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The 22 Greatest Tools in the History of the World

Oct 26, 2023

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Hand tools have been revolutionizing the way we live for 2.6 million years.

Tools make us human, but we are not the only ones who use tools. Some birds drop rocks to crack shells open, and certain apes use sticks to get food or groom themselves. What makes us different is the thought we put into toolmaking, says Ian Tattersall, PhD, curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Around 2.6 million years ago, our ancestors realized there was a superior type of rock for sharp-​cutting edges (likely used to butcher animals). They chose these rocks, shaped them, and carried them for later use.

“If our predecessors had never started making stone tools, we would not be the reasoning creatures that we are today. The invention of the cutting tool opened a whole world of possibilities,” says Tattersall. The lever, however, might be the most important tool to advance civilization beyond meeting our basic needs of clothing and food, says Voula Saridakis, PhD, curator for the collections and archives at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. “So many tools depend on the principals of the lever.” Wrenches, pliers, hammers, shovels, and jacks all helped build our world by harnessing the mechanical advantage of leverage.

Those descendants of the first levers are among our list of greatest tools, and they’re not the only ones with a mechanical lineage that dates back millennia. But all the tools here, new and old, and in no particular order, celebrate humankind’s capacity to shape the world.

Carpenters have this amazing ability to see the unrealized potential in a tool, a piece of scrap wood, even a drywall screw. And if there’s any construction-site artifact that seems to have inspired their imagination, it’s the humble carpenter’s pencil. Really, it’s more than a all-purpose marking instrument that won’t roll away. It’s also a scribing tool, a spacer (the thin side is ¼ inch and the wider face is 9⁄16 inch), and the perfect accompaniment to a tape measure or square.

Typically, carpenters drop these wide, flat pencils—about $3 for a 10-pack, any brand will do—into their nail bag tip first so they can pluck them out and strike a quick line. To do this, put your index finger along the side of the pencil like it’s an extension of your digit, instead of pinching it like you would to write with it. To scribe an uneven shape onto wood, like for lining up a cabinet on a brick wall, lay the pencil on its flat side to translate the shape of the surface (the wall) you want to match the wood to. For curves with a smaller radius or bumpy surfaces, hold the pencil down on its edge.

Although there are dedicated carpenter-pencil sharpeners, it’s another gadget to own, lose, or break. Most carpenters use a utility knife to sharpen their pencils. This allows you more control over the shape of the tip and how much lead you want exposed.

To sharpen the pencil, start on the broad surface with the knife blade ⅝ inch to ¾ inch away from the end. With the blade square to the body of the pencil, use your thumb to push the blade forward, gradually leaning it back so that by the end of the stroke, the utility knife’s blade is just about parallel with the pencil’s lead. Rotate the pencil 90 degrees, and repeat the process on the adjacent edge. Repeat on the broad edge and the remaining narrow edge.

Of all the tools you use to shape wood, the handplane has come to symbolize craftsmanship of the highest order. It’s a cutting tool that’s designed to create truth: dead straight and flat surfaces ready for finishing and joinery. The Lie-Nielsen Handplane is a longtime PM favorite. Sure, it’s stunning to look at, but the beauty is in its flawless flat surfaces, wickedly sharp (and easy to resharpen) cutting edge, and precise adjustment capable of producing tissue-thin shavings.

The Speed Square is arguably one of the most useful building tools. Its markings help speed up repetitive procedures when framing walls or cutting rafters. The original Swanson Speed Square Pro comes with Swanson’s Blue Book, which contains instructions and explanations of the geometry, calculation, and layout of virtually any rafter configuration. If you’re only framing occasionally, it’s a fantastic resource. Aside from framing, the Speed Square can be used for just about every woodworking project, including sheds, shelves, firewood racks, picnic tables, Adirondack chairs, workbenches, and sawhorses.

In addition to marking angles and parallel lines, and laying out rafter cuts, the tool’s flat base makes it easy to check that studs or joints are square (as shown above). One more use: a saw guide. Hold the lip of the square against the bottom edge of the piece you’re cutting and press down on the top to guide the saw for perfectly straight cuts. You can also flip it around to cut at a 45-degree angle or rotate it on the pivot point to cut at any angle.

