Toolsday: On Tape

There are many different kinds of tape. Because people use tape for many many different things.

Knowing what you want to do with tape is the key to using the right tape. Are you trying to hold something together? Or mask something off? Hang something up? Or stick something down? All different kinds of tape. So here’s a post about one kind of tape, and there will be more posts about other kinds of tape.

Electrical tape.

You need this if you are doing any sort of electrical work. It’s vinyl, usually 3/4″ wide, and usually black. You use it to cover any sort of electrical joint to keep it insulated. Many electricians will wrap a layer of tape around the outlet or switch after the wires are connected to keep the screws from shorting to anything else in the box. And usually around the base of all the wire nuts to keep them twisted on and extra safe.

When you go to the Big Box Home Center, you will find that there are a few different brands of cheap black electrical tape, including 3m’s budget line.

I hate them all.

The adhesive on black electrical tape is black. And it doesn’t stay on the tape. So if you have to go back in for anything there’s black goo everywhere, even after just a few days.

The adhesive on 3m’s more expensive colored electrical tape is not black. And it stays on the tape mostly. This is the stuff I generally buy. It comes in 9 colors. If you buy more than one color you can also use it to help remember which wire is which.

(There are historical reason why it comes in 10 colors (including black), having to do with the history of telephones:

Every phone line needs a pair of wires. And a phone cable might have many many pairs of wires inside. So how do you tell them apart? Color coding! Ma Bell came up with a system of color coding in the 40s that lets 10 colors sort out a virtually infinite number of wires. The ten colors are divided into 5 “tip” colors (White, Red, Black, Yellow, and Violet), and 5 “ring” colors (Blue, Orange, Green, Brown, and Gray (Called “Slate” so that each color in the group of 5 has a unique one-or-two-letter abbreviation: W,R,BK,Y,V, BL,O,G,BR,S). So a pair of wires will consist of a wire that is mostly a tip color, with stripes of a ring color, and its other half which is mostly the ring color with a stripe of the tip color. For instance Yellow with Slate and Slate with Yellow. And the pairs are thus in numerical order from White/Blue all the way to Violet/Slate. And once you know the code, you can figure out that the Yellow/Slate pair is pair number 20.

So that gets us up to 25 pairs (5×5). After that, you wrap that 25 pairs in…a White and Blue string! The next 25 pairs are wrapped in a White and Orange string. Etc. So that gets us up to 25×25, which is 625 pairs, or 1250 individual wires. But to make the math easier, they stop at 25×24: 600 pairs. You can go on from there, wrapping that whole bundle in a white and blue string. And so on. But it’s already ridiculous…In any case, that’s why the electrical tape comes in those particular 10 colors: so that phone people can use it to mark things in a standardized way.)  (incidentally, that’s also why phone company boxes and stuff are that special greenish gray: that color is not Slate. So things like zip ties and the like that are that color are not mistaken for color-coding markers…)

Electricians use a different color coding scheme; theirs is all about what’s on the wire rather than which particular wire it is. But that’s not relevant; electricians mostly don’t pay attention to the color of the tape. They mostly use black. But as I said I don’t like the black because it tends to leave its goo everywhere. I buy a different color roll every time I buy some.

Electrical tape tends to get stiff after a few years (especially the cheap stuff), and it doesn’t stick very well to things that are not metal or plastic. So it’s not good for doing things like taping up packages. But you need some around if you are ever going to do electrical work.

When taping over a splice, use enough. You should start a little ways back from the joint, and wrap it around and around, layering about half the width of the tape each time so at every spot on the repair there is at least two layers of tape. On the other hand, it’s certainly possible to use a stupid amount of tape and make a repair that is no safer than the right amount of tape, and may be less safe just by being a bigger lump to snag on things. Use prudence.

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Posted in History, Tools, Wires

Toolsday: My Mechanical Screwdriver

It’s not what you would call a basic tool, but I have a mechanical screwdriver. It’s more or less my favorite tool.

The Spec Tools Overdriver is like a ratchet screwdriver’s smarter sister. It will work like a regular ratchet screwdriver, But it has this knob on the shaft: if you hold that knob and twist the handle, the bit turns 4 times as fast. Which makes inserting and removing fasteners go very quickly, and is just the thing for starting screws in wood: The point of the screw spins fast enough to start drilling its own pilot hole until the screw starts to actually bite, then you let go of the knob and drive the screw in. (If you twist the knob and the handle in opposite directions it spins even faster.) Its ratchet mechanism is very smooth and has no steps that I can feel; if you can turn your hand a tiny fraction of a degree back and forth, you will (eventually) be able to get the job done.

I love this tool.

