Friday, October 23, 2009

When your Allen key won't turn a stripped bolt

This is the scene that confronted a colleague of mine recently in his newly purchased and renovated home. A brand new toilet paper holder, hastily installed in such a way that (whoever did it) was able to leave the fitting loose so it wobbles yet also strip the inside of the bolt so it can't be removed with the appropriate allen key.

As I was working elsewhere the best I could do was to share some ideas via gmail chat. A few of these included:

1) Yanking the entire assembly off the wall in the hope it was held on by nothing more than a plastic wall plug. Not my idea, and likely to break the fitting which I was told was a big no-no.

2) Using a hacksaw to cut through the tubular assembly then unbolting it from the "inside". This WAS my idea, and was quickly shot down for the same reason as idea 1. It would have brought a sense of finality to it and whilst sawing my friend could have thought about buying decent fittings in future.

3) Running down to the hardware store to buy a screw extractor. It was too late. When is Sydney going to get a 24 hour hardware megastore?

4) Trying to work it loose by jamming a sharp implement such as a flat screw-driver into the now non-hexagonal hole. Might work, but scratch the fitting, or cut the user. Maybe worth a go.

5) Maybe try the next allen key size up, possibly trying both imperial and metric sets to see if there is a size that just fits.

The moral of the story - invest in a couple of screw extractors before you get stuck.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Spear & Jackson oil free air compressor

A nice little compressor!


The chief technical officer's latest acquisition is the very neat looking Spear and Jackson oil free compressor. Scoff you may - but it was purchased for a tidy $150 (ish) with the following considerations in mind:

1) A small unit is never going to be big enough
Every online forum discussion about which is the right air compressor to buy leads inevitably to the conclusion that such and such a model is not big enough. Until you get into serious belt-drive models with enormous storage tanks you won't have enough air to run 500 air-tools simultaneously.

2) It is only required for small, intermittent jobs
The air gun will be used for cleaning saw dust off tools, and blasting crud out of the crevices in the back deck. Once in a while, a little bit of nailing and framing, perhaps the odd car tyre or lilo inflation. If these take a few seconds extra while it catches its breathe, its acceptable.

3) We really really wanted one
At this price point, we can satisfy our urge to own an air compressor and have a tidy little unit that won't bleed oil everywhere if we store it upside down on the back seat of the Merc, or get bored one day and cut it open to see how it works.

Extra points were awarded for investing in a half decent hose with well fitted connectors. Plumbers tape was used to ensure a leak free seal all round.

So is this a serious upgrade to the kit, or just a toy? I think there's probably a decent compromise here for people who want to get some air power happening, especially for intermittent or very light hobby use, but who really can't justify the expense and space of a unit with both more capacity and power.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Garage Door Repair - The 5 Minute Clamp

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A quick update on a previous post, showing the 5 minute clamp installed between the wall and garage roller door. A quick tightening of the clamp using a shifting spanner pushed the track back into alignment. Partly thanks to the split ring washers used, the clamp locks firmly in place and shows no sign of movement as the door operates.

A very quick and effective solution that cost about 50 cents all up.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ebonizing Timber: Wattle

Here is a sample of wattle, also left overnight to soak in ebonizing solution. Not an outstanding example of ebonizing but creates an interesting effect nonetheless.

Wishing you a productive weekend...

Ebonizing Timber: Merbau

This is an offcut of (I believe) Merbau decking, also known as Kwila. This is a species known for high tannin content which would explain the very strong reaction seen in the ebonized sample. This piece was soaked overnight in a jar of ebonizing solution.

Wishing you a productive weekend...

Ebonizing Timber: Tasmanian Oak

The Tasmanian Oak reacted quickly wherever the solution was able to soak into the grain of the wood. This sample was simply dipped into the ebonizing solution, allowed to air dry and the process repeated.


Wishing you a productive weekend...

Ebonizing Timber: Can you ebonize bamboo?

Apparently not, at least not with the rust+vinegar method. In both photos, the piece of bamboo

on the left is the control sample (original state), the piece on the right has been soaked overnight in ebonizing solution - virtually no change took place.

If you have had success with another method please share it via comments!

One of the things I like about the ebonizing process is that you get a pretty fair indication of how reactive the timber is within a few minutes. Any timber that gets noticeably darker after a quick brush with ebonizing solution is going to go very dark with a thorough soaking or repeated brush applications.





