Toolsday Afternoon: Introduction

You probably have a bunch of tools.

But on the other hand, maybe you’re reading this because you’re new. Just starting out. Looking for a little help. I understand. I have a whole lot of tools because I’ve bought a lot of tools I don’t really use, or only used once, or bought several general-purpose tools trying to do something the hard way instead of buying the special-purpose tool I didn’t know existed, and on and on.

So here’s some general thoughts on tools:

Tools can be generally divided into two broad classes: special tools and general-purpose tools. An example of a special tool would be a Basin Wrench. What’s it good for? Gripping and turning the big nut that holds the faucet into the hole in the sink. What else is it good for? Nothing. But when you need one, you need exactly that. And whether you own one or not (they’re not particularly expensive to buy the first time you need one), you need to know that such a thing even exists, or when you’re trying to install a faucet you will be mighty mighty frustrated. There will be a lot of indelicate language. And then even more indelicate language weeks later when you’re wandering through the hardware store and see a basin wrench and realize how much easier your job could have been. I may be speaking from experience.

When buying a special tool, it makes sense to buy the least expensive one that will do the job. You’re not going to install a sink every week, or even every month. Your basin wrench will probably only be used five or six times ever in your life. Buy an inexpensive one that looks like it’ll do the job.

A general-purpose tool, of course, is the exact opposite: it’s designed to do many things pretty well. When you buy a hammer for your home use, you buy a hammer. You don’t buy a special hammer for pounding nails into wood and a different hammer for pounding nails into drywall. (Usually. Any tool you can name there are undoubtedly a huge number of very specialized variations, which people that use that tool all day for work have developed to make their specific jobs easier. There are in fact special hammers for drywall work, for instance. And I’m sure they are better enough for that work that if I were a drywall contractor I would probably invest in one. But you don’t need one to do drywall work the way you needed the basin wrench. If all you have is a regular ol’ hammer, you can still get the job done almost as easily. Installing a faucet without a basin wrench isn’t merely a little harder: it’s damn near impossible.)

Which is not to sat that they’re all the same. Quality is a thing. It’s important here. When you’re buying something you will use over and over, it pays to buy the best damn whatever-it-is you can afford. Which is not always the most expensive whatever-it-is; that may well be a specialized one with features you don’t need that actually make it worse for general use. Or it could just be overpriced. But the best damn whatever-it-is is almost certainly not the cheapest one, either. Look at the parts of the thing. Look at how well they fit together. Does it have moving parts? How easily and smoothly do they move? The care that goes into assembling the parts into a whole can give you an indication of how well the parts were made before they were assembled. If it’s a single-piece thing (like a box wrench, for instance) look at other tools made by that company. Look over the whole range of these things by this company: do many of them have blemishes, rough spots, etc? If most of their stuff is crap, this one probably is too even if it looks OK. Is it a name you’ve heard of? That’s not as good an indication as it once was: even Craftsman’s quality has started slipping, and they’re no longer guaranteed forever. But it’s still a good starting point: if I’m looking at two wrenches that look the same and one is made by a 100-year-old brand I’ve known since I was a kid, and one is made by Hey Song Qulaity Imports, I’m unlikely to buy the one who can’t even spell their own name accurately.

And in general if you have no idea, you’re probably on safest ground buying the one in the middle of the price range or just above the middle. It won’t be the best, but it won’t suck, and it will last long enough to teach you how to tell a good whatever-it-is from crap.

Next Toolsday: Our Friend The Crescent Wrench.


A guy in his early 50s, living more or less alone in a 90-year-old house, trying to keep it all together.

Posted in Tools
4 comments on “Toolsday Afternoon: Introduction
  1. Star Straf says:

    When I move I take a couple hours and wander my local tool type store (Home Depot is my current one ). First to orient me to the store so that when I need an X I have an idea where it is. Second is to go up and down each aisle and say ‘hey I wonder what that is’ so that when I have a need for that I might know it exists

  2. Erik says:

    I do that in pretty much every store I go to. That’s how I got the reputation of someone to ask when you have an unusual problem: I’ve probably seen the perfect thing…I just need to remember WHERE I saw it.

    And you have to keep going back and doing it again to stay current. Stock changes, progress marches on, new things come out and some cool things don’t catch on and wither away.

  3. Tracy says:

    I continue to live by my Dad’s philosophy of tool buying. When buying a tool you’re not sure you will need more than a handful of times, buy a cheap one. If you use it enough that it breaks, buy a good one. This system has served me remarkably well over the years.

    I agree completely that if you KNOW you’re going to use it all the time, you buy the best you can afford. Apropos of your preview of coming attractions, Crescent seems to still be a brand that one can trust despite Eaton’s acquisition of Cooper and subsequent spinoff of their various hand tool brands (Weller, Campbell and Crescent) to Apex Tool Group. Craftsman still seems to make a decent drop-forged wrench and an acceptable screwdriver, although the K-Mart acquisition put a number of nails into an already-closed coffin of many Sears brands. Milwaukee and DeWalt are holding up fairly well in the power tool category. But yeah, “brand you’ve heard of” sure doesn’t mean much in this crazy modern age.

    • Erik says:

      I used to do that too. The problem I have discovered with that strategy (“Buy a cheap one the first time and a good one when the cheap one breaks”) is that there exists a level of quality that is low enough to make the tool frustrating to use, but not so low that it falls apart. Which leaves you with a tool that you hate, forever. So now for general-use tools I try to buy something a little better than the bottom of the barrel, no matter what, and if I find that I’m using it a lot I’ll revisit the idea and buy a good one even if the one I have hasn’t broken.

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