Cool Tools 2014 Holiday Gift Guide: Kevin’s Picks

This month we’ve run a series of gift suggestions. In our final installment, Cool Tools founder Kevin Kelly selects his favorite toolish gifts. Happy holidays!

tile
Stick N Stack Magnetic Tiles ($150) 

Magna-tiles are large plastic shapes with super magnets buried along their edges so that they can be linked into solid sculptures. They are an open ended construction system that can make tall and complex buildings very fast. They are a lot of fun for kids who are too small to use Legos. We’ve reviewed them previously on Cool Tools.

To do much with them, though, you need lots of tiles, which can get expensive. But now there are a number of cheaper knock-offs, or alternative systems, that are compatible with Magna-Tiles. Brands include PicassoTile, Connect Tiles and Stick N Stack. These systems work interchangeably with Magna-Tiles — their magnets line up exactly in the same places on the same sized pieces. They seem to be just as durable, but they are cheaper. I have the 150 piece Stick N Stack set and the pieces work perfectly with my MagnaTile pieces, and they come in a few more shapes, such as windows, arches, and frames. With a large set like this, the magnets allow even small kids (and grownups) to rapidly build complicated structures.

rookie

Perplexus Rookie ($20) 

The Perplexus is a 3D maze that requires concentration and dexterity to solve. It’s designed so you keep advancing to levels of greater difficulty, but you need to start over if you die. However starting over is easy. The kinetic manipulation of your hands needed to solve this resemble the twitches of a video game controller, but there are no electronics at all in this game. It’s a lot of fun because it is so physical, but it is not easy to solve. We previously recommended this as a great Cool Tools toy that won’t get old very fast, and will never need batteries.

Still, I never made it to the end (although my teenage kids did). To give beginners more a chance, Perplexus came out with a simpler version called the Rookie. I can actually complete this one, and so can 6-year olds. At the same time they also released two more difficult Perplexus versions for that smarty-pants in your family who found the original Perplexus too easy. The Perplexus Twist ($25) requires some problem solving and the Perplexus Epic ($22) is epically difficult to complete. All three of these (and the original) are beautiful works of art that could also sit in a glass display case with ease.

 

beast

Mini Strandbeest ($19) 

This is a kit for assembling a small working version of Theo Jansen’s famous walking machines called Strandbeests. Jansen’s original contraptions were larger than human machines made of PVC pipes that would walk along the beaches in the Netherlands, powered by the fierce winds. This miniature kit version uses the same geometry. The tiny Strandbeests can be powered by a hair dryer or small fan. This kit is released as a special issue of a Japanese magazine, but it comes with a minimal set of instructions in English. It is not difficult to assemble (most parts are duplicated) needing about 2 hours for someone say 8 or older. To appreciate the genius of its design, be sure to watch any of Jansen’s video of the large-scale machines in action.

There are other knock-offs which I have not built yet.

anatomy

4D Vision Anatomical Models
Human Head Model ($19)
Eyeball Model ($15)
Human Muscle And Skeleton Anatomy Model ($17)

These plastic anatomical models are inexpensive and small. Putting them together from even smaller pieces is a bit of a puzzle, in that the directions are almost non existent. You have to just see how your body parts fit. Younger children will need help, and even adults may be challenged. Yet the models are highly detailed, informative, revealing, and for an anatomical model, incredibly cheap. I have put together the eyeball, the heart, the muscle man, and head. I learned a lot about each by putting them together. In addition to being instructive and useful for health education, they make great displays. — KK

 

scope

Brock Microscope ($156)

Expensive but indestructible. This is the microscope that science museums and public education teachers use. These scopes take a lot of abuse, yet are simple to use. I’ve also seen them used on sailboats because they don’t corrode. It has only one moving part, no electricity, and provides decent magnification. We keep one out on the table at our home, with the philosophy that the best microscope is the one that is open and ready to use. It’s fine for very young kids to use all by themselves, with almost no instruction. It will last several lifetimes. You can easily make micro photographs by holding a camera or phone right against the eye piece.

Want more gift ideas? Take a look at our other 2014 Holiday Gift Guide and 2013 Holiday Gift Guide posts.

-- KK  



Opalpix

Worlds best toothpick!  Has a pleasing, textured surface and the perfect shape to maximize crumb-picking effectiveness from your teeth and gums.  The very small, pocketable plastic case makes it easy to always have a fresh pick at hand (each case holds 32 picks), yet these last for quite a few uses. I enjoy them as a simple, effective pleasure.  A brilliant solution that once you try, you’ll never go back to wood.