Wishing you a productive weekend...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

AlphaInventions - the blog network grows

Overnight 'a productive weekend' was polled by AlphaInventions.com - a little site that updates instantly and continually with published blogs to encourage instant commenting and feedback. Worth a look, if only to try your hand at speedreading.

Wishing you a productive weekend...

Are you being too cheap on yourself?

Skilled Do-It-Yourselfers achieve their end results at zero cost so often that it starts to become a habit. A good friend of mine actually has a "zero cost policy" - when a job falls under this category we are only allowed to work on it with materials we already happen to have lying around or that we collect by the side of the road during council cleanup time.

I am not disputing thriftiness. If you are making things to make do on a tight budget, then power to you. Necessity is the mother of invention. However, if making things is your hobby which brings you pleasure, perhaps you should consider spending a little more on it.

A classic example of being too cheap are homebrewers. Early on in the career of every homebrewer, the urge is there to work out exactly how much it is costing to make a bottle of beer. Many people try homebrewing because they are told how much money they will save. But realistically, if you value your time at all, its still probably cheaper to seek out low quality alcohol at a discount liquor barn. If there are reasons for doing this beyond cost, such as personal fulfillment, pride, learning a new craft and so on, then why should they be valued so cheaply that we use low quality ingredients to save a few cents. In fact, in homebrewing and elsewhere, it is relatively easy to make a very high quality product with medium financial outlay that will make you the envy of your friends. For a few extra dollars you can upgrade yourself from making the cheapest beer in town to making the best beer in town.

If you can give your hobby enough cash to get the right tools and supplies you will flourish at it. If you can't afford it, maybe you need a cheaper hobby, or smaller specialisation.

Wishing you a productive weekend...

Making Money out of your Hobby


Visit any country town in Australia and somewhere you'll find a few items from the local woodturner for sale - usually priced under $20 and gathering dust. As often as not, the craftmanship is excellent and the finish is flawless. Yet these items seem to sell like used VHS tapes - that is, not well.

Knitted tea cosies and baby booties always seem to find their market, but for sake of argument lets assume you don't plan to trade your lathe or table saw for knitting needles just yet. A few ideas some of my associates have kicked around recently:

1. Make BIG things
One correspondent reports his breakthrough came when he started making large items which psychologically people thought must cost more. They were happy to pay hundreds of dollars for a big item of common furniture. In contrast, would the average customer in a gift store have any idea about the number of hours you have invested in an intricate item.

2. Do custom jobs
If your work is of a high standard, most people wouldn't know if it was mass produced or not. On the other hand, if they are involved in the design process, and the finished item is customised to their exact requirements (including things like engraving a name on a gift item) they will naturally expect to pay a lot more.

3. Tell your story
Even if its not a custom job, you can distance yourself from cheap imports by telling your story. By providing some information about the item, who made it, materials used etc, you make the item more interesting and you increase the likelihood of connecting with the shopper. Unless you tell your story, your produce will be just one of many similar items.

4. Put your prices up
One of the anomalies of economics, some things sell more when prices rise because people assume they must be worth it. This also leaves room for a smart shopkeeper to do some negotiation and have the buyer thinking they are getting the bargain of the century.

5. Keep Experimenting
Whatever your market is, you will eventually find it if you keep adapting your offering. If nobody wants to buy turned wooden pens, its a compelling reason to stop making them and try something else.

One of the benefits of not trying to make money out of your hobby is that you can make whatever you like and not care a damn about what the market is willing to pay for. If you do decide to use your hobby to raise a bit of cash, suddenly you are in the business of making other people happy and you inherit everything that comes with that.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Whittling and Wood Carving


My parents bought me a copy of E.J Tangerman's book when I was 10 or 11 and I keep it in my possession to this day. Whilst I cannot boast of any award winning carvings I do recall amazing my old science teacher with 3 chain links carved from a single piece of cedar.

Whittling and Wood Carving by E.J. Tangerman

This is one of the books I never tire of going back to, if only to admire some of the designs, most of which are far beyond my skill level. There is something timeless about this book that was inspiring to me as a young reader and may prove likewise for others.

Rash Purchasing Decisions


I can tell the exact moment when I know my weekend has slipped out of my control. A job runs overtime, friends drop in or some family emergency comes up. I know this is when (if I am within half an hour drive of a hardware store) I am vulnerable to making a rash purchasing decision.

