10 Tools Your Shop Shouldn’t Skimp On

Published by Naseem Muaddi on September 12th, 2011

Not every tool you own needs to be a Snap-On, Matco or Craftsman. Sometimes a cheap, average-quality tool will do just fine. However, there are some tools that no auto upholstery shop can afford to skimp on. In some cases, they may be expensive – but they’re necessary because we depend on them to make our work more efficient and effective.

These tools are unmistakable. You’ll know one the moment it fails you. You’ll be in the middle of a job when all of a sudden your cheap tool breaks in half, holding your shop hostage for hours. Worse still, it’ll cause you a nervous breakdown because you’ll realize that you have no one to blame but yourself. After all, if you hadn’t been too cheap to cough up a few extra bucks to buy the better model, it never would have happened.

Believe me, it’s not worth the aggravation.

Too avoid the headache, I’ve compiled a list of the 10 tools your auto trim shop can’t afford to skimp on.

1. Steamer

Every auto upholstery shop needs a quality steamer. Without one, it would be impossible to get those last few wrinkles out of convertible tops or stretch and tighten vinyl seat covers. I have a two-gallon Hoffman Pressure Steamer that handles every job I put it through.  Brand new it costs about $1,600, which is expensive until you consider that I’ve had it for over 15 years. When you do the math, that’s a little over $100 a year – well worth the price.

2. Scissors

What auto trim shop can afford to operate using cheap scissors?  My supplier sold me German-made 10” Kretzer Finny Scissors last year for $35 and I absolutely love them.  The ice tempered stainless steel blades cut through leather, cloth, plastic, vinyl and cardboard like butter.  I recommend them to everyone.

3. Sewing Machine

This is a no-brainer.  It doesn’t matter whether your sewing machine is a Singer, Pfaf, Juki, Brother or Consew. As long as you’re operating on an industrial strength walking-foot machine with a wide array of feet, you’ll be in good shape.  I wouldn’t trade my Singer 111w for the world.  It’s well over 50 years old and still runs perfectly. All I do is keep it oiled and call to have it serviced once a year.

4. Cutting table

Take time to construct the right cutting table for your shop.  It must be level, smooth and large enough to roll out your material on.  Also make sure that the area it’s constructed in is well lit.  I connected my sewing machine table directly to my cutting table, which allows me to sew large covers more easily.

5. Measuring devices

I use rulers more often than any other tool in my shop. I keep them right by my cutting table.  It’s important for all shops to have 12”, 36”, 48” and 60” straight edges. A high-quality steel carpenter’s square and tailor tape are also a must. Make sure your rulers are metal, so they don’t ware or warp, and easily readable.

6. Staple Gun

The right tool can make your job so much easier, and staple guns are no exception.  While there are many types of staple guns, the best ones for auto upholstery are 3/8” and 1/2” crown.  Most shops have a snub-nose gun, but should also consider getting a 2” long-nose gun to get in those deep, hard-to-reach places.  I just bought a Spotnails JS5016LN Long-Nose Stapler for a $130.  It’s my first long nose stapler and now that I’ve used it, I don’t know how I ever got along without one.

Having a quality air compressor to operate your gun goes without saying.

7. Fork

A quality fork, or stapler remover, is yet another tool upholsterers shouldn’t skimp on.  Nothing beats a comfortable fork with sharp tips. High-quality steel is essential so that it doesn’t bend or break while removing stubborn staples.

8. Hog Ring Pliers

A quality pair of hog ring pliers can last decades. However, don’t get caught in the hype of automatic hog ring pliers.  They’re overrated and much too bulky to get into the types of tight spaces auto upholsterers need to reach.

9. Electric Foam Saw

For years I cut foam with scissors, razor blades, hacksaws and even kitchen knives.  Believe me, an electric foam saw is well worth the investment.  Most people are hesitant to buy one because they can cost upwards of $350. However, if you find one used you can get a good deal. I bought a Bosch foam saw from a retired furniture trimmer for $20. It has never let me down.

10. Glue Gun

I used to own a pressure-feed gun with a one-gallon pot and long hose. But there were way too many parts and too many places where things could go wrong.  Glue kept clogging the gun and I wasted too much time trying to fix it.

