In the Make: Online Toolbox, we focus mainly 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, or refurbish.
We all have them — those tools that we don’t brag about, don’t show off to other tool nerds, don’t hardly take notice of ourselves. We’ve had them for so long, or they’ve become such an extension of us, that they’re nearly invisible. We thought it was time to have a moment with these tools, to recall some of the stories associated with them (perennial tools always come with stories). We put a call out to MAKE readers. Here are some of the responses we got. Please add your own homely tool favorites and stories in the comments. — Gareth
Jonathan Fulton — I have this old pair of pliers; I’m not even sure where they came from, but they’re at least as old as I am. There’s something about a good old heavy pair of steel pliers that really adds confidence to the workbench, you know? I’ve used these to straighten nails, cut cable, I can even remember pounding in some nails when the hammer was not within reach. I hate trying to find a specific size wrench for a nut, and so most of the time, I use these pliers instead.
Recently, I reorganized my toolbox, and I have three other similar pairs of pliers, all Kobalt, or Craftsman, or some other mass-market company. The thing is, I almost never use them, they feel impotent and cheaply made next to this beefy Japanese pair. The brand is KAL, and I think the model number is 805.
James Vreeland — Before the war, my grandfather was a toolsmith and perpetual tinkerer in Poland. After the fighting started, he and my grandmother were sent to a Siberian work camp. Not content to allow such an inconvenience to keep him from making things, he began to cobble together a humble toolkit. In lieu of a finishing hammer, he was able to scrounge a short segment of brass bar stock, which over time mushroomed at both ends and shortened by almost half.
Apparently he found this solution adequate, as when he and my grandmother moved to the States after the war, he continued the practice in his new life as a lamp maker. As each “hammer” got too short to use further, he’d toss them into a drawer and begin the process anew. When he passed, he had “finished” three and was well along his way to completing a fourth, which I use to this day whenever the need for gentle mechanical persuasion is in order. Thank you Jan Jakiela for teaching me what patience and dedication looks like, in the form of a one pound lump of metal.
Anthony Fritz — This is the Opinel knife I bought on a weeklong field trip to the French countryside when I was in the 5th grade. My father was assigned to the American Embassy Annex at the time, he was a Major in the US Army. I’ve carried this knife with me ever since. You’ll notice the slight bow in the edge from uneducated sharpening. I’ve used it for everything from gutting fish to opening packages. My wife never has to ask me if I have anything sharp, she just says “can you cut this for me” and out comes my trusty Opinel. These knives come in many difference sizes and blade types. Also the company has been in existence since the 1890s I believe.
Lee Laiterman — A “Yankee” screwdriver. I got it from my dad when I was a boy. You know the kind – it has a telescoping body with a twist to it, that rotates as you push down on the handle. When things go all post-apocalyptic and there’s no power to feed drills or recharge their batteries, there will still be the humble “Yankee,” Hey, if it was good enough for Robert De Nero in the movie Brazil!
Tom Georgoulias — This simple pry bar is easily one of my most used tools. I honestly can’t recall where I bought it, probably Ace Hardware or something, but it’s a Stanley and I’ve had it for years. It has never let me down.
Some of the projects where I’ve used it:
1. Tore out a tiled shower during my bathroom remodel. Paired with a regular claw hammer, it was way more effective than a cold chisel and other heavier crowbars
2. Patched a quarter-sized hole in my roof with roofing tar after a large tree branch fell (like a spear) into my roof during a heavy thunderstorm and let water leak in.
3. Slipped caulk backer rod into place when weatherproofing a door in my garage
4. Pulled apart 2-bys that were nailed together so I could reuse the wood from a neighbor’s old deck.
I could go on and on, but you get the point. I love this tool. I’m glad you asked for homely tools like time around, because writing this brought back some good memories of projects I’ve tackled. Some didn’t seem so fun at the time (like the roof leaking water from the storm) but it feels good now, knowing that after it happened, I fixed it myself.
Joel Smith — When I was a kid and starting to take things apart, like my skateboard wheels (free ball bearings got gummy fast), the lawnmower, and anything else I thought I could get away with, my dad gave me some basics to get started. I also had access to his workbench and latched onto a few useful tools there. I can’t recall whether I was officially given these, or whether they were just absorbed into my toolbox.
The screwdriver is a basic straight blade, with a wooden handle, but it has a feel and line that just begs to drive one more screw, or open a paint can, or just point to stuff on the bench. It’s in my pottery studio tool box right now.
The adjustable box wrench came from my grandfather’s “tool crib” by way of dad. I’ve never seen another one, and it’s the star of my bench. It works like an adjustable crescent wrench, but it has a closed end, and gets a great grip on bolt heads and nuts. It’s a whole socket set in one little tool. I’d be lost without it.
These are my favorites, although the bench as lots of old tools, old carving knives, files, and stuff that you just can’t find anymore. But I keep coming back to these two.
