How to Curate the perfect toolkit

Dave Osmolski


I took the USPS elective course Engine Maintenance ages ago, well before the advent of computer-controlled fuel injection and the other amazing advances in outboard engine manufacture in the past 20 years.

While these advances have taken away some of our ability to tinker with our outboards in the shade of a backyard tree, they have given us cleaner, quieter, more economical and longer-lasting engines than we had in “the good old days.”

You don’t need to relegate all engine maintenance to a shop technician. Armed with a proper toolkit and a shop manual for your outboard engine, you can do a surprising amount of work to keep it in top shape while saving yourself time and money.

Choose the right kind of tools

To do the job yourself, you need the right kind of hand tools. In a proper toolkit, all tools should be made of quality tool steel. Most tool stores carry the type of tools you need to perform many maintenance tasks on your outboard. Avoid buying tools at general merchandise stores that sell everything from aspirin to zippers. Go to a store that specializes in tools. Some stores offer lifetime warranties on hand tools and will replace a tool if it breaks.

For those of you just starting out, many stores offer basic kits with an assortment of pliers, wrenches, screwdrivers and other tools to get you started. I purchased one some years back for under $50. I do most basic work with the tools from this kit, which I keep in the garage. I store most of my tools in my basement workshop, but having this kit in the garage saves me many steps.

Add special tools for your engine

Some chores require special tools not found in a basic set. As you encounter these chores, you will expand your tool collection as needed.

A set of combination open-end and box wrenches make a good first purchase. Many engines use metric fasteners, so be sure to purchase metric wrenches if your engine uses them. Also useful to have, socket wrenches consist of a handle with a reversing ratchet and a series of sockets that fit over a fastener. A good addition to a socket set is a set of wobble extensions that extend your reach and allow the socket to wobble. The wobble helps resolve difficult alignment problems without compromising the grip on the fastener.

Don’t forget torque

Most engine fasteners are tightened to a specific tightness or torque, expressed in English as inch-pounds or foot-pounds and in metric as meter-kilograms or centimeter-kilograms. In most cases, you should adhere to these degrees of tightness to allow proper operation. Torque is measured by using a torque wrench handle with your sockets. There are many kinds of torque wrench handles. The ones I have are pre-set to a specific torque and slip when proper torque is reached. Some long-handled torque wrench handles deflect, and you read the torque on a scale near the handle. I prefer slip-type torque wrenches, as they cannot overtighten. Although big around and much bulkier than regular socket wrench handles, torque wrench handles are easy to use.

Add a good set of screwdrivers

Finally, your kit should have a good set of screwdrivers, both flat and Phillips. Make sure the tip of your flat screwdriver fits the slot in the screw and is nearly as wide as the head of the screw. Phillips screwdrivers are numbered from one to four, with one being the most pointed. As with a standard screwdriver, use the Phillips head that fits the screw snugly.

Don’t be afraid to work on your engine. Get a manual for your make and model, get some tools, and enjoy another facet of boating.

David H. Osmolski of Charlotte Power Squadron/27 has been repairing boats since high school when his first boat, a canvas-covered canoe with cedar ribs, leaked in gallons per minute and required constant repair.

United States Power Squadrons, America's Boating Club logo

The Ensign magazine is an official channel of United States Power Squadrons, America’s Boating Club, a volunteer organization whose members teach boating skills and best practices to help improve the safety of our nation’s waterways. Learn more.