The one I linked to up there seems to be on the way out. It’s on sale, and not shown on the main shopping page. The one that is shown on the main page has a new handle design that looks to be even more comfortable (the cap on the bit storage compartment at the butt of mine makes leaning on it for more leverage a little uncomfortable: the new one seems to have a rotating butt cap to make it more comfortable than a standard screwdriver, rather than less. And the shape of the handle is more ergonomic.)

Nothing is perfect: I have often wished for a “no spin” setting (you can set it to ratchet clockwise or counter-clockwise, but you can’t set it not to ratchet at all), and the ratchet direction setting ring is easy to switch on the fly (which is good); so easy that sometimes I slip it while working the screwdriver, especially when holding the overdrive knob (which is not good). But all in all, I would be a very sad panda if I didn’t have my Overdriver.

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The Cellar Door

I have a redwood deck.

By which I mean I have a deck, made of wood, that someone painted red.

It’s not large. Or very useful. It’s most distinguishing feature is that is makes access to the outside door to the basement a pain.

The basement outside door is just to the east of the back door in the kitchen (and 10 feet down). The stairs run thence east and up to ground level. The deck wraps around the stairwell from the back door east to parallel with the end of the stairwell. Which makes a tight little corner getting anything down those stairs.

The stairwell was covered, when we moved in, with a sloping sheet of plywood. Which was rotting. And was so heavy and at such an awkward angle that it was damn near impossible to swing open, and a hazard when open that it would fall closed again. I removed it.

The next time it rained heavily I saw by the puddle coming in under the basement door that I needed to replace it with something to keep most of the rain out of that stairwell.

So I put a new sheet of plywood over the hole, intending to paint/seal it, and put hinges on, and a pull-rope to get the damn thing open. That was maybe 10 years ago. It’s rotting now and impossible to open.

My new plan is to take a blue plastic tarp and affix a series of slats to it, and run a rope down both edges. To open it I can pull the ropes from standing on the deck at the top end, which will gather the slats up toward me. To close it I can pull the ropes back down to the low end, laying the slats and the tarp back down over the hole.

I’ll let you know how well it works out in real life.

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Toolsday: Only the parts you want to keep

I’m sure it says something deep and meaningful about me that it’s taken me this long to get around to one of the most important tools out there: Protective gear.

Partly because I (like most people) tend to be a little lax about using protective gear. And partly because the protective gear I do use I use so automatically I don’t think about it enough to notice it as a thing.

I always use hearing protection if I’m doing something loud or working in a loud environment. Because I like to hear things and want to keep hearing things, and because (unlike most other protective gear and the hazards you are protected against) hearing loss is a gradual thing. You (probably) won’t notice any single incident that makes you go deaf. It’ll just be a million little bangs and screeches gradually wearing away your ability to hear quiet or high notes. I prefer Howard Leight Laser Lite Foam Earplugs with a cord. They’re very comfortable, easy to use, strong enough to be useful, and the cord makes them easy to pull out of my deep ears with my clumsy fingers. And easy to hang around my neck when I’m between loud noises.

I often wear safety glasses. Certainly if I’m doing anything with any power tool that is not a drill, or working with metal at all. Ever since I was 13 and got a speck of steel wire embedded in my eye….

I wear gloves if I’m working with nasty chemicals. My hands end up in my mouth and eyes a lot. The gloves keep the scary things out of my mouth and eyes both by keeping them off the skin of my hands and by keeping my fingers out of my mouth and eyes. Read the label of the stuff you’re using; there are a surprising number of things around the house and shop that while they won’t immediately burn your skin, are readily absorbed through the skin…

I seldom wear a respirator; I just don’t use anything that heinous very often. But I am always very careful to work in a well-ventilated area, and am always mindful of where the fumes are going, ever since I got too close while I was making soap and scarred my throat.

Steel Toes, back brace, etc, etc…they exist. Use them if you’re doing things that are likely to make them useful. If I’m lifting all day I’ll wear a back belt. Because (like with the hearing) I won’t notice the strain until after; like, the next day when I can’t move. And I occasionally wear an actual construction helmet at work; usually when I’m working up high.

With any safety gear, there will be times where the safety gear is getting in the way of doing the work. On a few occasions the safety gear getting in the way has actually made me feel less safe. When that happens, you need to assess your risks very carefully and decide what is best. Sometimes I do take the gloves off and let the chemicals touch my skin, so I can feel the surface of what I’m trying to clean and make sure it’s really clean. Then I immediately wash thoroughly and put on fresh gloves. If I’m fixing a loud machine I might take out an earplug for a moment to see if the subtle squeak is still there on top of the roar. You have to use your judgment and do the safest thing that actually works.

So: You don’t have to protect all the parts of your body. Only the ones you want to keep.

