Scotch Tear-by-Hand Packaging Tape

My family ships a lot of boxes during the holidays, and we go through a few rolls of packaging tape. Large pistol-grip tape dispensers don’t work well on smaller boxes — I have never been able to get the hang of using the serrated blade to cut off the tape.

I was happy to find out about Scotch’s Tear-by-Hand packaging tape. I (and more importantly, my wife) can easily tear off strips with our hands. It’s easy to get the length you desire, and the tear is perfectly perpendicular. Also, it’s easy to find the end of the tape on the roll by running your fingernail along it. This stuff is like magic. I never want to use any other kind of packaging tape.

-- Mark Frauenfelder  

Scotch Tear-by-Hand Tape, 1.88 Inches x 50 Yards
$20 / 4-Pack

Available from Amazon



AuctionZip

We live in a world where its very easy to go to the store or online and purchase everything new. While I enjoy this convenience, there are many things that I just don’t need to buy new. For this, I like to go to auctions. Attending auctions can be a very fun (and even exciting) way to get something you need, and save money at the same time. However, finding an auction that has some of the items I am looking for can be tricky. hat’s where Auctionzip.com comes in.

Auctionzip.com allows me to search for local auctions by specific things I would like to purchase. It helps me sort through the good and bad quickly. There is a simple tool that allows you to search for auctions, by category, within a specific distance of a zip code. There is even a premium service that will even have auctionzip send you automatic updates every day or week for the type auctions you are looking for.

I have bought all types of tools, housewares, recreational vehicles, motorcycles, antiques, and all manner of other things at great prices by finding auctions with auctionzip.com that I couldn’t find information on even in local papers.

-- Mark Yount  

AuctionZip
Free service



Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities

I’ve long wanted to do a collection of the best tools featured on this blog. After 10 years of daily reviews there’s a bunch of great tools that have endured the test of time — as well as a lot that should be forgotten. A best-of-the-best book would be a real service. To make it, I’d sort through the vast Cool Tools archive and assemble the greatest hits and ignore the rest. It would yield strong whiskey — distilled and concentrated and capable of giving someone a pleasant jolt. The collection would be worth packaging up nicely.

I could do this on the web, but when I thought of the best way to highlight the ultimate tool collection, I immediately thought of a paper book. Paper is old. You can’t search it, you can’t easily share favorites, you can’t instantly click to get items, you can’t haul it in your virtual library device. The web and Kindle are so much better that way.

But I remember the power that the old Whole Earth Catalogs had on me as I came of age. These oversized Catalogs were curated collections of the best tools presented on double-wide spreads of cheap paper, in great big fat books. As on this blog, the brief, rave reviews were recommended by readers and familiar editors. The range of reviews were refreshingly wide and dense, crammed 5 or 6 per page. The paper books were magical. There is something very powerful at work on large pages of a book. Your brain begins to make naturally associations between tools in a way that it doesn’t on small screens. The juxtapositions of diverse items on the page prods the reader to weave relationships between them, connecting ideas that once seemed far apart. The large real estate of the page opens up the mind, making you more receptive to patterns found in related tools. There’s room to see the depth of a book in a glance. You can scan a whole field of one type of tool faster than you can on the web. In that respect, a large paper book rewards both fast browsing and deep study better than the web or a small tablet.

So that’s what I did. I printed Cool Tools as a paper book. I sifted through the thousands of tools reviewed in the past 10 years, and with the help of other Cool Tool teammates, selected more than 1,000 evergreen tools that have stood the test of time. I modeled the design and style on the old Whole Earth Catalogs; the book is printed on identical oversized paper pages, bound into the same thickness of almost 500 pages. The result is a hefty book that will seem to some people of a certain age to be a modern incarnation of the old Catalogs. (To new readers of a younger age, it will look like no other book they have seen.)

Cool Tools is the ultimate guide to do-it-yourself. The book covers how to self-publish a book, rent a bulldozer, print 3D objects, run for local office and win, design a logo, grow edible mushrooms, read all the classics, get an online degree, cut your cable TV, build a log cabin, and so much more! Really, I tried to cover all the ground this blog covers.

The result is a one-volume alternative education in making things happen. I assembled this collection so that my three children would see a thousand other possibilities in life that are opened when you pick up a tool.

And I made it for all you Cool Tool readers looking for a more distilled version of this blog. I know I was getting overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stuff here. I offer you my solution: a 472-page curated collection of the Best of Cool Tools, printed in full color, which can be read for years without the platform disappearing. Despite the date currently listed on Amazon, the book will be available during the first week of December. You can pre-order it now.