-- Dave  

Opalpix 32ct., 6 packs 192 total picks
$11

Available from Amazon



Hole Template

We went with IKEA for our kitchen remodel and saved a lot of money putting it all in ourselves. However, when it came time to install the handles on the cabinets, I tried carefully measuring the first one I did and it did not work very well. Then I found IKEA sells a drill template for just this purpose, it makes it trivial to install handle after handle in the same spot each time, and the handles came out great. The drill template aligns with one side of the cabinet door and you can mark and drill in seconds. I used a Sharpie to circle the holes that I was marking to make it even easier to know which holes in the template I was using.

-- Jeff Lorenzini  

Fixa Drill template
$2

Available from Ikea



 

Ryan Block, Cofounder of Engadget [Cool Tools Show #17]

Subscribe to the Cool Tools Podcast on iTunes |RSS | Transcript | Download MP3 | See all the Cool Tools Show posts on a single page

Our guest this week is Ryan Block. He’s the co-founder of gdgt, and the co-founder and former editor of Engadget. These days he is VP of Product at Aol, and is co-host of MVP, a show about technology products. Quality and staying power are the primary criteria in Ryan’s list of essential day-to-day tools. His impeccable taste for the tried-and-true tools is revealed in the invaluable picks and advice offers in this episode.

Amazon Prime ($99/year)

“You have the infinite store shelf of Amazon and it shows up in two days. Access to all of the best products in just about anything you can imagine is insanely powerful if you’re a believer in the Cool Tools philosophy and that’s why, to me, Amazon Prime is the uber-tool on top of everything. It allows you to acquire the best of anything at any time.”

Bruer ($79)

“…Bruer is a home cold brewer that is extremely easy to manage, clean to operate…they did a really nice job with it. It’s got really nice high quality glass. It’s not Pyrex so it will definitely shatter if you drop it. It’s got these pretty good silicon seals on it and it’s just ridiculously easy to operate. It makes about 24 to 25 ounces of cold brew at a time and it’s now my primary means of drinking coffee…”


KitchenAid Stand Mixer ($262)

“When you’ve got a stand mixer you find things to do with it that you might not think of normally doing with it. That’s one of the things that makes a great Cool Tool, when you buy it thinking you’ll use it for one thing and you wind up using it for so many other things.”

Tydlig ($2.99)

“In some ways it’s almost like highly interactive spreadsheet in calculator, but it does do a lot of other advanced graphing functions. All the things you would expect a good calculator app would do, it does.”

 



Pico Folding Armchair

We have been using the Pico Folding Armchair for the past three years on our boat and even at home when we were installing wood floors and our furniture was stored away. The chair, while not light or inexpensive, is far better engineered and more durable than the typical “camping” chair which lasts about a season before something fails. The chair folds and telescopes down to a small package that fits into the accompanying shoulder bag which is about the size of a laptop bag.

The bag has several pockets for storage of the things you are likely to need outside – water or drink bottle, book or magazine, etc. When the chair is is use, the carrying bag slides neatly over the backrest to provide additional storage for a towel, etc.

The chair itself has a comfortable sling-type seat, with armrests that have built in storage for your drink and a couple of zippable pockets for valuables, cellphone, etc.

The chair is perfect for the back yard, your boat, camper, outdoor concerts, and even for extra guests indoors.

-- David Jones  

Compact Folding Pico Telescoping Arm Chair
$105

Available from Amazon



Cool Tools 2014 Holiday Gift Guide: Readers’ Choice!

In the weeks leading up to the holidays, we’ll be presenting a series of gift suggestions. This week, we’ve asked some of our most active commenters to make gift recommendations.

light

Fenix MC11 Flashlight ($61) “As a stagehand for over 30 years I have spent a lot of time in the dark. All of us in this profession have a love of flashlights, as they are a very important tool in our trade. The MC11 flashlight gives me a choice of presetting the mode to blinding high, medium, or low light levels, strobe, and even SOS. It’s powered by a single AA battery so it is small (4″ overall) and a very easy carry. A really aggressive and strong clip means I can clip it to my belt or pocket or even a hat brim. The adjustable 90-degree tilting head is a great help. I can point the beam where I need to see it, and there is an easy-to-find pushbutton power switch on the top.” — Kent Barnes

light2

4Sevens Preon 2 Penlight ($41) “Aging eyes need more light, and this penlight is totally wonderful for men who generally wear a shirt with a pocket. I automatically reach for it in dim-light conditions, and also use it to search for things.” — Michael Ham

“My top recommendation for the holidays is the Kindle of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing ($10). A one-time Shinto shrine maiden, Kondo bases her “KonMari” method on the assumption that one’s house and all the objects in it have consciousness but, boy howdy, even if you’re a die-hard materialist, follow her method and you’ll zoom to a wiggy new oxygen-rich level of tidy.” — C.M. Mayo