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Toolsday: Size Matters

Measure twice, cut once.

A measuring tape is an indispensable tool. A good measuring tape is a joy to use. There are a lot of crappy measuring tapes.

You should be using your measuring tape on almost every project. I know I should. And I know I don’t. But I know I should; so do as I say, not as I do, and measure everything: Measure the hole before you cut the patch. Measure the patch. Measure the empty space before you go buy the new furniture. Measure the furniture before you put down your money. Measure the openings on your car to make sure you can get the furniture into the car to get it home.

Buy a measuring tape more than long enough to measure what you need; there’s nothing more annoying than discovering the thing you wanted to measure is just a little bigger than what you can measure. I have a selection of longer and longer tapes purchased as my projects got bigger, ending with a very nice 40-foot tape. You probably don’t need a 40-foot tape to start with; it’s fine for smaller measurements, but it’s heavy, and it was not cheap. I’d start with a 25-foot.

Pull it out a couple-three feet. Let it snap back. It should come out smoothly (with no “scrapey” feeling) and slide back in with some authority. Try out the lock button. I’ve owned cheap tape measures where the lock button was hard to engage and/or hard to disengage. That’s bad. Feel (carefully) the edge of the tape. It should feel substantial. It will be sharp enough to cut you if you’re not careful, but how sharp is a good indicator of how thin and flimsy the blade is: the thinner the blade, the thinner and sharper the edge.

Some tape measures brag about their “standout”. The standout is basically how far you can extend the blade straight out horizontally in mid-air before it falls. Which is useful. But not so useful you should prefer one that quotes a larger number over a better-made one with a smaller standout.

Now that you have a tape measure, treat it well. Do not bend it closer than it naturally wants to bend. Do not bend it backward on purpose. Do not let the return spring reel it all zooming back in as fast as it wants. a: This can damage the spring, the blade, or both, and b: The blade is sharp and you don’t want it moving so fast it becomes a linear meat slicer. Modulate the speed with the lock button or your hand (but if it’s already going too fast don’t touch the blade and cut your fingers off). If you notice the slightest crease, fold or crack on the blade, replace it right away; no one wants a jagged blade on a heavy spring flailing around. Don’t let the thing get too wet or it will rust inside.

So go measure the world.

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Roof Rodents

A while back, I was up in the attic and heard what sounded like a creature of some kind skittering around on the roof. Except louder. And the cats were suddenly finding the ceiling absolutely fascinating.

A few days later I was up there and there was a small hole in the ceiling/wall, with a little pile of debris on the floor under it, including a quantity of maple seeds.

I live under an elm tree.

So I gave the ceiling a whack with my hand and there was an indignant *Squeek!* and some scrabbling from one side of the room to the other.

I went out onto the roof with a powerful flashlight and took a look.

It’s kind of hard to describe, but there’s a pair of spots on my roof where the roof of the house meets the roof and the wall of a dormer in a really deep pocket; too deep for me to reach up in there easily. And when I peered into one of these, I could see the wall, the roof, and the underside of the other roof all coming together all the way to a point. But the other one, I could see that the wall did not quite get there….


So back inside the attic, I started tearing away at the wall at the inside of that spot on the outside.

This is not as hard as it sounds. The walls and ceilings of the attic were finished with beaverboard covered in wallpaper. You can easily put your hand through them. They’re crap. I basically punched my hand in and started pulling off chunks.

At one point I pulled off a piece and there was a large open space behind it. I was surprised! There are some dead spaces up there—places behind the kneewalls, mostly. But I wasn’t expecting any such thing here; certainly not at shoulder height. I enlarged the hole. I shined a flashlight in.

It was the actual room on the other side of the wall; I’d misjudged where that room would end. So now there’s a medium-sized hole in that room’s wall.

Anyway, so I tore a hole in the wall/ceiling at that spot, and a large quantity of maple seeds, dust, and general debris fell out. And I could feel a wind. Autumn was coming on, and it was a cool wind. I shut off the light and I could see a chink of sunlight down there. Again, too deep in there for me to actually easily reach, what with the pointy ends of the roofing nails sticking into the space and all. And there’s a side-branch of the rafter space down there, so I needed to fill the space down deep in there to keep them from just going that way if I block off this way.

I came back downstairs and pondered.

I bought a can of expanding urethane foam and tried to fill the hole (which is only about the size of an apple). But it wouldn’t squirt far enough up in there before sticking to the sides of the area.

Eventually I stuffed a bunch of aluminum foil down there with a stick to reach the actual hole, followed by some newspaper with foam on it, then wood scraps, until the whole thing was full enough that I could cut a piece of wood to fit over it and cover the whole egress into the rest of the inside-the-ceiling space. I pumped a bunch of foam in, put the wood on top, screwed that down, put some more foam on, and waited a few days.

