Thinking of becoming a machinist but don’t know what tools you’ll need? Then this is exactly what you’re looking for.
After working in the trade for 12 years, I’ve put together a list of my recommendations for everything that a basic machinist will need. I just went through my own toolbox and made a list for you.
Mind you, my toolbox is pretty massive and full of all sorts of things that I’ve collected or made over the years, but this is my “essentials list”.
It’s also pretty applicable for the related trades. The basic tools you need don’t really change much whether you’re a manual or CNC machinist, or whether you’re a tool and die maker. If you’re a millwright you might want to tweak the list a bit, but they’re still all good tools to have.
Keep in mind, though, that every shop is different. A guy that works primarily on lathes repairing hydraulic cylinders is different from the guy that works on mills, overhauling and re-boring engine blocks. So this isn’t a specialized list, it’s just the stuff the average guy needs to get going.
Calipers and Mics
There are two tools worth dropping good money on. The 8″ calipers and the 0-1″ micrometer. These tools will be used daily, and the quality of these tools will often determine the quality of your work. While I do recommend getting at least one cheap pair of calipers for abusing and lending purposes, having these two tools in pristine condition, well guarded in your toolbox, is definitely the way to go.
Seriously, if there’s one thing that you remember from this entire post, that should be it.
Pro Tip: Never store micrometers with the jaws closed all the way, especially if they’re not carbide tipped. Leave a gap. Otherwise, they can eventually corrode and all your measurements will be wonky.
Here are my personal recommendations (links to Amazon):
Micrometer set (0-3″, ) – good option – seriously, don’t even bother with an economy option.
Beyond that, there are a few more tools that are necessary, but you don’t necessarily have to go overboard on price. For the recommendations, I’ll give a good quality option and a budget option where it makes sense.
Combination Square Set
Get the one with a 12″ steel rule. This is important for marking and checking angles, finding center on the ends of shafts, and checking square to a reasonable degree.
My recommendation: Combination square set – good option – economy option (tough call, but I’d probably start with economy and save up for the good ones. I have both and can notice a definite difference, but I can also make do.)
Dial Indicator with Mag Base
Actually, you can never have enough dials. I’d recommend starting with three if you can. Two with a mag base, one with a mag back. You’ll use them daily. This is also one where you don’t have to spend a fortune; the cheaper ones work good enough. Although, personally, I like to always have at least one good quality one.
This is how you mark up your workpieces and (hopefully) don’t make dumb mistakes. Again, something that is generally used daily.
My recommendation: Scribe – economy option (expensive ones are a total waste of money in my opinion). Just make sure that the one you get has a carbide tip and you’ll be OK.
Prick Punch/Center Punch
There are usually a lot of jokes involving these tools when you’re in school.
Use these to mark positions for drilling and a few other nifty tricks. They’re not expensive, and generally machinists will use them regularly.
Transfer Punch Set
Ok, this is one that I’d call optional. You’ll use them all the time if you’re doing a lot of repair, but otherwise they might sit in your toolbox for a while. They’re not expensive, though, and they’re really handy when you need them.
My recommendation: Transfer punch set – good option – economy option. I went with economy and am always touching up mine. Which is best for you depends on how much you use them. If you work more with manual machines or in repair, then you’ll use them more.
Feeler Gauge Set
Again, a daily use item. This is usually how you check to make sure that a part is sitting flat in a vise, checking other miscellaneous gaps, as well as a whole slew of other sanity checks.
My recommendation: Feeler gauge – good option – economy option. I’d just go economy on this one. This is rarely used for extremely precise measurements, but you will use it regularly. I don’t know that paying more will give you noticeable value.
Telescoping Gauge Set
This is how you check internal diameters. They’re not as accurate as an ID mic, but they’re also a fraction of the cost. These are especially common for lathe work.
