Sophisticated tool use is a defining characteristic of the primate species but how is it supported by the brain, particularly the human brain? Here we show, using functional MRI and pattern classification methods, that tool use is subserved by multiple distributed action-centred neural representations that are both shared with and distinct from those of the hand. In areas of frontoparietal cortex we found a common representation for planned hand- and tool-related actions. In contrast, in parietal and occipitotemporal regions implicated in hand actions and body perception we found that coding remained selectively linked to upcoming actions of the hand whereas in parietal and occipitotemporal regions implicated in tool-related processing the coding remained selectively linked to upcoming actions of the tool. The highly specialized and hierarchical nature of this coding suggests that hand- and tool-related actions are represented separately at earlier levels of sensorimotor processing before becoming integrated in frontoparietal cortex. DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.00425.001.