Recommended Archives

February 9, 2006

Milwaukee Close Quarter Drill

One of the tools I've liked for a long time is the Milwaukee close quarter drill. Some people might call it a "right angle drill" but the bit is really at an angle (55 degress) to the body which allows you to have some clearance for your hand. They are a bit uncommon, but so useful that they are worth giving a try. In case you haven't seen one, they look a bit like a duck:


That black thing near the chuck is a plastic shield to keep your fingers from getting torn up. The paddle switch is allows you to control it with one or all of your fingers. One thing to note is that it is easy to accidentally turn it on while changing bits. Usually the manufacturer recommends disconnecting the power while changing bits, or perhaps if you are daring you can hold the body with your thumb underneath the switch. The reverse switch is that little black bump near the back of the drill. It may seem inconvenient a lot of the time, but when you have one hand stuck in a tight space, having it at the back where your free hand can reach it is actually a good idea.

There are several advantages of this type of drilll:

  • The clearance needed to drill is much smaller. Depending on the length of the bit you can drill or drive screws in spaces much smaller than you can with an ordinary drill. I recently used it to mount drawer slides in a space less than 9 inches wide.
  • Where you grip the drill is much closer to the bit that you are driving. This gives you added control.
  • It looks more like a duck

Milwaukee makes both a 3/8" version (Model 0375-6) and a 1/2" version (0379-1). UPDATED: The old version is discontinued. Click here for my review of the replacement model 0370-20 I have the 3/8" and find it powerful enough. I'd think that the 1/2" would be heavier and more likely to break my wrist if it gets hung up in a tight space, but I could be wrong. Most 1/2" drills have an optional handle so you can hold them with both hands, but this does not and it would likely feel awkward boring big holes with it.

Regardless of the version the design of the drill makes it great for anything you need close control of. This means it is great for all light drilling and screw driving applications. The perfect drill to have around the house. Pair it up with a heavy duty 1/2" drill and you have just about everything you need.

Buy from Amazon

February 13, 2006

If I had a hammer... Estwing Framing Hammer

No one seems to use framing hammers that much anymore. Air-powered nailers can tack things together more quickly and without disturbing the work by banging on it. But the framing hammer should not be forgotten even if it is not just used for framing. With their substantial mass they are great for demolition or heavy hammering. In both of these cases my favorite hammer is one of these:

The simple reason is that they are nearly indestructable. The nylon vinyl grip lasts forever. The head and shaft are one piece so the head can never come loose and even if you leave it out in the rain for a year or two you can just scrub off the surface rust and keep hammering. A wooden handle would never survive. Of course there is a downside. With such a solid piece of steel vibration is probably higher than you might get from wooden or composite handles, and the blue plastic handle is not as pretty as the leather or polished wood on some designer hammers, but as a basic big hammer, this is about the best I've seen.

February 28, 2006

Vise Grip Pliers


This pair of vise-grip pliers has been with me for about 20 years and were old when I got them. Vise-grip pliers were first patented in 1924 and have been made in various configurations ever since. Sometime in the 40's the patent expired and a bunch of knock-offs were created, but in my opinion, none of the cheap ones can rival the original. Generally the copies don't clamp as smoothly or feel awkward in the hand. The original Vise-Grips are contoured to fit your hand well.

I find that this seve inch pair works best for most things. They are small and light enough to fit in the toolbelt easily. The larger size is OK, but for bigger work I'd usually reach for channel-locks or lineman's pliers or a wrench so the smaller ones get more use. They also make a variety for clamping things while welding and for bending sheetmetal. The welding ones are OK, but the sheetmetal working ones are kind of a waste. I get better results beating on the tin with a block of wood.

The picture shows the only real problem with them - the plating is not that robust so they tend to get rust spots and corrosion and start looking bad. This doesn't affect their function much, and to be fair, these are quite old, but I have other old tools which don't look like this.

A small pair of these should be in every toolbox to hold and pinch things and even cut wire. Just don't use them on any fasteners you want to reuse.

March 9, 2006

Compasses, dividers and Scribes


Geometry is an important part of a lot of woodworking. Most of the time, the work is based on straight lines and a fixed set of angles (90, 45, 22.5 ...) but still a compass can be useful to lay things out. And even more useful is a set of dividers as shown here. Dividers differ from compasses in that they don't "draw" anything. There is no pencil or pen on the end of them, just two sharp points. When people used to draw things by hand dividers were used to transfer measurements and they take their name from dividing a line into parts. One sets the width of the divider to an approximate size and then "walks" the divider down the line. A little fine adjustment is then done to make sure that the last step ends up at the end of the line and then you can use the points to mark the divisions.

