It’s the most wonderful and expensive time of the year! That means ridiculous travel arrangements, the overwhelming din of everyone you know and love crammed into one room, sales that make you wonder why anybody buys anything at full price, and budgets stretched further than our beltlines. I know you’re working on that last part because you’re here––you’re being proactive, avoiding the last minute, and researching because you had an idea of what kind of gift to get, but you’re just not sure which home garage tools to get someone for Christmas.
There’s good news and bad news here. The bad news is that most people already have a mix of the basics, there’s so much you need to really get started, and the usefulness of more specialized tools depends heavily on what somebody’s interested in doing on their own time. The good news is that with such a diverse range of tools useful to a garage mechanic, there’s sure to be something good for you to grab! But it depends a lot on the type of person you’re shopping for. So what do you buy for…
The One Who Oils Their Engine Like a Salad
You’ve seen the gifs/videos, right? A car in a parking lot, hood up, blonde woman on the phone with a bottle of motor oil in hand, drizzling it all over the manifolds and cylinder heads? It might be satire, but I’ve heard enough stories of people who didn’t realize they needed to get an oil change now and then, or even refuel with gasoline, and maybe that’s who you’re shopping for today.
I don’t want to imply that anybody’s a lost cause, but if this describes the person you’re shopping for, we’d better start off with the most basic of basics. Your giftee is bound to make some kind of a mess if they dare risk dirtying their fingers at all, so let’s make sure they’re safe while they do so.
Bison Life Safety Glasses – 12 pk
The absolute last thing this person needs is to damage their eyes while bravely venturing into the great unknown of auto self-care. These safety glasses work as well as much more expensive competitors, but they’re barely a buck a piece––tell your “someone” to spread them out, so there’s always a pair nearby. One in the car, one in the kitchen, one on the tool bench…you know what I mean. Make safety convenient!
There are a lot of cleaners and degreasers that have a place in an automotive garage, but the first and most important one might be the one for your hands (especially for our oil-drizzling friend from the example). If you’ve never used “orange hand cleaner,” trust me, it’s the bomb, loaded with grit for cutting grease and emits a delightful citrus scent.
With a convenient pop-up box dispenser, these are the classic disposable shop towel, great for catching oil, fluids, grease, or whatever and tossing it aside. Glamorous? No. Useful? Absolutely.
Yeah, you’ll want to get them some gloves too. It’s all about keeping that nasty stuff off your skin and being able to clean up quickly whenever a mess gets made. It’s not exactly a barnburner of a gift set, but it’s not expensive, and it’s true to the ever-applicable mantra: safety first!
The One With a VIP Spot at the Mechanic’s
This person knows that their car needs care, and they aren’t afraid to make sure their car gets it––from a certified professional. You begin to wonder if they even actually own a car from how often they carpool in your vehicle because theirs is in the shop so often. An oil change here, radiator fluid there, winter tires, summer tires, everything short of blinker fluid, all the time!
This friend has awareness but might just be missing the tools they need to feel confident about tackling a couple of things on their own. So see if you can suss out what they already have on hand, and if any of these basics are missing, you’re good to go!
Harbor Freight’s mid-tier discount brand Doyle is not to be discounted amongst its peers in terms of performance. A series of ridiculous torture tests executed by the Donut Media team found these to be the best bang for their buck among six competitive sets, so if your friend is devoid of screwdrivers, this quick fix will un-screw them in many a pinch.
It’s a pretty barren tool chest that’s missing screwdrivers and wrenches, but it’s not uncommon for hand-me-down sets to be full of gaps at all the most useful sizes. Set them up for success with an inexpensive but useful kit of Pittsburgh wrenches! Sure, they might not be “forever” tools, but they’ll do the trick for most amateur mechanics.
Everybody’s got a plier or two hanging around and maybe even a super-handy vise grip, but the trouble with automotive applications is that things get specific in a hurry. A diverse, but manageable, kit of pliers will serve your giftee well.
This Craftsman socket set could be your home run shot. Wrenches are great and all, but nothing matches the convenience of a socket set when space gets tight, and as you may have noticed, that happens a lot under the hood of a car. Craftsman backs their products with a lifetime warranty and has over a century of tool refinement under their belt––this is a must-have for any DIY-er who’s going to be working with nuts and bolts!
The One Cutting Back on Expenses
Now we get to the exciting stuff. This person is already well-equipped to handle basic DIY tasks with a simple toolbox but needs a few specialized tools to complete their initial investment and start doing their own routine maintenance. There are dozens of tools you could gift depending on what they’re trying to get themselves into––brakes, engines, fluids, detailing, and more––so here are just a few pieces of low-hanging fruit that’ll make a real difference to that special someone:
Almost every nut and bolt on a car is tightened to a precise specification. Too tight and it could break; too loose, and it could come undone during normal operation. Even lugnuts need to be torqued to a specific value (and often re-torqued after a brief stint of operation), so if your giftee is interested at all in their own tire changes or just about anything else, they’ll need one of these bad boys on hand. The best part is that this relatively cheap model from EPAuto performed on par with the big dogs in severe torture testing on Donut Media, so there’s no need to break the bank to gift an uber-useful tool!