The Flavor Bible ($26) “This book contains hundreds of charts listing ingredients and flavors that taste great together. It’s perfect for anyone who loves to experiment and create new recipes.” — Troy Packrat

“I’ve tried a couple of fancy honey dispensers, but the best one I’ve found is free. (That is, after paying for the honey it comes with.) It’s a 16-ounce plastic bottle of Safeway’s O-Organics honey. (Don’t get the larger sizes — they won’t work.) It dispenses honey only when the bottle is squeezed. When the pressure is released, a clever valve in the spout shuts off any further flow, so there are no dribbles. (Perhaps — in fact, probably — other sources have a similar bottle. It’s surprising that more don’t.)” — Roger Knights

Want more gift ideas? Take a look at our other 2014 Holiday Gift Guide and 2013 Holiday Gift Guide posts.

 



Metal Radiator Humidifier

Those of you who heat your house via a steam or hot water radiator system know the advantages: no noise, even heat, lots of warmth even once the system turns off, and more. We’ve lived in a radiator boiler driven home for 30 years and radiators are a wonderful source of heat.

But one huge problem is how to add humidity to the air. One traditional way was to set pots on top of shelves that fit on the top of the radiator but many radiators did not have such fitted shelves. Another was just to have pots or containers of water (or lots of plants) around the house. All OK, but not ideal in terms of efficiency. And, there are all kinds of radiator humidifiers, most of which hang off the front of the radiator, just itching to be bumped into and have the water spill.

Killian Hardware sells what they call an “old fashioned” radiator humidifier that fits in the opening of the radiator formed by the various fins of the radiator. It is a 16” long and about 4” high galvanized sheet metal container that has an opening on the end that you just keep filled with water. During the cold winter months ours (and we have two per radiator throughout the house) need to be filled about once every two days. Since they are galvanized, they won’t rust, but don’t try and clean it with CRB or some other mineral dissolving liquid because once you do that, it will rust (I have the data for that one!). The edges of these can be sharp so should be taped if there are little kids around. And, you need to order them during the summer months when they are not in demand, because the hardware store is almost always out of stock during the winter months.

radiator2

-- Neil J. Salkind  

Stainless Steel Radiator Humidifier
$20

Manufactured by William A Kilian Hardware.



Trek Light Gear Bindle Backpack

I love bags. I have backpacks, briefcases, messenger bags, hip packs, go bags, bust out bags – you name it, I have it. My wife and I have inadvertently started collection of eco-friendly grocery tote bags much like the Envirosax (reviewed on Cool Tools). Seems like every event or street fair we go to is selling them for cheap. But then I came across the Bindle Pack from Trek Light Gear.

The benefit of this bag over ANY grocery tote bag is three-fold. Firstly, it zips closed. I hate that when I put down the other eco totes, any items in it will spill out. Secondly, it is a fully-enabled backpack, so it is much more comfortable to carry your things. Thirdly, the Bindle Pack has TWO additional pockets, a very handy interior pouch to hold smaller items like your keys or phone and a zippered side pocket – I always wondered why the makers of those eco totes never added an additional small pocket for sundries.

The Bindle Pack is made of parachute nylon material. Accordingly it is very light and very strong. Although rated to carry 40 lbs. I have loaded mine up with up to 60 lbs. with no problems. Each Bindle Pack has a zippered main compartment, a handy interior pouch and an additional zippered side pocket to keep all your items organized and easily accessible. The Bindle Pack will fold up to an incredibly small 3″W x 3″H x 2.25″D when folded and expand to a sizeable backpack 10″W x 15″H x 6″D when in use (just under 15 liters or about 4 gallons by volume). Unbelievably, it only weighs 3 oz. True its not as big as an IKEA bag (reviewed on Cool Tools), but it is a LOT more portable.

I plan on buying multiple packs, leaving one in each of our cars, and hooking them at the doorknob of each door to remind us to take them. Lastly, TrekLightGear has partnered up with Be The Change Volunteers and for every backpack sold, they will deliver school supplies to one student/child around the world.

 

-- Alastair Ong  

Trek Light Gear Bindle Backpack
$33

Available from Amazon



 

What’s in My Bag? – John Baichtal

John Baichtal writes and edits books for MAKE, No Starch Press, and Que Publishing. His most recent books include Robot Builder, a book of basic robot-building techniques, and Maker Pro, a book of essays about making a living by making. John’s secret project for the past few years has been his first novel, The Locksmith’s Apprentice available on Amazon.