Why? Because modern marketing has relentlessly impressed on me that by buying something I am achieving something. All I need is the next gagdet and my problems will be solved. I am trying to buy back control so I can feel satisfied (which rationally I know is an illusion).

Some recent Sunday afternoon temptations:

Light fittings (never installed)
Sharpening system (not opened)
Big Steel Toolbox (if i buy a ute one day, will be very handy)
Rubber downpipe plugs for bush-fire preparedness (don't even know where these are supposed to go!)

In consolation I wonder how many routers, drill presses, band saws and whipper snippers never even get unpacked in the first 6 months. Ironically, all that is needed to satisfy these cravings is to spend a small amount of time focused on some small part of a current project. I have found there is much more satisfaction on a Monday morning in knowing I have sharpened one chisel well than there is in wondering why on earth I now own another useless doodad.

What are you doing while you are doing nothing?


Really productive people are not frantically busy. Instead of rushing around in panic, massively productive people are getting things done even when they are doing nothing.

How? By running lead times in parallel with down time. Think of it like planting seeds - even while you are asleep, they are growing.

Picture this - its Saturday and I have to attend a family lunch. But I know, that while I am barbecuing and drinking beer, time is working for me. In parallel with my social activities I have other things happening:

Homebrew is fermenting away
Glued up boards are setting
Shellac is hardening
My PC is running a full system backup, scan and update

If I can find enough scraps of time to get these processes underway I can then forget about them. Indeed with many jobs the longer you leave them the better the results (ageing wine, clarifying solutions, curing glues etc).

Understanding lead time and critical path


Lead time: How long it takes for a part to arrive once you have ordered it.

Critical Path: A list of jobs or stages, each one dependent (unable to start) until the previous stage has been completed.

Time, we discover, does not equal output. Quality aspects aside, two people given the same amount of time will produce vastly different quantities of final product. Two simple concepts to apply to your next (or current, or long overdue) project are lead time and critical path.

Lead time is lost time. Ordering a spare on Saturday morning is not much use if you need it that weekend. Sitting around waiting for things to arrive is not productive. Lead times are often connected to "preparation" and many of these steps can be moved out of weekend time and into the weekday. For example, it may take 10 minutes to find a spare part online, then 4 days for delivery.

The Critical Path shows you which stages must be completed before the next stage can be started. Two or more stages may be able to be done in parallel (simultaneously). Some processes are not on the critical path at all, meaning they can be done at any time without affecting other steps.

Map out the steps of your next project and think about which stages can be moved around. There are some stages that are on the critical path and have significant lead times attached (like waiting for a coat of paint to dry). However, many steps can be brought forward, broken up or rearranged to get maximum value out of your offpeak time - and in turn set you up for a productive weekend.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Talking Electronics


I was delighted this morning to find the Australian company TALKING ELECTRONICS is still around. As a kid I spent countless hours playing with their FM Radio bugs, hidden transmitters and other spy toys. In fact, I still have the original books of their FM Transmitter plans.

Talking Electronics

Not only were the kits great fun to build, this company seems to actually care that their customers are learning something!

Ballistol for Rust Removal


One of the many claims made on the back of the ballistol can is its ability to dissolve rust. Here are before and after photos of a rusted spanner head sprayed with a generous coat of ballistol and left for about an hour. The ballistol was then dried off using a paper towel.

This product continues to give pleasing results and I think warrants use on many rusted tools where it may be tempting to apply a wire wheel (potentially disfiguring engraving you didn't realise was there in the first place).

Timber Floor Gripes


There seems to be no end in sight for the popularity of timber and "floating timber" floors. My only beef on the subject is the apparent acceptability of not skirting the newly laid floor properly. Recently I have seen several examples where the floors were overlaid and the installers simply announced (after packing their tools up) that it would be "too hard" to put a skirting board around the floor (over an existing original skirting board). Funny how this never gets a mention by the salesperson at the showroom.

This photograph from a friend's house shows the view of the bare surface visible every time the fridge door is opened - complete with small cutout section existing for no apparent reason. Given that people invest a lot of money and thought into the timber selection, it would seem prudent to spend a few moments checking out the installers.

Rust Removal Using Electrolysis


A well thought out and researched bit of work looking at electrolysis for rust removal. There is no substitute for hard-earned experience and first hand trial and error.

Rust Removal Using Electrolysis by Andrew Westcott

I am looking for something rusty to try this out on.

