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General (Practical) Tips and Thoughts from Dad

My dad died before he could pass on any workshop knowledge… So, I’ve had to learn on my own. Some tips I’ve run across that have saved me pain (both physical and mental):

- measure twice, cut once
- beer can shims (from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance)
- if you have to force it, you’re doing it wrong, and you’re probably going to break it. Stop and think.
- before putting all your weight on a wrench, consider what would happen if it were to slip, and adjust your position/direction of force accordingly.
- take the time to move the ladder/get the right tool/build the jig — it’s quicker than a trip to the emergency room
- spend the extra money on good tools, you’ll never regret it
- all that crap you collect is worth nothing if it’s not organized so you can find what you need when you need it
- if you haven’t touched it for 2 years, throw it out, or give it to someone who can use it (cleaning out the in-laws’ house made a powerful impression)
- if you borrow a tool and break it, go to the store, buy the next grade up in quality and return that. And if you can fix the old one, you both win.

and, from my mother:

never turn down a gift, someday you might get something you want (and you can always pass it on) -Ka1axy


1. Girls can use power tools, too.
2. Building it yourself is a heck of a lot more fun than having someone else do it.
3. It isn’t junk till it has sat in the shop for a few years, and even then, someone probably still wants it.
4. There is probably an open source version of that expensive software you have that is always breaking. -LizzinDC


“Don’t tell your mom.” -Gary Sanders


My dad always says that when planning a project, make sure you include time to clean up. -Taylor Hill


Hot glass looks the same as cold glass. -rrot


I knew I saved that piece for a reason! -Christian Restifo


If you want a solder joint to last, you first need to make a solid mechanical connection between the two things you’re connecting together. Solder only makes an electrical connection; it doesn’t provide strength. –Windell Oskay


My favorite is:

“Don’t put chips in backwards.”
As a rebellious child, I tried, once, just to test dad’s advice. After all, it does fit the other way in the socket. I learned my lesson. –bunnie Huang


1. Always draw a picture, even if you think you know what you’re doing.
- If you’re installing something in a room, do a rough sketch of the room and annotate with your measurements.
- When a picture isn’t enough, make a model.
- When a model isn’t enough, rethink the problem, ask questions, hunt down books, etc. More research is needed.

2. Measure to design; design to measure.
- In an ideal world, all your materials will be precise and all your cuts will fit perfectly. We do not live in a precise world.
- Over-designing structural, load-bearing elements is a good thing in prototype and one-off works.
- Symmetry only really matters for visible elements of the design. See previous “over-design structural elements” note.
- If it needs to hold 100lbs of books, load it up with 200lbs of weight when you’re done to see where it’s going to bow and/or break.

3. Unless size is an impediment, bring the broken part with you when seeking a replacement.
- The older the thing being fixed, the less likely you are to find an exact replacement.
- Measurements only get you so far if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for.

4. Lift with your knees!

5. Hit the right nail.
- Corollary: Thumb nails do eventually grow back.

6. If a jackknife gets stuck in the wood you’re whittling, do NOT pull harder to get it unstuck. It WILL bite.

7. Always have a well-stocked first-aid kit (including a good pair of tweezers for pulling slivers of all kinds) and fully charged fire extinguisher at hand.
- You will eventually need them.
Replace what you use so it’s there for the next time.

-Andrew Plumb


If you ever have to shoot someone, make sure you empty the gun. That makes it look like you were scared. -Sam Murphy

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Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    Oh, and do feel free to continue the conversation and share more tips from dad.

    1. Bill Coderre says:

      Tips from my Dad, who left this mortal coil about a year ago.
      1) Gasoline is cheaper than sweat. (Even at $4/gallon!)
      2) Always start debugging at the wall socket.
      3) Many things are compressible. Time is not.

      The Rules of Freshman Physics, apocryphal/silly rules of thumb from MIT:
      (My version, might not be the same as recent versions)
      1) F=ma.
      2) You can’t push on a string.
      3) There is no gravity. The earth sucks.
      4) There are two kinds of problems: simple, and insoluble. (Note that the “simple” problems are usually “non-trivial”, and often insoluble, in disguise.)

  2. Bill Coderre says:

    Tips from my Dad, who left this mortal coil about a year ago.1) Gasoline is cheaper than sweat. (Even at $4/gallon!)2) Always start debugging at the wall socket.3) Many things are compressible. Time is not.The Rules of Freshman Physics, apocryphal/silly rules of thumb from MIT:(My version, might not be the same as recent versions)1) F=ma.2) You can’t push on a string.3) There is no gravity. The earth sucks.4) There are two kinds of problems: simple, and insoluble. (Note that the “simple” problems are usually “non-trivial”, and often insoluble, in disguise.)

