The Pragmatist: You want them, you need them, and these power tools will pay for themselves.
Put a new tool in the hands of some people, guys especially, and they become giddy at the prospect of all the jobs they can now do. For me, it means one more thing to feel stupid about, and one less excuse to blow off a project that surely could wait another week.
Part of me would like to become that other guy, but such a conversion requires a bit of cash and a bigger measure of wisdom.
The very basic set of tools I own is good for home repairs and maintenance, and some simple work, like installing shelves or a shower head. But are there other tools — better tools — that would inspire me to chase down ambitious projects instead of fleeing them?
I put the question to three home improvement specialists: Gordon Bock, an author of “The Vintage House” and former editor in chief of Old House Journal; Duo Dickinson, an architect and the author of “Staying Put,” a manual on home remodeling; and Bob Vila, whose syndicated home improvement series jump-started a genre, and whose videos can now be seen at BobVila.com.
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What I needed, they told me, was a good set of aspirational tools. But a set like that leans heavily on the power-tools category, and could therefore make your bank account tilt.
Though, as Bock put it, “good tools don’t cost — they pay for themselves in improved work and long service.”
If a set of basic tools (hammer, handsaw, jigsaw, drill, screwdriver, level, tape measure, pliers, Vise-Grips, adjustable wrench and socket wrenches) costs around $150, the next step up costs roughly double that.
Nevertheless, within hours of adding the 10 other items they recommended to my workshop, I had taken on a door-modification project that I’d ignored for a full decade, and I completed it in two hours. Had I paid a carpenter for the work, it might have cost as much as buying all of those tools.
At Bock’s recommendation, the first item on my list of new tools was an 18-volt cordless drill.
“It’s almost de rigueur,” he said, and the tools have improved in recent years.
“It used to be that 24 volts was the sweet spot for a tool with power and durability,” Bock said. “But now you can get the same thing in a smaller package. They’re just incredible.”
You can buy one for around $60, but my panelists strongly advised me to get one with a spare battery, so I wouldn’t have to worry about losing power midway through a project. Extra rechargeable batteries cost about $30.
What’s the best way to shop for a drill? Vila said that most builders and carpenters choose the major brands carried at home improvement specialty stores and local hardware retailers. Bosch, DeWalt, Hitachi, Makita, Skil and Craftsman, he said, are good ones to consider.
A battery-powered circular saw is another good thing to have, Bock said, “especially if you’re outside working on a fence or up on a roof, where you don’t want to drag a cord.”
Like cordless drills, battery-powered circular saws start at around $60 for models with 5 ½-inch blades, which will handle most basic tasks. The least expensive 6 ½-inch models sell for about $100.
Bock’s next recommendation was slightly more controversial. He suggested buying the cordless version of a tool I’d long coveted for its destructive potential: a reciprocating saw. Also known by one of its brand names, a Sawzall, it’s good for demolition and for cutting through walls.
Or body parts, Dickinson noted.
“It’s the greatest tool in America, and second only to chain saws as the most dangerous,” he said.
“I know my limits,” Dickinson continued. “If I’m doing a project at home, it’s usually before or after work, when I’m tired, or distracted, and I don’t trust myself with anything dangerous.”
Aside from severing a finger, Dickinson said, reciprocating saw users might be tempted to blindly cut through a wall containing live wires.
Duly spooked, I sought a tiebreaker.
Vila came down on the side of Team Sawzall.
Envisioning my next credit-card statement, I felt a good sweat coming on. But Vila said I could buy a combination cordless kit with a drill and circular and reciprocating saws for $200.
It was the first time someone from the construction industry gave me an estimate that was actually high. An 18-volt tool kit from Ryobi, with a flashlight, drill, 5 ½-inch circular saw and reciprocating saw costs about $150. The kit even includes a spare battery.
Dickinson, who runs a firm in Connecticut, chose as his top tool recommendation a multipiece drilling-and-driving set, which vastly expands the utility of a cordless drill.
“This thing has changed my life,” he said. “I can be fearless when I attack a job, because no matter what I might need, it’s all here.”
His set is a DeWalt 80-piece drill-and-drive set, which sells for about $30 and includes nut-setters, roughly 20 drill bits and more than 50 screw-driving tips. For those with more specialized woodworking needs, Ryobi sells a 90-piece drill-and-drive set that includes tools for boring and circular cuts.
With a multipiece kit, Dickinson said, you can choose bits of different sizes and shapes that come in handy if, for instance, you are trying to remove a screw that someone stripped as it was put in place.
In other words, I’ll be able to deal with all of the screws I previously wrecked, for lack of the proper screwdriver. It will also help replace some of the driver bits that mysteriously disappeared the last time my teenage son used them.
If I’m going to embark on more ambitious home improvement projects, I should resign myself to making a mess of the work space.
On this front, Bock made a nice recommendation: a wet-dry vacuum, more commonly known as a Shop-Vac. They’re far less expensive than I’d previously imagined (a Ridgid six-gallon model is $47), and they’ll suck up substances that would destroy a typical vacuum.
“You don’t think of it as a tool,” he said, “but you get addicted to it.”
Slightly less addictive is the noise it generates, which is like what you’d hear if you were strapped to the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Grab some earmuffs, Bock suggested (ones by MSA Safety Works cost around $18), or a good set of earplugs (3M TEKK Protection, $3 for seven pairs), if you can wear them comfortably.
Also on the list of low-tech tools were a few that can help save homeowners from writing big checks to contractors.
Vila suggested an auger for unclogging toilets or drains. “Plumbers charge such enormous amounts that for $15 you might be able to do a serious unclogging that saves you a lot of dough,” he said.
I found none for $15, but I did find a three-foot Ridgid toilet auger that cost about $34, and a six-foot model that was $50. Both would pay for themselves in the time it would take a plumber to walk from his truck to your front door.
Another of Vila’s favorite money-saving gadgets is a spline ($5 for a Home Depot brand), which is a specialty tool for replacing screens. “Once you get the hang of it, it’s easy,” he said. “And if you have someone else do it for you, it triples the cost.”
Vila suggested a set of wire strippers as well ($16 for Klein Tools wire strippers). “If you’ve ever tried to rewire an old lamp, they’re very handy,” he said.
He also recommended a hatchet. But as I studied a shelf filled with shiny, expensive blades, I backed into a display for a Workmate portable workbench ($30) and got that instead.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to fix a bike as it squirms atop a garbage can, or pushed a circular saw within centimeters of the pavement, simply for lack of a proper work surface.
I also can’t count the number of jobs I’ve avoided for the same reason. I grabbed a Workmate and the rest of my new tools, and headed home for my long-overdue door-modification project.
The door belongs to a guest bathroom, and since it is almost an inch and a half too short for the doorway, people who use the bathroom have little aural privacy.
I pulled the door from its hinges, steadied it on the Workmate (which took about a half-hour to assemble), drove to the lumberyard for a $2 piece of wood, drilled pilot holes in the wood, added some wood glue and secured the piece with a few screws.
It was too big by a hair, so I trimmed the piece with the circular saw, and the deed was done. At last.
Next to that door, the most vexing characteristic of my house is the lack of light on the eastern side, which makes my office cavelike in the morning. A window would make a huge difference. All I need is a framing tutorial and something to cut a hole through wallboard, studs and aluminum siding.
I think I’ve got just the tool for the job.