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Holiday Gift Tools

(December 2003)

In this article, I'll discuss tools I've purchased (or been given) to help you decide what might make a good gift for someone on your holiday shopping list. The recommendations are intended for the average do-it-yourselfer; professionals doing special tasks might need some of the tools I'm suggesting you avoid.

Good Gifts

Everyone needs a cordless drill. Being free of the extension cord really is a huge advantage. And these drills are great for putting in or removing screws as well as drilling holes. But beware. In the race to have the most power, tool manufacturers have gone well beyond what the average homeowner needs. And with the higher power levels comes more weight that makes a drill clumsy to use. I'd recommend that a homeowner who is buying a cordless drill for home use stay with the 12 or 14.4 volt models. For someone who rarely uses a drill, a quality 9.6 volt drill (such as the one made by Makita) will be fine. While my brand preference is DeWalt, it's really a Ford-Chevy thing; all the major manufacturers make good drills.

A good drill bit set makes a nice stocking stuffer. If you really want to please the recipient, get one set of bits for drilling metal and a second set for drilling wood. Metal drill bits should be carbide or cobalt tipped, or made from titanium. Wood bits should be brad tipped, or, for larger holes, be Forstner bits. It's easy to buy cheap bits, but good bits produce results that are well worth the extra money - if the user doesn't try to use the same bit for drilling everything.

A miter saw (also known as a chop saw) used to be a specialty tool, but good ones have caused the virtual demise of the radial arm saw and greatly reduced the need for a circular saw. A "compound" miter saw can make not only a 90 degree cut and cuts up to 45+ degrees left and right, but also, and at the same time, bevel cuts. $200 - $300 will get you an excellent compound miter saw.

Finally, I've become very attached to my electric leaf blower. Electrics are much cheaper and quieter than gas blowers, but are often more powerful, can really move leaves, and are a lot less work than raking. Do the new owner a favor and purchase a 12 amp extension cord to go with the blower. Many homeowners use 14 amp or lower rated cords, and these just aren't safe with a high powered blower.

Not-so-Good Gifts

These are all things I've asked for at one time or another and have regretted or just haven't used.

I wanted an electric grinder to sharpen tools, but most of the grinders you see in home centers rotate too fast for delicate sharpening work and come equipped with the wrong wheels. They're meant to remove a lot of metal fast. If someone you know wants a grinder, get them a good book on how to sharpen tools instead.

I also wanted a Leatherman multipurpose tool. If you were stranded in the wild with just one tool, you'd definitely want one of these, but around the house they are overkill for the tasks for which you'd use a pocket knife, and aren't nearly as good as having the individual tool you need for the job. I found mine to be especially clumsy as a screwdriver. My Leatherman gets little use.

I own a Roto-Zip spiral cutting tool, and it's great when you're hanging drywall and need to cut out electrical boxes, its original intended use. However, this tool is being touted as being useful for the homeowner for a multitude of tasks, and it's just not. For wood, metal, or tile cutting, you're usually better off with a specialty bit in your drill, or, in the rare cases when you need to make an odd shaped hole, a jig saw or sabre saw.

I asked for, and got as a gift, a Dremel tool. I wanted it because, with a special attachment and bit, it's great for removing grout from between tiles, a nasty job when done by hand. But that's the only thing I use it for. People who do crafts and miniatures may love these things, but I think it will sit around unused for the average do-it-yourselfer.

Power painters and rollers really are much faster than painting by hand with a brush or a roller - that is, until you count cleanup time. Then you wonder why you spent the money.

Finally, avoid all the gadgets that claim to make your circular saw into a table saw or an accurate miter saw. That also holds for gadgets that turn your electric drill into a drill press. They just don't work well. Buy the real thing.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2003



Tape Measures

(February 2004)

Continuing my articles on tools, I'm writing this time about tape measures. Unless you're a professional carpenter, I bet there are a few things you didn't know about this important tool, even if you've been using one for years!

What to Buy

Not surprisingly, tape measures are available in various levels of quality. Inexpensive tape measures are fine for "pretty close" measurements and infrequent use. If you need exact measurements or use the tool frequently, however, inexpensive tape measures just won't do - they are neither accurate nor durable enough. As a general rule, it's hard to find a quality tape measure under 25' long. You should expect to pay between $15-$20.

Tape measures have three different types of locking mechanism to hold the blade (the part with the numbers on it) in place. Slide locks and toggle locks are activated with your thumb, while lever locks are activated with your fingers under the tape. On a quality tape, the type of locking mechanism is really a matter of preference. A good tape should extend out at least 7' without support. Some new tapes with wider blades will extend almost 11'.

The Hook, the Key to Accuracy

At the end of the tape is a hook. It is not fixed to the end of the tape, but slides back and forward a distance equal to its own width. This allows you to measure inside and outside distance accurately. For example, when measuring the distance between two studs, the hook slides in tight to the tape. To get an accurate measurement, you read the distance where the extended tape goes into its case and then add the width of the case itself (which is marked on the base of the case). To do an outside measurement between two studs, the hook slips out to catch on the outside of the stud. You then extend the tape to the outside of the other stud and read the measurement off the tape.

Let's take a specific example to see how this is done. You want to install a horizontal block of wood between two vertical studs. You measure the distance between the studs with the hook pushed in, as described above. Then, to cut the piece of blocking, you let the hook slide out over the end of the board you're going to cut and mark the distance you measured between the studs on that board. (Then, of course, you'd use a square to make your line, and cut that line either "in" or "out," depending on how you do things, but that's a whole other subject).

Hooks with too much play are a problem with tape measures. When your hook begins to get sloppy, it's time for a new tape. When working with another carpenter, the first thing you should both do at the beginning of each day is to each measure the same board with your own tapes to make sure your measurements agree. If they don't, you can only use one of the tapes if one person is measuring and the other cutting - a real inconvenience.

Other Neat Tape Tricks

Look at the markings on your tape. Many tapes will have markings every 16 inches. Those are there to help you install studs every 16 inches on center. On some tapes, alternate truss layout marks, usually a black diamond, appear every 19.2 inches (which gives you five trusses in an 8 foot distance, providing a more stiff ceiling than the standard 24 inch truss spacing). Tapes can also be purchased with large numbers for those of us with older eyes, with metric as well as English measurements, and with two sets of numbers, one upside down, so you can read whichever way you hold the tape.

The hook is useful for several tape tricks. Want to draw a circle with a 12 inch radius? Put a common nail in the material at the center of the circle. Put the opening in the hook on the head of the common nail. Put your pencil at the 12 inch mark on the tape. Swing the tape around the nail, and you have your circle.

Want to draw a straight line 12 inches from the edge of the material? Hold your thumb at the 12 inch mark on the tape and your pencil just outside the hook. Run your thumb along the edge of the board and let the pencil follow the hook. You can substitute a knife for the pencil and use it to score drywall. I'll be the first to admit that I never get very accurate lines when I do this. It takes lots of practice to do well.

Preserving the Tape

The worst thing you can do to your tape is let it retract fast into the case. The bang is hard on the internal springs and loosens the hook. Use your hand to feed the tape back in slowly. This will ensure that your quality tool lasts a lot longer.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2004

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