Kevin Fusselman — My “homely tool” submission is my three- pound Estwing drilling hammer. I was first introduced to this tool at a friend’s shop, where he used it as his go-to hammer. I eventually had to have my own, purchased at the local hardware store, for between $25-30, which seems like a lot for a glorified hand sledge. In reality though, this hammer embodies all that’s right about a beating implement. First off, the head and handle are integral, so there’s no risk of the head ever coming off. It has two symmetrical faces so it’s not picky about which way you pick it up, and a comfortable, rubberized grip, which is a bit smaller and easier to hold than most wood-handled “sledge” style hammers.
Perhaps the most important feature of this particular hammer is its balance. I first used it on a project to bend some rebar. We literally pounded on iron with it all day without so much as a scuff. More importantly, the shorter length and even balance is such that you can make a “circular” motion with the hammering face, greatly reducing the work needed to continue swinging it. I find that I can control it easily for precise work, but that it also packs quite a punch for driving chisels and such.
Dan Mackison — When it comes to woodworking, if you want to cut a strait line, there are many different types of saws. However, if you want something fancy, no tool will replace a draw knife. No other tool can take a piece of wood, make it square on one end, round in the middle, and hexagonal on the other end. It also works on a log in the woods, far from power cords, as easily as it performs in the workshop.
Dave Cawsey — When clearing out my grandmother’s house many years ago, we came across an old wooden toolbox with a few old tools. This one (along with some wooden-handled screwdrivers) is what I kept. Probably came from my great grandfather’s farm. I was told by another senior citizen that it’s a “crate lever” or a “crate hammer,” from back in the pre-cardboard shipping days, when everything arrived in a nailed wooden crate. This one is on the smaller size – likely used in a drugstore or similar business.
It’s just about the right weight to tap in small tacks and screws, but excels at prying things open. The hammerhead is a comfortable handle to twist, and the slim end can work its way into most anything I’ve tried. I’ve pulled off many baseboards and moldings with it, I’ve torn apart countless things that needed some prying. I’ve even used it to pull a nail or two. It works well and it has huge sentimental value.
Kevin Quiggle — My favorite tool is an Estwing leather handle claw hammer. It’s one of the first high quality tools I ever bought – over thirty (maybe forty?) years ago. It has a great grip and balance — it just feels right when you hold it. Still available from Estwing, and still made in Rockford, Illinois, as far as I know.
Brendano — My homely tool submission is a simple 6-in-1 orange, square-handled screwdriver made by Buck Bros. I have contemplated (and will again contemplate) its perfection on numerous occasions. Mine is one that I stole when I was 16 or so from a work site that I was wandering through. Now, I know purloining from the working man is no virtue, nor am I proud of my thievery, but it’s the true history of my tool. Admittedly, I was a hoodlum in my youth. I hope the poor soul obtained another one forthwith and without much hassle. (It was a corporate construction site – they fascinated my younger self.) I have since obtained two more when I found them in a large bin at Home Depot — before then, I had never known the manufacturer, the logo long since rubbed away. The older model, however, has one up on the newer ones, design-wise. My original driver had the two Philips-head points on the same piece, and the two flat-edge points on the opposing piece, which, without going into the many specific ways that I work, just works better for me. But even so, the newer models are fine pieces of purposeful pointiness and I use them happily. My not-so-homely homely tool is a screwdriver. It drives large and small phillips, hex, and flat-head screws of many origins, opens or closes cans of paint, pries out errant nails, works as a terrible chisel, is solid enough to stab open a can of beans or home invader if you need it to, and is perfectly weighted for flipping around absent-mindedly. I may not be proud of my thievery, but I did end up with a nice tool I’ve never stopped using.
Smith & Sons Ice Co.
I save C (cash?) with E (?) or is “save with ICE”
The phone number never ceases to amaze me.
Thomas Jones — Above is my ice pick. I use it for marking before drilling and for poking holes in things. I have an awl, which I use when the marking requires a hammer blow, but for most tasks, this works better as the point is finer. I inherited it from my father-in-law whose family came from Wisconsin.
John Baichtal — When you’re a kid, you really can’t use an all-metal hammer, they’re too unwieldy. Instead, you have to use the kind with a smaller head and
a wooden handle. So dad’s hammer takes on a certain mystique — at least it did in my house. And, of course, as a solid chunk of steel, the dad hammer is basically immortal. Sure it will get paint splotches, scratches, dings, and maybe a little rust if it’s not used for a while, but it will nearly last forever. My sister got my dad’s hammer, but I bought my own and it makes me happy that one of my kids will snag it some day.
Paul Guncheon — I would have to say that my most precious tool is my father’s hammer. He passed away about 15 years ago and I cherish the hammer in his memory. Although I have replaced the handle three times and the head once, it is still my favorite.
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