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.
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.
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.
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.
[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 email@example.com. See all of our What's in my Bag? posts. -- Mark Frauenfelder]