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
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.