I eventually switched to a siphon-feed gun with a one-quart pot attached directly to its base from Harbor Freight Tools. The whole set up only costs $30 – a fraction of the price I paid for my old one-gallon pot. The downside is that it only lasts about a year. But with the price so cheap, I just throw it out and buy a new one when it dies.

Of course, the smaller pot means I have to refill my tank with glue more often. However, that’s a minor inconvenience compared to the headache of constantly repairing glue-clogged guns.

…Hey, occasionally you can get a better product for a cheaper price!

We want to hear from you: Based on your experience, what tools would you add to the list? Do you have any brand or model suggestions that you think other auto trimmers should check out? How about ones you think we should steer clear of? Any advice that you could provide would go a long way to helping other auto trimmers out.

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The Haartz Corporation

52 Responses

    • Naseem Muaddi says:

      Thanks Peppy. I’ll certainly try it. I never heard of that company before but I read the description on Amazon.com and it seems like a quality gun.

  1. Steven M says:

    I like articles like this. It would be cool to continue on this theme and discuss inexpensive/off-brand tools that are good to have around for occassional use. I’m also interested in other types of tools guys use in their shops. For example, I have a metal fab area in my shop with TIG welder, milling machine, lathe, etc. I use these tools on every single interior for repairs of seat frames, fabricating mounts, all sorts of stuff.

    I like to read about what other guys use and do..

    • Nadeem says:

      Great ideas Steven M! I’ll add ‘inexpensive/off-brand tools’ and ‘unexpected tools’ to our list of subjects to cover. We appreciate the feedback and thanks for reading The Hog Ring!

  2. John Olson says:

    I dont feel its really necessary to have that expensive of a steamer. I have a nice jiffysteamer,and have never had problems. I also have a $30 steamer that i love cuz it heats up almost instantly. I also have used a pressure steamer and did not have that great of luck with it,but no clue of the brand of that.

    • Naseem Muaddi says:

      I’ve seen those Jiffy steamers before but don’t have any personal experience with them. I wish my steamer would heat up immediately. My Hoffman takes about 45 minutes to generate steam but when it does it works like a charm.

    • Steven M says:

      I have a Jiffy J4000 steamer. Just today, I ordered a replacement heating element for it. The original lasted about 10 years before it gave out. Total cost for new element and control was about $60 shipped. I highly recommend this over a $1500 steamer..

  3. Kyle Caswell says:

    Don’t skimp on a good compressor, especially if you’re a high output shop or offering several types of services. Obviously not just in size or CFM, but in quality as well. I learned the hard way once while painting a custom paint job years ago. The spray pattern kept getting worse and worse on my gun only for me to discover the motor conked out on the compressor. It was only two years old and lightly used, but it was a cheap one. Not only was I down three days waiting for the new and better motor to arrive, I was out for the cost of a very expensive paint and the time to prep the car all over again.

    • Nadeem says:

      Ouch, that’s got to hurt! Excellent point Kyle. The importance of buying a quality air compressor should not be underestimated – especially since a great number of our tools run on air. Do you have any suggestions as to brands/models?

  4. Naseem Muaddi says:

    Glue may be more of a material than a tool but its still worth noting. I spend a little over $100 for a five gallon drum of adhesive but its worth every penny. I’d hate to redo a headliner because my glue didn’t hold up. It would be a waste of time/money and worst of all humiliating.

  5. I really like my Binks pressure pot for spraying glue. I had a cheap HF siphon feed spray gun. My major complaint was I couldn’t spray upside down and I was always refilling/running out of glue in the small one quart container. Anyway, the trick the a pot is buy a used one and clean it up. Saved me about $500..

    • I used to use pressure pots but for whatever reason my lines kept clogging up. It drove me nuts. How do you keep your lines clear?

      • theinteriorguy says:

        I have a Binks glue gun and love it! I have found that if you use cheap hoses it will clog all the time. Switched to better hoses and don’t have the problem any more. Do still have to unclog the gun occasionally.

      • Steven M says:

        I keep the pot on the floor and have a hook about 7′ off the ground that I always hang the gun from. This causes the fluid hose to drain toward the pot. I always keep about 15psi on the pot. If I’m not going to use the pot for more than a couple of weeks (which never happens), I drain the fluid line back to the pot and then run some lacquer thinner through the whole shebang.

