Essential Onboard Tools for Boaters

If you’ve ever tried to make a repair onboard before—at sea or at the dock—you know it’s sort of like working on the house: you get started only to find out you don’t have a tool or part you need to do the job. On land it’s easy enough to run to the hardware store. When you’re a couple of miles away from shore it’s a different situation.

It’s impossible to carry tools for every repair situation you might encounter in a boat, but it’s easy enough to assemble a reasonably small and versatile set of tools that can address a big percentage of common maintenance and repair problems on board, or at least keep you running and able to limp back to port. And the good news is that these basic tools should cost less than $200 or so.

A soft-sided toolbag won't damage gelcoat or woodwork, and side pockets make it easy to grab tools.
A soft-sided toolbag won’t damage gelcoat or woodwork, and side pockets make it easy to grab tools.

For tool stowage, some people prefer plastic tackle-type boxes; others are lucky enough to have a dedicated tool drawer or locker. But for many small-boat owners the best choice is a soft-sided tool bag that won’t damage the deck or woodwork, and that has pockets that make it easy to see and grab tools.

Phillips Head Screwdrivers—Keep a set of Phillips head screwdrivers aboard in different sizes. You’ll use them for… well, everything. Look around your boat for the biggest items that would need servicing or repair and make sure to have a driver than can handle them. 

Slotted Screwdrivers— The same goes for flat-bladed screwdrivers: Bigger onboard machinery calls for wider blades and longer shanks. However,  a set of 1/4- and 5/16-inch wide, three- and six-inch long flat-head screwdrivers will generally keep you out of trouble.

Needle-nose and regular Vise-Grips can handle a big variety of problems.
Needle-nose and regular Vise-Grips can handle a big variety of problems.

Hammer—Though smaller ones are easier to fit in a tool bag, a 16-ounce claw hammer will give you the most usefulness, whether it’s loosening rusted bolts or prying other hardware bits loose by force.

Wire Strippers/Cutters/Crimpers—Along with a kit containing general terminal ends (spades, rings, butts, etc.) for average sizes of wiring, you’ll need a tool to cut and strip wire, and crimp on terminal ends. You can find one tool that does all three jobs. Such combination tools aren’t as good as separate dedicated ones, but they can get the job done and they’re easier to stow. Don’t forget to toss a roll of electrical tape in your bag. As for those terminal ends, make sure you buy marine-grade ones from the chandlery, not cheap ones from the auto-parts store. They are in no way the same.

Calipers/Fold Out Ruler/Tape Measure—While you generally will not need either of these to make a repair, they’re handy for making a shopping list of pieces and parts you need for a job, such as hose and hose clamps in the correct sizes.

Needle Nose Vise Grips/Vise Grips—There are few more useful tools on a boat than a set of regular and needle-nose Vise Grips. ‘Nuff said.

Adjustable WrenchesWe recommend adjustable wrenches versus a socket set because we’ve sacrificed more than our fair share of sockets to the bilge gods. There are certainly specific jobs where a socket will do better, but for everyday jobs, a set of six-, eight-, and 10-inch adjustable wrenches are good to have.

Universal Filter Wrench—Whether you’ve got an outboard or inboard engine, having the tool to make an oil or fuel filter change aboard is essential. Make sure you have spare fuel and oil filters aboard, too.

Spark Plug Socket—You keep spare plugs in your spares kit, right? Well, you’ll need to be able to swap them out, so make sure you have a proper socket aboard to fit the spark plugs for your engine.

Gorilla-brand tape is heavy and tenacious, and can make strong temporary repairs.
Gorilla-brand tape is heavy and tenacious, and can make strong temporary repairs.

Chisels—We like to keep a few sharp chisels aboard, along with a putty knife for prying and scraping. The chisels will get dull over time (and you need to be careful with them until they do) but are very useful in a number of situations.

Duct tape—Need we say more? We’re big fans of Gorilla brand duct tape, from the Gorilla Glue folks. That said, duct tape is for temporary repairs; the adhesive leaves behind a sticky, gooey mess if the tape is not removed soon enough.

Allen/Hex Key Wrench—Keep a full set of foldable Allen wrench/hex key sets in your onboard bag in metric and standard sizes. You’d be amazed at the mix of standard and metric hardware on a boat.

Utility Knife—Another onboard tool that will save you lots of time. This tool is great not only for cutting hose, tape, and small wire, but for all sorts of other jobs. Make sure to keep spare sharp blades aboard—or in the handle—too.

Hacksaw—Though cumbersome and difficult to stow, a hacksaw is great for cutting wire-reinforced hose, rigging wire in a pinch, metal tubing, threaded rod, and more.

Hemostats—Longtime friends of surgeons, these small but tough pliers are great for getting into small places. You’ll never regret buying a pair.

Hemostats are helpful outside the operating room, too. You'll find several uses for them on a boat, from reaching into small places to working with fishing gear.
Hemostats are helpful outside the operating room, too. You’ll find several uses for them on a boat, from reaching into small places to working with fishing gear.

One more thing, especially if you boat on salt water: Give your tools a good spray down with WD-40 or any other water-displacing lubricant at least once a season to keep corrosion at bay. Once you’ve let the lube soak in for a while, give each tool a thorough wipedown with a rag and return it to the bag, and keep the bag as far away from the bilge as possible.

Have a favorite tool we don’t mention? Share it in the Comments section below.

Editor’s Note: This article originally published in January 2016 and was updated in February 2018.

Written by: Gary Reich

Gary Reich is a Chesapeake Bay-based freelance writer and photojournalist with over 25 years of experience in the marine industry. He is the former editor of PropTalk Magazine and was the managing editor of the Waterway Guide. His writing and photography have been published in PassageMaker Magazine, Soundings, Fly Fishing in Salt Waters, Yachting Magazine, and Lakeland Boating, among others.


A set of fresh spark plugs can often smooth a rough-running outboard engine, but make note of any severely fouled or damaged spark plugs. This can point to problems inside your engine. Photo courtesy of NGK.
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