30 Basic tools that help me be a better builder

I get asked from time to time about how I make something or what I used to make something in particular. The answers to those question vary completely but over the years of making props, costumes and things here and there, it comes down to the tools that make the thing.

I’ve tried to not let a lack of tools stop me from making something, although some processes are better with tool A, over tool B, like the old saying goes: There’s more than one way to skin a cat.

What I wanted to do here is list off some simple things that I use ALL THE TIME that have made me a better maker of things and stuffs. The criteria for this came from me cleaning up my work bench and what I’ve discovered is some tools NEVER get put away because I use them all the time when making anything. When I looked at my benches and desks that I will be sitting down at I found some common items I nearly always have on hand. what’s good about this list is many of these items are cheap and easy to find. So let’s get to the meat and cheese of this all.

I’m going to roughly list some cheapest to most expensive. Granted, these may vary in price from me to you, but this is overall what I’ve come up with for my ‘go-to’ list

1) Scraps of Wood ($0)
I’m guilty for hanging onto small scraps of wood for many reasons around my shop. I will use a scrap of wood to back up a piece that I’m drilling into so I don’t damage a drill bit on a table, or damage the table itself! Sometimes I’ll sandwich two pieces of wood with an item I’m glueing so the clamp won’t leave a mark on the item. I’ll use scraps of wood to push an item through a bandsaw or use them as soft jaws in a vice. Scraps of wood are really handy to use tape on to hold objects that are small so you can spray paint them or create a tree for smaller parts you are painting. Basically, there is no such thing as a scrap of wood discarded in my work space until it can no long perform a task as listed above.

2) Q tips (grab some from the bathroom)
I use Q Tips for a variety of things from dabbing glue on a surface, cleaning up small mistakes in paint, mixing up paint or two part epoxies, adding weathering to smaller areas or using the sticks to create a tree with the previous scraps of wood mentioned. lots of uses for these cheap disposable items here. I really like to long wooden handle version of these though at this time I think these are a bit harder to find in my area, I find these as very helpful in my workflow and they don’t cost much.

3) Razor blades (roughly $.10 each)
Not just for shaving, I like using razor blades to make precision cuts, scuffing the surface of something flat, scraping off paint, marking a cutline on many surfaces, you name it. I always have plenty of razor blades around for many purposes in my work area.

4) Popsicle sticks (get a bag at the dollar store)
Super handy tool that is disposable for mixing glues and paints. You can use these as a burnishing tool to lay down graphics and you can sharpen to a chisel to poke into tight areas. Typically these won’t harshly mar a surface so they are a nice tool to use for small jobs. Combine these with sandpaper to make small sanding sticks for small areas when nail files might not hold up as well.

5) Sharpie Markers ($.50 - $1)
I find Sharpies a valuable tool in my practice. I mostly use them for marking cuts on metal parts because they are durable on the surface and allow me to handle when dry without easily smudging off the marks. I use a couple of different colors for different tasks. One color might be for cut lines, another could be to sand to marks. I often use them to do a quick weathering on a piece with the silver which is handy. I’ve even used a cracked open marker to add the dye into two part epoxy resin to tint it that color. Sharpies are my go to for lots of things around the shop.

6) Super Glue (roughly $1)
Prices are going to vary here based on the size of the container and the brand. Super glue is so handy for making temporary adhesion of parts. I keep a bottle around all my work areas for any number of uses but here are a few: I could glue two sheets of metal together to sand them the same way to make identical cuts and grindings or align holes while drilling metal. I’ve used Superglue along with baking soda to make a gap filler (cheap bondo) it’s sandable and handy for a quick fix! This might sound like the craziest use but it was its original use Liquid Stitches! Did you know that CA glue was designed for the Army to quickly close up a wound? I’ve done it a couple of times when critical but not the best practice. Any which way you use it, its super handy, super fast… its SUPER GLUE!

7) Exacto Blades (5 blades for $1.50-2)
I use a hobby knife with #11 exacto blades at all of my work stations. Super handy to be able to make more precise cuts over the razor blades which I use more as a scrapper tool. If I’m cutting a template out or poking a whole in a piece of fabric, I always have one of these in all the areas I work.

