When I’m on a construction job doing a repetitive task, I like to play mental games to occupy my time. One exercise I play is called “Top 10 tools.”

It goes like this: If I could send a message back in time, what are the 10 power tools I would tell myself to invest in? 

My tool list would have to be versatile. The younger me would have no idea that I would eventually work as a professional handyman, deck builder, house remodeler, woodworker, landlord and new-home builder.

So, like organizing Halloween candy from best to blegh, I mentally sort my tools, ranking them according to how frequently they get used.  

Here’s my list and why I chose them. As we head toward the holidays, may it inspire you to help round out someone else’s tool collection, or add to your own with the help of seasonal sales.

The No. 1 tool homeowners should have on hand is a small cordless drill, which will come in handy on projects ranging from assembling Ikea furniture to building your own deck. (iStock)
The No. 1 tool homeowners should have on hand is a small cordless drill, which will come in handy on projects ranging from assembling Ikea furniture to building your own deck. (iStock)
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No. 1: Cordless drill

Hands down, this is the power tool I use the most in my life — both professionally and at home. For everyday tasks, such as installing shelves or hanging a baby gate, to building an entire deck, a cordless drill is invaluable.  

I got my first as a college student (thanks, Mom and Dad!), and I’ve probably loved six models to death during my career. 

The best cordless drills are powered by lithium-ion batteries, so even small drills carry a big punch. I use a large, powerful model that can handle a half-inch bit for larger construction projects, as well as a petite model for hard-to-reach spots.  

If you have no power tools, this should be your first purchase. If you’re thinking about gifting one, be sure to include a set of drill bits for pilot holes, along with an assortment of driving bits. Screws have evolved way beyond the Phillips-head style, and you’ll want a set with a variety of star-shape drivers.

A chop saw is a crucial tool for home improvement projects. If space is tight, opt for a smaller model like this Makita 10-inch Compound Miter Saw. (Courtesy of Makita)
A chop saw is a crucial tool for home improvement projects. If space is tight, opt for a smaller model like this Makita 10-inch Compound Miter Saw. (Courtesy of Makita)

No. 2: Chop saw

Running a close second for the most-used tool in my garage is the chop saw. These are also known as compound miter saws.

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Chop saws use a large blade to accurately slice dimensional lumber such as 2-by-4s with speed and accuracy. They can also be used to cut PVC pipe, composite decking and even sizeable timbers such as 4-by-8-inch beams.  

They’re an absolute necessity to make accurate angled cuts for common DIY projects such as trim and picture frames. 

Higher-end models not only turn side to side, but bevel for complicated miter cuts such as those needed on crown molding. Larger models have sliding arms for extra reach.

Many contractors and semi-pros use a stand to make working life more comfortable, but if you’re doing a lot of chopping on long, heavy timbers, working from the ground is almost as easy.

Chop saws take up a fair amount of space, so if room is tight, a smaller basic model will usually suffice. But this is definitely a place to buy a model with the bells and whistles if you’re going to use it a lot. The bigger the blade and longer the reach, the larger the timber you can cut.

A circular saw is a lightweight and versatile tool that can cut through large panels, rip lumber or make notches in boards with its adjustable blade. (iStock)
A circular saw is a lightweight and versatile tool that can cut through large panels, rip lumber or make notches in boards with its adjustable blade. (iStock)
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No. 3: Circular saw

This lightweight power tool is an oldie but a goodie. Its circular blade allows you to rip long lumber lengthwise or cut big panels such as plywood. An adjustable blade height allows you to score wood or cut all the way through. In the last few weeks, I used mine to build a rustic table using huge timbers and notch a post for a deck railing.

The worm drive version is an upgrade in higher-end models that gives more power and torque. But for occasional use, a simple model like the classic Skilsaw remains a good choice. The brand is so ubiquitous that circular saws are often generically called “skilsaws.”

For long, straight cuts, a table saw is invaluable. They are generally large, but compact models are available. (iStock)
For long, straight cuts, a table saw is invaluable. They are generally large, but compact models are available. (iStock)

No. 4: Table saw

For long cuts, you could use a circular saw. But your line may end up a bit wobbly. If you need accurate long, straight cuts on a board, a table saw is an absolute must.

It can quickly and accurately help you trim down reclaimed wood, match up two boards where one is 1/8-inch wider than the other or create a clean, machine-edge cut.

Most models are space hogs in your garage, but if you need a smaller portable option, there are compact versions that can handle the vast majority of your needs. 

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The author’s wife, Amanda Gatlin, cuts hog wire with an angle grinder for a garden project. (Courtesy of Jeff Layton)
The author’s wife, Amanda Gatlin, cuts hog wire with an angle grinder for a garden project. (Courtesy of Jeff Layton)

No. 5: Angle grinder

Even as a relatively new addition to my tool chest, my angle grinder gets used surprisingly often. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where I wonder how I managed to get by without one for so long.

This little tool spins small disks at a high RPM to cut and grind all kinds of material. The disks themselves are only a few dollars, and most are specialy designed for either metal or masonry.

The thin disks designed for cutting are super useful for trimming metal pipe, rebar, hog wire or tile, or clipping off rusty nail heads. The fat disks designed for grinding are useful for jobs such as smoothing rough spots in concrete, removing rust and sharpening tools.

Local builder Brian Robinson uses an impact driver to secure large bolts on a recent deck project. (Courtesy of Jeff Layton)
Local builder Brian Robinson uses an impact driver to secure large bolts on a recent deck project. (Courtesy of Jeff Layton)

No. 6: Impact driver

This is another “I can’t believe I didn’t own one sooner” tool. You may also know the impact driver as the tool that makes a clicking “brrrrapp” sound when it works.