In wood working such a tool is also handy to transfer measurements with much higher accuracy than reading a tape measure. Because of the sharp points you can measure and mark at the same time.

I use a set of dividers from a drafting set because in my experience these are of much higher quality and precision than those commonly sold for carpenters and the like. And, fortunately thanks to the rise of CAD and the death of manual drafting there are tons of old drafting sets out there on ebay for very resonable prices. If you are only after the divider a set with missing pieces is probably the best buy. Just look carefully at the pictures to see if it has a set of dividers (typically there are a pair or a small and large one).

Given better quality, higher precision and cheap price, cannablizing an old drafting set is a good way to improve your toolbox.

March 21, 2006

Setting Things Straight - Stabila 187 Level Review


I've used bad and good levels. Some with broken or misadjusted vials, some "I-beam" levels which catch stuff in the flanges and the brand I finally settled on is Stabila. I haven't found anything better.

I prefer the 187 series to the 80 series level as they are designed for masonry which means they can be hit with trowels and the like. They are a bit heavier than the general purpose, but have the same basic function. The advantages are so simple and obvious that other level makers are now producing copies. Here is what I like about it.

  • Sealed box beam construction - doesn't trap stuff, no flanges to bend. Stable and resists twisting. Easy to wash when you are using with concrete/mortar.
  • Non-marking rubber end caps -allow you to more easily hold the level steady with one hand, bracing the rubber end against a wall or floor.
  • Big bright unbreakable sealed vials - don't break or get out of alignment. Work with the level both flat or on edge. The top vial is easily visible from above the level. This is IMPORTANT. Guaranteed for life...
  • Yellow - so I can find it.
  • Accurate - what good is a level which is not?

Of course it is not completely perfect. Occasionally I wish it was just an inch or two longer so I could use it as a straight edge to mark across 4' wide sheet goods (this may not be an issue with their newer levels which are allegedly 48"), and the price is somewhat higher than some others, but considering that the one I'm showing here has been at work in a couple of continents for more than a decade, the value of their solid construction is well worth paying for.

Stabila makes a wide range of levels including level sets for door framing, torpedo levels and magnetic levels. I don't have personal experience with any of these, so check them out carefully before you buy, but if they are anything like the 187 series, they are definitely worth a look. stabila-187-level.jpg

April 22, 2006

Swanson Speed Square Review

Swanson Speed Square

The Swanson speed square is an old favorite. It was invented in 1930 by Albert J. Johnson and has had a few additional features added over the years. The one I'm showing is from around 1988. They had just added that little diamond that you see which is at the 3 1/2 inch mark. The "diamond" is apparently their trademark.

The speed square combines a number of tools in one. It is a rafter square, miter square, try square, scribing guide, protractor and most notably a good saw guide. In profile it is shaped like a T, so if you want to make a quick square cut across some lumber with a circular saw you just slap this thing down, hold it with your left hand with the top of the T along the edge of the lumber and run your saw along the square edge of it. Being substantially thicker than a carpenters square, the saw won't easily ride up on the square.

I like this 6 inch version as it easily slips into a tool bag. They are pretty indestructable too. I think that all the models come with the "Little Blue Book" which explains the use of the rafter tables which are stamped into the tool. After about 20 years I'm not sure where that book is anymore, but it is pretty simple to figure out without it. This is the kind of tool you go out and buy again if you ever find you have lost it.
Update: Added an article on how to use swanson speed square here

April 30, 2006

Iwata HP-BCS Airbrush Review


Choosing an airbrush is difficult as each different airbrush involves a compromise of one sort or another. For example, go with a very precise high end airbrush like one of Iwata's "Custom Micron" series and get both precise lines as well as big prices for replacement parts. In the end it all comes down to how speciallzed your work is.

My uses for an airbrush are not specialized at all. I want it to do just about everything from painting small objects to stencils to artwork. For that reason I ended up with an Iwata HP-BCS. It has a large 0.5mm needle so I can spray pretty thick paints, but still has delicate enough control that I can produce fine lines. I thought originally that I'd want a cup style airbrush so I could more easily mix color, but then decided that the bottom-feed bottles let me mix up a large and consistant quantity at once instead of having to try and match what I had done before in a small cup.

