Toolbox: What the hell is that thing?

Toolbox: What the hell is that thing?

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.


I did a piece for CRAFT Volume 04, called “What the Hell Is That Thing?” It was inspired by a Fiskars perfing wheel tool that I had. I didn’t even know such a thing existed, but I did some garage-duplicated CDs years ago and the musician/graphic artist who was working on the project with me recommended I get one for perforating the CD tray cards, for easier folding. I’ve been using it ever since for any sort of folding job. You can get razor cutting and other wheels for it, too.

For years, this tool has sat on the shelf in my office. Several people have spotted it, picked it up, and said: “What the hell is this thing?” So that was the inspiration behind the CRAFT piece, and this installment of Toolbox.

So, what are your “What the hell is this thing” tools? Chime in with Comments.



This device, called a Resistor Lead Forming Tool, almost went into my previous “Ten tools you won’t want to live without” column. And also in “Clamps, Jigs, and Helping Hands.” Definitely one of those tools that has a bigger impact on your work than you expect and you do end up wondering why you didn’t get one of these in your toolbox sooner. Our pals at EMS Labs sell these in their store for $7.


I love free stuff that comes with an old house. This tool was in a kitchen drawer when we bought our place. It’s called a Gilhoolie, a tool for opening troublesome bottles and jars. It’s never met a lid it couldn’t ratchet, grip, and leverage off with aplumb. According to Wikipedia, it was invented by a Dr. C. W. Fuller, a retired dentist from Yonkers, in the early 50s.


My friend Claire Carton recommended a bone tool, a simple tool used for cleanly and sharply folding/creasing paper, burnishing material that’s been glued, etc. They come in a bunch of different shapes and sizes, but are usually plastic and look sort of like an exceedingly dull letter opener (the one above is a ball-type). When I was a graphic artist, I had a boning tool made out of wood, some sort of hardwood, with a smooth, flat diagonal surface on one end and a pin-point on the other (protected by a little cork cap). It was designed for the age of wax galleys (columns of typeset print with wax on the back to adhere to layout board). The flat end was for rubbing the waxed galleys down to the layout board and the pin was used for lifting up the galleys for repositioning. I still have the tool and adore it. The wood is patina’d from years of me handling it. A very simple, seemingly forgettable device that I’ve used for nearly 30 years. Bone tool. Ancient.


Claire also mentioned a grommet setter. In my CRAFT piece, I talked about the Crop-A-Dile, a bizarre looking device that’s a multi-size hole-puncher and grommet-setter. My love for this thing has only grown. We had a couple of these at Maker Faire Bay Area last year, in the Maker’s Notebook Modification Station, and people used them to add grommets and punch holes for studs in their books, to punch holes for ties and snaps, and other creative uses. It’s actually strong/sharp enough to easily cut clean holes in the board covers of the Notebooks. This thing usually goes for $25 in a craft store. You can get in through Amazon for $15.

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If you’ve ever tried to remove ICs by hand, or with a screwdriver, spudger, or other pry-tool — chips you want to keep — you know how easy it is to bend or snap the pins. This little device, the Chip Puller, which comes in many computer repair/electronics toolkits, to the rescue.


MAKE contributor John Baichtal sent us this shot of his nibbler tool. “It’s a kind of a die for punching holes in, shaping, and cutting sheet metal.”

Make: television
producer and MAKE contributing editor Bill Gurstelle loves nibblers too. Here’s his ode to them in a Make: television segment.



Make: Online and CRAFT contributor Becky Stern writes: I have carpal tunnel syndrome. I got this device, called a Houdini, at a Christmas Yankee swap. I swear it was the best present there! My boyfriend Alex makes fun of me for using it, but it really does make it easier to uncork bottles of wine.


Our Project Editor Paul Spinrad writes: “My sister got me this apple peeler as a gift a few years ago and it’s so much fun! I don’t use it often, but it’s always great to have an excuse to take it off the shelf and press it into service.” This device is actually the secret behind the amazing shoestring french fry. Get some really good, clean russet potatoes, unwind them on this baby, and fry them in fresh, hot peanut oil. Heaven (and heart-quickening salt) await!


Trammel of HacDC writes: My machinist uses a rotary broach to cut hexes on the lathe. It sets up like a normal tool, but off center, and cuts a polygon in a single pass. This gets used all the time in the shop to put hex holes on parts. Slater Tools has a description and nice video showing how it works here and here.

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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. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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