With locking pliers, suddenly you’re Superman. Use them to clamp metal for welding, grab onto stripped bolts, pull nails. The original Irwin Vise-Grip 10WR locking plier is simple, well-built, and still great in all respects. The new model has built-in wire cutters and a recess in its adjusting knob to accept a 3/16-inch Allen wrench that lets you more easily and precisely adjust and release the tightening force.

The Skil worm-gear circular saw (Skilsaw) will turn 100 in a couple years. A century is a blip in the timeline of tools, though among powered, handheld implements, it approaches an eternity. The Skilsaw makes use of a spiral steel “worm” on the end of its motor shaft, which spins a worm gear below it. The output from that gear drives the blade, reducing motor speed and increasing torque. Today’s descendant, the 7¼-inch Lightweight Skilsaw, is an impressive refinement of the early models, now about half the weight (a reasonable 11 pounds 8 ounces), faster, and undoubtedly safer. And its revelatory capability—a portable saw ready to frame your next house, and the one after that—remains.

There are few landscaping tools as useful as a round-point shovel. It digs and moves dirt, gravel, sand, snow and ice, debris, asphalt, and concrete. It scrapes, pries, and chisels its way through roots, and is even helpful in fighting brush fires.

A shovel also makes an amazingly effective fulcrum to move the practically immovable from your lawn: Lay an open-back shovel facedown on the ground, place the tip of the digging bar under what you want to lift (such as a fence), and place the length of the digging bar into the blade crevice. You can use your foot on the digging bar to provide force. The round nose gives you the ability to rock the shovel slightly left or right as needed to aid in the lift.

A quick note: Square-nose shovels are quite agile in demolition work, where they can pry off drywall, scoop out insulation, and lift appliances for removal. But for its versatility, our desert-island shovel is this Bully Tools 14-Gauge Round Point.

The tools that literally built civilization predate records. But we can place the first level, the plumb bob, in Egypt as far back as 2700 B.C., Saridakis says. There, it guided the builders of the pyramids and other perfectly squared structures that still survive.

The Egyptians’ tool looked and functioned almost exactly as it does today: a pointed weight, hanging from a string. When you suspend it, for example, from the top of a doorway, you can compare the distance from the side of the doorway at the top of the string to the distance from the side to the bottom of the weight to determine whether it is square. It can also be suspended from an A-frame to act as a horizontal level.

Its name comes from the Latin word for lead (plumbum), and it was a vital tool in the construction of the Roman Empire, says Saridakis. The tool even earned itself a Biblical metaphor in Isaiah 28:16–17, which reads that God “will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet” in Zion.

A modern laser level from Bosch or Milwaukee is a fine addition to any tool kit today, but we still carry a plumb, like the Empire 8 oz. Steel Plumb Bob, as well. It’s indestructible and immune to ambient light, and the battery never dies.

The screwdriver is so fundamental today that it’s tough to think of any professional trade job or DIY project that doesn’t require at least one. More likely, you’ll need two or three, maybe more, which is why, since its introduction in 1988, we’ve been huge fans of the Picquic multi-bit screwdriver. The Canadian toolmaker now offers 10 versions, with the Picquic Sixpac Plus as its flagship. In its body, the screwdriver stores six ¼-inch bits—tough enough to use with an impact driver—while the aluminum shank with a magnetic base holds the working bit (a seventh one) firmly in place.

If there’s anything a Leatherman tool is, it’s an achievement of engineering. The Leatherman Wave+ is typical in that respect. It would be one thing if the tool packed in knife blades, pliers, and screwdrivers, and only some of them functioned. But everything works on a Leatherman. Tetris 18 tools into an 8.5-oz. package that is 4 inches long and about ¾ inch thick; if that isn’t a marvel, we’d like to know what is.

When a generation of new American families wanted to settle down after WWII, the early Paslode pneumatic nailer ensured they got roofs over their heads. From the 1940s to 1950s, new-home construction doubled. This feat was pulled off with new time-​saving technology like the nailer and circular saw. Instead of taking seconds to pound in a single nail, multiple nails could be fired in a second. Builders and framers gained a new level of mastery over the worksite.