Greetings to the Niagara WoodWorking Club


A big Hello to visitors from the Niagara Wood Working Club of Ontario. If you haven't seen their blogsite drop into Niagarawoodworkingclub.blogspot.com and check out the member's projects gallery.

There is also a section dedicated to restoring hand planes utilising electrolysis for rust removal (Can I post mine over???)

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Made to last - My Top 5


How many of your tools have reached the 10 year service mark? The other day I realised a number of the items on my workbench have hit this vintage. Some I can remember buying when I was still in highschool. That makes them at least 15 years old. Apart from a few cosmetic wrinkles, these tools are still going strong. Costing these purchases out over this sort of timeline makes the prices seem ridiculously cheap.


1) Dremel Multi-tool (1996)

These have gone through several evolutions since, at least as far as the body design goes. The ability to cut tiny amounts of material at incredibly high speeds has proven useful in countless situations. The wafer thin abrasive cut-off wheels are just magic when you want a fine clean cut into hardened metals. Whatever it lacks in sheer grunt it makes up for in triplicate with precision. The tungsten-carbide cutters have also proven themselves in many tight spots.

2) Maglite - 3xD Cell Krypton Flashlight
(1993)
Its been dropped, lost, forgotten, mistreated and attacked by toddlers, but still works perfectly. Its darkest day was in 2005 when the batteries leaked inside and had to be removed by force. This involved spraying inside the tube with WD-40 and then striking the torch end on onto a phone book to drive the batteries out. The o-rings remain in good condition, perhaps thanks to the recommended smear of vaseline on the threads. The rubber switch cover is looking a little brittle and worse for wear, and was at one stage thought lost forever to a curious baby (since re-united).

3) Leatherman multi-tool (1994)
The hinge screws are probably a little loose for my liking these days. Not bad after 15 years though. The implements have all stood up to hard use and apart from minor scratches it looks as good as new.

4) Digital Multimeter (1992)
No moving parts, nothing to break internally, unless you manage to shatter the LCD display. I remember paying $49.95 for this at Dick Smith Electronics. Thats about $3 a year its cost me, still fantastic for seeing if a car battery is actually charging or not. For the same price today these would probably offer capacitance and temperature measuring as well, I`m almost ready to upgrade. Maybe next year.

5) Bench Grinder - Generic (1993)
Bought on special at kmart for $30. Still runs smoothly and does all my basic grinding jobs, although the flip-up plastic safety screens have long since fallen off. I wouldn`t trust an angle grinder at this price range, but the bench grinder has proven its reliability for light duties.

Admittedly, most of these probably won`t make it through to the next generation. But for the prices I paid, they`ve performed admirably.




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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Great Step-Stool



It began with a friend deciding his mother needed a basic timber step-stool. An offer of help by a friendly cabinet maker soon followed. What unfolded was one of the most enjoyable learning exercises I have taken part in. We ran well over-schedule, but we learnt a lot:

1) Improving on the basic design (aesthetics)
Original design was just a box. But, it was argued, if we are going to go to all this trouble, why not make a nice looking box. This meant more than just polishing it up, it meant incorporating design elements that would be visually appealing. Clean lines, curves, and so forth. Drawings became necessary (we had no drawing to start with, as it was just going to be a box) ... soon measurements were being taken and pencilled in. Tape measures and rulers were being applied to timber and body parts. Ideas were forming.


2) Timber selection and preparation

The timber had to be sound and dry. But as we would be joining boards side-on, what about matching the grain as closely as possible. This was to look good, and as glue is not a gap-filler, the edges of those boards were hand-planed flat! Front and rear faces were worked with a cabinet scraper until smooth.

3) Glueing up the boards
Glue was lovingly applied and the boards clamped and set aside. That was the first Saturday morning taken up.

4) Cutting the box joints
Box joints were cut using a custom jig over the table saw with a Dado blade wide enough to cut each tooth out in a single pass.

5) Cutting out the curves

After some freehand curve slicing practice, the boards were fed under the bandsaw to cut out the curves in the base.

6)The mortise and tenon reinforcing
Mortice and tenon were cut out and cleaned up using razor sharp chisels. Numerous sharpness tests were conducted to ensure hairs on the back of our fingers were coming off cleanly before chisels went anywhere near the timber. Japanese wetstones and a strop were used to bring cutting edges to a mirror polish. The tenon and box joints were glued in place and any tiny gaps sealed using finely sanded slivers of timber and glue. These were then flush cut back using a Japanese style dowel saw.

