OLFA Auto-Lock Utility Knife

I have searched for years for a really handy, safe, convenient marking knife for use in woodworking (knives give a finer, clearer line than pencils). Snap-off utility knives are nearly perfect. The blade is thin enough to hug a straightedge, and since the blade is sharpened on the long edge instead of the short bevel edge, it is easier to bear down while making a cut. The blade retracts, making the knife pocketable. The blade also locks, making it safe to bear down on. Moving the blade in and out is fast and fluid, making it easy to use. Lastly the blade is always sharp, since you can easily snap off a dull section and expose a sharp new point.

However, most snap-off knives have cheap plastic bodies which can break, and their locking mechanisms are not very sturdy. I always wanted a nicer, more durable version. And Olfa’s SVR-2 is it.

The knife is quite slender, though it is slightly heavier than it might appear, being made of stainless steel. It is almost exactly the length of a Sharpie, and has a clean, modern, almost luxurious look. I could see engraving them for gifts or corporate swag. The clip is springy and sturdy, and pops off to act as a blade snapper. Nifty!

The SVR-2 is auto-locking, meaning that once you extend the blade out with the black slider, it is locked in place until you actually move the black slider back. Ordinary pressure on the blade will not make it retract. It is very easy and fluid to use.

The slightly cheaper SVR-1 does not lock automatically. To lock the blade you move the slider backwards just a bit (those cheap plastic ones work the same way.) To me that is a somewhat less safe option

– Karl C.

The Kobalt Stainless Steel Snap-Off Utility Knife is basically the same product, complete with autolocking feature, but less than half the cost ($3). I keep two of these in my car at all times. One as a seatbelt cutter, and the other for everyday tasks. I usually buy 1 or 2 whenever I’m at Lowes, and have one in almost every room in the house. The blade is durable, and I usually end up losing them before I snap the entire blade down.

– Eric Kuck


OLFA Stainless Steel Auto-Lock Utility Knife
Available from Amazon
Manufactured by OLFA

Kobalt Stainless Steel Snap-Off Utility Knife
Available from Lowes

Electro-Samson Hanging Scale

This hanging digital scale is great for weighing odd shaped things quickly. In our workshop we use it all the time for weighing bicycles, bags, components, things we invent, things we need to ship. Rather than drag the work to the scale, you bring this light scale to whereever you need it. You can easily grab hold of the scale in one hand. You hang the object from the bottom. For very heavy stuff, hook the scale on something solid. This one is ranges up to about 45 kilogram (99 pounds), detecting a minimum of 50 grams (.1 pound). It’s perfect as an inexpensive general purpose “good enough” scale, especially for things that aren’t compact. Also it’s a fantastic baby scale if you wish to chart growth.  Just put baby in a sling then weigh.  There are smaller versions, too.

Electro-Samson Hanging Scale

Available from Quick Supply

Manufactured by Brecknell

Pittsburgh Watch Case Opener

Watch battery replacement is not a dark art, left only to hunched-over jewelers. Most watches I owned had a small notch between the case and the back where you could pry off the back and access the battery. A tedious operation, but anybody could do it.

But this tool isn’t for those watches. This tool is for a watch has a back that screws on.

For years, I took my Citizen watch to a jeweler, and paid a little bit of money to get a new battery installed. I was not aware that the magic tool was this easy to use, and so affordable.

This case opener tool works with watch backs that have even or odd spaced notches, and has an assortment of tips to fit differently-shaped notches. Simply fit the appropriate tips into the tool, adjust for the number and spacing of the notches, press the tool down into the notches, and turn. It was surprisingly easy.

I have no idea whether jewelers have access to a better-made tool, but for my purpose, it was sufficient to do the job. I wish I had discovered this tool sooner, because it would have saved me time and money. The last time I tried to get my battery replaced, some jewelers said didn’t have this tool, while one told me theirs was broken. It took me a few shop visits to find somebody who had one.