The action on this brush is smooth and positive. Even a six year old can produce decent results with it once you set the air pressure correctly. Cleaning is fairly simple too, but letting it sit or running through incompatible paints can sometimes require disassembly to make sure it is completely clean. This is not a big problem though and some tuning of the workflow is probably all I need here.

On top of this, the price is right. You can probably find one for somewhat less than $100. I was considering the more expensive HP-CH, but it is about twice the price. It certainly offers the ability to paint finer details, but for now I'm quite satisfied with the HP-BCS.

May 14, 2006

Japanese Ryoba Handsaw


If you haven't tried a Japanese two-sided (what is called a ryoba) saw, you should. Particularly if you are working with softwoods. There are a number of advantages over Western pattern saws:

  • The ryoba has a rip saw on one side and a cross-cut saw on the other.
  • The saw cuts on the pull stroke so it is under tension when cutting and won't bend or buckle when it sticks.
  • The blade is thinner which means less wood is cut and thus less effort is required.
  • The long handle helps you line up the cut.

The first item on the list bears a bit of explaining. Saws are designed differently according to how they will cut the wood. In general, saws to cut across the grain (cross-cut) have blades which cut the wood. The edge of the tooth is shaped more like a knife and cuts the fibers of the wood. A rip saw which cuts with the grain of the wood has teeth which are shaped more like a chisel and take bites out of the wood. You can see the difference in these two illustrations:.

e-nokoha1.jpg e-nokoha3.jpg

Of course, Western pattern saws have advantages too. I think they show up more when cutting hardwoods though. I mostly am cutting softwoods and find that the ryoba is more useful to me than the classical Western saw. But here are the advantages of the Western saw:

  • Cuts on the push stroke so you can put some of the weight of your body behind it.
  • Thicker blade means that it is stiffer and may help you get started on a straighter cut.
  • Some find the typical pistol-grip handle wo tbe more comfortable.
  • Deeper tone when playing the saw
  • Sawdust ends up on the other side of the wood from you.

There are probably some more, but for now, there aren't enough to make me switch. It takes a bit of practice and some attention to your stance to use it well, but the same is true of almost any tool.

There are a number of other patterns of Japanese saws as well. Some are rounded so you can start cutting in the middle of a panel, others have reinforced backs like a Western backsaw. If you want to learn more and see some pictures of the other types of saws, this site offers a bit of history:

May 17, 2006

Ridgid 2610 6 inch Random Orbital Sander Review


Pictured is a Ridgid 2610 6 inch Random Orbital Sander (ROS). As with a large number of things nowadays, it isn't really made BY Ridgid, but is actually made in West Germany by Metabo. It is very nearly the same as their highly regarded Metabo SXE 450 Duo sander. The Metabo isn't easy to find in the US, but this tool can be picked up off the shelf at Home Depot for less money than the Metabo. As far as sanders go it is the best I've used. The positives are:

  • Smooootth - vibration and noise are minimal.
  • Adjustable - the orbital motion can be set to 1/4" or 1/8" eccentricity to allow fast removal or fine work
  • Positive dust collection hookup - the dust collector adapter has a twist lock connection so the hose doesn't come loose like some other brands. Adapter fits both 2" and 1 1/4" hose.
  • Massive - this helps when sanding flat surfaces...(see negatives)
  • Convenient - small touches like the illuminated plug identifier and the velco cord wrap just make life a bit easier when you have it plugged in with a bunch of other stuff. The removable front handle comes off easily to fit into corners better (not shown in picture)
  • Solid - I haven't used it for several years yet, but it certainly feels as if it can go the distance.

There are a few things which are not ideal about it however. In my opinion they are minor compared to the other benefits:

  • Does it have to be orange?
  • The mass which is useful on horizontal surfaces (basically it sands under it's own power and you just float it over to where you want it to sand) has to be overcome when working vertically. Being a 6" instead of a 5" is the biggest factor here.
  • 6" sandpaper is slightly less common so you may not see as much available if your local store has a limited selection of disks

Some thing to be careful of is that the 5" ridgid ROS is NOT the same. It is built to a different level of specification and was built in an entirely different factory in an entirely different country. In the future the 2610 or its follow-on may be built differently. Look for the "made it West Germany" marking and check the build quality in person if a new model comes out.