8) Isopropyl Alcohol ($1-2)
Isopropyl Alcohol is a key tool in my practice before painting or glueing things. It’s important to clean things up to remove grease and dirt before tackling this process. Alcohol is a nice easy solvent that shouldn’t be too aggressive on a previously painted parts but will allow you to clean it. I do also recommend acetone (just buy nail polish remover for a cheaper/weaker substitute) when a more aggressive process is needed, but it’s going to possibly weaken a plastic part or a painted part. The other good reason to keep it around goes back to the super glue story. Clean out your wounds with it before glueing them shut.

9) Microfiber towels (buy at the dollar store 3 for $1)
Going along with Isopropyl Alcohol for paint prep, Microfiber towels are great for catching all those little pieces of debris that could have collected prior to paint. Super cheap insurance to do a last wipe down with a clean microfiber towel. Don’t forget to wash them after use so you don’t transfer dirt and such from one project to another.

10) “0000” Steel Wool ($4-5 for a bag)
Steel wool is a great tool to have on hand for sanding and polishing. I pretty much just use the super fine variety of 4/0 or “0000”. You can use this very lightly to knock down a gloss paint job to a satin or flat paint job. The one thing to remember is that it does contain an oil on the surface that will transfer to your projects. Keep that Isopropyl Alcohol handy to wipe that off.

11) Sanding Sponge (prices vary based on size, grit and brands)
I like sanding sponges for projects for one main reason: They won’t leave your finger marks in the surface of what you sand. Even if you have a variety of sand papers already purchased, you can cut those into strips and wrap them around the sanding block and discard the paper, keeping the block for later use. This is also something you can make yourself from scrap EVA foam and your sand papers. Either which way you do it, the sponge part of sanding is going to up your hand sanding game and give you more even results to a beginner.

12) Scotch-brite 7447
This is another coveted tool for me in my work. AKA the “Red Pads” the Scotch-Brite 7447 leaves a near perfect pre paint prep surface condition to anything you paint. From scuffing plastics or changing from primer to paint these pads are perfect for this purpose. The 7447 is also handy for metal finishing as well to remove and give uniform scratches to metal parts. Add in a squirt of WD40 oil to a pad and it will remove light rust pretty fast on a tool. Add some Acetone to a pad and quickly remove paint from an object. This is a great item to keep in stock. Sizes vary with the price.

13) Painters Tape ($1-10 depending on brand and width)
My personal favorite is the green Frog Brand tape. Painters tape is really handy for masking off and doing color changes on painted projects. Do yourself a favor and use this over masking tape, duct tape or scotch tape for painted projects because one of those tapes could ruin a perfectly good painted progect when you peel it off. I’ve recently found some blue painters tape at my local dollar store that is shockingly good quality with the right amount of stick to it to be useful but also much cheaper than the frog tape I like so much.

14) Center Punch ($4)
If you’re drilling metal pieces (even thick plastics) using a center punch to mark you entry point in the surface is going to make your life much easier. You put the point on the mark and push down until it clicks. The click is the spring activating, leaving a divot in the surface. That divot should align with the tip of the drill bit so it doesn’t walk off on you and ruin a project.

15) Spring Clips ($1-5 depending on material and size)
If you don’t already have some of these, just stuff your own stocking now with as many as you can. I find the steel spring clips so handy from holding something I’m painting, clipping two things I’m glueing together, mocking up parts to join together, clipping a piece of wood that I’m sawing in half so it doesn’t crack, etc. You’d be surprised at how many of these you can use at a single time! I keep mine clamped to a piece of wood on my work top, ready for use at any time. These never get put away in a drawer.

16) Wire Brushes ($1-5 depending on size and material)
I like the smaller sized brushes (think more toothbrush sized) for my work. I’ll use these a lot to clean up a tool, distress some paint, remove some paint, scratch up a surface, etc. The Stainless steel ones are good for not transferring rust to projects and ease of cleaning. If you get a solid brass brush, with a heat source you can transfer that brass by rubbing it on a heated metal surface. Seal it with some clear varnish and you could swear it was made of brass or bronze.