The purchase price was only $4.99 (cash and carry from a retail store near my home, no shipping involved), and the battery for the watch was less than $5.00. In just one use, I saved money and time, since I have been charged close to $12.00 the last time I took my watch to a jewelry repair shop for a new battery.

I look forward to the next opportunity to use this tool, not because it will lay idle for a long time, but because I will be saving time and money. I also feel somewhat empowered, capable of handling a task previously handled by somebody else.

-- David Titzer  

[We first reviewed the Pittsburgh Watch Case Opener back in 2009. --OH]

Pittsburgh Watch Case Opener

Available from and manufactured by Harbor Freight

Cyalume SnapLight Chemical Light Sticks

With the ubiquity of super bright LED lights it might seem strange to recommend one-time-use glowsticks.  But these Cyalume Chemical Light Sticks, and their ability to function in almost any condition, have earned a spot in my emergency kit.

My obsession with alternative light sources really kicked in when I started caving with increased frequency. One of the main tenants of caving is that you never go into a cave without three sources of light. This is because subterranean activities are particularly brutal on electronics, especially lights. No matter how weatherproofed a light source may be, the dust, water, and physical strain will eventually cause it to malfunction. This explains why super simple carbide lamps and plumbers candles were the go to light source for ages underground (it didn’t hurt that they could also keep you warm, with the main downside being the occasional explosion).

While a glow stick won’t keep you warm, it will provide light in emergency situations where other lights might falter, and it’s exactly this reason that I throw one or two 12-hour glowsticks in my pack. At 6″ in length, they are not the traditional glow stick you see at concerts, but instead are significantly brighter, and depending on the model, produce longer lasting light.

As with most tools in my emergency kit, I’ve never had to use these in an emergency. But I have had the pleasure of playing around with them in other situations and I’ve been impressed. They provide ample amounts of light for navigation, and they last long enough that they’d be an asset in many scenarios, especially during a rescue. Unlike LED lights, these glowsticks provide ambient 360-degree light which is especially useful when working in larger parties where direct sources of light can unintentionally blind, or while sitting around a campsite.

While I’m not thrilled about the one-time-use nature of glow sticks, their low cost has become an asset. I keep a few in my trauma kit in my car as a means of attracting attention in an emergency (as they are a safer alternative to roadside flares), or during those times when someone I’m with needs a loaner light source that I’ll likely not see again. While their ubiquity is great, it’s important to remember that due to their reactivity they have a limited shelf life. The industrial grade Cyalume SnapLight model has a shelf life of around four years, while the military model (built to DOD specs) is slightly less. That’s not to say these won’t work after four years, but that you should expect a reduction in chemical luminescence as it ages.

Outside of being a functional source of light, I must admit that there is something special about the chemical light they produce. I find it impossible not to experience a certain amount of child-like glee when I crack one and see the light radiate out, erasing the darkness. It’s just cool.

-- Oliver Hulland  

[Here is the Cyalume SnapLight MSDS (PDF) for anyone interested, however, this may be out of date as it appears this model is phthalate free. --OH]

Cyalume SnapLight Industrial Grade Chemical Light Sticks
Green, orange, red, yellow, blue and white light models available
$10 for 10

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Cyalume

Gerber Hinderer Rescue Knife

gerber hinderer.jpeg

This knife is designed by firefighter Rick Hinderer for the working Firefighter, EMT or Medic. It has a serrated stainless steel blade, a window punch and a foldaway seatbelt cutter. But what tempted me, and what gets used the most, is the built in oxygen tank wrench. It is a deceptively simple slot in the handle, but it has time and again come in handy switching out portable oxygen tanks while on scene. No more sending someone running back to the rig because someone on C-shift forgot to replace the oxygen wrench back in the bag! The over-sized thumb studs make it workable even with bunker gloves on and it comes with a 9-piece kit of screw bits.

– Jesse Hinds

I’ve used this knife for two years, and found that it has served me well in all my field work. For me the knife is exceptional because of its appropriate sizing and ergonomic hold. It’s easy to use with gloves on. The strap cutter on the back side is excellent and I end up using it a lot. The rubber strip with different tools have been useful for hard to access spaces. It does not replace a multi-tool, but is a great compliment to it.

