If you’ve ever gotten deep into a home-maintenance project, it’s a safe bet you’re familiar with beating a path between your workshop and the nearest hardware store. It’s no surprise to us toolheads – to anyone who does his or her own maintenance, in fact – that almost every job ends up requiring a new, specialized tool. Oh sure, you might be able to get by with make-do, but it’s usually faster to just suck it up and buy (or borrow) the tool. It’s either that or pay the local handyman $50/hour (plus travel time)…
After decades of owning houses anywhere from 10 to 110 years old, I have hundreds of tools (heck, I may have hundreds of clamps!). Here’s a selection of a dozen tools that most homeowners are eventually going to need. In some cases, they’re tools you didn’t even know existed!
A Screen Replacement Tool
We once had a dog who hated window screens. If he saw one, he’d plant a paw in it and pull, destroying the screen if we were lucky and buckling the frame if we weren’t. As a consequence, I had to learn the fine art of screen replacement.
Modern screens are set in an aluminum frame and held in place by a rubber spline that runs through a “channel” on the face of the frame. It’s fairly easy to get the spline out to remove the shredded screen, but getting it back in is a different story. For that, you need a screen replacement tool. There are two discs set into the ends of a handle. You lay the screen in the frame and push it into the channel with the solid disk. Then you force the spline into the channel with the other disc, which has a concave rim.
This oddball tool can save hours of fumbling with screen, spline and frame.
If the faucets in your house were installed before about 1990 (or they’re cheap), removing one can be a total pain in the rear. You need to loosen a nut or several nuts on the bottom of the counter, invariably hidden in a dark, narrow space between the basin and the wall – you can’t even get your hands in there, much less a wrench!
The answer is a basin wrench. The reversible jaws are at the end of a long bar, which gives you the reach you need to get into that narrow space. You turn the wrench with a T-bar at the far end.
This still isn’t an easy task, but a basin wrench sure makes it go quicker.
A Window Tool
Anyone who’s ever lived in a rental house is familiar with the sort of idiots who paint windows closed. It’s absolutely amazing how strong that single layer of paint can be – and it’s even stronger if the window frame’s been painted several times.
This little buddy is designed with sharp corners that allow it to slip into the spaces that are supposed to be gaps between a window frame and the sliding part, or sash. Once you’ve broken the paint seal, you can run your tool around the border of the window a few times to pull out the leftover scraps of paint.
Windows that open are both a source of free ventilation and an emergency escape route. Here’s an inexpensive way to ensure that your windows slide the way they’re supposed to.
Most people who perform a little carpentry work around the house have some sort of carpenter’s square, the better for making right angles. That’s the point of a Sliding T-Bevel Square, though: it doesn’t necessarily make right angles. When you find yourself working with any sort of angle, a sliding T-bevel square is just what you need to transfer the angle from a space to a board or one board to another.
The crosspiece swivels and slides, locking in place with a knurled nut or wing nut. Once it’s securely in place, you can use the square for layout or measure the angle with a protractor. Since the crosspiece locks in place, you can also use it as a depth gauge.
A square for things that aren’t square: what a concept!
A Screw and Bolt Gauge
Any repair that involves nuts and bolts or screws can mean a trip to the hardware store for replacements. If, like me, you’ve accumulated a junk drawer full of bits of hardware left over from other projects, you might be able to save a trip – if you know the size of the screw or bolt.
With a hardware gauge you’re all set. You can measure the diameter of bolts or machine screws and their thread count, so you don’t have to dig through all the bits and pieces trying every last one to size.
Sure, you could do that at the hardware store – but your own gauge saves you time and a trip, not to mention the satisfaction of knowing that saving all those screws, nuts and bolts actually had a purpose!
Working with electrical circuits is inherently dangerous, so you must always make certain that the power to a light or outlet is off before messing with the wires. A smart homeowner has a map of the circuits and which breakers (or fuses) control which, but most homeowners aren’t smart. Instead, they write cryptic notes like BAS BR on the sheet inside the breaker box. With a circuit tracker, you can quickly and easily locate which breaker controls the electrical circuit you’ll be grabbing with your bare hands. It’s a lot easier than turning off every switch one by one – even if you can use a cell phone to talk to your helper instead of having to yell down the stairs or out to the garage.
Save time and prevent dangerous electrical shocks with a circuit tracker, but don’t forget to have a tester as well to make CERTAIN the circuit is dead.