Another essential tool for the automotive DIYer is the jack. Simply put, you’re just not going to get anything done under the car (especially anything to do with the wheels) without first getting the car in the air, and it had best be immobile for the duration. A floor jack is a little expensive for a gift but will make a huge difference for anybody who dreads the grueling process of elevating their car any other way. Be sure to get at least a 3-ton model to accommodate most vehicles––they won’t be driving a Spark forever and might need the extra capacity.
The floor jack doesn’t negate the need for good jack stands––these are what’ll keep the car elevated, stationary, and stable once the pumping is done*, so be sure to provide a couple of these. Chocks wouldn’t hurt either; though a stout block of wood can do the trick, you’re already going all-out with this package, so what does another $40 matter, right? As long as there’s something to keep landlocked wheels from turning once the others have departed terra firma, it’ll all be good.
*Bonus points from me if the holiday card reads, “We are going to pump, *clap*, you up!”
One of my first automotive tools was an OBD2 dongle. My beater Sentra had a check engine light, I didn’t think anything was actually wrong with it, and I didn’t have the cash for a diagnostic visit to tell me that nothing was wrong. I found a cheap OBD2 reader, plugged it in, connected via Bluetooth, and confirmed that the light was nothing––a low-temperature warning triggered on a day that hit -40 degrees. (Fun fact: at -40, it doesn’t matter if I specify F or C because everything’s freakin’ frozen). No kidding.
Storytime aside, diagnostic visits are severely overpriced––you could easily be charged $125-$150 just for the privilege of finding out what the car’s computer already knows is wrong. Save time and money for your budget-conscious buddy by gifting an easy-to-use OBD2 reader. This one is convenient and smart enough to not only tell them what’s wrong but it can also tell them what parts and repairs they need to fix it and warn them about what issues might be coming up in the near future!
If your giftee is going to dare to mess with electricity, the one tool they absolutely must have is a multimeter. Whether they’re wiring components or simply checking the battery (another simple and overpriced diagnostic test), a multimeter is essential for troubleshooting, diagnosing, and verifying electrical problems and solutions. From Klein Tools, you’re getting an easy-to-use, well-respected device at a reasonable price and with more capability than your giftee will ever need, all so that they can understand their car’s electrical system without giving themselves a heart attack. Win-win-win-win-win. Win!
The Grease Monkey
Last but certainly not least, we reach the apex of the line. Anybody more serious than this “guy-or-gal-you-know” is actually literally a paid professional mechanic. In fact, many of them may be less serious about home car care. You’re in a bit of a pickle with this one, though, because the trouble with shopping for hobbyists is that you will never know their hobby as well as they do.
If you’ve found something good to get for them, odds are they already have it. Find something they don’t have, and discover that it’s because they’ve already passed it over with an entire thesis dedicated to the product’s damnation. And anything they don’t already have, which is also a good buy for them, is already on their shopping list (if not actively en route to their garage). Short of them telling you exactly what they’ll allow you to buy for them, and don’t you go shopping around for cheaper alternatives or “better versions” of it, you plebe, you’re practically screwed to an ultra-precise specification.
But, if you’re really determined to get this special person in your life a gift of tools for working on their beloved project car, there’s one gift you can give that’s a surefire win, with no chance of receiving a “No Thank You” card in return:
A Gift Card
Your only homework is to figure out where they like to shop, then get them a gift card for that store. That’s it! If that much knowledge is out of your reach, a prepaid Mastercard will do the trick just fine, allowing them to spend the money wherever they wish. Don’t be that well-intentioned great uncle who knows that the kids love both video games and bowling, so he buys a PS2 bowling game in 2022. Just admit that you’re out of your league with this one, and get them the gift card.
Ho, Ho, How Much Did You Say That Cost?
Yeah, if you’re following along, you probably realize that project cars are an expensive hobby. But the tools for basic maintenance work––tire changes, oil changes, diagnostics, and more––are investments and are excellent gifts for the home mechanic who is reluctant to make that first big spend. If I got the tools I needed for my seasonal tire changes, I could easily save $300 a year––immediately returning on the investment made in the torque wrench, floor jack, jack stands, and chocks I referenced above!
So whether you’re reading this during the holiday season, mid-summer, or both, tools that can help somebody step up their self-care game are always a good idea. The tricky part is finding out what to get, so thanks for hanging out and picking my brain for ideas––the rest is up to you. And if you’re shopping for someone in Category 1, please include a gift card for a free bottle of blinker fluid from me. Happy Holidays!