– Jason DeJong


Gerber Hinderer Rescue Knife

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Gerber


User Manual First

In the old days (before the web) you could not read the operating manual or instructions for an appliance, device, or tool until you got it home and unpacked it. Getting the manual was considered one of the benefits of purchasing the product. In fact, you had to purchase extra copies if you lost the original, or wanted to check it out. It was often only later when you finally had the box opened that you discovered a) it did not permit the function you bought it for, or b) it was a quarter inch smaller than it looked and so didn’t fit, or c) it was incompatible with the assessors set you already had, or d) it had no manual!

Those days are gone. You can find a PDF version of the manual for most products on the web if you search hard enough. It is not as easy as it should be, but the smarter manufacturers make it easy to download the specs of whatever they sell.

That leads to this new rule: get the manual first, before you buy.

For a large home remodel I had to purchase a pile of new appliances, lights, plumbing fixtures, hardware, materials, gadgets, and some tools. I instituted a “Manual First, Buy Later” policy, and it had immediate positive effects. Once I identified a possible candidate for purchase, I would google for its manual. Equally important as finding the operating instructions and basic specs, is to get hold of the installation instructions. There are few sites that aggregate manuals and specs of major lines, but often I would wind up at the manufacturer’s site. There I would download the PDF and read it carefully. That’s where you find out its precise dimensions, its actual power needs, its exact connections, its real compatibility. I lost count of the number of inappropriate bad purchases I avoided by studying the manual and specs first.

What baffles me are the clueless manufacturers who still don’t put their installation and operating manuals online in 2012. (I’m thinking of you, LG.) The main result of this process is simply fewer surprises. Less returns, better integration.


I was heartened to see that even the professionals do this. Here is a snapshot of our plumber “at work” in the bathroom. He has his tablet opened to a installation PDF, and his phone is googling a help number for questions brought up by specs in the PDF.

Locating any particular item’s installation and operating specs is still not as easy as it should be. Amazon could make it the norm to have the full spec PDF for every item they sell, or Google could try to algorithmically sort them out, or some clever aggregator could centralize them all. But for now it is worth seeking them out first, any purchase later.

– KK



TechShop Membership

TechShop (previously reviewed here) is a member-based workshop. They have one of every tool you could dream of — laser cutters, plasma torches, computer-control sewing machines, welders, 3D printing machines, you name it — plus piles of regular tools (drill presses, lathes, oscilloscopes, miter saws etc.), and once you are member and cleared for training, you can use them whenever you want. They have a big open tables, lots of room, and offer classes for various tool craft as well.

TechShop sells day passes, week passes, monthly passes, or yearly membership.

The big update is that they have expanded their locations from their original Silicon Valley station. They are currently in 5 US locations, with 3 more in progress, and are adding more each year.

The idea is brilliant. Why should you purchase, maintain, and upgrade expensive shop tools that you might need only once in a while? It’s a whole lot better to join a co-op that buys, houses, and upkeeps the gear. You pay rent to use it — a price that will be a lot less than the cost of purchase. The downside, of course, is that you need to travel to the TechShop, which can be inconvenient. I’ve found 3 types of folks using it: 1) Those who have tiny apartments and no tools, or tool space, of their own; this is their workshop. 2) Those who are working on a prototype, or a big art project, for a specific period of time; this is their lab and office. 3) Those who own a decent typical workshop but want occasional access to a laser cutter, or 3D printer; this is their luxury.

Here are some photos I took at the San Francisco location:


A cage of power tools.


Welding machines waiting to be used.


A work table with floating power cord, easily accessible from any side, but not in the way. The lockers are for members use.


A plywood bench made using tools on the premises.


Working at the laser cutter control station.

