More people are taking care of their own household repairs and renovations than ever before - and the trend only seems to be growing. Like gas and electrical work, plumbing can be intimidating for the inexperienced. But with the right tools (and guidance), you'll find that you can tackle a good many of the plumbing issues that pop up in your house.
Note: Below you'll find what we consider to be the essential contents of any DIY plumbing toolkit - as well as tips for owners of copper or PEX systems. Our list has been created under the assumption that you already have some basic household tools: adjustable/crescent wrenches, screwdrivers, maybe even a few Allen/hex wrenches. And DIYer or not, every house should have plungers - a standard "cup" plunger for sinks and tubs, and a toilet (or "flange") plunger.
Water Pump Pliers
Whether you call them Channellocks, tongue and groove pliers, or water pump pliers... you're gonna need them. Probably the most widely used tool in the plumber's toolbox, these pliers have long handles and easily adjustable jaws that lock in place at the press of a button. Their wide range of opening sizes and ability to grip nearly any shape makes them one of the most versatile plumber's tools, used to tighten or loosen pretty much anything. Having a pair of these pliers is a good idea: use one to stabilize the pipe, the other to loosen/tighten. The 10" size should take care of most residential needs, but you'd be well served having a range of sizes.
Essentially your standard adjustable wrench on steroids, the pipe wrench is the iconic tool of the trade. While it is true that many of the pipe wrench's traditional duties have been taken over by water pump pliers (which are easier to use), pipe wrenches still have their place, especially when dealing with softer pipes (like iron and galvanized steel) and rounded fittings (they're not recommended for nuts or square or hex fittings). You'll again want at least two of these (one to stabilize, one to turn) - anything between 8-12" should suffice for the home. Cast iron wrenches are superior, but you'll be fine using a less expensive aluminum version.
Pro Tip: Both water pump pliers and pipe wrenches have serrated jaws, so if you're worried about marring a finish, wrap the jaws with tape or a cloth - or use a strap wrench.
This tool is specially designed for use with the mounting nuts that hold faucets in sinks. It's usually a pretty tight fit behind the underside of the sink and between the wall, where faucets are typically installed. Trying to use a standard wrench or pliers to tighten/remove a faucet nut is usually an exercise in futility and frustration. A basin wrench changes all that: a long handle (make sure yours is telescoping for the greatest versatility) reaches up past the sink, where a unique set of jaws grasps the faucet mounting nut. A bar at the bottom end of the handle turns the wrench. Indispensable when dealing with faucets, you're likely to find even more applications for this odd-looking tool.
When you need to tighten or loosen something without damaging the finish, this is the tool you want. These adjustable, multi-purpose "wrenches" use the tension of a rubber or polyester strap to grip and turn, leaving the underlying material unharmed. Their unique design and operation often allows them to work in odd places that are inaccessible with standard wrenches or pliers. This is a lesser-known tool among DIYers, but one you'll never regret having.
Drain Auger ("Drain Snake")
It would be nice if a plunger or vinegar and baking soda were able to clear every drain clog, but that just isn't the world we live in. When the drain line of your tub or sink becomes too much for "easy" methods to handle, a good auger will likely save the day. Augers consist of a flexible steel cable and a drum with a hand crank (some models can be connected to a drill for powered "snaking"). The crank pushes the cable into the drain, where its coiled head breaks up and grabs the clogging material (the same principle is at work in the much larger, high-powered drain cleaning machines plumbers use for severe clogs and tree roots). For the greatest versatility and value, look for a hand snake with a power drill option and a 25 foot cable.
Always exercise caution when using augers - especially when pipes are old, and especially when using drill-powered models. Older pipes - especially galvanized steel - can be damaged by powered snakes. Read instructions thoroughly, and check out a few videos beforehand to be sure you know what to do.
Closet Auger ("Toilet Snake")
A snake designed specifically for toilets ("water closets"), this auger features a rubber or vinyl sleeve around the cable, preventing the steel from scratching and damaging the interior toilet bowl. Because most toilet clogs occur in the trap or the various bends leading to the drain line, these snakes are typically much shorter than their tub/sink counterparts - you should be fine with a 3 foot cable.
