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Essential Tools and Safety Tips

The Martha Stewart Show, September 2009

Before beginning any home-improvement project, make sure you have the proper tools, and take all necessary safety precautions.

Essential Tools
Stock your home with these top tools, recommended by Dominic Arena, Martha's equipment and maintenance mechanic.

A 16-ounce model is an easy-to-handle option for most people. If your hammer is too heavy, you might bend nails; too light, and you might have to use extra strokes to drive them in. For comfort and a good grip, look for a style with a rubber handle.

A multihead tool has interchangeable tips, which saves space. One with "ratchet action" means that you won't have to reset the tool after each turn. Four regular screwdrivers are also adequate: a small and a large each of the flathead and Phillips.

There's no need to purchase an entire wrench set when you've got an adjustable one, with a moveable lower jaw that can be adapted for almost any job. Use it to loosen bolts that are too tight (pliers tend to strip them) and to assemble furniture, toys, and bikes.

One with a 15-inch steel blade is long enough for a variety of tasks and short enough to fit in many tool kits. Look for "general purpose" on the label, which means the saw cuts both with and against the grain.

Cordless Drill
For basic tasks, 9.6 volts will do the trick; for heavy-duty jobs, such as drilling into brick, choose a 12-volt model. A keyless chuck (the mechanism that allows for changing bits) means that you don't have to keep track of a key.

Staple Gun
Use this versatile tool to install screens, attach upholstery, and cover objects with fabric (such as a bulletin board). Pick a small- or medium-size version; it will fit well in a toolbox and is easier to handle than larger models.

Measuring Tools
The best material for a straightedge is metal, because wood and plastic tend to get nicked by cutting blades and are more easily scratched. Use a 25-foot-long measuring tape to calculate longer distances.

Use slip-joint pliers for tightening and loosening nuts and bolts (a too-tight nut, however, calls for a wrench). You'll also need a needlenose pair, perfect for twisting wire. In addition, the thin tips on the pincers are also useful for working in a cramped space.

Stock up on the basics: nails, screws, and all manner of hooks, including eye and cup hooks. Don't forget anchors appropriate for your walls and picture-hanging wire. Keep each type separate, sorted in an organizer with small compartments.

These tools secure items to each other while they are being glued or nailed together. C clamps hold items steady by securing them to a workbench and offer the firmest grip; spring clamps work like clothespins and are good for jobs with smaller items.

This tool tells you when something is perfectly straight. Move it around until the bubbles balance inside; that's how you know where the straight line lies. A carpenters' level can identify 45-degree angles, but a torpedo is tiny enough to fit in small spaces.

Putty Knife
The primary purpose of this tool is for smoothing over putty, mending plaster, and the like. However, it can also function as a scraper, for peeling away loose paint and caked-on glue. Opt for one that has a 1 1/2- to 3-inch-long blade.

Safety Equipment
Wear protective glasses when working with harmful chemicals or sawing. Leather gloves prevent blisters and injury, and also improve your grip for jobs such as carrying firewood; latex ones are handy when working with paint or grease.

Use carpenters' glue on wood and paper. Tapes in 1- to 2-inch widths are invaluable as well: masking; painters'; duct, for holding items together temporarily; and electrical, for wrapping wires and cables.

Dedicate a pair of standard scissors to the toolbox so you won't ruin the household pair when, say, cutting sandpaper. For more detailed jobs, use a utility knife with a retractable blade that can be locked, so it won't be likely to pop out of place while you are cutting.

Drive Sockets and Ratchets
Keep sockets and ratchets on hand in metric and standard sizes -- 1/4 inch, 3/8 inch, and 1/2 inch.

For help in a pinch, include these items: a pencil; a flashlight, for repairs in dark spaces; 100-grit sandpaper, for smoothing edges; felt pads, for preventing scratches underneath items; and a bottle of adhesive remover, for eliminating tape and glue residue.

Safety and Money-Saving Tips
To ensure your electrical system is working properly, and to save energy and money, follow these tips from Martha's electrician, Rob Ford of D'Amico Electric Company.

1. Use the GFI plug checker to test outlets for seven common wiring errors and GFI circuits; color-coated lights indicate status of circuit wiring.

2. Maintain proper use of extension cords. A medium-gauge extension cord will prevent shorts when working on various projects that require a lot of energy. Don't use extension cords as a permanent solution! Make sure you are using a 3 prong heavy gauge cord if you must use one, and don't put them in areas where they could be a trip hazard.

3. Replace all light bulbs in your home with CFL bulbs to save energy and money. CFLs are a green alternative to incandescent bulbs. CFL bulbs need a little more energy when first turned on, but once the electricity starts moving, they use about 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs, and last 10 times longer than regular light bulbs.

4. Install indoor and outdoor motion sensors in your home to help save energy and money. Operating on a timer that detects when motion stops and turns off lights, these sensors are best used in areas where people are prone to forget to turn off the lights.

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