I honestly think this is one of the coolest cool tools, ever.

-- KK  

Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities
Kevin Kelly
2013, 472 pages
$28

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

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CTopenbook2

CTbooksample




Yasutomo 2020 Wa-Ben Wallet

I recently realized I have never been satisfied with any wallet I’ve ever owned. It was time for that to change.

I thought about the Slimmy (which still looks pretty fantastic), until I remembered reading an interview with William Gibson. He talked about some crazy wallet made out of a material called Cuben.

Now this sounded promising. I headed off to Google and searched for “william gibson wallet.” The top result took me to a review of the Yasutomo Wa-Ben wallet at unfinishedman.com.

Chad’s review convinced me that the Yasutomo 2020 Wa-Ben wallet, made in Hong Kong by Jason Hung and touted as the world’s first Cuben Fiber wallet (specifically, Cuben Fiber CT9K.5), could be exactly what I was looking for.

So I slapped down an electronic $49.50 (post-paid from Hong Kong), and three weeks later I signed for my new wallet at the post office (it seems the people in charge of these decisions deem packages from Hong Kong as untrustworthy).

After carrying it around daily for about a week, I can say it was exactly what I was looking for.

The wallet is extremely light (0.69 ounces, according to the website), extremely thin (you can see through it!), and extremely durable. I often forget I’m even carrying it and have to frantically check my front pocket to see if it’s there. It always is.

It has six credit card pockets, two “hidden” pockets behind the card pockets, and two cash/note pockets, so there’s plenty of room to carry more than enough.

So here’s my short review. The Yasutomo 2020 Wa-Ben wallet is fabulous piece of gear, and I recommend it highly for anyone looking to lighten their everyday carry load.

Yasutomo 2020 Wa-Ben Wallet
$50

Manufactured by Yasutomo 2000



KeyShark Bottle Opener

I really like an open beer bottle. I am sure there are some that love a closed beer, but I like to drink them. The Key Shark Bottle Opener assures that I can always open a bottle. I was given one of these little items as a gift, go figure. And while it is small enough to be forgotten on a keychain when the time comes you always remember it’s there. It is small, light (weighing only 1.14 grams) and unobtrusive. I now buy them as stocking stuffers.

-- Bill Cleveland  

KeyShark
$5

Available from and manufactured by Cranky Monkee



 

Tool Shopping Strategies

For fifty years I’ve been trying out tools of all kinds, mostly being thrifty, outfitting my studio and workshops with equipment, stocking our large household, making stuff as big as houses and as small as electronics, splurging on obscure hobbies, tracking gear for my kid’s enthusiasms, and all the while writing tool reviews. Here’s what I know about buying tools. (This philosophy informs this site.)

Cool Tools recommends four different types of tools:

The best tool made
The highest common quality tool
The cheapest possible tool
The tool you did not know about

The standard advice for a tool-buyer is to always purchase the highest quality tool available because, the argument goes, in the long run you’ll have no regrets and the premium item will pay for itself. That’s not generally true. Purchasing the best possible tool is neither always optimal nor doable.

The Best

It makes sense to buy the best tool available in cases where the tool type is well-proven, has few moving parts, and is general purpose. So when it comes to screwdrivers, hammers, clamps, pens, ladders, stuff like that, go for the best! These tools won’t go out of fashion, they are inherently stable in design, probably won’t wear out, and have multiple uses. Might as well get the best. For these I am happy to spend money on a few good ones.

It also makes sense to buy the best when you know what the best is. If you are using a tool every day, or even every week, or your income requires the tool, you’ll educate yourself on what capabilities are essential, and you’ll eventually require dependability. In these cases you will want to have the best possible model.

But most tools these days are not stable in design, they have many moving parts, they are not income related, and are more specialized. In these cases I have found it best to grow into quality.

The Highest Common

To grow into quality my advice is to buy the “highest common denominator” tool at first. This is the cheapest decent quality version. It’s about the quality you can find at Costco. It is not the rock bottom cheapest, but a mid-range that will allow you to use the tool long enough to decide whether you need to graduate to a higher quality.

Often — in fact very often — this mid-level highest common denominator quality is sufficient for occasional use. If you are not sewing every week, a Costco-level sewing machine is good enough. Ditto for the occasional use battery charger, or camp lantern; all you need is good enough. When you find yourself sewing more, camping more, woodworking more, then you can step up to the premium.

