Show of hands – how many of us have used a flat-head screwdriver to loosen a dash panel? Or how about dropping a screw into the bottomless void behind a dash or under the hood? I could go on for hours talking about all the facepalm moments I had when I first started out. But eventually I figured out that there is a proper tool for every job and in this post I’m going to share with you what I would consider the top ten must-have install tools for any install job.
Whether you’re a professional installer or you’re about to tackle your first DIY install, this list of ten must-have tools will save you time, money, pain, ego, or all of the above. So stop stripping wire with your teeth and let’s get on with the list.
1. Cordless Drill
I would argue that the cordless drill is one of the most, if not the most, important tools in an installers toolbox, especially for professional installers. Aside from being an absolute necessity in certain situations, a cordless drill can be a huge time saver when removing screws or lightly torqued bolts. I would even use my drill to quickly twist wires together for clean wire runs.
Back in my bay (see what I did there?…install bay…anyway) I didn’t spend a ton of money on high end, name brand tools for the basic sockets and screwdrivers, but I did spring for a quality drill because I used it every day, on every install.
2. Crimping Tool
Another tool that any self-respecting installer wouldn’t be without is a good set of Klein style crimpers. These are used for crimping terminals and connectors onto wires. The crimping die allows for a tight crimp that won’t work itself loose and the long handle gives you plenty of leverage.
3. Wire Strippers
This probably goes without saying, but any list of must-have install tools would not be complete without mentioning wire strippers. There are a few different types you can use. I like to use the combination strippers and cutters like the ones in the picture.
4. Pry Tools
I’ll be the first to admit that there was a time when I would reach for a flat-head screwdriver to remove interior trim panels. The reason this is such a big no-no is because the metal screwdriver blade will easily scratch and gouge the plastic interior trim panels. The solution is pry tools made out of nylon or ABS plastic. They are softer than the trim panel material so they won’t scratch or gouge, and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes for different applications.
5. Digital Multimeter
Digital multimeters can be intimidating if you don’t have a lot of experience using one but they are really the best option for testing circuits. Beyond testing voltage, they have the capability of testing resistance, current, and continuity.
To test for a hot circuit, many will reach for the familiar test light. Let me explain why these are not only a bad choice, but could actually cause damage to your vehicle.
Test lights have a low resistance between the negative lead and the positive probe. This allows for enough current flow to light up the light. The problem with allowing that much current to flow through the circuit is that modern vehicles are packed with computers with circuits designed to carry very low current. If the test light is touched to one of these low current circuits, the excessive current can quickly fry the circuit board.
Digital multimeters, on the other hand, have very high input impedance so virtually no current is drawn when testing for voltage.
Don’t know how to use a digital multimeter or just need a refresher? Check out my post on Multimeter Uses and Functions – How to Use a Digital Multimeter.
6. Soldering Iron
There are certain situations where using a soldering iron to make a connection is an obvious choice. For the majority of situations, however, there is fierce debate over whether you should solder the joint or use a T-tap. Since I am strongly opposed to using T-taps over soldering, I’ll explain why but I urge you to experiment and decide for yourself.
One of the main arguments in favor of using T-taps is that they are “good enough” or “as good” as soldering. The way I see it is if a solder joint is the benchmark for a good connection then why would you use something else. But beyond that, over my years as an installer, I saw several occasions where a T-tap connection failed, but I’ve never seen a soldered connection come apart.
For these reasons, my soldering iron is one of the most used tools in my toolbox.
7. Utility Knife
Your utility knife will be one of the most versatile tools in your arsenal. If you start into an install job without one handy, I can just about guarantee that you will run into a situation where you’ll wish you did.
8. Pick Tools
A set of pick tools is not the kind of tool that you will use every day or on every install but when the right kind of challenge presents itself, you’ll be glad you have them. Most of the times when I reach for a pick tool, it’s a situation where I’m saying to myself “Crap, how am I going to do this?…a pick tool!”
A few examples that I can think of off hand where they’ve come in handy are for removing stubborn screw caps, getting at those annoying flush or recessed buttons, or poking a small hole through a rubber grommet.
9. Drop Light
Trying to do installs without proper lighting is like trying to read a book without proper lighting. You think you’re doing fine until someone turns on a lamp and suddenly all of your life choices come into question.
Flashlights can be fine under certain circumstances but in most cases, there’s really no substitute for a good drop light.
10. Telescoping Magnet
If you haven’t yet experienced the pain of dropping a screw into the engine bay or behind a dash and having to fish it out then count yourself lucky. But if you have done this and you haven’t discovered the telescoping magnet, then let me introduce you to your new best friend. They’re fairly inexpensive and will save you a ton of time if you find yourself in this situation.
Well, that completes my list of top ten must-have install tools. What kind of tools would make your top ten list? Comment below and let me know.