7) Sanding, Dyeing and Finishing

Belt and orbital sanders brought the box joints to a flush finish, followed by an all over sanding with progressively finer grades of paper. Aniline dye was applied - the first half was applied to the interior of the toyota corolla, confirming the first 5 warnings that aniline dye stains. Remainder of dye was applied to the workpiece and progress resumed at its regular steady pace. Numerous coats of shellac followed, as did a minor disaster possibly caused by a contaminated brush. More sanding. More Dyeing. More shellac. The piece was ready for a coat of polyurethane for weather resistance.

8) Final Polishing
0000 grade steel wool and carnauba wax was used to rub the polyurethane back slightly. Thoughts about one more weekend polishing it were put aside, and we finally concurred that it was ready, and way too good to be a stepstool. Friend`s mother could, afterall, find herself an old box to stand on.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The magic of silicone

A reader pointed out the other day I had neglected to include silicone rubber in my list of low cost consumables for your toolbox. I have to confess it took me a while to warm up to this as a product. Probably for the same reason that I have since been taught to love it. This stuff is about as non-bio-degradeable as you can get. It is one of those mysterious products brought to us by modern science that can endure the extremes of weather, temperature and moisture and still hold a watertight seal for 20 years. It doesn`t react much with other chemicals, insects don`t like eating it and bacteria and other microbes are not terribly fond of it either.

On the downside, even when it has eventually given out and you scrape it out of your shower recess and replace it with a fresh bead, the stuff you laid down 20 years ago isn`t going to disappear just because you want it to. Who knows how much of this stuff is in our garbage tips now but odds are its going to be hanging around the planet for a while yet.

However, theres a place for everything in this world, and I have to admit silicone rubber is the stuff to use for:

1) Sealing roofs, window frames, weatherboards, kitchens etc
Having to redo a paint job because of water damage isn`t very environmentally friendly either. Pump it into the gaps and its sealed.

2) A really flexible glue
Some applications don`t really need a lot of holding strength, but they do need a lot of flexibility. I fixed a fiddly piece of skirting around a floating timber floor with silicone and it has held ever since.

3) Sealing Chipboard Edges
A thick smear along the sawn edges of kitchen benchtop and cabinet cut-outs was provided for good measure. I will check it in 19 years to be sure it has lived up to its reputation.

4) Glueing a sensor to a glass panel
I remember seeing a technician at work use clear silicone to glue a sensor on to a glass panel inside a quarter-of-a-million dollar large scale document scanner (used in the mapping industry). If its good enough for the world of high-tech, it will do for my garage.

5) RTV silicone rubber seals for a cuppucino machine
Next time your friend picks up a broken Gaggia cappucino machine for $10 at a garage sale, pull apart the thermoblock, clear out the crud, and seal it using acetic acid (vinegar) curing RTV. It works perfectly, and my friend is not displaying an major neurological disorders yet, so I think its non-toxic.

At the end of the day, silicone rubber based products are cheap and durable. It would be nice if there were more environmentally products that were more environment proof.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

5 minute expanding clamp

This week I was looking for a simple solution to keep a garage roller door track
aligned. The brackets which keep the track aligned are adjustable and held in place by the tension of a coach screw. Unfortunately some of these had come loose and whilst a quick tighten seemed to correct the problem, I want to stop it from recurring. I suspect that over-tightening would only make make the problem worse.

Parallel to the frame however is a brick wall, and really all I needed was something to maintain a bit of pressure on the frame. Distance between frame and wall is 70mm.

My solution - a very simple expansion clamp made using 5/16 threaded rod, 2 mudguard washers, 2 split washers and 2 nuts. The nuts are tightened in opposite directions to push the clamp outwards. Pressure is applied to the mudguard washers so the threaded rod is not digging into the pine blocks.

A very simple solution that can be built in 5 minutes. Easily adjusted and easily removed.

Ebonizing Different Timbers

There is a huge variation in the way different timbers react to ebonizing fluids - which to my mind is a product of how deeply the fluid is absorbed and the different chemical makeup of the wood cells. The ebonizing fluid reacts with tannin and turns dark, so timbers with higher levels of tannin react better.

I do not consider identifying different timbers as a skill I possess so apologies for being vague about timber types. Here are a few photos of different scraps I tested.