17) J-B Weld Epoxy: Putty and Glue ( $5-6)
For glueing dissimilar materials, J-B Weld is my go-to for long lasting strength. There’s a lot of similar products that are competitive, but this is the one I use the most. You mix the two parts together and set it up to bond. Within 30 minutes to an hour you can trim away the squeeze off bits pretty easy so you don’t have to sand for days if you wait 24 or more hours. When bigger jobs are needed and holes need filling in I love the W-B weld epoxy putty! This stuff has saved my butt many times on projects when I’ve had an uh oh moment. This is a two part putty that you cut and mix like playdoh. You have about 30 minutes working time, but you can kinda extend that by moistening your finger tips and massage the surface. It’s super strong stuff that can be sculpted, shaped and sanded and tapped if needed in a project. Keep some on hand in your kit, it’s seriously as hard as a rock when dry.

18) C Clamps ($2-20 depending on scale)
C Clamps for me are a quick way to lock down a tool I’m using in position. I also use C clamps to hold down something I’m cutting to make sure it stays put. Simple and handy and certainly more secure than the spring clamps.

19) Dedicated Fabric Sheers ($4-50)
If you’re going to cut fabric, have a dedicated pair of sheers ONLY for fabric. Label these scissors as such and lock them away from others who might be cutting paper projects and ransom notes. If you’re good to your scissors, they will last a long time.

20) WoodBurner Tool ($10 - ?)
I’ve recently put this into practice and I keep finding more uses for it all the time. Besides burning wood (which I still haven’t burned any wood with it) I first got the tool to burn patterns in EVA foam which is a great way to texture and add surface effects to foam. I’ve also used it for burning details into thicker leather. Lastly and probably my favorite use for it is cutting nylon web gear. Not only will it cut and cauterize the nylon but if you need to add holes through nylon web gear, instead of poking it with an awl and trying to shove something through it, use the woodburner tool to go right through it. Maybe one day I’ll use it for what it was intended.

21) Needle Files ($5-25+)
I shouldn’t just say needle files, but a good set of files with different shapes can really improve the look of your finish products. I see a lot of people’s finished projects that could stand a quick pass of a file or some sandpaper to make it go from good to GREAT! Having a set of files to finish an edge or a corner and make it perfect is the trick. For larger files, just ht a junk shop/garage sale/flea market and get them from $.50-$3. I once bought a whole box of files for $10 which was over 50 files in the end.

22) Cutting Board/Mat ($10- ??)
Price is going to contingent on the scale of the mat or board. Most of these have a scale printed right in and are “self healing” These are super handy to protect your work surface from cutting with those razor blades. If you are just doing a bunch of rough cuts and don’t need the scale printed on it I also suggest hitting your local thrift store and check in the housewares area to find a used cutting board. In my area nearly every single thrift store will have at least one for a couple of bucks for you to destroy! I keep my thrift store one in the garage for quick cuts.

23) Drill Gauge ($10-20)
Having a quick reference for drilling holes or finding out what the size of a bolt/screw head is super handy! If you’ve ever spilled your drill bits on the ground and need to definitively get them back in place this all help you a bunch. I mostly use the gauge to find out how big of a bit I need for the bolts I already have for a project. There’s other ways to achieve this by looking up the diameter of a 8-32 screw but if you can just drop it in a whole, it’s much faster.

24) Tin Snips ($7-25)
Having some sheers to cut thinner metals is super handy and doesn’t have to make a big mess to make it happen. I suggest a set of aviation tin snips in your tool case. Again for me this is a tool that goes into a tool drawer and then I’m right back there pulling it out again. I guess that’s how I get my steps in. These aren’t just for metal either, I use mine to cut some plastics as well. Best use is for straight cuts but with some care you can cut gentle curves too.

25) Nitrile Rubber Gloves ($10 for 50 pairs)
When you are working with paints and chemicals or if you’re trying to handle a piece you just cleaned up and don’t want to transfer the funk of your shop dirty hands onto the surface, disposable gloves are a good way to quickly transition from dirty hands to clean without running back to the wash sink and scrubbing to the bone. These have recenty gone up in cost due to cover 19 but an alternate could be reusable dishpan gloves that you clean up between uses.

