Expert Advice, Reviews

A Guide to Tools for the non-handy Dad (or Dad to be)

Despite what all the dad memes out there might show, not every guy is a born handyman. You might know your way around a screwdriver, or a hammer, but that’s where the buck stops. Were you absolutely relieved when the crib arrived and it came with the Allen Key you needed? Don’t worry, this guide will give you everything you need to have in your toolbox to look like a superhero to your kids for years to come.

You Need a Modern Toolbox

There’s no worse grief that a screaming toddler crying that their favorite toy isn’t working and you can’t remember which random drawer you left the screwdriver in. You can go with the basic red box with a handle grandpa had, but if you stock up with all of the recommendations in this article you’ll be cursing that the tool you need always falls to the bottom. A nicely organized tool chest, even a cheap one, can be the difference between dreading fixing a toy, to being proud of how fast you did it (and that you actually did it!).

These days there are all kinds of great tool storage designs that can suit your needs. I personally prefer a nice set of drawers so that everything can be laid out, but that also means I’m running to the garage or workshop to get something every time, or bringing the broken thing to the workshop to fix. If you don’t have a dedicated fix-it space, then you more likely should aim for a toolbox on wheels that opens up like a staircase, or has drawers or removeable sections to keep things sorted.

A Brief Guide to Screwdrivers

You might know them as the Square, flat thing, and plus sign, but those shapes actually have proper names that can make you sound like you know what your’re doing. At the very least, you need a basic set of screwdrivers in your toolbox for all sorts of kid stuff.

  • A small Philips Head (the + shaped one) – Almost every toy that takes batteries will need this one, and they always use screws that are just slightly too small for the one you probably have lying around. The bigger size you already have is perfect for most toys that require assembly, but if the handle on yours isn’t of adequate girth, your hand will be pretty sore by the time you’re done assembling the 50 or so screws in that Smart Wheels tower your sister bought for your kids.
  • #1 and #2 Robertson – You probably know these as the ‘Square’ screwdrivers, which actually comes in at six different sizes, but #1 (Green handle) and #2 (Red Handle) are the ones you’ll come across most often. The smaller green one is pretty common for small screws like those found holding in light switches/fixtures and electrical junctions, and holding together some toys. The red one you will recognize as the size that is found in home construction, deck screws, and probably what you’ll be using to build random projects with your kids once you get the DIY itch.
  • Flat-Head Screwdriver – Yes this one you probably had the right name for, it’s the one that’s just a straight line. Get yourself one in every size and length you can find, small ones for tiny screws in toys, medium sized ones for popping apart toys that have something jammed in them, and who knows what other fun things your kids will manage to screw up that only a flat-head can save.
  • Torx Screwdrivers – This one you might not recognize, it looks almost like an Allen Key, but has points instead of flats. These screws will show up unexpectedly sometimes and only the biggest hero dads among us are prepared enough to have them. Torx serve double duty in a pinch as you can usually get one of them to fit a screw head that’s asking for an Allen Key. You don’t need to go out and get a full set of Torx screwdrivers, just pick up one of those screwdriver kits that comes with 20 or so interchangeable small bits and you’re likely to have what you need in the mix.
  • Allen Keys – Ah yes, the favorite tool of the sweedish furniture big box store. Lots of toys and kids furniture will need an Allen Key somewhere along the way, luckily most of those things come with a spare key in the box. Allen Keys come in many many sizes, and to make things worse they come in both Metric and Imperial sizes, meaning you need to own two separate sets of keys to ready for anything. My advice is to get a set that has the key size written very clearly on the side, preferably printed in a different color so that it is easy to read. Make sure the set comes in a case or holder that organizes them by size so you know exactly where to put each one back when you are done using it. Better yet, get a set that can’t come apart. Most of my Allen Keys are not like this, and they just end up in a giant pile, and I buy a new set every time I can’t find the size I need — despite owning 10 of them — don’t be like me.

Blunt Force Trauma – The Hammer

Hammers come in all shapes and sizes, but for dad-duty you really only need a basic claw-hammer. Don’t get one that is too big or heavy, you will mostly need it to smack the back of a screwdriver to pop something open, or put nails in the wall for hanging up art. If you want to have some other options, I recommend a rubber mallet when you want to give a good smack to knock something loose without leaving a dent. The rubber mallet is also handy when assembling furniture or toys from a kit, instead of hitting it with your hand.

