Ah, the junkyard. Acres upon acres of cast-aside steel, aluminum, iron, plastic, and (mostly) rust.

Is your car at least 10 years old and not very special? Well you’re in luck, buddy, because your local Pick ‘N’ Pull, Wrench ‘N’ Go, Stab ‘N’ Grab, Drip ‘N’ Rip, or Steal ‘N’ Peel has exactly what you need to replace that weird piece of interior trim, odd sensor, or complete drivetrain. The only limit to what you can get is how much you can physically yank out of the car and stuff in a wheelbarrow.

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Go Easy on Me, It’s My First Time

Before my first visit to the yard, I had no idea what to expect. My only experience with junkyards was where I walked into a dimly-lit, smoky room and told a gruff older gentleman in dirty overalls what part I was looking for, and then he sent some guy named Scooter or Skinny or Tater or Greg out the backdoor. Thirty minutes and two bouts of lung-cancer-induced chemo later, Skinny Taters was back with the part, probably in the wrong color and with knife marks all over it.

But then I discovered a magical land where you pull your own parts off of salvage vehicles. “Liability” is a dirty word and, actually, “dirty” is what you end up after rolling around in mud and gravel under leaky cars all day, all of which are precariously positioned atop some welder’s modern art sculpture entitled “Two Spare Rims Welded Together.” But at the end of the day, you find your own parts and the knife marks are all your own fault.

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So what tools do you need to make the best use of your limited time out in the yard? Well that depends on what you’re trying to do. What level are you on? [Warning! Amazon Affiliate links included for your pleasure!]

Level Zero: “I’m Just Here for the Plastic”

Your glovebox door broke. Or you need a new radio bezel. Or engine cover. Or pop-up headlight motor. You’re going to be scoping out a bunch of different cars and don’t want to get weighed down by a big ol’ toolbox when you’re just here for one or two things. For you, we’ll focus on tools that fit in your pocket and can serve a variety of purposes.

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  1. Craftsman 27 piece bit driver set - Phillips, flat-head, and Torx bits with a variety of metric and SAE sockets mean this one tool can disassemble most of a car’s interior bits and bobs.
  2. Multitool knife/pliers/cutters/more - One tool, many uses - remove nuts, cut wires, saw through plastic, yank out stubborn interior panels, accidentally cut yourself, the possibilities are endless.

That’s it. You’re in, you’re out, you’re done, and you probably didn’t get smashed by a falling car.

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Lemons racecar, Lemons racecar, Lemons racecar...
Photo: mikaelvroom

Level 1: “I Have a List”

You have a project, and that project requires parts. You’re swapping out interiors for a different color or material. You need to replace your intake manifold or radiator. For some odd reason, you prefer that your power windows work. Your project has moved up a level, so your toolkit should, too. You’re pulling bigger parts and more parts, so you need bigger tools and you need more efficient tools. Sure that multitool could remove all of bolts holding that seat in, but boy howdy a ratchet and socket would do it in a tenth of the time and with a hundredth of the swearing.

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  1. Mechanix Gloves - Get you some gloves. Because after you’re done pulling parts you need to get back in your car and drive home, and you probably don’t want to get grease, mud, blood, oil, coolant, and tears of frustration all over the inside of your running car.
  2. Amazon Basic 123-piece socket set - 1/4" and 3/8" ratchets, metric and SAE sockets up to 19mm and 7/8" (including deep sockets!), all sorts of bits and a driver, allen keys, and more, all in a handy carrying case. Also, ratchets can be used as hammers.
  3. Stanley 12" Crescent Wrench - Get a hold of that nut that keeps spinning, or remove the odd bolt that’s bigger than your socket set allows. Also useful as a hammer.
  4. Stalwart 6-piece utility pliers set - Everything you need to grip, grab, cut, slice, yank, and otherwise nab the bits and pieces that you need. Also can be used as hammers.
  5. Small LED tactical flashlight - Bright enough to see under the dash, deep in the engine bay, or way up in the car’s guts. Durable enough to get dropped, stepped on, or run over. Also possible to use as a hammer.
  6. Stanley 12" Pry bar - Something in your way? Something not moving that should? Something moving that shouldn’t? Get some leverage on it and show it who’s boss. Also, can be...okay you get where this is going.
  7. Any tool specific to the job you need to do.Find a how-to on replacing the parts you want to pull and find out if there are special tools required - fuel lines, 12-point bolts, and giant Torx screws are things that are a snap with the right tool but can ruin your day without it. Know what you need and bring it.
  8. Craftsman 13" Tool Bag - Keep your stuff organized and lug it around with ease by using a soft tool bag. Also a handy place to keep small parts that YOU’RE GOING TO PULL BACK OUT AND PAY FOR BEFORE YOU LEAVE. Very useful for holding your hammers.

