Toolbox: Ten Tools You Won’t Want to Live Without

In the Make: Online Toolbox, we try to focus on tools that fly under the radar of more conventional tool coverage: in-depth tool-making projects, strange or specialty tools unique to a trade or craft that can be useful elsewhere, tools and techniques you may not know about, but once you do, and incorporate them into your workflow, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without them. And, in the spirit of the times, we pay close attention to tools that you can get on the cheap, make yourself, refurbish, etc.

For this week’s column, I put the call out to the Maker Media staff, maker friends, and my cohort at Dorkbot DC and HacDC. I wanted to know what tools makers couldn’t live without, tools they might have gone years before discovering, but once the tool was in the box, they couldn’t bear the thought of not having it around. I got a very respectable response, with many passionate declarations for a lot of beloved tools. Thanks to everyone who sent me suggestions. I’ve chosen ten of my favorites amongst them. If you acquire any of the tools here and they become an indispensable part of your arsenal, or if you just want to second that emotion on a tool listed here, please chime in with comments.

[BTW: If you sent me a tool suggestion that can be considered a clamp, a jig, or a “third hand,” I may have held it back for next week’s Toolbox, which’ll be on those mechanical shopmates.]


Leatherman Tool

Hands-down, the most passionately celebrated tool in the bunch was the Leatherman multi-tool. At least five people suggested it. You hopefully already have one, but if you don’t, I can tell you that those who do (me among them) can’t shut up about it for a reason. As I’ve said in previous reviews: look on the belts of every firefighter, law enforcement officer, emergency response person, forest ranger, or anyone else who deals in critical, life-death situations, and you’ll find a Leatherman on their hip. If that doesn’t tell you something…

Here’s what tech-artist Datamancer had to say: “This one is easy: my trusty, beat-up, broken-in Leatherman! No tool enables pure MacGuyveristic, Makerrific ability like this trusty super-tool. On those very few days that I forget to wear it, I feel like an amputee. I use it for everything, even the little snap-out Phillips head screwdriver, which I will actually use instead of a full-sized screwdriver most of the time. The saw is still as razor sharp as the day I bought it and can take down a sapling in about five good strokes. The small leather awl is made of the hardest steel I have ever encountered and the knife blades keep their edge. Come the zombie apocalypse, it’ll be me, my Leatherman, and my Mosin-Nagant M44 against the world.”

Doug Repetto, Dorbot founder, recounted this funny story: “I had jury duty in NYC a couple years ago, and I was pulled aside after putting my bag through the metal detector. A very tough looking police woman said ‘show me your leather, man.’ I just looked at her blankly. She said it again: ‘show me your leather, man.’ Whaaaaa? I had no idea what she was talking about. Did someone put a gag fetish item in my bag or something? Was I wearing something embarrassing under my clothes that I had somehow forgotten about? I told her I wasn’t sure what she meant. She said, ‘your Leatherman, your multi-tool.’ Up until then I had never heard the brand name. Boy was I relieved! But then I forgot to remove it from my carry on bag before a flight and it was confiscated. Ack!”



Besides the Leatherman, another popular tool amongst the makers I talked to were hemostats. When I did a toolbox piece for The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, back in 1994, several people I interviewed swore by them too. I’ve been a fan ever since. Hemostats, or hemostatic clamps, come in a variety of sizes, some with straight tips, some angled. They look like a pair of scissors crossed with needlenose pliers, needlenose pliers that clamp. It’s useful to have several clamps, of several sizes, on hand. They’re called hemostats because they’re used in medicine/surgery for hemostasis, or stopping bleeding. But they can also be used to stop any fluid from hemorrhaging, or wires from going where they’re not supposed to, or for holding components where they are supposed to, or holding things together for bonding, all sorts of uses. They make handy clip-on heat sinks, too. Good ones used to be rather expensive (being medical equipment), but now they’ve become popular enough in the tech and hobby realms that you can get them through tool channels for as little as a couple of bucks (tho you’re better off getting slightly more expensive ones. The cheap ones are really cheap.)