1) Hardwood garden peg
Looking left to right on the photograph: Test 1 (written in permanent marker) is a single brushing of the ebonizing fluid. Test 2 shows a brushing of fluid which was allowed to dry, then a single brushing of strong black tea was added (to provide tannin for a darker reaction). Test 3 was only ebonizing fluid, showing 5 coats - each pass was allowed to dry before the next was added.




2) Radiata pine
A few chips from an offcut of construction pine. Showing end-grain and side-grain.
Test 1 was dipped into ebonizing fluid for a few seconds and allowed to dry. Test 2 was dipped in fluid, allowed to dry, then dipped in tea. Test 3 was left immersed in ebonizing fluid for one hour.

The pine samples reacted quite slowly and at first it appeared that no-reaction was taking place at all.





3) Eucalyptus
This sample shows a piece of turned eculyptus which has been fully immersed in unfiltered ebonizing fluid overnight.

You can see how the rust left in the unfiltered solution has stained the wood. This is not totally unappealing in its own way, and could be explored further by someone looking for an artistic and non-uniform stain. Other than that I was surprised at how well this blacke




4) Unknown Hardwood

Another end scrap from the lathe showing side by side the effected of the ebonizing. This timber reacted very quickly - only a single light brushing was applied before this photo was taken.






Steps for Making Ebonizing Fluid

For anyone interested in ebonizing timber I found this little kitchen experiment to be highly satisfying. Rather than telling half the story, here are the steps I followed.

1) The Rusty Brew
The crust on top of the fluid is just foam that has been frothed by the gases given off as the reaction takes place. This rather horrible looking concoction in the first photograph is simply a variety of rusty items (steel wool and small nails) to which I have added about a litre of plain white vinegar.

To check if its working, you can use the fluid as is after a few days, however your timber will get stained by the rust that is in suspension. Probably you don`t what to achieve a psychedelic swirly pattern on your work so some sort
of filtering is required.

2) First filtering attempt
The coffee filter I tried did not work well, the fluid ran through it too quickly and the remaining solution was still cloudy. Photograph indicates the rust sludge it did manage to extract.

A funnel with a peice of ordinary white facial tissue twisted up inside the funel tube worked much better. Adjust how tightly you stuff the tube to get more or less filtration. Mine took about 1 hour per 100ml but as you can see in the photo the filtered product is clear and close to being colourless.

2) Second Filtering and Storage
I find that the first time I filter it this way I get a clear but still coloured solution. When I store this solution for a few days sometimes more sludge precipitates out of solution which will require a second filtration. Another thing to bear in mind is the sludge is very fine and will settle on the bottom of the container, so storing the solution in tall jars or bottles can make for a lot less filtering effort if you handle it carefully.

3) Handling Hazards
The finished product - clean and clear and ready for use. Be careful with handling as it will stain some materials and some woods react very quickly. You might not be too popular around the home if you drip the fluid on the kitchen chopping board for example. Store the fluid safely and out of reach of the kids, the same as any other chemical.













Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Beef up your tool box with some low cost consumables

Every self-styled weekend warrior dreams of their next tool purchase - when in reality many expensive tools are really only needed for highly specialised work, or to achieve something faster than hand tools allow. For those just starting to get their tool kit together, before you go and buy a drop saw or belt sander, make sure you have the consumables that will help you get jobs done quickly and professionally without spending every weekend running back and forth to the hardware store. Compared to buying another power tool you will find these items are relatively cheap and useful in a wide variety of situations.

1. An all purpose lubricant, protectant, preserver and squeak stopper. ($5-$15)
Currently I am hooked on a product called Ballistol but there are many similar aerosol products in this category. Endlessly useful, including for applications such as cleaning up sticky, messy and grime covered items (the window washer pump of my 1976 Diesel sedan springs to mind).

2. Some decent hacksaw blades ($5-10)
If I am only doing a little bit of cutting, I don`t really mind whether I am using a cheap basic hacksaw frame or a solidly built professional one. What does drive me crazy is trying to cut with low quality blades which blunt quickly and just as often shatter on difficult cuts. While you can buy junk hacksaw blades at your local discount shop for $2 a dozen, at a hardware store you will probably find $5 will get you a really nice quality, super-flexible high-speed bi-metal blade. Keep a sharp blade and a spare and they`ll be ready when you need it.