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The construction industry has made a dramatic shift to larger engineered fasteners that are installed with an impact driver. Instead of lots of small screws and nails, pieces now are frequently joined with larger screws that have hex-shaped heads. They’ve also replaced large lag screws — because why hand crank something for 10 minutes when your power tool can do the work in 10 seconds?

Impact drivers work like a torque wrench, applying a series of short powerful bursts to make something turn, without destroying the fastener or the tool’s motor. While you can often use a regular drill for an engineered screw, you will burn out your drill a lot faster.

With an impact driver, you can use fewer fasteners that are stronger, and install them more quickly. If you’re doing any kind of new construction, it will be a right-hand tool. But I’ve also found use for mine when building shelves, connecting beams and removing stubborn deck screws.

Orbital sanders, which smooth wood without leaving a noticable scratch pattern, make finishing a job much faster. They can also be used to ease sharp edges on a project. (iStock)
Orbital sanders, which smooth wood without leaving a noticable scratch pattern, make finishing a job much faster. They can also be used to ease sharp edges on a project. (iStock)

No. 7: Orbital sander

Rarely is there a home improvement project that doesn’t require some use of an electric sander.  

This is one of those tools that everyone should own, from the general contractor to a DIYer. Sanding anything large is agonizingly slow, tiring and sloppy. An electric sander can do the work in a fraction of the time and the end result will look superior.

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Most electric sanders are random orbital, so they sand without leaving a noticeable scratch pattern on wood. And they make quick work of easing the edges on finished designs.

Sandpaper disks are attached with Velcro, making it simple to replace them or to switch between different grits.

Complete finish work faster and cleaner with a setup like DeWalt’s Air Compressor Combo Kit with Brad Nailer. (Courtesy of DeWalt)
Complete finish work faster and cleaner with a setup like DeWalt’s Air Compressor Combo Kit with Brad Nailer. (Courtesy of DeWalt)

No. 8: Nail gun and air compressor

Nothing can beat the usefulness of a nail gun with an air compressor for larger projects such as framing, roofing and trim work.

If you are doing finish work, it’s a must-have, since the alternative is to bang nails in by hand, which usually ends up looking sloppy.  

Nail guns come in several gauges, all of which can attach to the same compressor and air hose.  

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For years, I have used an 18-gauge gun with thin nails on trim boards where I wanted my nail holes to be invisible. When I had to frame out a new room and add siding to my house, I invested in a burly framing gun.  

The air compressor can also be used with a paint sprayer or a blow gun.

A jigsaw can be used to cut details into wood or to create curved lines. (iStock)
A jigsaw can be used to cut details into wood or to create curved lines. (iStock)

No. 9: Jigsaw

I first learned to use a jigsaw in middle-school shop class, where we used them to build kid-friendly art projects. My art projects are a lot more expensive now, but I still use a jigsaw with surprising frequency.

Sometimes there’s just no other power tool more suited to trimming out a little detail or cutting an accurate curved line. Their specialty is cutting through thin and lightweight material with inexpensive reciprocating blades that can be used on wood, metal and plastic.

This is a tool that certain people may never use, but I’ve managed to employ mine on nearly every deck I’ve built. It’s a useful little tool that doesn’t cost a fortune.

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An oscillating cutter, like the one in Makita’s Oscillating Multi-Tool Kit, can make small incisions. (Courtesy of Makita)
An oscillating cutter, like the one in Makita’s Oscillating Multi-Tool Kit, can make small incisions. (Courtesy of Makita)

No. 10: Oscillating cutter

There are certain jobs that only an oscillating cutter can do. Imagine you have a 2-by-4 inside a wall that you need to trim. It’s hard to reach, and you don’t want to tear open the whole wall. An oscillating cutter’s small blade can fit into that hard-to-reach space without a lot of demolition. 

The tool uses a flat bar that vibrates at a high speed — almost like a hair clipper —and little teeth on the bar help make cuts with surgical precision.

Once you own one, you begin to discover all kinds of uses for it. Different blades make it possible to trim protruding pipes, remove old grout or open up clean rectangles in drywall. Some come with grinding or sanding heads.

If you’re remodeling, you are guaranteed to encounter issues where none of your other tools can quite solve the problem. That’s the time to reach for the oscillating cutter.

Brands and cost

Wondering which brands or models to buy? There are plenty of reviews online that cover the ever-changing world of power tools. But this is the rule of thumb I use: Spend your money where it will get used. If you plan to use something weekly, opt for the best model you can afford. If it will only be used occasionally, choose a name-brand, mid-price option and you’ll likely be happy with the tool.

5 tools that didn’t quite make the cut

Reciprocating saw (aka Sawzall): This tool is helpful if you’re doing a large demo or remodel project. It can quickly cut through wood, metal and other material. But there are other tools that can accomplish the task.

Rotary hammer: This tool is used to drill into concrete. It uses special bits that tap at masonry as it drills a hole. For infrequent concrete work, this is something that can be rented.

Electric planer: A planer is a useful tool and a must-have in certain trades or for someone doing a lot of woodworking, but its not necessary for general home repairs and DIY projects.

Paint sprayer: This is a tool worth buying if you plan to do a lot of painting in your life. But you can also do the same thing with rollers and hand brushes. When painting small spaces, the set up and clean up with a sprayer is about the same amount of work as painting by hand.

Router: Those into fine carpentry and furniture making will probably use a router every day, but most people will only need them for rounding edges, and you can usually do that with an orbital sander.

Writer Jeff Layton is a general contractor and builds custom decks through his company Open Space Design. He is currently building his dream home near Leavenworth.