    1. Gus Mueller says:

      F=m* a^2 (this is why e=mc^2) — newton was wrong on that one

      1. Edgar Vargas says:

        e = energy
        c = speed of light (velocity – m/s)

        F = Force
        a = acceleration (m/s^2)

        As you can see, these are two different concepts.

      2. Edgar Vargas says:

        e = energy
        c = speed of light (velocity – m/s)

        F = Force
        a = acceleration (m/s^2)

        As you can see, these are two different concepts.

  3. cjporkchop says:

     If it can’t be nailed or reliably glued, it can be tied together with string and coated with epoxy or a thick layer of caulk for permanence.

    There were a lot of things in our house that featured giant globs of caulk. It was like a giant had spit loogies and we’d let them dry in place.

  4. cjporkchop says:

     If it can’t be nailed or reliably glued, it can be tied together with string and coated with epoxy or a thick layer of caulk for permanence.

    There were a lot of things in our house that featured giant globs of caulk. It was like a giant had spit loogies and we’d let them dry in place.

  5. diane meriwether says:

    Some money is too expensive

  6. diane meriwether says:

    Some money is too expensive

  7. Joshua Darrah says:

    “A true master, at anything, can f–k up completely and make it look like nothing even happened” -Dwight D.

  8. Joshua Darrah says:

    “A true master, at anything, can f–k up completely and make it look like nothing even happened” -Dwight D.

  9. Sam Blanchard says:

    Some of the best advice my dad ever gave me: “All of this stuff is really easy if you just think about things a bit. People are lazy, if it were hard, nobody would do it.”

    Then he handed a 10 year old version of my an acetylene torch and taught me to weld. We built an airplane together (Burt Ratan Vari-Eze, those fiberglassing skills have proven handy more than once), a couple soap-box derby racers, fixed cars and motorcycles. I learned not to fear my stuff, and not to fear “Not knowing what to do because nobody taught me how”.

  10. Anna Reser says:

    Master your fear of the tools, or they will master you. A dull knife is the most dangerous knife. Measure for the width of the blade you’re cutting with.

    My dad is a maker, a jet mechanic and an amateur engineer, carpenter, electrician, plumber, gardener, naturalist, and all around handy-man. Whenever I ask him for help with a project, his eyes light up a and he digs up his graph paper and drafting pencils. They still have the model of DNA in the science wing he and I built for a high school biology class. He gave me his grandfather’s drafting table several years ago and it is my favorite work space, and a treasured family heirloom. Love you Dad.

  11. Anonymous says:

    ‎”If you’re going to kill each other, do it outside.”
    “Rub some dirt on it.”
    “Turn it down or turn it off.”

  12. borjo says:

    two of the advice in this page are greek proverbs:
    There is nothing more permanent than that which is temporary
    Ουδέν μονιμότερο του προσωρινού
    The Best is the Enemy of the Good.
    το καλύτερο είναι εχθρός του καλού.
    (this on can work the other way around too: what’s good is the enemy of what’s better)
    i would like to point out that the 2 proverbs contradict each other wich gives me the opportunity to make my own: proverbs are as good as the context in which they are presented in.

  13. Good judgement comes from experience.
    Experience comes from bad judgement.

  14. freds says:

    My dad always said when a preacher and a politician says they feel your pain hold onto your wallet and run.

  15. jonathan says:

    “Get a longer screwdriver.”

  16. Thomas J. Herling says:

    The first step in solving any problem is to sigh loudly and follow it up with “Oh, shit.”

  17. Thomas J. Herling says:

    The first step in solving any problem is to sigh loudly and follow it up with “Oh, shit.”

  18. Phil Collins says:

    “These are all hookers—pick one.”

  19. chris cecil says:

    My father was a truck driver for the majority of his life…he gathered many sayings which stuck…but one which I really love is “The cheapest thing you can pay is attention.”

  20. uglypedro says:

    standard reply to kids request that Dad buy him something….
    a- Wish in one hand and shit in the other….see which one fills up faster.
    b- Oh, yea? People in hell want ice water, too!

    1. Anonymous says:

       A drill sergeant used “Put everything you want in one hand, everything you’re going to get in the other [...].  You can imagine that the result was similar, though it was tough to keep either hand full while doing push-ups until HE got tired!