3. Graphite ($5-$10)
When you need graphite there is no substitute. Specifically useful for lubricating many types of locks especially when the keyway seems to be jamming up. And for anyone except a professional locksmith, chances are a small puff bottle will last you 20 years.

4. Rags ($0-$10)
If you have any interest in car maintenance or timber finishing, hopefully you have trained your relatives to keep all their old towels and t-shirts for you. You can buy them by the bag as well, if you really must. A good clean rag is essential in countless jobs and you can bin it right away to save trying to wash grease, paint dust etc down the sink.

5. Razor blades ($2-$10)
This includes both box-cutter blades (standard or snap-off) and scraper blades. Cheap and indispensable for a multitude of jobs.

6. Some really good glue ($10-$20)
I can`t even begin to count how many repair jobs I got out of one medium sized bottle of multi-purpose cross-linked PVA glue. Some folks tell me that you should only keep glue like this for a year but personally I`ve broken this rule blatantly and never had a problem. At $10-$20 though if I was making a prized piece of furniture I would opt for a fresh bottle. My preferred brand markets itself as a multi-purpose product for bonding, sealing and hardening - and it seems to stick just about anything. You can even plasticise wood with a solution of it should you wish to do some experimenting. The only glue I ever use in addition to this is the very occasional tube of superglue which you might keep a few spares of in your toolkit. (They go off quickly once opened).

7. Nut Screws Washer and Bolts ($0.10 and upwards)
Possibly some nails as well. These seem to accumulate in VAST quantities in other peoples garages and yet the first thing most people do on the weekend is drive to the hardware store to buy more of them. Often its just a case of getting some sort of system to sort out what you already have and then buy to complement your existing selection. For things like plain old wood screws you are likely to use a lot of, a bulk bag will save you a fortune compared to buying them 10 at a time in blister packs.

8. Gloves, goggles and ear-protection ($10-$200)
Choose your own price-point here, but I would rather work with a $5 pair of gloves, a $2 set of plastic safety glasses and some disposable ear plugs than go unprotected because I can`t find my expensive safety gear. Even little injuries cost time and a trip to hospital will (at the very least) make your weekend a write off.


If you kept to the cheap seats you may just have enough change out of $50 to buy a carpenter`s pencil. You will certainly have added some capacity to your toolkit and be ready to tackle a range of different jobs.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Old tools are good tools

The side cutters and pliers pictured were made long before I was born, and by the time I was old enough to start getting interested in tools they had been packed up, moved around, and separated from one another as newer, cheaper and shinier (but not better) tools were purchased to replace them. They sat in crates in the back of the family garage waiting for me to return them to their former glory.

The thing about these tools which you notice when you compare them to newer but inferior substitutes is the quality of the steel they are made from. They have a firm closing action and tightly fitting jaws. The side-cutters snip hard stock cleanly and easily. Bought new, they would be quite expensive, and thus most mainstream hardware stores wouldn`t bother stocking them (not when they can import cheap sets offering 10 different pliers for $30).

Some ideas about finding quality tools at outrageously low prices:

1) Some people may be happy for their tools simply to go to a good home
Talking to people about tools and gently lamenting the fact that they don`t make them like they used to may encourage others to bestow their now unneeded tools on you. If you can provide them with the care and respect they deserve, tools will start to find their way to you.

2) Don`t be put off by a bit of rust
A bit of rust or surface staining is par for the course on old tools, and generally will in no way affect useability. Products like "ballistol" in my experience do a good job of cleaning up steel tools quickly and easily and will often make the manufacturer markings on the tool readable again (as well as lubricating the tool and preventing further corrosion). I also like this product as it claims to also protect and preserve wood, leather and rubber, and I have yet to see evidence to the contrary. Garage sales, fleamarkets and council cleanups are a good source of items that have a bit of rust but are otherwise in great condition.

3) Quality is worth paying for
You may be lucky enough to have tools your grandparents used. Will your grand-children be able to say the same? We have become conditioned towards buying cheaper and inferior quality products when in fact the "last a lifetime" tools can still be purchased either new or secondhand (albeit at a "remember for a lifetime" price). Sometimes its nice to save up for something that you really will be able to pass on to the next generation.