However, at Cool Tools we don’t review a lot of tools in this category because this kind of quality needs no recommendation. For the average tool there is a very simple formula: the more money you spend the better quality. This can be summarized in this graph. Each dot is a model with a different price and quality point.

Tools Costs

Durability, usability, the number of features, etc. increase as the costs increases. It’s an even slope; no one brand or model of that tool usually stands out. For instance, right now cordless power drills follow this line. At the bottom you get a simple model for cheap; at the top you get a premium model for dear. Because every drill falls on this line, with no drill uncommonly better for the price, there is no reason to highlight one particular cordless drill in this bookXXX. Most tools are like this. No one model stands heads above the other; you merely get what you pay for. (Any jumping off the line are a great deal.) Just follow the price to get either the best, or the bargain — or head to a place with a limited selection of highest common stuff like Costco and shop there. However, Costco has a very narrow range of things they are selling at any one time so you’ll need to rely on reviews hereXXX.

The Cheapest Possible

There are at least 5 perfectly good reasons to buy the rock bottomest cheapo tool that will actually work:

1) You just want to try it out, have no idea whether you’ll use it more than once and can’t find a way to borrow or rent one (see Tool Lending Library).
2) It’s all you can afford.
3) It’ll be used by a community, or kids, or in settings where its care cannot be guaranteed.
4) You want to modify or enhance it.
5) It’s in a fast moving field with high obsolescence

This last reason is important, and one of the best arguments against paying a lot for the very best tools. In highly technologically-driven fields, the “best” can be bettered every 3 months by new models and revolutionary innovations. For instance the best camera or laptop today will be second best in a few months. In two years, you might have trouble selling it. As a tool category becomes more innovative, rates of obsolescence increase. It makes more sense to aim for the low end — unless your job depends on it.

I think of aiming for the low end in a fast changing line of gear as Time-Shifting Value Strategy. Here’s how this strategy works. Let’s say I am buying a low-end orbital sander or super light tent. While that cheap sander or tent is many times inferior to the best model today, it is at least as good as the best model from 10 years ago. In other words, for the same cheap price I can buy the top of the line model from yesteryear. That’s a bargain! All those cool features the magazines were drooling over before are now in my hands. I just pretend I am working in 2002! A simple mind-switch and now I am dazzled by what the cheapo tool taken from the future can do. Another way of thinking about this is that instead of considering tools to be a line of varying quality with ascending prices — $50, $75, $100 — think of them as being top-of-the-line models with ascending dates — 2002, 2007, 2012. Just pick a date you want to work in.

Note this caveat: Cheap comes in two flavors. There is a bad kind of cheap which means the tool does not do its intended job, or that it fails quickly. Its failure is subjective, but all too real. This kind of cheap tool does no one any good. I urge you to avoid them. But the good kind of cheap is a sturdy tool that provides only basic functions. It may be a bit slower, or heavier to hold, or it may lack many refinements — but it works okay for at least a sensible number of times. This is the kind of cheap tool worth considering. To distinguish between the two kinds of cheapness you’ll need some reviews (see below).

The Tool You Did Not Know About

The coolest tools here are those tools that are relatively unknown. The tool may be familiar to experts, or only used in a specialized field. Like, a tool for sailmakers, or for opening watchcases. Or it may be so unique that it has no competitors (I’m thinking of the Griphoist hand winch). Or it may be so full of features that it falls off the standard price/benefits line for competing tools. The cost of these tools is not as important as the fact that they exist. They are often the only things that will do the job well. Many of these are the types of tools you don’t need to buy ever — but just knowing they exist is a power that can steer you to other tools, or even other achievements, projects, and designs.

Like most areas of our life today this state is subject to churn. The tool no one knows about this year may become the cliche only a year later. When I started Cool Tools 13 years ago Garmin automobile GPS, Proton pocket LED lights, and Netflix were novelties, one-of-a-kind gems; now they don’t need to be mentioned because they are one of many. In only a few years many of the unique tools reviewed here now will become the norm. Assume the half-life of any innovation is about 5 years.