      I often respond to the purchase request with “Did you bring your own money?” which then leads to the suggestion that he first get a job and pay up on the 9 years of rent he owes me.  So much debt for a child so young…

  21. Jim Arendt says:

    “When in doubt, make it stout.” 

  22. Anonymous says:

    My dad: “Always lay out all of the parts, then read through the instructions so you understand how it all fits together. The time you spend doing that will save you twice as much later on.”

    Me, in the same vein, to my son: “Never, ever be afraid to read the manual first—no matter what tools you have, or how fancy your workshop is, knowledge is the true key to a successful project.”

  23. Anonymous says:

    My dad: “Always lay out all of the parts, then read through the instructions so you understand how it all fits together. The time you spend doing that will save you twice as much later on.”

    Me, in the same vein, to my son: “Never, ever be afraid to read the manual first—no matter what tools you have, or how fancy your workshop is, knowledge is the true key to a successful project.”

  24. JPWatkins says:

    My Grandpa was a mechanic, machinist, tool and die maker, pattern maker, and photographer (among other things.) He always liked to combine humor with wisdom to make his lessons more memorable. I remember him saying many of the bits of wisdom already recorded on these pages by others. Here are some nuggets not yet mentioned by others.
    He was Swedish and like to remind me of the story of the Norwegian carpenter who would always say, “Damn it! I’ve cut it twice and its still too short!”For certain parts fitting situations he favored using a large rubber mallet, which he refereed to as “the gentle persuader.”In teaching me to drive he instilled in my impatient 15 year old brain that although there is a brake pedal and a gas pedal, most of the time (in the city, at least) one’s foot should be on neither. He also gave me the general advice in driving to “Always keep the rubber side down.”

    Although I rather like the metric system, he reminded me more than once that “This [holding up an English unit caliper rule] beat that [pointing to his metric caliper rule] twice in the big wars.” (I did however mentally note that did have and often used metric tools.)

  25. JPWatkins says:

    My Grandpa was a mechanic, machinist, tool and die maker, pattern maker, and photographer (among other things.) He always liked to combine humor with wisdom to make his lessons more memorable. I remember him saying many of the bits of wisdom already recorded on these pages by others. Here are some nuggets not yet mentioned by others.
    He was Swedish and like to remind me of the story of the Norwegian carpenter who would always say, “Damn it! I’ve cut it twice and its still too short!”For certain parts fitting situations he favored using a large rubber mallet, which he refereed to as “the gentle persuader.”In teaching me to drive he instilled in my impatient 15 year old brain that although there is a brake pedal and a gas pedal, most of the time (in the city, at least) one’s foot should be on neither. He also gave me the general advice in driving to “Always keep the rubber side down.”

    Although I rather like the metric system, he reminded me more than once that “This [holding up an English unit caliper rule] beat that [pointing to his metric caliper rule] twice in the big wars.” (I did however mentally note that did have and often used metric tools.)

  26. JPWatkins says:

    My Grandpa was a mechanic, machinist, tool and die maker, pattern maker, and photographer (among other things.) He always liked to combine humor with wisdom to make his lessons more memorable. I remember him saying many of the bits of wisdom already recorded on these pages by others. Here are some nuggets not yet mentioned by others.
    He was Swedish and like to remind me of the story of the Norwegian carpenter who would always say, “Damn it! I’ve cut it twice and its still too short!”For certain parts fitting situations he favored using a large rubber mallet, which he refereed to as “the gentle persuader.”In teaching me to drive he instilled in my impatient 15 year old brain that although there is a brake pedal and a gas pedal, most of the time (in the city, at least) one’s foot should be on neither. He also gave me the general advice in driving to “Always keep the rubber side down.”

    Although I rather like the metric system, he reminded me more than once that “This [holding up an English unit caliper rule] beat that [pointing to his metric caliper rule] twice in the big wars.” (I did however mentally note that did have and often used metric tools.)

  27. JPWatkins says:

    My Grandpa was a mechanic, machinist, tool and die maker, pattern maker, and photographer (among other things.) He always liked to combine humor with wisdom to make his lessons more memorable. I remember him saying many of the bits of wisdom already recorded on these pages by others. Here are some nuggets not yet mentioned by others.
    He was Swedish and like to remind me of the story of the Norwegian carpenter who would always say, “Damn it! I’ve cut it twice and its still too short!”For certain parts fitting situations he favored using a large rubber mallet, which he refereed to as “the gentle persuader.”In teaching me to drive he instilled in my impatient 15 year old brain that although there is a brake pedal and a gas pedal, most of the time (in the city, at least) one’s foot should be on neither. He also gave me the general advice in driving to “Always keep the rubber side down.”