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Awesome! You got a wheelbarrow full of gold, if gold was made of plastic and used electrical motors.

Level 2: “Not ****ing Around”

You’re ready for the heavy metal. You’re pulling hoods, trunks, suspension components, diffs, maybe even a rear end or transmission. But you’re still on a budget and you’re willing to invest a little sweat equity to save a few bucks, so we’re not dipping into power tools yet.

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  1.  Yuanshikj 171 piece Mechanic’s tool kit - Step your ratchet game up, ratchet, with this 171 piece kit that includes a 1/2" ratchet and sockets, bits, extensions, and u-joints for big nuts and cramped spaces.
  2. Estwing 12" 3lb sledge hammer - Finally, a real hammer. Compact enough to fit in your toolbag, dangerous enough to make short work of the bolt, panel, fender, or fellow parts puller that’s in your way.
  3. 4-piece ratchet strap set - Useful to pull, lift, or hold heavy objects when heavy objects need pulled, lifted, or held. A little violent on the release, but otherwise very handy.
  4. PB Blaster - That car’s not sitting in the junkyard because it’s in good shape and is easy to fix. It’s rusty and beat up to the point that it wasn’t worth someone’s time to work on. Stuff will be stuck, get it unstuck.
  5. Craftsman 8-piece screwdriver set - Up until now we’ve made do with bit drivers, but now that you’re hitting in the big leagues, it’s time for big league tools. Or at least real screwdrivers. As a bonus, the flat blade screwdrivers can double as a lever or chisel, at least until they break. But then you can drive two hours to the only remaining Sears in your state and fight a teenager to try and get it replaced. So, like, lucky you.
  6. 12V 20Ah jump starter - Junkyards are typically BYO Power Source if you want to turn an engine over, test a window motor, or power up anything else that needs power. These new compact jump packs are perfect for on-site testing. This one’s cheap enough that if (when?) it blows up, it will be more exciting than disappointing.

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Sweet. As you wheelbarrow your pile of heavy metal up to the counter to pay for it, you’ll get knowing nods of approval from fellow pullers, showing you the utmost respect for all of your hard work. Spontaneous applause may break out.

Don’t try this at home. Or anywhere.
Photo: mikaelvroom

Level Maximum: “I Am the Master of Everything Rusty and Broken”

It’s big, it’s stuck, it’s gotta come out, and it’s gotta come out NOW. You have a fancy dinner party with the Prime Minister in two hours but you need to pull an engine before you go. You’re prepared to spend more on tools than you are on your car. You have the best of priorities, and you’re ready to have some fun. Start with Level 2's kit and add some power. Note that you may have already joined a cordless tool “team.” If so, get the tool in your preferred color, whether that be Milwaukee “I’m rich, bitch” Red, Makita “I heart the ‘90s” Seafoam Teal, Ryobi “Baller on a Budget” Neon Green, or Harbor Freight “Please mistake me for Milwaukee” Communist Red. Also note that if you want a bunch of tools, you can usually find a kit that gives you batteries, chargers, and a variety of tools for less than the cost of buying everything individually.

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  1. Cordless Sawzall and a variety of blades - No need for penetrating oil when you can just cut the thing off. Useful for exhaust pipes, coolant hoses, brake lines, wire bundles, crossmembers, driveshafts, or straight up cutting a car in half.
  2. 18V cordless impact driver with 1/4 impact to socket adapters - Clickity-clacking back and forth for hours with a ratchet is for suckers and poor people. Rip those bolts out in record time.
  3. Milwaukee 18V 1/2" Impact - This is the only time I’d advocate straying from your team if you didn’t pick the Pride of Wisconsin - when you’re lying under a car and it’s starting to rain, how are you going to feel about saving a few bucks on an impact driver that can’t quite get that nut off? This thing is a monster and will demolish anything in its path.
  4. Impact Socket Set - Grab those big nuts and twist. It’ll feel great, I promise. At this size, there’s no real need to have both SAE and Metric sockets, they’re a close enough approximation of each other that you’ll be fine with one or the other. Pick your favorite continent and run with it.
  5. A friend - This may be the hardest item on the list to buy, but potentially the most useful. I’ve yanked transmissions by myself, but it turns out that transmission pulling is way easier when you can send your friend to the ground to undo the torque converter bolts while you undo fuel lines and dump gas on his arm. If that seems like an oddly specific example, it’s because I was the friend in that story.

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At this point, the front office is obligated to send someone to spread rose petals at your feet as your drag the engine, drivetrain, or complete half-cut in from the yard. No one is allowed to look you in the eye. Babies spontaneously cry in your presence. You took on the Colossus Scrapyard, and you were victorious.

Where on this engine did the Sawzall touch you?
Photo: mikaelvroom

So what’d I miss? What’s in your yard kit? What tool can you not do without when you’re perusing the rows of derelict clunkers?