Tools you can't live without

Hi everyone,

So recently we were quite fortuitous and came upon a grant that will allow us to buy some tools. We don’t have much time to spend the money, so I wanted your opinions on the best tools you have in your shop, or ones you definitely couldn’t live without.

So far, we’re going to try to buy some more CAD software for off-season practice, a mini-mill and lathe, and some nicer hand tools that we always seem to break or lose. One team recommended a miter saw with metal blade, another recommended re-stocking our supply of various screws nuts and bolts - so we’re really up for any suggestions.

We can also look towards electrical equipment and we’re really open to any out-of-the box ideas, I just need them soon. Thanks guys!

load tester.
As soon as you start having matches where you cant charge a battery fully in between you want to be using a load tester and even if it is a full battery, says the charger it might not be good enough under load.

A vertical Band saw (with metal cutting blades) and a drill press I find the most useful things to buy first. After that, Taps (and drill bits), hand drill, Calipers, Squares, safety glasses, a bench top vise if you don’t already have one. Once you have all that, a lathe is very useful, there is a lot of stuff you can’t do without one.

What tools do you already have?

We just moved to a new room in our school and it came with a band saw and two drill presses - no joke. Aside from that, just some basic drills/hacksaws/taps.

Thanks for the advice on the load tester, didn’t even think of that.

Wago. Name one thing that a WAGO can’t do.

…so buy 10,000 of them, so you never lose it!

More seriously, I would suggest getting a lathe, it is really extremely useful, as well as some good CAD software. Our team uses Autodesk Inventor, though that might be a bit pricey if you can’t get your school to get it…

The 1.5k Machine Shop, 10k Machine Shop, and Machinist Starter Toolset threads are good places to start.

We have a small DC clamp-on ammeter, similar to this one that comes in really handy for monitoring how our motors are working. If you’re running Jags with serial communications, and you want to write some code to monitor current consumption then you probably don’t need one of these. But if you just want to quickly monitor how much current draw a motor is pulling, then just clamp one of these over the line and read it.

Just make sure you get one that reads DC current, and you really don’t need one of the ones that measure up to 400A. The lower maximum values often offer higher resolution.


OK on the band saw, get several blades right for aluminum, and make sure it will run slow enough for metal. Aluminum blades are not like those for steel - they are more like wood blades (like 6 TPI or less!)

Get a lathe once you have a decent assortment of hand tools - basically, the $250 mechanic’s assortment from Sears Craftsman, with wrenches, sockets, allens, pliers, etc. For screwdrivers, we buy 3 sets of ‘el-cheapo’, hold one back for after build season, and throw them all away every year. Best $15 a year we ever spend…

Lathes are possibly the most handy item you can have. The mini lathe-mill products are versatile, wide-range tools that do several things, all poorly. An older, used lathe would be a far better choice for value, even for the same money.

We have access to a nice mill, and hardly ever use it. When we do, it’s not really necessary, just a nice-to-have.

One thing we lust after is a CNC X-Y cutter, which can cut out shapes from flat plate, or drill precision holes. But these are rarely seen used, and can be several thousand dollars new.

Depends on how much you have to spend.

There are two threads on CD from last year, a $5000 shop and a $10000 shop, both threads have some very good suggestions. EDIT: See 2 threads above.

If you must buy new machines, Grizzly is a good mid-line choice. As long as someone is willing to learn how to set up and maintain these machines, they will give god service. Unlike a power drill, machinery like this CAN be used right out of the crate, but will last longer and work better if they are set up properly and maintained with care.

Miter saw is a must. If you ever plan on cutting 1x1 aluminum tubing, you can’t beat a miter saw.
Look into getting a break, they’re pretty useful.

Please don’t spend a single dollar on CAD software of specifically Autodesk Inventor. Autodesk provides about 30 of its products for free to students and FIRST teams.

I would also suggest a good miter saw. I’ve found that they’re much better than band saws when you need to make a square cut. Plus, they’re much more steady than band saws in angled cuts.

I’ll vote for the compound miter saw with metal blade as well. We have a nice 10" Hitachi with a diablo blade, and it makes framing with 1" aluminum a breeze. The only problem is standard miter saw will only cut aluminum. Evolution Tools makes the FURY 3 which claims to cut steel as well, though.

7/16 wrenches. Life without them would be meaningless.

And 5/32 allen key :slight_smile:

Vim is an amazing text editor that will…oh wait, sorry.

Wire cutters. Seems simple, I know. Having bad wire cutters, though, is a sure fire way to un-inspire students to go into electrical engineering.

RJ-45 crimping tool is a tool you may never use, but when you do use it (like in the middle of competition when your tether cable gets cut with your great wire cutters) it’ll work wonders.

Multimeter is a fine tool that will tell you whether or not you correctly wired your 8P8C plug on your RJ-45 tether cable.

Leaterman. When all else fails, in the end, you know you provided your team with as many tools as possible to get the job done.

Last but not least, a nifty little bag. Because you want to keep all these cool tools in the same place, why not do it in style?

Just some simple suggestions from a programmer turned electrical guy for 6 weeks.

PS. I know this thread is mainly for big manly tools, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t have the basic tools.

If you don’t already have one, and/or opt out of a miter saw, consider a horizontal bandsaw. I use ours almost every day to cut stock down to length.

I’d also reccomend several sets of Allen keys. Not the individuals, but the kind on a big block with all the sizes. These are incredibly useful in the pits. Along the same lines, T-bars. You don’t always need them, but when you do there’s no substitute. We purchased a lousy set for around eight bucks, and have yet to break them.

Milling machine, lathe, fixturing/tooling for these machines. Also, good calipers (I prefer non-digital dial ones), Dykem, and Dykem remover.

After these, an arbor press (at least 3 ton if you want to do hex broaching), broaches (2mm, 3/32", 1/8", 3/8" hex and 1/2" hex), and a TIG welder.

The horizontal band saw in our shop gets gets significantly more usage than our miter and radial arm saws.

High-torque allen keys (search for them on McMaster). Buy these, and never worry about stripped allen keys again.

Don’t buy CAD software for a FRC team. You can get student versions of Inventor, SolidWorks, and/or Pro|E for free.

Also, be frugal and search far and wide for auctions, tag sales, industrial surplus stores, eBay or Craigslist, or other various sources of second-hand machinery. Through venues like this, we’ve been able to pick up tools and machines for literally pennies on the dollar.

Don has some great advice (as is the usual). There are several garage machine shops in my family and all the machines were purchased second hand. Used machines are great, but its a lot like buying a car… you don’t want a lemon. A huge benefit of buying someone’s old lathe is fairly often you can purchase their tooling at cut-rate prices, or they might just throw it in with the lot if they are getting done with the hobby or the shop has gone under. It is not hard to spend a lot money on tooling if you don’t have a lot to work with.

Number 1 would be a lathe.

Number 2 a horizontal band saw, way safer than a miter saw. Since I drug a free horizontal band in saw the miter saw has pretty much sat idle. Plus it saves lots of money on blades. Last year we went through 2 expensive circular saw blades and this year one much cheaper band saw blade lasted the entire season and we used it for cutting lots of big bar stock for our custom bearing carriages for our lift as well as the pulleys that we wouldn’t have attempted with the circular saw.

For hand tools spend the extra money for quality screw drivers sockets and wrenches, cheap ones destroy fasteners and create frustration. Buying cheap screw drivers particularly Phillips and Allen wrenches are a false economy.

I know our programmers love these two tools for sure:

Zip Tie Tensioner/Cutter
Screw Starter