    Although I rather like the metric system, he reminded me more than once that “This [holding up an English unit caliper rule] beat that [pointing to his metric caliper rule] twice in the big wars.” (I did however mentally note that did have and often used metric tools.)

  28. JPWatkins says:

    My Grandpa was a mechanic, machinist, tool and die maker, pattern maker, and photographer (among other things.) He always liked to combine humor with wisdom to make his lessons more memorable. I remember him saying many of the bits of wisdom already recorded on these pages by others. Here are some nuggets not yet mentioned by others.
    He was Swedish and like to remind me of the story of the Norwegian carpenter who would always say, “Damn it! I’ve cut it twice and its still too short!”For certain parts fitting situations he favored using a large rubber mallet, which he refereed to as “the gentle persuader.”In teaching me to drive he instilled in my impatient 15 year old brain that although there is a brake pedal and a gas pedal, most of the time (in the city, at least) one’s foot should be on neither. He also gave me the general advice in driving to “Always keep the rubber side down.”

    Although I rather like the metric system, he reminded me more than once that “This [holding up an English unit caliper rule] beat that [pointing to his metric caliper rule] twice in the big wars.” (I did however mentally note that did have and often used metric tools.)

  29. JPWatkins says:

    My Grandpa was a mechanic, machinist, tool and die maker, pattern maker, and photographer (among other things.) He always liked to combine humor with wisdom to make his lessons more memorable. I remember him saying many of the bits of wisdom already recorded on these pages by others. Here are some nuggets not yet mentioned by others.
    He was Swedish and like to remind me of the story of the Norwegian carpenter who would always say, “Damn it! I’ve cut it twice and its still too short!”For certain parts fitting situations he favored using a large rubber mallet, which he refereed to as “the gentle persuader.”In teaching me to drive he instilled in my impatient 15 year old brain that although there is a brake pedal and a gas pedal, most of the time (in the city, at least) one’s foot should be on neither. He also gave me the general advice in driving to “Always keep the rubber side down.”

    Although I rather like the metric system, he reminded me more than once that “This [holding up an English unit caliper rule] beat that [pointing to his metric caliper rule] twice in the big wars.” (I did however mentally note that did have and often used metric tools.)

  30. JPWatkins says:

    My Grandpa was a mechanic, machinist, tool and die maker, pattern maker, and photographer (among other things.) He always liked to combine humor with wisdom to make his lessons more memorable. I remember him saying many of the bits of wisdom already recorded on these pages by others. Here are some nuggets not yet mentioned by others.
    He was Swedish and like to remind me of the story of the Norwegian carpenter who would always say, “Damn it! I’ve cut it twice and its still too short!”For certain parts fitting situations he favored using a large rubber mallet, which he refereed to as “the gentle persuader.”In teaching me to drive he instilled in my impatient 15 year old brain that although there is a brake pedal and a gas pedal, most of the time (in the city, at least) one’s foot should be on neither. He also gave me the general advice in driving to “Always keep the rubber side down.”

    Although I rather like the metric system, he reminded me more than once that “This [holding up an English unit caliper rule] beat that [pointing to his metric caliper rule] twice in the big wars.” (I did however mentally note that did have and often used metric tools.)

  31. JPWatkins says:

    My Grandpa was a mechanic, machinist, tool and die maker, pattern maker, and photographer (among other things.) He always liked to combine humor with wisdom to make his lessons more memorable. I remember him saying many of the bits of wisdom already recorded on these pages by others. Here are some nuggets not yet mentioned by others.
    He was Swedish and like to remind me of the story of the Norwegian carpenter who would always say, “Damn it! I’ve cut it twice and its still too short!”For certain parts fitting situations he favored using a large rubber mallet, which he refereed to as “the gentle persuader.”In teaching me to drive he instilled in my impatient 15 year old brain that although there is a brake pedal and a gas pedal, most of the time (in the city, at least) one’s foot should be on neither. He also gave me the general advice in driving to “Always keep the rubber side down.”

    Although I rather like the metric system, he reminded me more than once that “This [holding up an English unit caliper rule] beat that [pointing to his metric caliper rule] twice in the big wars.” (I did however mentally note that did have and often used metric tools.)

