From the Field: Top Tools for Under $20

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From the Field

Tool Essentials Under $20

The Every Day Carry

By Scott Burt

I’d bet that all of our toolboxes are loaded with disposable sundries and essential hand tools. The sundries include everything from sanding sponges to rags, tapes and caulk tubes. And the tools themselves are the first and most common daily essentials that we reach for in preparation for working our artistry.

Often it is the bigger ticket power tools for painting that hold our attention as we ponder purchases, but the smaller hand tools are important to focus on as well. We all know those little everyday tools that we can’t live without. If one comes up missing and you have to go a day without it, you feel as if you are missing a finger. I thought it would be fun to share a few of my “desert island” tool necessities that fit the under $20 range. Here are a few of the small tools that I rely on daily.

OLFA Bladed Tools

OLFA not only makes the cut in the under $20 category but actually defines it for blades. Whether you are cutting cardboard boxes to recycle, cleaning blue tape residue or final trimming a grass cloth wallpaper installation, this is the blade to be running with. Not to mention the insane razor edge for scoring all that we need to score from day-to-day.

The tool itself and the quality of the blades are above and beyond anything else I have carried over the years. In fact, the OLFA LAX has helped me appreciate the luxury of a seriously good and sharp knife, supplemented by a pocket clip beater with an intentionally “dull-ish” blade. The OLFA even has a paint can opener on the non-business end of it. So if I don’t have my elusive 5-in-1 on me, I can still open a paint can without digging a coin out of my pocket.

The OLFA LA-X has helped me appreciate the luxury of a seriously good and sharp knife.

So, I am carrying two levels of blades with the OLFA and a more sacrificial Husky knife, which I can’t seem to lose, kill or live without. It has been with me daily for about 12 years.

And of course, the AmPro flat blade has to receive honorable mention in the category of blade tools under $20 that are every day carries for me. Sometimes you just need a flat blade, especially for detailing window or door glass.

Putty Knives

The putty knife is a special class because it can apply products for us, but also comes into play as a removal tool.

These aren’t all about spreading spackle. For me, they come into play in lots of situations, including laying and removing tape and all manner of cosmetic prep situations. As a result, I carry two types.

One is a longer Purdy flexible knife and the other is a wooden handled and stiffer Warner knife. I have dulled the edges of the Purdy intentionally; I keep the more firm Warner sharp-edged. The Purdy is my primary filler applicator, while the Warner is more of a light duty chisel and gentle prier.

The putty knife is a special class because it can apply products for us, but also comes into play as a removal tool. They can easily double as a detail or open road scraper if you choose them right. And it’s a plus if the handle is stout enough to pound a paint lid shut at the end of the day. If I have no other scraper in my pocket, these can assist in those tasks without tearing up surfaces.

The Screwdriver

You know you need one, but you don’t always have one. They come into play on everything from window/door hardware disassembly to the repetitive nuisance of outlet and switch plate removals. It is NOT something you want your painters running out to the truck or, God forbid, the hardware store to get. So, the key is to get one in the toolbox that can do it all.

In the interest of keeping the toolbox efficient and organized, I go for one manual screwdriver tool with several bits. Having multiple screwdrivers in your toolbox is a waste of space. Usually, all you can see is the handles of them, and it’s trial and error to get to the one you are looking for. If you can grab just one that has all the relevant tips, there is a gain. As long as you can keep the bits together with the tool, it allows you to carry one screwdriver instead of several.

The key is to get a screwdriver in the toolbox that can do it all.

Caulking Gun

As it turns out, plastic guns are easier to keep clean.

It seems that we can never have enough of these. They are like phantoms. They have a hard life and sometimes come up missing.

Never thought I would go plastic here, but the bottom line is that I am looking for the most lightweight and long-lasting gun I can find. As it turns out, plastic guns are easier to keep clean.

The plunger and moving parts are still steel, but the composite housing makes it more user- friendly from a maintenance standpoint, and the bottom line is that your caulking gun can’t be a bleeder. Also, it is important to be able to hang it securely from a ladder.

My “go to” these days is an Ergo Tech ETS2000 from Dripless Inc. It is rated 12:1, which is the ratio of force applied on the piston tube with each trigger pull. The spring mechanism makes the trigger pull really easy and smooth, for controlled dispensing with no mess.

These are all important because they are all smallish hand tools that we either wear out or lose — meaning someone borrowed it and “forgot” to return it. These often-neglected basics are essentials for all painters to have in their toolbox. If you have these items you are guaranteed productivity, even when held up by other issues on the job. There is always prep to do, and having the right hand tools in your box makes it easy.

Scott Burt is a freelance writer and owner of Topcoat Finishes in Vermont. He enjoys communicating with paint contractors at



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