One-Step Wire Strippers
Another tool mentioned more than once was a pair of “automatic” wire strippers. Stripmaster is a popular brand (seen above). The pair below that are our very own John Park’s strippers. He writes: “I’ve got mine from Fry’s (designed in Italy, made in China) and they changed my life! You can strip a wire one-handed with them. The jaws grab your insulation and pull it across a little pair of blades. Stripping one handed in a deft move alters the entire project building landscape for me.”


Digital Calipers
This definitely fits into the category of a tool you might not think you need until you own a pair. This used to be an expensive tool as well, but now you can get a pair for under $20. Paul McCord, of Dorkbot DC, writes: “My wife bought me a pair for Christmas because I asked for them. ‘What are you going to use them for?,’ she queried. Turns out the answer is: everything!” Fellow DC Dork, Matt Billings adds: “I second the digital calipers. I got a decent pair on eBay for $20 a while back. I use them for everything. I had to replace a screw from my dryer and was able to take it to Home Depot to find the perfect match.”


Plastic Pry Bars
Jason Schlauch, of Dorkbot DC, writes: “Great for disassembling relatively “soft” items (iPods, laptop bezels, dashboards, cameras) without marring them. Google “plastic pry bar.”


Keychain LED Micro-Light
When I did my Toolbox column on portable lighting, I forgot to mention my LED keychain micro-light. I’ve had one on my keychain for years. The one I have (different from the above) claimed to have a lifetime replacement guarantee. After several years of use, the casing broke. I sent it back, and within a few weeks, I had a new one. Jon Singer, of Dorkbot DC and the Joss Research Institute, writes: “Another little surprise: the Photon MicroLight (or any other brand of ‘sub-miniature’ LED flashlight that takes a pair of CR-2016 cells, and has a real on-off switch in addition to the usual ‘squeeze to light’). I have a white one hanging off my collar, and I probably use it ten times a day. I’ve replaced not only the battery several times, but also the LED, as brighter ones became available.”


Panavise, Jr.

If you’ve done any electronics work, you likely already have a third hand tool, or several. If you don’t, you should. In addition to those invaluable tools, you need one of these, a Panavise, Jr. Universal Vise. Digikey, Amazon, and others sell them for under $30. You use this device to securely hold and position your PCB while the third hand holds the components (and you hold the solder and the iron). Don’t breath lead without it!

[One of my respondents was Nate Bezanson, who used to write tool reviews for Toolmonger. He sent me a link to this piece he wrote on the Panavise Model 367 with the extra-wide opening head.]


Ever heard of a spudger? If you work in the telecom field, you probably have. And if you work with any sort of electronics/digital technology, you’ll want to know what this strange word points to. Basically a spudger is a small pick-tool used for manipulating wires, throwing DIP switches, removing jumpers, cleaning crud from contacts, any task that requires close-in picking, pushing,prying, or scraping. Spudgers comes with a variety of tips optimized for different tasks. They are also sometimes called a “soldering probe” or the far less dignified “booger picker” or “booger hook.” Here’s Nate Bezanson’s article on bogger hoo… I mean spudgers on Toolmonger.

[BTW: A lot of makers keep a set of dental picks in their toolbox to serve many of the same functions as spudgers.]


Set of Step Bits

R. Mark Adams writes: “I like step bits. Like these. I now know how to make perfect holes in sheet metal — especially nice for synth cabinets, robot control panels, etc.


Solder Tip Cleaning Genie

This is one of those simple, cheap tools that I just love. I threw it into an electronics order years ago to get free shipping and I haven’t wet a sponge for soldering since. It’s just a little pot of “metal wool.” On the Weekend Project for Feb 27, 2009, Kip shows how easily you can make your own by putting a copper scrubby inside of a small container. Besides not having to dampen your sponge for soldering, the Cleaning Genie doesn’t lower the heat on your iron’s tip and doesn’t retain all the crud from your iron like a sponge does.



Butane Micro Torch
I first got one of these like ten years ago and I’ve had one in my toolbox ever since. Great for heat shrinking, high-temp soldering/desoldering, light brazing, fusing plastic rope, loosening bolts, terminating connectors, lighting anarchist ball-bombs, all sorts of uses. I use one of the cheap Master Appliance MT-11 models (under $10 at Amazon). Jake von Slatt swears by by the 2-in-1 HD Butane Powered Soldering Tool and Torch.



Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

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