      • ron anders says:

        you need that plastic glue line not rubber hose it will clog every time with rubber

  6. […] I use Kretzer shears in my auto upholstery shop and haven’t come across anything better. In fact, I wrote about them in my previous article: 10 Tools Your Shop Shouldn’t Skimp On. […]

  7. Big Creek Uph & Trim says:

    For Years I carried a good pocket knife,then I realized that I was taking it out of my pocket and opening it 20-30 times a day.Now I wear a Kershaw 1080OR scabert knife [about 3.5 inch blade] it is always open,one hand operation,much time saved!!

  8. theinteriorguy says:

    I recently bought a snap on scissor sharpener. Figure that 183 dollars will pay off fast. Was paying a rep 5 bucks a pair of scissors each time he showed up( I have 4 pair to sharpen). Now I don’t have to wait 3 months for sharp scissors!! It works on knives too!!

    • That’s a good idea because around here I don’t know of any scissor sharpening services. Is there any place online where people could buy the sharpener.

      • carolinaauto says:

        went to Lowes and bought the Smith’s knife / scissor sharpener for around $15.00. Works great for me. Hell, I even do razor blades just to get a little more life out of em.

  9. tinabanana says:

    this article was extremly useful, thanks for putting it together

  10. EDWARD says:


  11. EDWARD says:


  12. Dave says:

    Found this site thanks to a news letter from Electron Top. Good info all. Been at this for 31 yrs. Jiffy steamers have served us well the ticket is distilled water a must in our opinion. Have aquired alot of equipment over the year buying out other shops. The shear sharpener was one of the best aquisition. Thanks to all , look forward to more

  13. Mike Silva says:

    I used pressure pots before also and found them a bit of a pain. I tried the Harbor freight HVLP gun works great for glue. because it is a gravity feed you never have clog up problems. Its also great working around freshly painted cars you never have to worry about the hose dragging around on the rockers. I am into mine 8 months so far without a problem.

  14. don franzini says:

    I have switched to a water based adhesive called simalfa…..I dont like the side effects of solvent based adhesive…..overspray is a bit of a hurdle…but the adhesion is good

  15. Tim Payne says:

    I didn’t see it listed, if so-my bad…a good quality set of dike pliers/wire cutters for cutting hog rings. I keep a set of Channel Lock brand close by. The pair I use have a little longer handles on them than some others out there and they still have a good edge on them, even after years of use (I bought them used). Great thread (and site, too)!

  16. Sed says:


    • Thanks for joining The Hog Ring Sed. Our community is comprised of trimmers from around the world. At this time I don’t know of any other members of THR from South Africa but distance has never stopped our members from sharing.

  17. DaneDobrinska says:

    Naseem, thank you for the hyperlink above. I’ve been looking for a 22 gauge upholstery staple gun for quite some time and been waiting to find a great price. I just purchased a Spotnails JS7116 from http://www.nailgundepot.com about 5 minutes ago.

  18. Jan says:

    I blog often and I genuinely appreciate your information.
    This article has really peaked my interest.

    I am going to take a note of your website and keep checking for
    new details about once per week. I opted in for your Feed as well.

  19. martythetrimmer says:

    a tool we use everyday and couldn’t do without, is a cordless drill…we have several high quality drills with as much power as most 240volt drills…cheap ones have no power and are a waste of money!

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  23. jim says:

    I’m sorry I upset I would like to start a handyman shop
    and I have no plans on wood furniture, and if there are some who have no. tool so it is also very rich come so if there are some who can help me
    I will be very happy, I’m unemployed so I can not pay anything for them
    but I hope you will still help my address is
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  26. James Evan says:

    Most useful tools, I agree. But somehow, I think the number 3, 5, 8 are not really that important. Just my opinion though.

  27. ed says:

    I am working on my Jag xj6 and I need to know what type and size staples to use on door tim panel trim. Ihave a paslode staple gun US-100.

  28. Dareselam says:

    It is very important information for beginers.

  29. Phil says:

    I have just discovered the many uses of Hog Ring pliers not just for upholstery and I very much appreciated your comment regarding the automatic type as I could not understand from the illustrations how they could work in confined spaces
    Thanks again

  30. Phil says:

    I should have mentioned I am in the UK

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