  32. JPWatkins says:

    My Grandpa was a mechanic, machinist, tool and die maker, pattern maker, and photographer (among other things.) He always liked to combine humor with wisdom to make his lessons more memorable. I remember him saying many of the bits of wisdom already recorded on these pages by others. Here are some nuggets not yet mentioned by others.
    He was Swedish and like to remind me of the story of the Norwegian carpenter who would always say, “Damn it! I’ve cut it twice and its still too short!”For certain parts fitting situations he favored using a large rubber mallet, which he refereed to as “the gentle persuader.”In teaching me to drive he instilled in my impatient 15 year old brain that although there is a brake pedal and a gas pedal, most of the time (in the city, at least) one’s foot should be on neither. He also gave me the general advice in driving to “Always keep the rubber side down.”

    Although I rather like the metric system, he reminded me more than once that “This [holding up an English unit caliper rule] beat that [pointing to his metric caliper rule] twice in the big wars.” (I did however mentally note that did have and often used metric tools.)

  33. JPWatkins says:

    My Grandpa was a mechanic, machinist, tool and die maker, pattern maker, and photographer (among other things.) He always liked to combine humor with wisdom to make his lessons more memorable. I remember him saying many of the bits of wisdom already recorded on these pages by others. Here are some nuggets not yet mentioned by others.
    He was Swedish and like to remind me of the story of the Norwegian carpenter who would always say, “Damn it! I’ve cut it twice and its still too short!”For certain parts fitting situations he favored using a large rubber mallet, which he refereed to as “the gentle persuader.”In teaching me to drive he instilled in my impatient 15 year old brain that although there is a brake pedal and a gas pedal, most of the time (in the city, at least) one’s foot should be on neither. He also gave me the general advice in driving to “Always keep the rubber side down.”

    Although I rather like the metric system, he reminded me more than once that “This [holding up an English unit caliper rule] beat that [pointing to his metric caliper rule] twice in the big wars.” (I did however mentally note that did have and often used metric tools.)

  34. JPWatkins says:

    My Grandpa was a mechanic, machinist, tool and die maker, pattern maker, and photographer (among other things.) He always liked to combine humor with wisdom to make his lessons more memorable. I remember him saying many of the bits of wisdom already recorded on these pages by others. Here are some nuggets not yet mentioned by others.
    He was Swedish and like to remind me of the story of the Norwegian carpenter who would always say, “Damn it! I’ve cut it twice and its still too short!”For certain parts fitting situations he favored using a large rubber mallet, which he refereed to as “the gentle persuader.”In teaching me to drive he instilled in my impatient 15 year old brain that although there is a brake pedal and a gas pedal, most of the time (in the city, at least) one’s foot should be on neither. He also gave me the general advice in driving to “Always keep the rubber side down.”

    Although I rather like the metric system, he reminded me more than once that “This [holding up an English unit caliper rule] beat that [pointing to his metric caliper rule] twice in the big wars.” (I did however mentally note that did have and often used metric tools.)

  35. Everly Brown says:

    1. Measure twice – cut once.
    2. We’ll fix it with a cable tie.

  36. My Dad’s favorite saying was “What have you done for your country today?” Unfortunately we live in a world of “What can my country do for me?” and I’m not talking about welfare bums (I’ve never actually met one and I used to be a caseworker). I’m talking about greed…case in point: NY Times article today about the corporate bums angling for another by on being taxed on the profits they hold abroad and want to bring back to the states supposedly to create jobs…truth is when George Bush gave them a repatriatization deal last time they sent more jobs abroad and gave the money to their stockholders. And how come they’re not creating jobs with all the money they’ve got now? Not to get political but I think my Dad would be shaking his head.

  37. Anonymous says:

    My dad said to me, “Don’t ask other boys to play house.”

  38. Anonymous says:

    My dad said to me, “Don’t ask other boys to play house.”

  39. Anonymous says:

    My dad said to me, “Don’t ask other boys to play house.”

  40. Joanie Costlow says:

    (To my 8 year old brother) “If anyone ever picks on you at school or pushes you first, just have at ‘em. Don’t stop. Keep going until someone HAS to pull you off. After that, no one will every bother you again.”

  41. Joanie Costlow says:

    (To my 8 year old brother) “If anyone ever picks on you at school or pushes you first, just have at ‘em. Don’t stop. Keep going until someone HAS to pull you off. After that, no one will every bother you again.”

  42. Jay Mike says:

    “Pain is just weakness leaving the body.”

  43. Mark Henry says:

    Well the main thing to do a task successfully is to sit, plan and jot down all the tools , equipments, money to spend on them. This saves time and money both. Nice article!
    __________________________________

    industrial equipment

  44. Alex D says:

    I hope there’ll be an equivalent post for all the unacknowledged and under-represented women and gender diverse makers (and not just ‘mum’s top recipes in the kitchen’ style)…

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