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When I was growing up, my dad’s toolbox was, quite literally, a chest of wonders. The progress of my early education as a maker can be charted through its many compartments and drawers. When Dad first turned me loose with it (to his great credit as a parent and great chagrin as a craftsman), almost every object was a mystery, a lesson waiting to be learned.

Now, I look through that toolbox with much the same emotions as an old school yearbook: Here are many memories—a few bitter, but mostly sweet—and a cast of familiar faces. There have been additions, of course, over the decades, and a few subtractions (too many of them due to my own childish carelessness), but by and large it’s the same old crowd from the neighborhood: the eclectic mix of screwdrivers, the quirky Sears miter box, the hand-me-down tractor tools, the Chevrolet factory upholsterer’s awl we found walled up behind the panelling of our ’78 station wagon.

And, of course, the Easydriver.

The essence of the Easydriver system is the ratcheting handle, a Lexan ball 2 3/8″ in diameter, with ridges around the equator to improve grip. One hemisphere is translucent red, the other opaque black. The shape and colors are appealing on an intuitive, child-like level, and naturally drew my attention from a very young age.

Though it was available with a range of accessories, I remember ours having only one: a 5 1/2″ long round driver shaft, 3/8″ in diameter, with a hex bit socket at one end and an inch-long squared-off section, about 5/16″ on a side, at the other.  The shaft mounts securely in the handle without detents or other moving parts, held in place only by friction over this large surface area, kind of like a lathe tailstock.

The ratchet, itself, is sealed inside the ball, and only turns in one direction. Instead of complicating things with a reversible mechanism, the Easydriver opts for the KISS solution: to switch directions, you just reverse the handle on the shaft. The square drive channel passes all the way through the ball, and the same ratchet that tightens screws when the tool is mounted in the red side loosens them when it’s mounted in the black.

The Easydriver is not the first ratcheting tool to use this trick, but it is, to my knowledge, the first to combine it with a spherical handle. This shape is comfortable, intuitive, and delightful to use, whether you’re operating or reversing the ratchet. The large turn radius provides lots of torque, and allows for a very satisfying “high resolution” ratcheting action. Compared to the lower-frequency sound of your average socket wrench, the Easydriver ratchets with a much higher tone that’s almost musical—more a chirp than a croak.

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The original Easydriver patent (US3742787) issued July 3, 1973, to Creative Tools, Inc. (of Bennington, VT), assignee of inventor Carlton L. Whiteford (of Westport, CT).  Magazine ads for the system began appearing in late 1976 in Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Field & Stream, and even The New Yorker, with a return address in Londonderry, VT under the name “White Products.” Ads continued, at least in some of these publications, as late as November 1983, by which time they carried a Chicago address under the name “Dimensions Unlimited, Inc.”

Unfortunately, new Easydrivers have not been for sale for some time. If you want one today, your best bet is to stalk eBay for awhile, though they tend to get snatched up pretty quickly and the search process is now slightly complicated by Brian Schmalz’s open source EasyDriver stepper motor driver board, which bears the same name. A few years back, an effort to bring the Easydriver back to market surfaced on the web at Easydrivertool.com, but the site isn’t currently working and doesn’t appear to have been maintained for some time. I’d be glad to have more information about this effort from anyone who knows.

Admittedly, there are lots of ratcheting screwdrivers in the world. Especially nowadays. But I love the Easydriver, and I suspect I always will, and not just for the warm glow of nostalgia the one from Dad’s toolbox evokes for me. The Easydriver, IMHO, is a classic of modern industrial design. It belongs in a nice coffee table book, somewhere, alongside the original Macintosh and the Aeron office chair. It has that perfect, minimal balance of form, function, and user-friendliness that makes for a truly great product.

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I write for MAKE, serve as Technical Editor for MAKE magazine, and develop original DIY content for Make: Projects.


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Comments

  1. Mike Wirth says:

    I have one. Got it new (which probably gives you a hint about how old I am :-) Great tool — but with one major flaw. The fingers inside the ball that apply friction to the square metal shaft are weak. One broke off, so now the shaft falls out as soon as you pick up the ball to use the tool. Less critically, both the ball and the domed storage case take up too much room in the toolbox. Sigh…..

    1. I had one too with the same faults (as I remember). Would be really cool to make using 3D printing, ratchets and all.

    2. Mark Vickers says:

      I solved, albeit temporarily, the broken tab problem simply by wrapping one turn of Sellotape around the square part of the shaft – it makes the shaft a push fit into the ball rather than a ‘fall out fit’. Mine has another problem though: the ratchet fingers are beginning to skip the ridges inside the ball: soon I’m going to have to split the ball and attempt to re-cut the grooves – this is going to be tricky! (Anyone know of a solvent that will dissolve Lexan glue but not the Lexan?!)

      I’d buy another one from http://www.easydrivertool.com in a flash – but they only do the mini size now (why???) for $9.99. (And they don’t ship to the UK :( ). The website does work – but you may find it times out a few times before you get the page: crappy server, I’m guessing.

