Few things strike terror in homeowners’ hearts like plumbing gone awry. And, conversely, few things are as satisfying as having the right tool handy when trouble strikes. You could save yourself the cost of a new floor. Likewise, if you want to extend supply pipes or install a faucet, the job will be a lot easier with a few specialized tool kit—like the ones suggested below.
First-aid kit. Plumbers work in places where bacteria thrive, and they’re always getting nicks and cuts that need quick treatment. A liquid disinfectant is great for fast first aid. In fact, if your plumbing chores require crawling under the house, you’ll want to rinse your hands, arms and knees several times a day with a liquid disinfectant. Likewise, attend to minor cuts. Antiseptic mouthwash is perfect for this task—keep a large bottle near at all times. But don’t use mouthwash with sugar in it—it doesn’t disinfect as well. To treat larger cuts, a small first-aid kit with gauze and tape is a must.
Goggles and gloves. Always wear goggles, especially when doing any work at or above eye level—or whenever you’re using striking or power tools. Gloves are also a good idea.
Ground-fault protection. Ground-fault protection on your corded electrical tools can be lifesaving. If your house has none, buy a 2- to 3-foot extension cord that has GFCI protection built in.
Good information. Never cut into a wall without knowing what’s inside. Cutting through a water pipe with a power saw could be a fatal mistake. Better to cut a small exploratory hole first; use a drywall saw or a utility knife, and the hole can be easily patched.
The full Toolkit
Drywall saw Utility knife (check on Amazon)
Plunger Auger (check out this sink snake on Amazon)
10-inch pipe wrench 14-inch pipe wrench
18-inch pipe wrench Basin wrench
6-inch adjustable wrench 10-inch adjustable wrench
12-inch adjustable wrench Tubing cutter
Mini tubing cutter 1/2-inch circular wire brush (check on Amazon)
3/4-inch circular wire brush Torch
Spray bottle Heat-resistant cloth
Fire extinguisher Reciprocating saw
Cordless drill Spade bits
Flat file Rat-tail file
First-aid kit Safety goggles
Gloves Extension cord (w/ GFCI)
Toilet Plunger and Auger
These two tools are the first to reach for when your toilet’s stopped up. Clogs have become more frequent since water-saving toilets were introduced. The problem is twofold: a typical new unit flushes with just 1.6 gallons, and its trap way (the toilet’s internal drain) is only 1 1/2 inches in diameter. If your toilet is old, frequent clogs are probably caused by mineral deposits along the trap way. In either case, try a plunger first; it’s easier and less messy. If that doesn’t do it, an auger will almost always clear the clog—it’s also good for retrieving toys and toothbrushes.
The 18-, 14- and 10-inch pipe wrenches are the standard tools of all plumbers. (The number refers to the length of the wrench.) If you can afford it, buy at least one of each. Why three? Different-sized pipe calls for different-sized wrenches, and you’ll need one wrench to hold the pipe as you tighten a fitting with another one. Also, the longer-handled wrenches give you more leveraging power to take things apart or tighten them. Aluminum pipe wrenches, by the way, are lighter, but every bit as good as steel; aluminum is a shade more expensive, though.
These specialized wrenches have swiveling jaws on a long handle. They’re the only sane way to reach up into the narrow area behind the sink and grab onto the faucet attachment pieces.
The 6-, 10- and 12-inch adjustable wrenches are basic to your toolbox. Unlike pipe wrenches, these tools have smooth jaws that keep them from cutting into the metal they’re clamping onto. Use an adjustable wrench to tighten any nut you don’t want to be marred, such as the little chrome nuts on the angle stops.
You’ll need both the standard size and the mini. Nothing cuts copper pipe as quickly, as easily or as a square. Use the mini when you’re working in tight spaces; for example, when you’re cutting supply pipe a few inches below the subflooring.
Circular Wire Brush and/or Plumber’s Cloth
These tools are indispensable for cleaning burrs or debris off pipes and fittings before you solder them.
You’ll need a torch to sweat copper pipe together and to heat fittings so that you can disassemble plumbing lines. For most incidental plumbing tasks, a low-cost propane torch with a screw-on head system will do. (You don’t need a bigger system unless you turn pro or work on a very large pipe.) For convenience, buy a self-igniting torch head that lights at the pull of a trigger. By the way, propane gas is fine for welding. Some zealots glorify the hotter flame provided by Mapp® gas, but most do-it-yourselfers just don’t need it.
If you’re heating a fitting that’s close to, say, a floor joist, it’s a good idea to have a spray bottle of water handy to “spritz” the wood before you start to work and after you’ve soldered a fitting. You can also buy special heat-resistant cloth to cover the wood, but plumbers will often just use a scrap of whatever’s handy (and nonflammable). A piece of sheet metal or a shard of concrete put in front of the joist will work well. You’ll want to have a fire extinguisher handy, as well—just in case.
Plumbing was a lot harder before this tool arrived. These saws can cut just about anything, including steel and cast-iron pipe. (Otherwise, you’d need hydraulic cutters and giant pipe cutters.) Use coarse blades for cutting wood, fine blades (14 to 18 teeth per inch) for cutting metal. Bimetal blades allow you to bend the blade slightly without breaking it.
Cordless or Corded Drill
Professional plumbers use serious drills—1/2 inch right-angle drills—to make the large holes needed to route drainpipes through joists, for example. But such drills are expensive, often unwieldy and, for do-it-yourself projects, probably not necessary. With a 3/8-inch drill and a sharp spade bit, you can drill holes big enough to run supply pipes through joists and studs. For larger holes, drill several small holes and play “connect the dots” with a reciprocating saw. By the way, if your spade bit isn’t long enough, use an extension shaft.
Now and then you have to use a metal-cutting saw to get through iron pipe or even copper. (For example, you may need to reroute a bath drain in an old house.) Cutting metal invariably leaves burrs. Use rat-tail files to remove burrs inside pipe, and flat files to smooth the outside. Length isn’t critical, but 10-inch files are the most all-around useful.
If you have to route pipe through concrete, rent a hammer drill (also called a rotary hammer). Hand chisels require more strength and patience than most of us have. Don’t forget the goggles!
Don’t forget the common stuff: screwdrivers, a hammer, tape measure, etc. Use a level to make sure your drains slope 1 inch for every 4 feet of pipe. (A 6-inch magnetic level sits nicely on cast iron pipe.) A plumb bob will ensure that vertical pipe is … vertical. I also favor a fiberglass stepladder—not metal—because you never know when you’ll find a hot wire on a job site. Lastly, a child’s little red wagon is a handy way to transport your tools from your shop to your plumbing project—if your child isn’t using it, that is.