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MAKE Asks: Specialty Tools

MAKE Asks: Specialty Tools

Make: Asks is a weekly column where we ask you, our readers, for responses to maker-related questions. We hope the column sparks interesting conversation and is a way for us to get to know more about each other.

This week’s question: What tool (or tools) that is not in your average maker’s arsenal do you find yourself grabbing for again and again when working on projects?

My Japanese hand saw finds often finds itself in my hands when I need to make precise, small cuts. It also helped enormously when I was learning how to make hand-cut dovetails.

Post your responses in the comments section.

22 thoughts on “MAKE Asks: Specialty Tools

  1. Chris W says:

    I use the Pomona Model 6481 Test Connector Adapter Set frequently. It consists of four sizes insulated male+female machined pins each connected by a 3cm wire to a female banana plug. You get one black and one red of each size/gender combination. It makes testing and temporary connections easy. You could make your own, but these are well worth the price. You can buy individual sizes if you don’t need the whole set.

  2. Eric Smith says:

    I’ve been in the electronics, electrical and automation fields for close to thirty years. There are two tools that I would never be without: A sturdy pair of curved forceps and a pair of dental picks.

  3. chuck says:

    When I paint art I like to use silicone basting brushes and the amoeba-like inflatable silicone toys from the dollar store.The brushes have a nice balance of stiffness and floppiness to the bristles that can be used to create a wide variety of textures and come in a variety of bristle sizes and head shapes. The inflatable toys come in all kinds of sizes and the soft tetacle-like portrusions create a nice chaotic ‘splashy’ effect. The best part is that no matter what kind of paint I use they clean up like a dream.
    Another favorite art tool is the squeezable polyethylene tubes used for Clorox bleach pens. When they’re refilled with thick acrylic paint the are great for inpasto effects. They have two ends- one for fine lines and another with a small silicone brush and they have screw on caps that seal nicely to keep them from clogging or drying out. Grout cleaning brush-bottles from Home Depot are similarly useful.
    I also use plenty of large 60cc+ syringes without needles to mix and transfer as well as apply paint. The scale printed on the side is great for measuring volume for mixing color from formulas.

  4. randomjnerd says:

    Transfer punches. These allow you to drill holes for things like covers, and have them actually line up. No more ovalizing holes to get bolts in. They are cheap, and it surprises me that nobody (unless they have been trained as a machinist) has a set. Similarly there are tools that screw into threaded holes, and mark what you press into them.

    They are often used as projects for those learning to use a metal lathe – take drill rod, turn the pip on the end, and then follow the heat treating instructions. The ones that transfer threaded holes, come next, just add cutting threads, and filing a hex for a wrench to remove them to the exercise.

    Another one, a deburring tool. (Noga is one brand) they have a pivoting hardened steel bit in handle. The default one is a bit of an arc, with a tip that is full diameter. Stuff them in a hole and run them around. Result is a small chamfer at the edge, instead of a finger biting burr.

  5. Lewis Baumstark says:

    An old glass cutting board. It was left in my first house by the previous owner. Any time I use a utility knife for cutting sheet stock (thin polyethylene, foamcore, etc.) out it comes. Also useful for catching hot glue drips since they can be pried off pretty easily without leaving residue behind.

  6. James Patrick says:

    Retractable extension cord. We have one mounted to the ceiling with three outlets. It can reach any tool in the garage and I never have to untangle another cord.

    Also, a dedicated shelf for battery chargers.

  7. Halfvast Conspirator (@halfvastcnsprtr) says:

    If you do much of anything involving driving or removing screws to/from most anything, this tool is the most useful, powerful, and reliable tool I have (aside from a good hammer and stiff blade 1″ chisel): Bosch PS10-2-RT 10.8V Cordless Lithium-Ion I-Driver. Very powerful, the battery just keeps on going, it is adjustable, takes a variety of driver implements and extensions, and can be used as a marginal drill in a pinch with the “speed” bits. I have used and abused this thing for a few years now, and it still works great.