Pipe/Tubing Cutter (and/or Pipe Shears)
It's important to cut pipe cleanly and smoothly; rough, jagged cuts can lead to bad joints, pipe damage and leaks down the road. Depending on the makeup of your plumbing system, one or both of these cutting tools could have a spot in your toolbox. Cutters use rotary blades to evenly cut copper pipe and tubing - look for C-shaped "minicutters" that can be used on piping up to 1" (even when space around the pipe is limited). Pipe shears are used to cleanly cut plastic pipe: ratcheted versions can be used to cut hard PVC and CPVC, while basic scissor versions are used for softer materials like flexible PVC and PEX.
When it can't be cut (or reached) with shears or cutters, a hacksaw will often do the trick. A mini hacksaw (6" is a popular size) is a multi-purpose must-have for any DIYer, and can allow you to cut in places inaccessible to larger cutting tools (in extremely cramped spaces, you can even wrap the end of a loose hacksaw blade and work it with your fingers). Hacksaws can cut wood, steel, brass and plastic, making them one of the most versatile cutting tools around. You'll be glad to have one handy when dealing with rusted screws, nuts and bolts!
Pro Tip: You'll be able to find common plumbing supplies like PTFE tape, plumber's putty, sealant (we recommend Goop) and PVC primer and cement rather easily if your town has any kind of home improvement or hardware store...but having some ready to go in your toolbox or drawer is always a plus.
For Copper Systems
Those with copper plumbing should have a few additional tools/supplies on hand...
- Copper can be joined either by soldering or with push-fit fittings. Push-fits are incredibly easy to use (just push them on), making them a popular choice not only for quick repairs or additions, but even for plumbing an entire house. If you're not comfortable soldering (or just want to save some time and effort), having a few push-fit couplings in the drawer just might save you a call to the plumber. We offer the high-quality push fits from John Guest, SharkBite, and ProBite.
- If you are comfortable soldering, you'll of course need a torch (ideally a self-igniting one so you don't need to worry about having a striker) and fuel. Fire should always be a concern when working with open flames - even for well-seasoned professionals. So make sure to invest in a fire-resistant cloth ("flame protector"; "heat shield"): a treated material that's laid out around the soldering area to prevent stray sparks and heat from igniting nearby insulation, wood, plastic or other materials. And make sure there's a fire extinguisher ready to go, just in case.
- If you haven't had the time or opportunity to pick up a heat shield and you're in a rush, a simple spritzing of water around the work area will give some degree of protection - just be sure to get a shield for next time!
- Soldering requires solder - and flux. Having some of each at the ready is a necessity if you're going to be maintaining a soldered copper system.
- You need to have a clean, smooth pipe to solder the best joint. So make sure you have a sandpaper cloth (to clean the pipe), a fitting brush (for cleaning inside a fitting before soldering), and a metal file or deburring tool (to remove any stubborn burrs and smooth down a cut).
For PEX Systems
If your home is plumbed with PEX, you also have need for some additional specialized tools/supplies...
- PEX can be joined in a number of ways. The easiest and most common methods for the DIYer are crimping, clamping, and push-fit. The latter is again the easiest to install, but each method has its strengths.
- Both crimping and clamping will require their own specialized tool for securing the crimp or clamp ring around the fitting and PEX tubing. Without this tool, you'll be unable to make any connections. Choose a clamp tool that doesn't release until a secure connection is made; look for a crimp tool that includes a "go/no go gauge" to quickly determine the quality of the new crimp connection. Crimp and clamp tools and rings are not interchangeable.
- Crimping/clamping is a fairly quick affair, but for the easiest repairs you'll want to go with push fit fittings. Having a few SharkBite or ProBite couplings (and other fittings) around is highly recommended - these are designed to support PEX without having to add an insert to the pipe (which must be done when using John Guest Speedfit fittings) - saving time.
- If you have any SharkBites or exposed brass fittings buried in the ground, you'll want to have some silicone tape among your supplies: this tape protects brass from various chemicals found in soil.