Nina Saltman
Nina Saltman

Nina Saltman, ‘the improvised life’s construction and building consultant, is really good with her hands, and even better with extensions of her hands—namely, tools. Nina was one of the first women in the country to wear a hardhat. She’s worked her way up from apprentice carpenter to general manager of massive construction projects (see About).

Now that we’re doing a lot of projects for the Laboratory, what we wanted to know from Nina was: what tools does she consider to be essential? Nina thoughtfully organized her list of recommended tools in a hierarchy of essentials that you can tailor to where your life is and how ambitious your repairs and projects are.

BTW: Nina doesn’t use a tool box. She prefers a tool bucket, with a “bucket buddy” to organize the extensions of her mind and hands. This week we’re bringing you all of the hand tools and important accessories that can fit in your bucket. Next week we’ll be back with power tools and tools for more ambitious woodworking.

1. Absolute minimum tools required:

Swiss Army Knife, or a Leatherman Wave + a Hammer.

With just these, you could probably do most things, maybe not so well, or efficiently, but it would be possible. I once repaired locks at my brother Dave’s house with my Swiss army knife because his ‘tool box’ consisted of a couple rolls of wire and a pair of pliers.


2. Filling up your bucket with tools for most any repair:

3. Other essentials to have on hand

  • 25 ft Measuring tape
  • Pencils for easy-to-remove measurement marks
  • Chalk box and chalk “Chalk box and chalk are used for marking a straight line. For instance you mark a long piece of plywood. At each end you mark a measurement of 3 feet from the top edge. You then “string” the chalk box from one mark to the other, stretch it tight, and “snap a line.” The chalk line is used in floor layout for construction. You mark two points, and have your partner hold one end of the chalk line at one point, and stretch the chalk line and pull the line to the second point and “snap” your line. Perfectly straight.”  Click here for a demo.
  • Duct tape“Great for repairs”
  • Masking tapeHelpful in the process. (I worked with a master carpenter who once remarked, ‘Can’t do much WITHOUT some masking tape’). Not blue tape, though that too is handy, but good old fashioned masking tape. It can be used to mark a point or line on a surface  on which you don’t want to leave marks and it is immensely useful when gluing up items (acting as a simple ‘clamp’ as it were.)
  • Glue “The latest glue on the market—gorilla glue—is great, but good old fashioned Elmers is a winner. Krazy glue can be handy, but I always get it on my fingers and can’t get it off (also true with Gorilla glue).” We’ve also heard good things about Titebond as a never-fail wood glue.
  • Gloves
  • Spring clamps. Pony is a great brand, and often you can find a deal on a package. We’ve also had luch with inexpensive plastic ones with strong things that we’ve found at Costco.
  • Small mirror “A small mirror is amazingly handy when trying to fasten the back side of something, or doing something behind another piece of wood, wall pipe etc. I have a little one like a dentist mirror that is really handy for installing hardware (like for doors etc.”


This is just Nina’s bare essentials. Stay tuned for part 2 of Nina’s tool bucket when we get into more hard-core tools.

Note: since we started compiling this list and checking out tools (ages ago), we’ve talked to a number of handi-people. Everyone seems to have their favorite tools, and personal variations on Nina’s. It’s always helpful to talk around to get those detailed, personal takes.

With HUGE thanks to David Saltman. 

Related posts: resources for fixers
‘the furniture doctor’ and other hot tips for second-hand
the wirecutter’s trustworthy technology reviews
cheap, chic, useful: anthropologie’s ephemera clip
essential reading: ‘how-to construct rietveld furniture’

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5 replies on “nina’s tool bucket: essentials for doing-it-yourself

  1. For the record, let it be known that Nina has inspired me to get a real toolkit. I even have a power drill! And two Swiss Army knives!

  2. In addition to two full-size Swiss Army knives, I have a mini version, smaller than a car key, that lives on my key chain and is therefore with me at all times. It has a blade, scissors, a screwdriver/file, a toothpick, and tweezers. The guys may laugh, thinking it to be dinky and impractical, but it has gotten me through many little emergencies.

  3. This is great! I would love to see a gardener’s basic kit too.

  4. THAT is a great idea. Thanks, we’ll see who might be the best person to put that together…H-m-m…

  5. Nice post! I am going to Nina’s when the next big one shakes up the bay! I am sure she will have a proper earthquake kit too!

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