Reviews

To discern between good cheap and bad cheap, you need reviews. Once I hone in on a potential tool, I spend a lot of time checking out the reviews on both Amazon and other retailers, as well as the enthusiasts’ blogs. The enthusiast blogs and forums will have very detailed dissections, but I often find them too obsessive and lost in the details. In a sense they know too much. But occasionally you can find a roundup review that will point out what is best. (For a suggestion of some enthusiast review blogs see Review of Review Sites.) At the other extreme the reviews on Amazon often don’t know enough. Few reviewers have any experience with competing models or brands, or previous incarnations and older models. They gush over what they just bought, and are impressed by anything that works. Studies have shown reviewers have an uncritical bias to 5-star reviews. These 5-stars are useful only when their sum outpaces, or overhangs, the normal distribution curve, indicating something out of the ordinary. If there are as many 1- and 2-stars as 4- and 5s, that is a no-go.

Ratings graph

The Acquisition Sequence

In summary, here’s my checklist for buying tools:

I like to borrow, or rent a tool first, or to at least see it in action with my own eyes. That gives me some idea of what the tool wants. Is it forgiving, delicate, fussy, or idiot-proof? Sometimes having it accessible for rent or borrow is all I need.

If renting or borrowing is not practical, I’ll consider purchasing either a cheap one or a mid-level highest common version. This is a hard decision to make and depends on a complicated equation that entails predicting how often I’ll use it, how robust it is, and how fast it will become obsolete. Usually my answer is the cheapest good one; occasionally the highest common one is better.

In those cases where I pursue a craft, I’ll check out the premium tools, and upgrade if the improvements seem substantial. Occasionally I’ll go right to the best if it is a tool that is general purpose, or stable in design, and will last a lifetime. I confess I don’t have many of these, but of the few ultimate tools I do own, they bring me great joy.

-- KK  



Thermos Nissan 61 oz Insulated Bottle

thermos nissan.jpeg

Three times a week I get up early to go lift weights with a colleague. One of the main motivations for getting out of bed is the knowledge that I’ll have ample coffee throughout the day to keep me going post-workout. In the past I’ve carried the previously reviewed Contigo (which is still the best travel cup around) but found it held too little, especially if I share coffee with my work out partner. I’ve also used my fiancee’s grandfather’s old Thermos built around an insulated glass bottle which, while larger, is too fragile for daily use that involves rolling around in the trunk of my car. I eventually came to the conclusion that I needed a replacement.

Luckily, in the modern world of insulating containers there is a clear king: Thermos-Nissan. Their stainless steel high-vacuum thermoses are renowned for their ability to keep beverages hot or cold for days at a time (previously reviewed here and here), and the 61 oz stainless-steel bottle is no different. While holding an enormous volume (seriously, this thing is huge) it provides unparalleled insulation and usability. Embarassingly, on several occasions I have made coffee and forgotten it on the counter only to find it piping hot a full 24-hours later.

In terms of use, pouring a thermos can be a drippy affair (especially those with larger volumes), but the foldable handle built in to the 61-oz model coupled with the flow controlling lid makes it easy. And while I was initially wary of any coffee container that needed a shoulder strap, after putting it through months of use I have found it incredibly handy for when I’m carrying anything else. Be warned, though, as people will struggle to understand why you’re carrying something that looks like a cross between a battering ram and a missile launcher (someone else mentioned that it looked like it should carry radioactive material).

Admittedly a thermos is a weird thing to geek out about, but in this case the praise is well deserved. Between the heating and cooling curves provided in the literature that are proven on a daily basis, to the lifetime warranty and solid stainless steel build, this is one hell of an insulating bottle.

-- Oliver Hulland  

[Tips from the comments: Prime your Thermos! Before you fill your cold thermos with hot coffee, fill it with hot water to warm it up. That way the hot coffee doesn't lose some of its heat warming up the thermos. -- Josh Ashcraft]

Thermos Nissan 61-oz Stainless Steel Insulating Bottle
$40

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Thermos Nissan



Hangman Television Mount

hangman-products-simple-mount-tv-hanger-1c.jpg

Hangman is a clever, simple bracket designed to hang flat screen TVs directly on a wall. As the go-to handyman for most of my friends and families, I have hung my fair share of flatscreen TVs and am always frustrated by the expensive, cumbersome, goofy brackets that are sold to the average Joe when he buys his TV at Best Buy or Costco.