Finding peace in the hardware store

One of the shops I am quite happy to not get any service in is a hardware store. I find simply wandering the aisles looking at different products is a good source of inspiration and ideas, and I never leave without feeling like I have learned something. Whilst some shop assistants are truly fonts of knowledge, I find too many of them want to solve my problem and get me out the door as quickly as possible, when in fact I simply seek solitude and quiet reflection, browsing the tools I love.

This is easy to do in the suburban super-stores you can wander for days without ever sighting a staff member. The smaller city stores (there are 3 within 5 minutes stroll of Martin Place in Sydney) are more of a challenge. If like me you are simply seeking a mental break from your day job here are some sure fire ways to get that helpful shop assistant off your back.

1) Go obscure
Ask for something you know they don`t have, the more ridiculous the better so they don`t waste your time actually looking for it. Yes, I`d like a horseshoe please. Stockholm tar? Shark Repellent? Should they be able to produce any of these items stare intently at the labelling for a few seconds then tell them you`ll think about it.

2) Always good for the basics
Until they start selling food at hardware shops your choice of daily essentials is somewhat limited, but don`t look past cleaning products, fly spray and batteries as perfectly valid reasons to browse the power tool section for half an hour.

3) Body Language
Shop assistants at hardware stores are trained professionals, taught to observe buyer behaviour in order to maximise sales. If you walk straight into the store like you`ve been there a thousand times and head purposefully for the back display where they keep the wall anchors, chances are they will ignore you in favour of a customer more deserving of their attention. Use this lapse in their concentration to disappear into the building materials section and you can browse in peace for hours.

In time, the staff will realise that, like me, you are not a shoplifter but a diehard hardware tragic and they will give you all the space you need. Happy shopping!

Too Big to Tackle

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a hobbyist cabinetmaker who manages to turn out an amazing quantity of high quality work, outside of his professional 9-5 career. He shared a few of his secrets:

1) Keep a list of "Whats next"
There are always small jobs that need to be done as part of larger steps. Knowing what comes next allows you to use spare minutes on a weekday eveing and thus avoid wasting precious hours on Saturday and Sunday. In 15 minutes you can sharpen a chisel, apply a coat of finish to a small item, or set up a power tool.

2) Dont rush
Some stages simply take time. Not allowing enough time for paint to dry isnt going to save time, it wastes time through rework and an inferior final product. Find other things you can do while you are waiting to proceed to the next stage.

3) All set up, make the most of it
It takes time to set up tools. Once you have gone to the trouble of setting up a table saw, adjusting the jig and so forth, it doesn`t take much longer to cut 10 pieces as it does to only cut 1. Think about how you can maximise your use of each session to save time in the future.

Ebonizing Fluid


I mentioned ebonizing fluid in my last (or rather first) post. This is a solution used to turn wood black. The item pictured in the photograph, a replica tonfa style baton for martial arts training is a example of something that looks kind of cool with a shiny black finish.

1) Making rust
If you don`t have some rusty nails etc handy, throw a packet of the cheapest steel wool you can find into an icecream container and add a centimetre of water. Slosh it around to wet the wool. You want the wool to be damp but not immersed as too much water will actually keep the oxygen out, and you need the oxygen to get into the steel to produce the iron oxide. In days the wool will be brittle and rusty, if you stir it a bit with a stick you will find it makes a lovely mess. If you do have some rusty items handy, use that and skip this step. There is nothing special about steel wool other than the huge surface area allows it to rust quickly.

2) Add the vinegar
The vinegar dissolves the rust and forms iron salts in solution which is what you want. I poured in a litre of vinegar. No real need to measure this carefully it doesn`t matter as vingar is a very weak acid and you should have more rust than you need anyway. Leave it for a couple of days to react away. This is a good mid-week activity.

3) Filter
You end up with a cloudy murky and nasty looking soup. However, this can be filtered to a nice clear liquid. My first filtering attempt used 2 coffee filters, this seemed to trap about half of the sediment but the finer particles made it through. A much more effective (but slow) approach was to stuff them stem of a funnel with an ordinary facial tissue and let the fluid filter through slowly (about 5 drips per minute), topping it up whenever you go past. Its really slow but it works great. I put the now ready to use fluid in the (now empty) vinegar bottle.

4) Apply the finished product

I have tried brushing it onto timber and also soaking small items in the fluid. Some woods react quickly and go quite dark, others seem to have almost no reaction. Apparently this is to do with the amount of tannin in the timber. I have read that you can artificially add tannin to timber (to some extent) by dabbing on strong black tea.