I do a lot of writing involving the stuff of workshops: tools, parts, materials. Consequently I use a lot of tools in my work. I’ve divided my gear into three categories—what I carry all of the time, my writing stuff, and my tool stuff.

wimb1

All the Time
This is what you’ll find in my pockets pretty much anytime I’m out of the house.

SOG Tools Model 61 Multitool ($57). This thing has everything I need for most day-to-day uses. It really is a case where I find myself needing it nearly every time I forget it at home.

My ring includes 8 GB Metal Key USB 2.0 Flash Drive ($7). I also have the RFID fob for my hackerspace, the Hack Factory.

Wallet: Kids gave it to me for Father’s Day one year.

Phone: iPhone 5s. I do lots of stuff on the phone including conducting interviews, taking pictures, and returning emails.

wimb2
Writing Stuff

MacBook Pro, way too old. I photoshopped the Voltron skin myself. When I’m in the coffee shop I get a large contingent of the under-five set who come up to talk about it.

Idea journal: Just a composition notebook. It takes me about 6-9 months to work through each one. Basically, I try to record every idea I come up with, with the date at the top, a topic, and a line separating it from the next topic.

The Nerdpack: A Magic the Gathering knapsack with Adafruit Patches, MAKE buttons, a solar phone charger, a mini tape measure, as well as a SparkFun LilyTwinkle sewn into the nylon with conductive thread.

Pelican ProGear Vault iPad Mini Case ($75): This absurdly armored case feels strong enough to deflect the charge of a rhino. The case’s bezel screws down over the tablet, making it impossible to fall out, and the screen cover can be removed if you don’t need it.

Anker Astro Portable Phone Charger ($46) 12,800 mAh, using standard USB everything. Its curving sides are completely featureless except for a cool LED ring that displays its current charge.

Lip balm. I’m not brand-loyal; Chap-Aid is just fine.

Index cards: I use these to organize my day. I jot down everything I’m supposed to get done. It often works.

Hitcase Phone Camera Mount ($15) is the kind of smartphone mount that you put on your ATV to record yourself driving through raging mountain streams. It consists of a very robust protective case, which locks into a variety of bases including a bike mount, a rollbar rig, a chest harness, and more. One base has an adhesive star at the bottom, which I applied to a MDF gear I lasered out at the space. In other words, it’s a really small tripod that I can put on a shelf, on top of piles of books, and so on.

My trusty Iomega eGo BlackBelt Portable External Hard Drive ($230 for 1.5 TB model) has saved my skin more than once. I plug it in and my laptop automatically backs up to it.

Crossfade M-100 Over-Ear Noise-Isolating Metal Headphone ($270): Sometimes you gotta put on your ‘phones to get anything done.

wimb3

Tools

Pelican 1460 Toolbox ($240): This sucker weighs 13 pounds empty, but it’s indestructible and huge enough to carry everything I need.

Extech 470 Multimeter ($116): A very handy and full-featured meter, the Extech 470 has all the usual features plus also packs an infrared thermometer. Also pictured is a K-type thermocouple, a temperature sensor that plugs into the meter. My favorite multimeter leads are banana-to-alligator, which is also one of the funniest adjectives I’ve ever heard.

Tape measure: I use mine all the time.

Nerdy safety goggles: I like these because they fit over my regular glasses and remind me of being a nerdy kid with a chemistry set.

USB cable: A nice short one like this one on Adafruit ($3). So much handier than those 4’ monstrosities I see draped across folks’ Arduinos.

BlackFire Flashlight ($20): This LED flashlight has a clever base that clamps onto poles and shelf-edges, but also can be stood up like a little tripod. I use this guy for normal flashlight purposes but also to illuminate close-up videos I’m shooting in low light.

Wall Wart ($12): Switchable from 5-12v and it comes with an octopus of different barrel diameters.

I designed and laser-cut my own proto board. It consists of an Arduino (or clone, in the photo) with a half-sized solderless breadboard stuck on the board next to it. I also included a bunch of mounting holes to add breakout boards to your circuit. The holes are Lego Technic-compatible so you can prototype your next Bricktronics project right on the robot. The killer feature is the large hole in one corner that lets you hang the board on a wall hook so your circuit won’t get messed up. When sitting down, rubber feet keep your board from scratching up the dining room table.

Soldering iron ($22) : Adafruit’s recommended pen-style iron.

Workforce Stubby: This no-name (OK, it’s “Workforce”) ratcheting screwdriver was bought at the Home Depot for $4 several years ago. It holds six bits in the handle and ratchets as nice as you could ask for. I’ve used several ratcheting screwdrivers, including some expensive gear, but this one is the best of all of them. [Here's one by Stanley for $4.]