The Hangman, unlike the alternatives, is a dead simple mount composed of two interlocking aluminum strips. Place the first strip, which includes an integral level, on the wall. Screw it into the studs or attach with heavy duty drywall anchors (both included, and these anchors are actually really cool; probably worthy of a cool tool in themselves. I work in the remodeling industry and we use these anchors all the time.). Bolt the other aluminum strip to the back of the TV using included bolts, hang the TV strip on the wall strip, attach the safety tether to prevent the TV from sliding off, attach the pegs to the lower bolt holes on the TV, and you are done. The TV can be tilted forward to allow access to cables. I installed mine with a Leviton REB behind it to hold all of the outlets and jacks completely concealed, but you could just as easily use cable ties or wire molding to drop the wires down to your components.
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I like this system because it is simple and inexpensive. It hangs the TV dead level and it won’t “drift” out of level when you mess with your cables. It also keeps the TV tight to the wall as the aluminum brackets are only about 1″ thick. Finally, it only takes about 10-minutes to install. The downside to this style of bracket is that it only mounts the TV flat to the wall, so you lose the option to tilt it in any direction. This wasn’t a problem in my house since the couch faces a flat wall.

They are available on Amazon, which I know Cool Tools prefers, but I bought mine right off the manufacturer’s website. It was at my house within a couple of days. They come in medium (32″ to 60″) and large (47″ to 65″) and are set up to fit VESA mounts (Medium is 400mm, large is 400 & 600mm) which I think are the standard for all flat screens these days. They cost about 30-40 bucks depending on where you buy them. It’s a lot more than it costs the Hangman folks to make, but it is still cheaper and much less frustrating than any other mount I have seen on the market.

-- Brian Durkin  

Hangman Flat Screen TV Mount
400 & 600 VESA (other sizes available from manufacturer)
$34

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Hangman



The Wirecutter

The Wirecutter.png

Like Cool Tools, The Wirecutter is a website that only points to stuff worth knowing about. Specifically, consumer electronics in most every major category: laptops, cameras, TVs, tablets, smartphones, etc. Unlike Cool Tools, they don’t post reviews based on experience. Instead, they’re written by knowledgable gadget writers who have surveyed the field, read all the review and comment threads, and talked to experts to make an educated judgement call. There’s no jargony hairsplitting. No biased fanboyism. No product bashing. Only: “Here’s the one you want.”

All reviews feature labels like “What I’d get,” “Good Enough” or “The Wi-Fi Router You Want.” The reviews themselves are succinct and clear enough for a layperson — which brings me to how I use the site… 

Being labeled a “gadget guy” is both a blessing and a curse. It’s an ego boost to receive emails from friends and family asking for my input before any purchases. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: I don’t know everything about everything. Of course, I do know how to read between the lines (and hype) and search for a solid recommendation. That’s exactly what The Wirecutter does. Hence, it’s now the first site I turn to before recommending anything to anyone, including myself.

This week, I bought a portable bluetooth speaker for our kitchen. l settled on the Jawbone JAMBOX, which I actually reviewed for Wired one year ago. I do know that space pretty well, but hadn’t been following it closely. So I assumed something better had come along. I was wrong. Go figure.

[Disclosure: The Wirecutter was founded by Brian Lam, formerly the editor of Gizmodo. I mention this for two reasons: 1) He knows his stuff. 2) He's a friend of mine. That said, I'd recommend the site regardless. The conceit is so simple and pure and useful, it's a wonder no one (ahem, Consumer Reports) did this until now.--SL]

[An illustration of what separates the Wirecutter from the rest can be seen in their recommendation of external Hitachi G-Drives. They not only aggregated all the pertinent reviews but also interviewed network storage professionals and data recovery experts to identify the drives with the lowest failure rates. I heartily second Steven's recommendation of the site.-- OH]

Sample Excerpts:

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With headlines like “A Fast And Reliable Hard Drive” the Wirecutter avoids the pitfalls of other gear review sites, and manage to provide useful, straightforward recommendations.




Delivery Status

delivery-status-app.jpg

Delivery Status is a gorgeous OSX-only Dashboard widget and iOS app that allows you to easily track packages from a huge list of carriers (international and domestic) and companies like Amazon and Google Checkout. On the Mac, you can be notified of status changes via Growl, and on iOS it uses push notifications. If you use both, as I do, packages are seamlessly synced.

delivery-status-app1.jpg

Data entry is flexible, with perhaps the easiest being a bookmarklet that automatically parses the order status page of most shippers (and many retailers). I frequently shop online, and I send a lot of packages, so I use it to track those that are incoming as well as outgoing. As a city dweller, knowing that a package has been delivered is essential, so that I can pick it up from the lobby of my building before it “walks away.”

-- Gordon Meyer  

Delivery Status
Free for desktop widget
$5 for iOS app

Available from iTunes Produced by June Cloud

Sample Excerpts:

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