom line is getting the job done and these can save you in a pinch.
This might be more of an honorable mention for those who really like to have every option, but they are useful, and we like them. Hard to find but still available are through-hole hand ratchets and sockets. Air ratchets are more plentiful with this design feature that eliminates the need for a deep socket on most applications. Anywhere you have a nut that runs down a long stud or threaded rod, these work great, and a set consists of one tool and multiple sockets. It’s like having a ratchet and ratcheting wrench all in one tool. The benefit is saving space in your toolbox and investing in fewer tools. When needed for access, such as in the case of spark plugs, extended sockets and through-hole extensions are available too. Taking these along for roadside service is one of our favorite uses.
Pipe Plug/Square Socket Set
Square-drive pipe plugs aren’t really that common, and some of the female ones are 3/8 in., meaning the end of an extension works just fine. But they do show up from time to time in both male and female as well as different sizes and nothing is more frustrating than not having the tool for something so simple. You can buy the sockets in both male and female and while these might also collect a little dust in between uses, when you need them, you’ll sure be glad you have them.
Thermostat Gasket Cleaner
More than just a holder for your twist-lock cleaning discs, a thermostat gasket cleaner is an extended version with a sleeve around the driveshaft so you can control it while spinning. You gain access and control with one of these and you’ll use it for a lot more than just thermostats. We’re not picking favorites, but if you don’t have one, get one now.
Window Holder Suction Cups
We all do window regulators, so forget wedging an inappropriate tool or other device between the glass and the window felt. With two suction cups connected by a cable, the top of the door frame does the work and eliminates the possibility of damage or the glass slipping free.
Click Clamp Pliers
When you’re not using the correct tool, your instinct may be to cut off the clamps and destroy them. In addition to ruining the click clamp, trying to remove the click clamps without the proper equipment can damage the hose and the parts around it. These types of pliers are designed to open and close click clamps without damaging them. These pliers feature push-button adjustment, as well as rotating tips that are specially designed to grab the click clamps, even in hard-to-reach areas. Look for ones that have a slim head design for working in tight spaces, as well as serrated gripping jaws for easy loosening of tight hoses. Now, you’ll no longer need to replace the click clamps, saving time and energy.
Portable Cleaning Brush
Dirty, greasy and grimy is the one certainty in auto repair. You always need to clean something and sometimes you wish you could put the whole car in a cleaning tank. Any technician with years under their belt knows that cleaning can be one of the most difficult parts of the job. Look for one with interchangeable heads with different-style brushes, valve-controlled venturi and a pickup tube that turn it into a completely portable cleaning brush. Put some solvent in a tub, drop in the pickup tube and you’ve got a cleaning brush wherever you need it to be.
There you have it, some pretty good stuff. If you have it all, hat’s off, you’re a tool master. If you’re interested in the hatchet wrench, I’m betting you have the complete series of “The Red Green Show” on VHS at home. Do you mind if I borrow them?
Images courtesy of KNIPEX, Lisle Corp., Innovative Products of America, Matco Tools, Mayhew Tools and Induction Innovations.