A Stud Finder
Everyone who’s ever hung a picture is familiar with the hunt for a stud – in a wall, not a singles bar. It’s not safe to hang heavy objects – large pictures, shelves, flat screen televisions – on a wall unless the object is mounted to a stud. Hollow-wall fasteners are fine for calendars, but do you trust them for a $900 TV? I didn’t think so.
The shelves are full of battery-powered stud finders, none of which seem to work. On the other hand, the superbly simple magnetic stud finder can be counted on every time – it just takes a little more work. All you do is locate a nail or drywall screw with the magnet – the little guy will stand up and point – and then track the stud with a vertical plumb line. Simple.
This is one case where the KISS principle should be operative – and you never have to worry about dead batteries.
No matter whether you’re rebuilding a ’57 Chevy or hanging a ceiling fan, there’s one unavoidable truth: you’ll spend what feels like about a quarter of your time looking for dropped parts. The smaller they are, the farther they roll and the harder they will be to find.
The solution? A magnetic wristband like the Magnogrip®. This fabric-covered Velcro wristband is almost 3-1/2 inches wide, with powerful flat magnets embedded throughout. Whether it’s a screw, washer, nut, or cotter pin, anything ferrous will stick to it. The magnets are strong enough to lift an item weighing about a pound. Mount it on one wrist, and you can stick all the miscellaneous pieces-parts, even small tools like a drill bit or screwdriver, to it while working. You don’t’ have to scrabble through a nail apron or tray for loose parts, and the grip is strong enough that you won’t find yourself going up and down the ladder three or four times to hunt for that dropped screw.
Obviously, it won’t help with non-metallic (or non-ferrous) parts, but anything that keeps the parts in easy reach is a giant step forward.
Don’t even think of doing dusty work without a mask to keep out the crud. Whether you’re sanding or grinding, a dust mask is as important a piece of safety equipment as eye and ear protection. There are a lot of different models, such as these cone-shaped masks that look like something from a surgical suite (because they are pretty much the same design as something from a surgical suite).
When choosing a mask, consider what you’ll be doing. Masks are rated for different tasks, from simple dust masks to respirators that can be safely used while spraying toxins. Don’t overestimate the efficiency of a mask: a dust mask doesn’t stop airborne germs or liquid spray, for instance.
While these were originally intended for use in cleaning sparkplugs and condenser points (if you don’t know what those are, don’t worry), an ignition file is just as indispensable in the age of electronic devices.
At only a quarter inch wide and about the thickness of a shirt cardboard (something else that’s gone the way of the dodo, apparently), an ignition file is just what you need to reach into battery compartments when you need to clean off corrosion and other crud. It’s no wider than a AAA battery, which lets you reach into tight spaces. The end is sharpened, which is useful for scraping the heaviest stuff away. And, of course, you can clean oil and oxidation off the battery contacts themselves to improve connections
Keep one near your supply of batteries; you might be surprised how often that “dead battery” is only a corroded battery contact.
Need to fix your eyeglass frames? Get inside the battery compartment on your garage door remote? Open any of a thousand other places? Every one of them requires working with a tiny screw, a screw that you can easily loosen or tighten with one of the screwdrivers in a set of jeweler’s screwdrivers.
The sets usually come with three or four sizes each of tiny screwdrivers with Phillips or regular flat heads. Good ones have textured handles to improve your grip and a rotating end that lets you hold it securely in place with your index finger while turning the shaft with your thumb and middle finger.
I have two or three sets of these little guys, and I doubt that a week goes by that I don’t find myself digging them out – it might be to tighten the toilet-paper roll holder, put a new battery in a watch, or tighten the earpiece on my glasses: they’re almost indispensable.
Even if you have one of those handy magnetic wristbands, you’re almost certain to drop tools or parts during any assembly job. Murphy’s Law specifically states that a dropped item rolls or bounces to the point at which it is most difficult to reach. Well, duh.
For those eventualities, you’re wise to keep a magnetic pickup on hand. Whether its telescoping or flexible, the main idea is to extend your reach far enough that you don’t have to crawl under machinery or move furniture every time you drop a socket.
If you’re smart, you’ll also get a “grabber” that will let you pick up those parts that aren’t attracted by a magnet…
So there you go: a dozen tools that you may not have even known existed, yet once you find out you need them (and that they exist) you’ll be glad to have!