Today’s favored pneumatic nailer from Paslode, the 3½-inch 30-Degree PowerMaster, is a heavy-duty nailer that doesn’t sacrifice convenience. It features manual or sequential firing trigger options and is capable of sinking up to 12 nails per second. It’s also designed for simple depth adjustment, so you can easily calibrate the depth of your nails. This model is also perfect for toe-nailing, thanks to a spiked nosepiece that allows you to securely bite into wood as you fire.

Every trade has its hammers. Metalworking has the ball peen, masonry has stone and brick hammers, carpentry has framing hammers. Each hammer is optimized to its tasks, perfect in its own way. But there is one universal hammer everyone old enough to carry a toolbox should own: the trim hammer. Our shop has had this simple, all-steel 16 oz. Estwing Rip trim hammer for about a decade. The thing is indispensable and unbreakable, and will handle everything but framing—and frankly, it will handle even that for small DIY projects.

It can cut up a box, but don’t call it a box cutter. On a jobsite, it cuts shingles, roofing paper, drywall, and building paper. It can trim mason’s string and scribe lines on wood—and if needed, scribe on steel and aluminum. The nearly indestructible Stanley 99 maintains its 1960s industrial look, but now it also has a reinforced nose to better hold the blade in place.

The floor jack opens up a world of possibilities to the home mechanic. Beyond the oil change, it lets you quickly swap out wheels, repair brakes, or install a catalytic converter cage. It can also lift or lower components such as the suspension, exhaust, and even a differential or transmission.

The first known use of hydraulic power dates back 8,000 years to irrigation channels in Mesopotamia, though water wasn’t pressurized and used as a tool until the mid-18th century, and the first hydraulic press was patented in 1795. Hydraulic jacks (lifting instead of pressing) appeared in the following decades.

Today’s floor jack is a horizontal hydraulic bottle jack with a short lever on one side to lift and a long lever (handle) on the other to apply pressure. That detachable handle might be the second-most useful tool in a garage; slip it over the end of a breaker bar to dislodge especially stubborn bolts.

A good floor jack is made to be serviced, says Craig Hoffman, spokesman for Harbor Freight Tools, makers of floor jacks like the Daytona 3 Ton Professional used by many of our staff and writers. The chrome ram can be cleaned and relubricated, and the rollers underneath it can be greased for easier movement. And changing the oil every three years maintains the jack’s power.

A reciprocating saw can cut through lumber even if it’s embedded with nails. Heck, it can cut through just about everything short of a rock. It’s the go-to tool for remodeling and demolition. You may also know it as a Sawzall, due to the dominance of that Milwaukee Tool recip saw. And while the category has become crowded, we still recommend, use, and try not to abuse too badly the Milwaukee 15 Amp Super Sawzall. It can cut all common forms of metal: steel, aluminum, copper, and cast iron. Of course, the blade you pick makes all the difference (see below).

For cutting through construction lumber, which typically has nails embedded in it, use a blade like Lenox Gold. You can also use a demolition blade, which is wider and thicker, making it better able to resist bending. If you expect to cut metal and want a single blade to handle everything, choose one with 10 teeth per inch (tpi). Although this blade will cut less aggressively, it will be easier to control. As a rule of thumb for metal cutting, use a relatively coarse blade (fewer teeth, like 18 tpi) for thick metal, such as when cutting bar stock. Use a blade with more teeth (24 tpi) for cutting thin metal and tubing.

Choose a longer blade if you want to cut wood or metal flush to a surface. The extra blade length allows you to flex the blade into a curved shape, letting you saw away the wood or metal as you run the blade against the surface from which you are removing it.

If there is one power tool that can get you out of a tough spot during a home repair or remodel, it’s the oscillating multitool. It saws, grinds, sands, scrapes, and polishes. It does nearly anything you need to do, with the exception of drilling holes, and works in places other power tools can’t reach, such as undercutting wood door trim to clear thin-plank flooring. And it works on a variety of materials: steel, aluminum, carpet, hard tile, soft tile, hardwood, softwood, and various plastics. The Fein Multimaster has gained a following over the last 25 years as tradespeople and accomplished amateurs have recognized its outsize ability and durability. It’s practically our right hand in most home projects.