26) Digital Calipers ($12-200)
You’ll find more uses for this than you probably ever thought you’d need once you have them. I use mine all the time in my shop. knowing the diameter, the thickness, the depth of something quickly and accurately is going to up your game and make your projects more accurate to a source material. If you need to switch between standard and metric quickly, this is also a great tool to do that without having to whip out your phone with your dirty fingers. If you’re not a machinist having the $12-20 version of these is perfectly fine. Another great use for this when working from a scale figure is to take a measurement off the figure, do the math for the scale and upsize it to human proportions. Many details off my my Cobra Commander figure came exactly from using digital calipers.

27) Angle Grinder/Sander ($15-60+)
If you’re working with metal and need to cut it, shape it, grind it, this is a good place to start. I recommend to start with a 4.5" version. This tool is no joke and can seriously harm you if you are careless. With that said, it is also a great tool to make short work of cutting down metal. You might want to pass on the $12-15 version from Harbor freight but you’ll probably get a few cuts before it falls apart. Something in the $40 range will last you a good long while. Cut off disks will split the metal all day long and the range of flap disks will chew into the surface well too. WEAR PROTECTION, I can’t stress this enough.

28) Dremel or similar rotary grinding tool. ( $25-100+)
If you don’t already own one a Dremel tool (or the like) is actually a really powerful swiss army knife of a tool in your arsenal. With the right bits and enough of them, you can make some great things! For me personally I’ve had my current Dremel tool for at least 20 years. It’s near its end, but it still works. I use mostly the metal cut off disks and the sanding drums but since I started doing EVA foam I now use those stone nibs and some of the other attachments it came with. I Highly recommend adding this tool to your must haves as you’ll find endless places this comes in handy.

29) Heat Gun ($10-100+)
A heat gun is more than just a hairdryer for people you hate. You can use it to strip paint, remove decals, bend plastics, dry paint fast and shrink wrap items fast. If you’re into EVA foam its a great tool to heat seal the foam as well as make it malleable for forming it into shape and keeping that shape. On the cheap you can even find one of these for under $10 on the right day at Harbor Freight tools. I mostly use mine to wick off any solvents I use on a part prior to paint on cold days and then flash off the solvents of spray paint to have it dry a little faster.

30) Vice: Bench and Machinist ( $20 - Sky’s the limit)
If you are cutting something or even just need an extra set of hands, a vice is something I highly recommend. Vices are measured by their jaw width. Although a small vice can be handy for small things, I think a starter size that is a good, general, all around handy is a 4" bench vice. When you go larger, it can sometimes work against you and take up too much room on your work table. A bench vice is designed to be attached to a table with bolts or the like. You can however get by with using C clamps or the appropriate size so you can move it or remove it as needed for space. A machinist vice is a table top vice often used in conjunction with a drill press. This type of vice can be used to hold things your working on in multiple set ups from vertical and horizontal and even on its side. I’d say everyone should own a vice for any number of ways to hold something while you are working.

That’s it for the basics for me. I will at some point put my next level of tools up that I use and then the advanced tools. I probably should have saved the angle grinder for the next level up but since you can buy one for as little as $15 I thought it would fit in the cheap tools area.

Enjoy and feel free to add to this!

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Very informative. I’ll be adding a few items I don’t currently have. Thanks!!

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I like how the focus was on everyday items or ones that are relatively easy to use and obtain. I’ve seen more than a few how-to guides out on youtube or on facebook which can be intimidating the moment someone pulls out the expensive stuff.

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Agreed! I wanted to keep things simple/cheap to start and the idea were tools I use so often that they seldom get put away.

I too get bummed out when following along on someone’s build and see a tool that is of professional grade and not really affordable that does one key thing to the process.

I do have a few of these things that need a dedicated space to use but they aren’t super necessary to a lot of my first order process in the same way that these are.

I’ll give some secondary suggestions in a follow up for a tool kit but those will come with more commitments for space and use.

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