  8. Josh B says:

    Since I’ve arrived at Making via an interest in traditional woodworking my specialty tools come from that field and there’s a few I use constantly that I think other makers would appreciate.

    First would be a little device called a bench hook. Super easy to make and shockingly useful. It’s just a board (about 12″W by 14″L in my case) with a another strip of wood screwed to the top across one end and another screwed to the bottom across the other end. You lay it on your bench and the bottom strip of wood acts as a stop to keep the bench hook in place when you push it forward, the strip along the top acts as a fence to brace your work against. Picture here:

    This little gadget makes it so much easier to control small pieces when making precise cuts you’ll want to punch yourself in the face for not having used one before. They do work much better with Western (push) saws than Japanese (pull) saws though.

    Next would be a related device known as a shooting board, picture here:

    A shooting board looks a lot like a bench hook with a ramp off to the side for running a handplane down on it’s side. With a shooting board the fence is set exactly 90* to the ramp for the handplane so when you place a piece of wood on the board and plane it (usually the end grain) you get a perfectly square end. Also helpful for trimming a very precise amount of wood off a board when sizing parts. Many shooting boards also have a fence set at 45* (or have an adjustable fence) for trimming miters. If you’re trying to get a perfect 45* cut it’s much easier and faster to get pretty close with your saw (hand or power) and finish up on a well tuned shooting board than it is to try and make the cut perfectly on the saw.

    Finally a tool I use everyday: my 350lb traditional French style workbench with a 3″ thick 72″x26″ solid ash top. It’s like having an aircraft carrier flight deck as a work surface, tons of space, easy access from all sides and plenty of room to clamp work pieces down to it. Not to mention the sheer mass to take a beating with hand tools or deaden the vibrations from portable power tools.

  9. Greg says:

    I have a sheet metal hand punch from Harbor Freight. (Ironically, I can’t find it on their website now). There’s no better way to punch clean, round holes through sheet metal. It is invaluable for making project enclosures. I’ve even used it on carbon fiber plate. I use it way more often then I thought I would when I purchased it. Not in everyone’s tool box, but it should be!

  10. David says:

    Screwdriver / Screw Holding / Split Shank
    For awkward or inaccessible places. For slotted screws, wood or machine. For starting ONLY, NOT for driving screw under heavy torque.
    Shank is two shafts, with mating surfaces on an angle, looks “normal” and round. The blade is flat. A short section of tube surrounds the shank and rests near the handle. A “washer” is on the tube next to the handle.
    Insert blade tip in screw slot. Use “washer” to push tube towards screw. The tube squeezes the two shank pieces together forcing the angled mating surfaces to ride over each other. This makes the split blade tip go from flat to wider, gripping the screw slot. Guide and start the screw. Once the screw is started and/or inserted / threaded enough but BEFORE IT TIGHTENS, pull on “washer” to retract the tube. The shank will go back to round and the blade tip will flatten releasing the screw. Finish tightening with regular screwdriver.

    :-) Or use rubber tubing / soda straw to hold enough to start threads. :-)

  11. David says:

    Cloth cover on pick-up magnet and the “magnet keeper”.
    “Specialty Tool Accessory”
    During clean-up or in separating materials, a magnet will often gather filings and grindings. This stuff is hard to get off the magnet especially those with a small gap or with some laminated designs. It can clog and short out the magnet flux lines rendering magnetic power less or gone entirely.
    Wrap the magnet in a cloth rag, p/u stuff, then grab cloth corners and peal off the cloth, drop the metal. If used alot, one or two corners can be tied to the magnet and the other corners have hooks especially to the stick or string holding the magnet. Replace cloth when worn. Hot metal will burn cloth.
    When magnets are not in use, their strength can degrade over time if there is an “open circuit” in the flux lines similar to electricity. Keep a metal piece (a “magnet keeper”) equal in size and across the magnet’s poles to have a “closed circuit” helping to preserve the magnetic strength.

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In addition to being an online editor for MAKE Magazine, Michael Colombo works in fabrication, electronics, sound design, music production and performance (Yes. All that.) In the past he has also been a childrens' educator and entertainer, and holds a Masters degree from NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program.

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