A digital multimeter is an indispensable tool for testing, diagnosing, and troubleshooting electrical circuits, components, and devices. The first digital multimeter was introduced in the late 1970s, and has proven much more reliable than the old needle-based analog meters. It’s used primarily to measure voltage (volts), current (amps), and resistance (ohms). We regularly turn to the highly accurate Fluke 115 Digital Multimeter, which also measures continuity, frequency, and capacitance, and can display the minimum, maximum, and average readings on its large screen.

If a cordless power tool is dying faster than usual, you can check it by measuring the voltage with a multimeter: First, run the tool until the battery is nearly but not quite drained. Then recharge it and check it with the multimeter set to VDC (voltage direct current). Use the next-highest setting above the battery’s voltage, such as 20 volts for a 12v or 18v battery. Press the test leads against the battery terminals. A low voltage indicates that the battery is ready to be recycled (Lowe’s and Home Depot will take them) and replaced.

The familiar pistol-grip power-drill shape emerged from the labs of S. Duncan Black and Alonzo Decker around 1917. And WWII spurred the creation of lighter drills for the factory women that kept America running. These smaller drills became prized for home repair work and had a tendency to walk out of the factories, says Peter Liebhold, curator emeritus for the Division of Work and Industry at the Smithsonian.

Cordless models emerged in the 1960s, but they were expensive and the batteries were more useful as doorstops. By the 1980s, Makita’s 7.2v cordless drill began to catch on, first with repair technicians for small jobs. By the end of the decade, remodelers, electricians, and plumbers similarly embraced the handy tool.

Today’s lithium-ion-battery drills are a revolution in themselves for their power and reliability. And our favorite drill in the shop today is DeWalt’s DCD999 for the control provided by its three-speed transmission and an 11-position clutch ring.

The 2.6 million years since our first stone chopping tools is an intimidating history to stand up against. It’s unfair to expect that we—as multiple species over this timeline—would create the greatest tool known to any life-form. Instead, we seek a platonic ideal of the axe itself: What is today’s perfect chopping tool? Our best answer is the Council Tool Velvicut 2lb Hudson Bay. Its carbon-steel head is sharpened and honed by hand and sits atop an American hickory handle, all balanced to help you hit your target every time.

The wrench, one of the most obvious descendants of our prehistoric levers, largely operates on the premise that for every fastener there is a matching wrench or wrench socket waiting to rotate its flat, consistent surfaces.

Except that’s not how the world works. Try to remove a stuck hex bolt with a 12-point wrench, and those six sides can become one. When it looks like you’ve got nothing to wrench with, a pipe wrench will save the day. (They’re also unmatched on pipes, of course.)

Developed by inventor Daniel Stillson around 1869, the pipe wrench is set apart by its intentionally loose, adjustable upper jaw with hard serrated teeth. That play allows it to bind and clamp down on a pipe or stripped screw when you push the handle of the wrench down. It also spares you from having to reset the wrench when you pull up on the handle, as pulling up unbinds the jaw from your stripped nut or pipe. Just make sure you’ve left a space between the back of the wrench opening (the side without teeth) and the object being turned to give the jaws space to tighten down.

Since Stillson’s patented design, the greatest advancement has been the aluminum wrench body, which can reduce the tool’s heft by around 40 percent. That’s a crucial weight savings, whether you’ve got the tool in your hand all day or just need to reach a single awkwardly placed pipe. Ridgid’s 12-inch aluminum straight-body pipe wrench clocks in at a reasonable 2.5 pounds despite a heavy-duty build. It’s also made entirely of replaceable—and warranty-covered—parts. It’s a tool you can expect to never replace.

Greek mythology offers this origin for the saw: Talos, nephew of prolific inventor Daedalus, found inspiration in a fish spine and modeled a jagged strip of iron after it to invent the first saw. Historically accurate? Not a chance. The first known metal pull-saws date back almost 7,000 years. And by the end of Talos’s tale, he’d been turned into a partridge as protection from his now-jealous, murderous uncle.