Pelican 1920 Flashlight ($25): This flashlight’s barrel is machined out of anodized aluminum but might very well have been pounded out of meteoric iron by Odin himself for all the beatings this thing can take.

Vise-Grip Wire Strippers ($16): I must admit to being disappointed with several Vise-Grip products recently. However, these strippers are great. They’re fairly typical in their configuration, but they just work.

No-Name Heavy Clippers: Don’t be fooled by the faux-Hakko color scheme… these guys are totally generic. That said, they’re good for hacking through wires too thick for my multitool or diagonal clippers.

Solder Sucker: If you solder without one of these, it is you who are the sucker. Or at least get some desoldering braid.

Hakko 2002 Pliers ($11) and CHP-170 Diagonal Cutters ($4): I love these clever Finnish ‘tronics tools.

Digital Caliper: You can get calipers dirt cheap these days.

-- John Baichtal  

[Cool Tools Readers! We will pay you $100 if we run your "What's in My Bag" story. Send photos of the things in your bag (and of the bag itself, if you love it), along with a description of the items and why they are useful. Make sure the photos are large (1200 pixels wide, at least) and clear. Use a free file sharing service like Bitcasa to upload the photos, and email the text to editor@cool-tools.org. See all of our What's in my Bag? posts. -- Mark Frauenfelder]



Flip-Pac Camper Shell

I’ve had my Flip-Pac six or eight years. The pictures on their web site will pretty much show you what it is and how it works. It is very convenient, extremely comfortable, sets up and folds downs quickly and easily.

It allows us to quickly and easily camp out anywhere we can find a reasonably level spot to park our 4WD truck. We sleep off the ground on a comfortable built-in mattress (about Queen size) with plenty of screened windows for ventilation and stargazing if the weather is nice, and – with the rain fly – absolutely dry under the wettest conditions. A couple small interior lights run off the truck battery.

When we are not camping: we still have full use of the carrying capacity of the truck bed same as we would if we had a conventional camper shell. The mattress and tent live under a headliner and take up only about six inches of space under the roof of the shell.

Compared to other pop-up campers: it is light weight (less than 300lbs, important if you have a small truck), cheaper, sturdy enough to carry stuff on the roof [I had a friend make racks for kayaks and boating gear]. I can use all the camping equipment I already had – stove, coolers, folding chairs and table. etc – without the cost or inconvenience of built-ins, which would compromise the usefulness of the truck for hauling stuff around. In pleasant weather we’d sit, cook, and eat outside; in foul weather, this can be done inside, but in a small truck bed it’s not what one would call “roomy.”

It’s very hard to find these used, people who have them will find another truck they can be used on when the first truck wears out.

Possible negatives: they are made to order in Riverside, Ca. (only). When I got mine – years ago – I had to put 50% down, wait maybe a month and a half, then arrange a date when I showed up at the shop where they make them and had mine installed. Back then, they installed one in the morning and another in the afternoon: so they are a small shop and not a big assembly-line operation. I’m sure today the price is higher and the wait longer…

I could have had it delivered to a dealer in Phoenix, who would have installed it, but then I would have had to pay AZ sales tax; I elected to drive to Riverside instead, about the same cost – and no sales tax!

While this has never been a problem for me… some people complain (on the Internet) that it is inconvenient (or impossible) to put up the rainfly without folding up the Flip-Pac; in other words, you need to install the rain fly when you first set it up, you can’t easily change your mind in the middle of the night. Where we camp – the desert SouthWest – this is no problem; but it seems that in the Pacific NorthWest it is.

The tent is made of a vinyl type fabric that resists a light rain or sprinkle well, but for a real rain you want the rain fly [an option available at additional cost.] But with the rainfly installed, there is no way you can get wet or have any water get inside, it is very well designed and functions perfectly – although it eliminates the views out the windows. In the morning after a downpour, you and all your gear are dry – even if the truck is in the middle of a large puddle.

For cold weather camping, we use a small “Mr. Heater” propane heater to keep it warm inside before we crawl in bed, or when we get up in the morning. It sleeps two adults comfortably on the bed [over the cab and hood of the truck] and can also sleep a small adult [or child] on a shelf over the truck bed. Or the shelf can be used to store gear…or folded out of the way altogether. When the Flip-Pac is erected, there is plenty of room for a tall person to stand up in the truck bed.

 

-- Drifter Smith  

[People love their Flip-Pacs. Check out this forum with plenty of photos.]

Flip-Pac
$6,000 and up

Manufactured by Flip-Pac