May 23, 2006

Stanley vs. Steve - Battle of the Planes


This #4 Bailey plane is a refugee from sometime before WWII. I'm not sure exactly when it was made, but it is one of a large number of cast-iron planes which were common before the age of power tools. Of course, since it is cordless it is still usable. Cast iron planes like this had a few advantages over the wooden bodied planes they displaced.:

  • Levers and screws for adjusting the plane blade. The lever which is visible at the top of the plane skews the blade from side to side to make sure it is going to cut an even depth across the width of the blade. The brass adjusting knob sets the distance that the blade extends from the sole. This controls the depth of the cut.
  • Cast-iron bodies don't warp with changes in humidity (they rust)
  • Cast iron soles wear longer and therefore the mouth of the plane - essential for taking a fine cut - stays consistant over time.
  • They are easily mass-produced and the final adjustment can be made by the user.

This was probably one of the first planes I owned. I'm sure I picked it up at a garage sale or flea market, brought it home, sharpened it up and used it for things like planing door bottoms or putting a chamfer on posts. It is great for rough work. While it works well, it is not perfect. And in fact, getting better meant taking a step backwards.


This is what I mean by going backwards. No more iron. No more screw/lever adjustments. Just a block of wood, a wedge, and a couple of set screws. This is a plane made by Steve Knight sometime early this century. Steve is one of a handful of retro-plane makers who take the designs of the past and re-interpret them in new materials or in differing ways. In this case, some of the woods are not traditional. The sole is made of Ipe - a hard tropical wood and the thing is laminated together using modern glues. The dark-brown l piece of wood is held in by a couple of screws and is used to control the width of the mouth of the plane as it wears. But really the biggest change between this and the other plane is the thickness of the blade.

As you can see from the two photos below, the Stanley blade is thin. It is about an eighth of an inch thick and thus is somewhat flexible. The chip-breaker (the curved piece above the blade) adds some minimal support to it, but it does not compare to the very thick blade on the Steve Knight smoother.


With this thicker blade, and a mouth that can be closed down to a very fine width, the Steve Knight plane can take much finer cuts than the Stanley ever did for me. It has a couple of other advantages as well:

  • Wooden body is warm and easy on the hands.
  • The shape allows shifting your grip depending on the direction you are planing
  • Slides well over the workpiece and is incapable of leaving a rust mark
  • Retro / Handmade feel
  • Thicker blade is easier to get a nice flat edge on.
  • Can flatten the sole quickly by running it over some sandpaper

There are some disadvantages to it. Adjustment is done by tapping the blade with a mallet. It can take a while to get the hang of that. Potentialy the wood could warp and twist, but so far it seems very stable in the moderate climate I live in.

So for fine work the victor of the battle is actually the simpler of the two. Of course for rougher work I still pull out the cast iron plane. Nothing wrong with having more than one tool for the job.

Some plane links:

  • For history and Identification of Stanley planes nothing beats Patrick Leach's "Blood and Gore" site
  • For more about Steve Knight's planes go to the source: Knight Toolworks
  • HNT Gordon offers some lovely wood and brass shoulder planes at their store.
  • St. James Bay offers a number of planes based on old designs.

There are a number of other boutique plane makers out there like those of Thomas Lie-Nielsen who updates classical designs or the new Veritas line of planes from Lee Valley which seek to add new features while updating traditional designs.

May 29, 2006

Bessey K Body Clamp Review


These clamps are great. The reason is simple. The wide square jaws stay parallel and don't bend out of square like some cheaper clamps - for example the blue Record clamps I bought which are almost useless because they flex so much. The jaw of the clamp travels very smoothly up and down the bar. Newer models are further improved with a removable end piece so that the clamping action can be reversed - turning the clamp into a spreader. Here are some of the advantages

  • Smooth
  • Powerful
  • Parallel non-stick, non-marring jaws
  • Reversible

There are a few accessories that go with them like blocks to set up 4 clamps to glue cabinet doors or drawers, and a clamp attachment which hooks on the bar and lets you clamp in a second direction. I have the clamp attachment and almost never use it. Disadvantages are that they are fairly heavy, and can be expensive. However, in the past few years they have been offered on sale at least once a year through Amazon, Lee Valley or other woodworking suppliers. Wait until then and stock up. You can't get a better woodworking clamp than these.

August 30, 2006

Mail order tools from Lee Valley

I generally like to buy things from nearby. It strengthens the local economy and is easy to take something back if there is anything wrong with it. But I make an exception for a couple of companies. Lee Valley is one of them. The reason is that they do business as if they really care about their customers.