My recommendation: Telescoping gauge set – good option – economy option. I’d go economy unless you’re doing a lot of boring on a lathe. If you’re doing really precise work, though, you should be using a dial bore gage, not these. Trying to measure anything reliably with a telescoping gage to better than half a thou is for the elite only. Plus or minus one thou is more realistic.
Thread Pitch Gauge
Technically speaking, you can just measure threads with calipers to check their pitch, but this is seriously just so much more practical. Plus, internal threads are a pain to check without one. Since this isn’t a particularly expensive item, it’s worth it to just pick one up.
My recommendation: Thread pitch gauge – economy option. Spending more isn’t worth it, this is a very simple tool.
These aren’t totally necessary, but they’re handy and cheap. This is how you can pick up your offsets and figure out tool position without leaving marks on the part. If you’re just using damp paper to touch off, you could leave a little scar on the workpiece if you’re not paying close enough attention.
My recommendation: Edge and center finder – good option. An economy option isn’t even worth mentioning.
The three wire method is a really common way of measuring your pitch diameter on threads you make. Sometimes you can just match up threads and go by feel, but you won’t always have access to a mating part. That’s why you need these wires.
Nothing fancy, just something that can help you measure raw stock and set up a cut on the band saw. Since it’s cheap, just get a better quality one that won’t break when it falls on the concrete floor.
Pro Tip: Always make sure that you’re able to read fractions before setting foot in any machine shop. Otherwise, you may be escorted out.
Combination Wrench Set
Unquestionably mandatory. You’ll use them all the time. Get both metric and SAE, from 1/4″ or less up to 7/8″ ideally. I wouldn’t spend too much on them, though, since they have a habit of being “borrowed” and you’re better off not crying in front of everyone when one is broken/lost/stolen.
My recommendation: Combination wrench set – good option – economy option.This one’s a tough call, you can spend even more than this but I’d lean towards the good option. These are tools that you need to rely on, and cheap ones tend to mangle bolt heads pretty bad.
Allen/Hex Key Set
Again, daily use. Socket head cap screws are extremely popular in a machine shop, and those socket heads need Allen keys. Personally, I have a ratchet set with hex drives, which allows me to use either a ratchet wrench or a breaker bar when need be. But to start off, there’s nothing wrong with a small set. Get metric and SAE, and make sure the SAE set goes up to at least 3/8″. That’s what you’ll use for the 1/2-13 SHCS (possibly the most common fastener you’ll ever come across).
My recommendation: Allen key set – good option. Just get this one, the ball ends are really handy.
This is what you’ll most commonly use to change the inserts in carbide tooling. Always have a full set and keep them in good shape. Don’t lend them out.
My recommendation: Torx wrenches – good option. Same deal, just get these ones.
You should already know what these are for. You’ll need one.
My recommendation: Screwdriver set – good option – economy option. For whatever reason, I’m leaning towards the better set even though it has less pieces. Maybe I’ve just had bad luck with cheap screwdrivers.
You probably don’t need a big one, but a little one that fits in a drawer in your toolbox is extremely handy. It’ll keep you from wrecking your flat screwdriver all the time. Aside from pulling apart shipping containers, you’ll likely use this for pulling workholding apart and getting heavy things to budge.
This is one of the tools where if you know how to use it properly, it’ll keep you from breaking a sweat.
My recommendation: Pry bar – good option. I have this exact same set and I like it.
While you should always use your combination wrench set when possible (and the box end of the wrench whenever you’re putting force on it), sometimes they just won’t work. Having an adjustable wrench on hand will save your heinie every now and then.
Definitely handy for getting chips out of workpieces (never use these on rotating workpieces!), you’ll also likely use them for all the normal reasons that one might want pliers.
Ball Peen Hammer
Every day use. You’ll use it for tapping your center punch to mark workpieces, marking workpieces with letter/number stamps, and for expressing your frustration when you screw up a 30-hour job just before the weekend. My personal preference is the heavier 5-lb hammers, but you get whatever makes you happy.