No new noises.

No new seed stashes.

No cool wind.

I got a piece of white pre-finished Masonite, cut it to cover the entire messy hole, and screwed it in place. It’s ugly as home made sin, but not as ugly as the raw and ragged hole. It’s the closest I can come to an actual patch, because no one makes beaverboard any more, because it’s crap. I’d like to rip it all out and redo the whole attic. But (as mentioned) that’s a Big Project. It may happen someday.

But meanwhile it’s been more than 2 years and there are no more squirrels inside my roof.

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Toolsday: Socket To Me

I’ve already covered two of the basic types of wrenches: Crescent Wrenches and Pipe Wrenches. A third type is the Socket Wrench: The LEGO set of wrenches.

A socket wrench is just what you might think it is: a wrench with a socket on the end into which the nut you’re trying to turn fits.

Of course, you’d need a separate wrench for each different size nut.

That’s a lot of wrenches.

So instead, the socket wrench is broken into two pieces: the bit that fits on the nut, called the socket, and the bit you hold in your hand, which has some cams and pinions inside so it will turn in only one direction (and a little lever on the back so you can set it for screwing on or screwing off), called the ratchet. They snap together using a big square boss on the ratchet and a matching hole on the socket.

Naturally, it would be unwieldy to use the same ratchet that can handle a socket for a 35mm nut to turn a socket for a 5mm nut.  so there are a few different size big square parts. They have names like “quarter-inch”, “three-eighths inch”, and so on. And I’m sure those names have something to do with the size of the boss—the smaller named ones are smaller—but they’re not as simple as just measuring it. You just have to learn to recognize the different sizes.  Luckily there are few and they’re different enough that there’s little chance of mistaking one for the other. Generally the smaller sized sockets go on the smaller sized ratchets, but there is a large overlap where you can get a given size socket to fit either of two different sized ratchets.

Of course you still always seem to end up with a 1/4″ socket you need to snap onto a 3/8″ ratchet. So there are adapters. Usually only down (small socket on big ratchet), and usually only one step.

Sometimes you need to reach the socket way down deep or past an obstruction to get the socket on the nut and have the ratchet somewhere where you can actually turn it. So there are extension rods in various lengths. And “wobble connectors” and bendy joints.

The sockets themselves can be had in 6-point (to exactly fit a normal nut) or 12-point (More common. Easier to get onto the nut at the cost of a little bit of the leverage, and as a bonus they’ll fit the oddball square nuts), and regular and deep socket (the deep ones are invaluable for getting onto a nut that is threaded far down a long bolt…) There are also some special sockets for special uses; spark-plug sockets for instance are a little deeper than normal and have a rubber grommet inside to grip the end of the spark plug and keep it in the socket when it’s not threaded into its hole. And you can get parts that fit onto your ratchets that will drive other things, like some of the bigger hex keys or star-drive keys. I’ve even seen a thing that fits onto the ratchet and turns a car’s oil filter, which is like 5 inches across.

Basically socket wrenches are a way to build the tool need to turn that nut.

I’ve never broken a socket. Or any part of a socket set except a ratchet. So I don’t much worry about the quality of the sockets, and pay careful attention to the quality of the ratchets I buy. There are a few brands that are guaranteed for life; Craftsman used to be but I hear they no longer are. Snap-On still are. So pay attention to the guarantee, and also to the quality: “guaranteed for life” is fine, but still annoying if you have to go get it replaced every few weeks.

Like with drill bits, what will happen is that you’ll buy a set of sockets to start out with (they come in metric and “SAE” (which is what sockets measured in inches are marked. Has to do with auto mechanics somehow. It’s not important to me to know why); you’ll inevitably need both), and use three or four of them all the time while the rest languish. But no way of knowing which few your adventures will call for, so buy the set. And again like drill bits you can buy them individually if you find you need a deep 12-point 7/16″ socket.

Sometimes, you need a lot of leverage. For that you need a “breaker bar“, which looks a lot like a ratchet, but has no ratchet mechanism. It’s just a long lever with a boss on the end to put a socket onto. And if that’s still not long enough you can slip a piece of pipe onto it and have a really long lever if that’s what you need. If you do that, something is going to break. Hopefully the nut will break free from being stuck. More likely your bolt with snap off with the nut still attached. (Or the head of the bolt will snap off, if that’s what you’re trying to turn.) You’ve got it open, but now you have a lot more work to do getting the rest of the bolt out before you can put your thing back together.

That’s why they call it a breaker bar. (Don’t try that trick with the pipe on a ratchet. You’ll just break the ratchety-parts.)

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