Their catalog and website highlights the strengths (and weaknesses) of the things they sell. I have not had to deal with their customer service, but every report I hear has been that they do whatever it takes to retain a satisfied customer.

What is more, they also design and build new innovative products. Some are improvements on existing ideas like their series of hand planes, and others are jigs and measuring tools which help get the job done better than before. With these qualities is it any wonder that they have outgrown their native Canada and spread to the US and beyond?

The best way to get acquainted with them is to visit their website and if you are interested, sign up to receive a catalog. The next woodworking catalog is due out in early September.

May 1, 2009

Corona Aluminum Handle Bypass Loppers Review

These are the best loppers I've used. I've broken the handles on a couple of wood handled loppers over the years, but the aluminum handles on these are both stronger and lighter and can get wet without cracking and getting splintery. They are also replaceable as are the cutting blades. You can take the blade off pretty easily to sharpen it when the need arises too.

The bypass style doesn't give quite as much leverage as you would get with a geared anvil type lopper, but I think that the blades stay sharp longer with this style, and there is plenty of leverage for cutting anything that you would use a lopper on. Anything too big to cut whith these you should be sawing anyway. But note that if you are frequently cutting bigger branches you should get the type with 31" handles instead of the 24".

You can see a bit of rust near the blades from the times when SOMEONE in the house has left them out in the rain or sprinklers, but the plastic coated handles are fine even after long exposure to the sun.

One minor feature which bears mention is the set of rubber pads you can see right near the pivot point. They really do work to cushion the impact you get when the blades cut through, Anvil cutters meet with a sharp snap. These cut past the end and then those rubber pads cushion the blow. When you are chopping a lot of stuff, the little touches make your day nicer. Occasionally I tuck one handle under my arm and cut one handed. In that position, a soft cut is appreciated!

Overall, I don't think you could do much better than these loppers. I'd buy another pair, but I have a feeling this 10 year old pair is not going to wear out anytime soon. Mine is an older model so it does not have the "Stratashear" teflon-coated blades like the #AL 8240, but they are fine without it.

May 19, 2009

Shubb Deluxe Capo Review


A capo clamps on the neck of a guitar just behind one of the frets and allows you to easily change the key that you are playing in without changing the fingering - or the inverse, lets you change the fingering without changing the key, but if you are reading this review you probably already know that. Slipping a capo on can completely change the tone of your guitar from a loud and boomy strummer to a quiet finger-picker.

The easy way to make a capo is with a rubber band and a pencil, but some rubber bands can rot the finish on the guitar and the pencil can roll about and buzz. So a whole science of capo's has come about. There are capos like the Dunlop and Kyser which are like a clothes pin and clamp on using spring force. There are those like the Victor and Planet Waves and Elliot which use a screw clamp and there is the Shubb which uses a lever and roller.

The advantage of the Shubb design is that you can never put it on too tightly - a too tight capo pulls your strings out of tune. The lever design goes on and off quickly. I guess I should mention that it is so solidly built that unless you drive over it with your car, it probably won't wear out in your lifetime. My favorite model is the Shubb Deluxe due to the all stainless steel construction and the roller on the lever. It rides in a little track and makes operation very smooth.

The disadvantages are that when you remove this capo, you have to put it somewhere. Spring clip capos can clamp on the headstock, but you will probably want to slip the small Shubb into your pocket. Even though it is pretty small, it is solidly constructed of stainless steel so it may be a bit heavier than aluminum models, but it will last longer as well. The Shubb Deluxe capo is well worth the price paid.

November 5, 2009

Tale of two cycles

It was the best of times

It was the worst of times

In the 70's I liked things on two wheels. I always wanted a nice bicycle with chrome forks and stays, Reynold's 531 tubing and alloy rims. But I didn't have one.

Instead I had a Yamaha RD400 with alloy rims, drilled brake disks and clubman handlebars. I had a great time on it, even though it wanted to throw you off the back when you twisted the throttle too hard.

But times have changed. Now, courtesy of a local garage sale I have that 70's bicycle with chrome forks and stays, 531 tubing and a Brooks Professional seat. The flexy French PX10 Peugeot is as vintage as it can get. But on the other hand, I don't have an RD400, just the memory.

December 24, 2009

Two new blogs added

This one is for children's arts and crafts

This blog covers Legos, NXT and other interesting things.

Expect both of them to grow slowly.

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