-- KK  

Radiator Hose Pick

radiator pic.JPG

I’ve used this tool for the past 40-years and find it to be the perfect solution for a variety of tasks. My favorite uses are breaking the seal of a rubber hose on a metal spigot (for example, when working with automotive radiator hoses force the sharp end of the pick between the hose and the spigot and work it around the circumference), removing cotter pins/small clips/retainers, untying otherwise untie-able knots, lining up small holes in linkage, and prying an item up from a flat surface.

There are numerous other radiator picks but this one from Snap On is my favorite because of the particular bend of the shaft. It is just right for providing leverage to break a hose, pin, or small shaft loose. Highly recommended for anyone working with small engines, car engines, models or other mechanical devices and linkages.

-- Darrow Cole  

Snap On Radiator Hose Pick
$22.90 (two pack with different sizes available for $51.00)
Available from and manufactured by Snap On

Dewalt Random Orbital Sander


It’s been several decades since I bought a wood sander, but I recently needed a new one for a large finishing job. I was pleasantly surprised by the technological advances now standardly available in inexpensive sanders.

There are three key innovations here: “random” sanding patterns, using sandpaper disks that attach via a velcro-like surface, and a vacuum that works through holes in the paper. Together these three features produce a much superior machine to the simple vibrating sander I had before. Random-orbital sanders spin as circles within circles, leaving little discernible pattern of abrasion on the work. The round hook-and-loop paper is magic. These disks securely attachment and detach in a second, and don’t slip. This quickness encourages you to instantly change to the appropriate grit size without hesitation. Lastly, sanding produces massive amounts of dust, and the mini vacuums really decrease the volume of stuff flying around. The debris is sucked into a small cloth bag that doesn’t interfere much with work.
sander pads.jpeg
All these features and more are available in higher end machines, but also in cheaper ones as well. I’ve been using a Dewalt, D26451K which is an entry model at about $55 street price. With a coarse grit paper, its 3-amp motor will eat wood if you need to, but it is light enough to feather touch a fine grit. It takes the standard 8-hole hook-and-loop disk. Many companies make these disks in all possible grades, varieties and types. Although they seem expensive, I found these disks lasted longer than the pieces I used to cut from standard sheets for my old machine. The small dust bag is sufficient for most weekend projects, but may seem small if you are sanding whole walls; you just have to empty it more often.

None of these features may be new to most woodworkers, but I have not been paying attention; I wish I had got one of these years ago.

-- KK  

Dewalt Random Orbital Sander
Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Dewalt

Mirka 5″ 8-hole Assorted Grit Dustless Hook-and-Loop Sanding Disks
Pack of 50
Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Mirka

Power Bits

power bits.jpeg

For too long I relied on traditional insert bits for my power drill/driver. I liked the easy variety of “ends” that were available, but I was also frustrated by the magnetic holders that would drop the bits at the wrong moment.

Then I discovered power bits (bits that fit into Power Bit base, also known as a 1/4″ hex shank base). These are usually seen on the magnetic insert bit adapters for power drills, and are designed so that the machine-end of these bits lock in mechanically. Not only do they lock, but they offer 1/4″ shaft slimness for their entire length, while also offering varied lengths.

For instance, at work I frequently use a 12″ shafted #3 Phillips bit. I also use 2″ Torx bits, a variety of 6″ bits (tiny Phillips, security or plain Torx, and #2/#3 Square), and a larger set of Ryobi drill bits, all with the Power Bit base. I’ve also got a full set of nut drivers, 1/4″, 3/8″ & 1/2″ socket adapters (straight & wobble), extensions, and flex shafts. All these fit in drills (with a locking adapter in the chuck), and impact drivers. I still have some insert bits, but I’ve found that I’m seriously reluctant to use them. The design difference may seem minimal, but the impact is significant when you work with these tools all day.

Power Bits have been a major boon for me, and I thought it worthy of Cool Tools. In terms of brands, I’ve found Wiha Tools makes 90% of the Power Bits I need and use.

-- Wayne Ruffner  

Wiha 10-Piece Power Bit Set

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Wiha