      By the way, I came upon the tool through a charity that I work for one day a week – we take donations of hand tools (in the UK), refurbish them, make them up into kits, and send them to Africa, where there is a team of people ready to train people in small villages to be carpenters, blacksmiths, mechanics, plumbers, bicycle repair people . . .

      Have a look if you want: http://www.tfsr.org

      Cheers, Mark

  2. Jason Jacoby says:

    I used one as a kid as well. I also picked one up recently, but the retainer plastic tab is broken. My grandparents also happen to be from Bennington, VT so it has some nostalgia value to me as well. It is quite a fun tool to work with, and Ill be letting my kids try it out as well.

  3. Josh Malone says:

    Pretty cool. Looks like you could use a adapter and connect practically any rachet bit which would be great for tight spaces.

  4. brianschmalz says:

    Just a quick note – it’s Brian Schmalz, not Bruce Schmalz. No worries – Bruce is a really cool guy too.

    1. Sean Ragan says:

      Ah, beg your pardon Brian. Fixed.

  5. McMaiz says:

    Yup, those little retainer tabs were prone to snapping off, which led to my loss of the shaft part of it. The ratcheting ball is still around after all these years. I loved this tool.

  6. McMaiz says:

    Yup, those little retainer tabs were prone to snapping off, which led to my loss of the shaft part of the tool. The ratcheting ball is still around after all these years. I loved this tool.

  7. Monsyne Dragon says:

    Heh, yah, I used to have one of these. The odd thing is, until I saw this article, I never realized it was a general purpose tool with multiple bits. I bought mine at, of all places, a chicago area music store, while buying a snare drum. They had a bin of them, but they only came with a short, square-drive socket of the size standard for drumhead lugs.
    I never realized it was anything other than a drum key, and I sold it with the rest of my drum kit when I had to move and had no space for a set. Too bad, since it was a nice ratchet.

  8. Keith Stanley says:

    I purchased an Easydriver against the wishes of my new wife. She thought that I was buying a “fancy gimmick” and it would just be a waste of money, not a proper tool. I used that tool every day for the next 3 years whilst I repaired electric motors for a living. I bought it over 30 years ago and it is STILL working to this day. My only regret is that the plastic domed case that it came in got crushed and now it is just in my tool box loose. Would I buy one again? YES!!!!!

  9. [...] the piece Tool Review: The Easydriver, Keith Stanley says: I purchased an Easydriver against the wishes of my new wife. She thought that [...]

  10. [...] the piece Tool Review: The Easydriver, Keith Stanley says: I purchased an Easydriver against the wishes of my new wife. She thought that [...]

  11. Jimmy says:

    These are brilliant! I received one from my folks as a gift many years ago. One of it’s retaining tabs is bent, but not broken. It still works fine. When we cleaned out my Dad’s house, I confiscated his! So now I’ve got a backup. The ball shape really lends torque; it’s a great tool!

  12. Coy says:

    I have one that I have used regularly since the mid-70′s when I received it as a gift. I love it. It still works great! If I could find a supplier I would buy several immediately as gifts and as a back-up for myself in case mine ever breaks or is lost.

  13. I think I have one similar to this, good tool to have

  14. Dave Dunning says:

    Hello from Dave in Cumbria, UK
    My brother Mike brought me one as a gift way back in the 1980′s on return from a stateside trip. Although the ‘grips’ failed long ago to hold in the shaft, this tool is still in use today, and never fails when all others will neither loosen or drive in difficult screws. I wish I could buy another – the best tool in my box – apart from my wife cooking our Christmas dinner!!!

  15. I to had one of these awesome tools. Modified the lid of an early bit set from Craftsman to fit the ball into the case. Dropped mine one day and it split in two along the glue line between the top and bottom halves. Miss this tool as it was easy on the “palm” and one could get incredible downforce.

  16. Johnny C. Kitchens says:

    The easydrivertool.com site does work. You can order the mini version, but the full size drivers are gone. I have several of the original driver units, that I have bought over the years. Last year, 2012, I damaged my bit holder shaft and decided to look for another. I came across their site, and tried to order only to discover that they no longer offered the full size unit. They still had the mini in stock. I ordered one and contacted them about availability of just the shafts. They offered me a rather generous assortment of the shafts of different lengths with bits for a nice price. They have made a few improvements over the original that are nice. Apparently they are the second company to offer the driver with the red part changed to yellow. I’m still hoping to find one of their full size units. The company name that appears on the driver is now, Rocky Mountain Tools, Inc..

    1. Vee says:

      I just ordered the Mini version from them. Waiting for delivery.

  17. liliaofiowe says:

    I’ve wanted one of these since I read this article, and just managed to win one on ebay for $7 *after* shipping! I can’t wait.

  18. Roofner says:

    I bought mine 40 years ago and just relocated mine it is perfect condition.

  19. Vee says:

    I had one until two weeks ago…the original that I had bought 30 years ago. Lost the ball in transit someplace and I could not sleep well many a night! Today I found two places to find them…A mini version from a company in WY ( they no longer had the full version), and the larger version on EBay…I am waiting eagerly to get delivery!

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