The 19th century’s mass production of steel gave us today’s saws. For most of the last two millennia, saws were made of iron, says Ted Ingraham, director of the Zlotoff Tool Museum in South Hero, Vermont. Iron isn’t a particularly hard metal. And the ensuing kinking, or twisting, of the blade was such a problem it earned the old two-person saw the name “misery whip.”

Around the 1880s, a golden age of saws dawned with the wide availability of more durable and flexible steel. Two-person steel saws drove the booming American timber industry while smaller steel hand saws offered a vast improvement for woodworkers. The saws of this era were built to last—built for someone to make their living using it. Many of these steel saws remain today, but if you don’t have the time and patience to hunt one down, 181-year-old toolmaker Disston is reintroducing its D-8 hand saw.

The earliest tools of measurement were nothing more than notches marked in a length of wood or stone, but evidence of measurement systems shows up in writings on cuneiform tablets from ancient Sumer roughly 6,000 years ago, says Saridakis. Ancient Egypt had the first known standard measure, the royal cubit (about 21 inches), based on the length of an early pharaoh’s arm from elbow to middle fingertip. Inscribed wood rods—the first rulers—used to measure out the royal cubit and its fractions still survive after roughly 3,000 years.

The next great leap in handheld measuring tools didn’t arrive until the 1820s with the spring-back measuring tape, though it still required a large, donut-shaped carrying case. The first truly pocket-size tape measure arrived in 1963 with the Stanley PowerLock. That design is so rugged and reliable that Stanley still uses it—and we’re still using our PowerLocks.

Place the tape’s hook where you’ll be making the cut. Put the tip of the utility knife blade against the hook and pinch the blade there with your thumb. Your other hand goes at the end of the drywall, pinching the appropriate-length measurement on the tape. From there you move both hands at the same time, drawing the knife and tape down the drywall with consistent downward pressure. Crack off the piece of drywall and cut the paper on the other side to release it.

Few tools still used the world over were so perfect at inception that they remain largely unchanged. Yet some of the early needles from around 27,000 years ago could absolutely put a button back on your flannel today. The sewing needle was also a key technology that set humans apart from Neanderthals, who never discovered or adopted the tool. Back then, sewing allowed our ancestors to build weathertight shelters from animal hides and create warmer, less-drafty clothes for our long procession around the globe. A starter pack for this auspicious tool, like the Singer Assorted Hand Needles, may not fit in with the rest of the implements in your toolbox, but it deserves a spot next to it. And about that button you’ve been meaning to reattach…

Starting at the inside of the shirt, poke the needle through the fabric and thread it through the button. Bring the needle downward and thread it through the diagonal opposite hole and the shirt. Repeat three times, then do the same on the other two holes. Once the button is secure, poke the needle up through the fabric at its base. Loop the thread around the stitching underneath the button six times. Then poke the needle through that stem sideways three times and cut to secure it.

A.C. Shilton is a Tennessee-based journalist who splits her time between investigative work and writing features._ _Her investigative work was featured in the Netflix docuseries “The Innocent Man.”

Stef Schrader routinely breaks and attempts to take project cars on race tracks. She enjoys fancy cheeses, good coffee, fast Porsches, traveling to new places and rare, weird cars. She lives with a large collection of Fisher-Price Puffalumps and an overloaded parts shed.

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Pcarpenter’s pencil Lie-Nielsen HandplaneSwanson Speed Square Pro4. Irwin Vise-Grip 10WR7¼-inch Lightweight Skilsaw 6. Bully Tools 14-Gauge Round PointEmpire 8 oz. Steel Plumb BobPicquic Sixpac Plus Leatherman Wave+ Paslode, the 3½-inch 30-Degree PowerMaster,Estwing Rip trim hammer Stanley 99Daytona 3 Ton Professional Milwaukee 15 Amp Super SawzallFein Multimaster Make Flush Cuts:Remove Grout:Upgrade Windows:16. MultimeterFluke 115 Digital MultimeterDeWalt’s DCD999 Council Tool Velvicut 2lb Hudson BayRidgid’s 12-inch aluminum straight-body pipe wrench20. Hand SawD-8 hand sawStanley PowerLockSinger Assorted Hand Needles