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One Highly Evolved Toolbox


THIS TOOLBOX WAS BORN inauspiciously in 1949 as a few rusty screwdrivers and a battered adjustable wrench living in a demoted Buster Brown lunch bucket. These days it takes form as a two-and-a-half-ton walk-in van that unfolds into a neighborhood workshop where ever it parks.  It's set up so anyone can use it with minimal instruction; no point letting a ton of tools sleep most of the time.  The tools are a diverse lot chosen for versatility, quality, and the ability to work well together.  The enable you, literally, to do just about anythingg short of precision machining.

Folks have used this tool set to build hardwood furniture, boats, bicycles, solar collectors, and even whole houses. We've mass-produced 300 looms and thousands of parts for geodesic domes. Innumerable repairs have been made to plumbing, appliances, and vehicles. Best of all, the shop encourages invention. It was intentionally designed to be a three-dimensional sketchpad - a place to make the first physical manifestation of an idea. (That's something inventors should do themselves in order to maintain control as their ideas develop, just as artists do their own painting.) It's a teaching shop too. Hundreds of people have learned to extend their bare-hands abilities by means of these tools and a bit of friendly advice. Women have been especially welcomed, both as instructors and students.

Having lots of shop users has turned out to be the best defense against vandalism and theft. In 20 years we've lost less than $200 in tools and damage despite living in vulnerable locations. Tool loss is also controlled by marking everything with an obvious blue stripe and an antitheft ID number, and by having a specific home for each tool just hke libraries do for books. We've found that tool drawers work better than hanging tools over silhouettes on the wall because there isn't enough wall space and because we're constantly adding new tools as our interests change.

Our tools are sorted by function rather than by name. Whackers, twisters, nabbers, and hole-makers live with their functional kindred. Just seeing them there together can give you an insight into how to do something more easily. Their drawers are color-coded so that go-phers can easily be sent to the right place: "The punch is in the green drawer."

Our tools range in quality from Taiwanese (for infrequent use, such as a plastic pipe cutter) to Teutonic or industrial (for tools we often beat up, such as electric drills). Stay away from the 99-cent bargain table: most tools need better steel than you'll find there. Fake ViseGrips, for instance, wilt the first time out; no-name screwdrivers are like noodles. On the other hand, we've picked up many of our tools at garage sales and flea markets. Take a Sears tool catalog with you for reference to new-tool prices. That's one way to ensure that the bargain is a bargain.

Most of our bought-new hand tools come from Sears. Quality is respectable, though you should inspect each item for workmanship these days. Sears' Craftsman brand warranty is peerless: if something breaks, they give you a new one. They recently replaced my broken 30-year-old wrench without a murmur.

Electric hand tools are another matter. For once-in-a-while household use, cheap ones will do ... for a while. They wear out quickly and won't stand up to tough jobs. For hard work, try the medium-priced Japanese models from Makita, Ryobi, and Hitachi. They've gained a deservedly good reputation at the expense of U.S. manufacturers who made the same mistake that Detroit did with cars: waiting too long to update designs and improve quality. For heavy-duty professional tools, we've had the best luck with Bosch and Milwaukee. Ours are still going strong after 16 years of severe abuse. We recommend that any electric tool you buy be "double insulated" a feature that greatly reduces shock hazard.

Some of our tools come from catalogs. (For our favorites, see pp. 158-159.) We wait for sales that can be 40 percent off list price, but you should always check for local sales before sending away for anything. Check local stores for demonstrators and freight-damaged merchandise too. What's a few scratches? Don't be too shy to ask the salesperson about it. As this toolbox has evolved, we've hardly ever paid list price for anything except for items needed immediately.

We don't own any cordless tools. They're certainly handy if you work where there's no power supply or where a cord would be in the way or dangerous, but the batteries apparently don't Uke infrequent use. That's what they'd get in our shop, so we'll wait until the need arises. As always.

Tools aren't all there is to a good shop. To speed the work, we stock about 600 sizes
and types of fasteners, neatly arrayed. And we have "junk" galore. My Dad asserted that a shop was only as good as its junkpile, but our junk isn't in a pile. Instead, it's in labelled bins, drawers, and shelves, sorted to a point just short of compulsive anal neatness. You can quickly grab such stuff as springs, hooks, tubes, rods, discs, spheres, knobs, hinges . . . you name it. There's a righteous collection of scrap metal and wood too. Most of the time, there's no need to go to town (again) or hunt around instead of getting on with the work. This makes it easier to get things done, and so things GET done.

That's the whole idea: making it easy to work makes it easy to try new concepts, to prove them in an irrefutable way. You can actually change things out there! Maybe not in a big way, but at a scale you can comprehend. Instead of technology taking over, you are in control - at least locally, and perhaps universally if the idea works well for lots of people. That's subversive tech. It can be fun. It's always satisfying. Work up your toolbox and give it a try.