Power Tools

This is an article about basic tool kits for the un-handy dad, so the power tool section is going to be a pretty small one, if you don’t know what you’re doing with most of the tools in this article, anything with a moving blade is not the place to begin.

The must have: A Milwaukee M12 Drill – My life was changed after I bought my first M12 drill. These things are super light and small, but they pack a punch. There are very few projects around the house that I ever need to bring out my bigger 18V Ridgid drills for. The compact size of the M12 means it is not unwieldy to use even to just put some screws in to assemble a toy, and the batteries last a really long time. With a nice set of screwdriver bits (see my note on bits above in the Torx section) you can assemble anything IKEA throws at you in record time without ever using one of their supplied tools.

Sticky Situations

Kids break stuff all the time, and its likely going to be your job to come up with a solution. Make sure your toolbox has these basics in it, and you can be a superhero every time (and save your wallet from having to order a brand new whatever it is with RUSH delivery).

  • Wood Glue – This one is pretty self-explanatory, but anything made of wood goes back together nicely with a dab of wood glue, and the stuff dries pretty fast. My favorite wood glue is this one by Gorilla Glue (not to be confused with their original glue product). The nozzle design on this product doesn’t dry up and clog as much as the others, even if you forget to close it, and that saves me a few minutes of frustration whenever I go to use it.
  • Clear All-purpose Adhesive – This stuff is for plastic toys and when you need to get serious, or keep water out. You can buy two-part epoxies that you need to mix together, but most kids stuff doesn’t need that kind of magic. Keep a tube of Amazing Goop around and you can fix up even the cheapest plastic toys. This stuff needs a long time to dry, so expect it to be resting overnight, and don’t let it get stuck to whatever surface it is resting on. A lot of my toy fixes have a nice scrap of paper towel permanently stuck to them out of necessity.
  • (not) Gorilla Glue – This is here moreso as a cautionary tale for the uninitiated. Beyond being a poor hair gel, Gorilla Glue is advertised as a really strong glue that can stick to anything. What they don’t highlight is that it foams as it dries. That delicately repaired crack that looked perfect when you set it down to dry, will look like someone attacked it with impossible to remove spray foam the next morning. Stick things together with Goop instead unless you know what you’re doing.
  • Duct Tape – A toolbox staple since the dawn of time, Duct Tape is an easy go-to for quick fixes. It is easy to rip by hand, sticks to almost everything, and is pretty strong as long as you don’t buy the thin, cheap stuff. The two biggest downsides to Duct Tape are that it doesn’t like water, and that the glue leaves an awful to remove residue that just gets worse over time.
  • Gaffer Tape – Here’s a hot tip, if you like the idea of using Duct Tape but don’t want the sticky residue all over your stuff, gaffer tape is what you want. This tape is used mostly in the music and film industry to temporarily hold cables and cords down to the floor to prevent tripping, without making them all super sticky. The surface of gaffer tape is much nicer than duct tape as well, resembling something more akin to canvas.
  • Hockey Sock Tape – Another secret weapon, this stuff is super thick and strong, can stretch, be ripped by hand, is sticky and stays on for a really long time. When Duct Tape is overkill or unsightly, and that clear tape in the arts and crafts drawer won’t cut it, hockey sock tape is the answer.

Handy Extra – The Multitool

While just above the basic necessities, this is the tool that comes in handy far more often than you’d think, and is perfect for taking with you on road trips or reaching for when you’re not sure what you are going to need. While a Swiss Army Knife might be the household name you are familiar with, there are many companies that make excellent multitools that are way more suited to random repairs than the oval chunk of metal. A good multitool with have, at the very least :

  • sharp knife
  • wire stripper
  • Philips and flat-head screwdrivers
  • Pliers that can cut
  • Saw/Nail File

It’s okay to have more than one Multitool

I have three multitools, one is a cheap Stanley brad tool that does the job when needed, but constantly needs to be tightened but was well worth the $12. the other two are Leatherman branded, a premium brand I highly recommend. I purchased my first Leatherman over two decades ago when I was a kid and it has seen me through countless projects since. With only a dull blade and a chipped screwdriver proving its age, I still use it constantly and will for years to come.

Equip yourself with the arsenal above, and you will have the tools on hand to be a super fix-it dad in your little one’s eyes, even with very little experience.

Did I miss something above, do you have questions or suggestions, or just want more great DIY tips? Hit me up in the comments below!

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Written by Stuart Grodinsky

Stuart is a dad of 2 and as described by his four year old, an amazing "fixer"! Stuart lives in Toronto, Canada, with his wife, dog and kids.

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