My recommendation: Ball peen hammer – practical option. I’d recommend picking up the set since it’s not much more.
Again, daily use. These hammers usually have sand in the head that’s loose and prevents the hammer from bouncing back. It’s the best way to tap down a square block in a mill vise. Cheap to buy and very useful.
My recommendation: Deadblow hammer – practical option. Again, get the set.
Daily use. This is how you deburr your parts, break sharp edges, and try to hide dumb mistakes. A set for a machinist should include a mill bastard, double cut, single cut, half-round, round, and a triangular file. Needle files are also extremely useful. Make sure that all of your files have a proper handle that is well secured.
Needle file set – very expensive but worth it IMHO opinion. If you got the economy option above, it comes with some cheap needle files. If you want to do small, detailed, and very professional looking work, these are seriously worth having.
This is 10x faster and more convenient that using a file on everything. You should be spending your time making chips, not breaking sharp edges.
Even if the shop that your work at supplies parallels, this is one where I don’t leave it to chance. “Community” parallels get trashed, and they’ll make all your workpieces off-square if you use garbage ones in a vise. You’re better off with your own set that you can keep in good shape. These are a daily-use item for sure.
123 Block Set
Again, extremely practical tool. You can make your own, too. If you haven’t already, check out my machining projects page to see how you can make the ultimate set (includes drawings). That said, buying a set isn’t very expensive. Personally, I like having a set of 4, but you’ll need at least 2 in your toolbox.
My recommendation: 123 block set – economy option. Cheap ones are good enough, no point even looking at nice ones. Expensive ones are for inspection tools, but start off cheap so you don’t freak out the first time you ding one.
Regular use. This is how you handle round pieces, and you’ll use yours both for machining and inspection. Set of 2 minimum, and make sure that it also has the clamps.
My recommendation: Vee blocks – economy option. No need to get fancy.
This might seem like a weird one, but hear me out. For installing things like O-rings, getting chips out of tricky holes when compressed air just isn’t working, and all kinds of other strange applications, this is just plain handy.
My recommendation: Dentist picks – economy option. Cheap and sweet.
Machinist’s Ready Reference
Possibly the single most important thing aside from your calipers and micrometer. Even 10 years in the trade later, you’ll be referring to it daily. Drill charts, keyway standards, taper sizes, and every other popular page will be permanently stained by your greasy hands with regular use.
My recommendation: Machinist’s ready reference – get it here – it’s an absolute must-have.
Pretty much just for trigonometry and working out your feeds and speeds, along with a couple of other things. Do not use your phone for this. You’ll wreck it. It’s much easier to replace a calculator. Not all shops will let you use your phone on the floor, either.
My recommendation: Scientific calculator – just pick up whatever, you probably already have a preference.
You might not know this, but Sharpie makes a permanent marker that does a great job of writing on greasy metal. Every other kind will just kind of instantly die as soon as it comes into contact with oil. They’ll wipe off of metal easily with acetone or isopropyl, but mark will stay on until you clean them. I swear by these things.
My recommendation: Oil-resistant industrial Sharpies – These are a must-have. Seriously, once you try them you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them.
The reason for needing them should be fairly obvious. I’d recommend getting ones that are better than the cheap bulk boxes, though. If you’re going to be wearing them every day, spend a few extra bucks to get something with an anti-fog coating and a few other handy features.
Obviously, you’ll need somewhere to put your tools. I always look for toolboxes that have larger wheels so that they can handle bumpy, worn-out, hot-chip covered machine shop floors. IMHO, this is one upgrade worth doing to any toolbox: Adding good quality casters. Beyond that, just make sure you have enough drawer space. You don’t need to spend $5k on this option unless you’re really trying to show off. The problem with that is that everyone will know that you’re compensating for something.
Ok, that’s what I got for you. I hope you found it helpful. I know that when I was starting, I was only thinking of the stuff I needed to get after I started something and I needed it. This should make you a fair bit more prepared than I was as an apprentice.