Hometown Puzzle


For Christmas this year I gave my parents a personalized puzzle featuring a custom map of the area around their lake cabin. “From any starting point, we’ll create a 400-piece puzzle of a six-by-four-mile area using U.S. Geological Survey maps. A house-shaped piece in the center represents the address you choose. Shows main roads, contour lines, water features, vegetation, and notable buildings. Arrives in a presentation box with space for a personal message.” If you search for a promo code, you can save 20%. (Order by 12/14/2009 for Christmas delivery.)

-- Jason Palmiter  

[We asked our readers what cool tools they are giving to their friends and families this year. Here is one in a series this week of suggested gifts mentioned in the comments that we are highlighting on the front page. Submit your own recommendation in the comments. -- ES]

National Geographic Store Hometown Puzzle

Available from National Geographic

String Saver


This Band-Aid for tennis rackets saved the day for me during a tournament when I was playing well with a favorite racket, but the strings were frayed and close to breaking. It’s a little tool that lifts the string and inserts and leaves behind a small piece of plastic that sits right at the intersection where the two strings cross, preventing them from sawing across one another and breaking. Extra plastic inserts are stored in the handle.


If you carry it in your tennis bag you can use it to extend the life of your strings, though obviously not indefinitely. It’s essential if you have only one racket and you don’t want to sit any games out.

-- Phil Reed  

Gamma String Savers

Available from Amazon

Red Ryder

By far the best air rifle for a kid. There is nothing to break and it has a 650 BB capacity. You can fill it once and wander around in the woods all afternoon. All of my nieces and nephews get one when I think they are old enough.

– K.G.

I recommend the Daisy Red Ryder. They’re inexpensive and don’t break.

– Dale C Snyder

Every child should have one.

– Dave Culp


Daisy 1938 Red Ryder

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Daisy Outdoor Products

Geocaching Tools

Take a geo-location system, add an Internet directory of hiding spots, and voila! A 21st century treasure hunt! One T-shirt slogan calls it “using multi-billion dollar military hardware to find Tupperware in the woods.” Geocaching began in 2000 when an Oregonian stashed a container in the woods, posted its latitude and longitude on the Internet, and other GPS users went out and found it. Now there are nearly 900,000 geocaches hidden worldwide, and hundreds of thousands of cachers, ranging from the curious to fanatics. The hobby is a fun additional activity for those roaming the outdoors on foot, bike, 4-wheeler or horse. There are at least as many urban caches as park hides, so it’s also become a hidden virtual layer to the cityscape, unsuspected by passing muggles who are not into the game. And it’s a great family activity – kids love ‘treasure hunting’ and trading for the toys and trinkets found in many caches. Geocaching is also an open game, extendable (within limits) by its players to add things like gnarly logic puzzles that must be solved to reveal a cache location, or objects whose worldwide movements among caches are tracked online.

There are a few other geocache directory sites, but Geocaching.com is the original and by far the largest. Free to register and play the game; $30/yr for paid membership enables more powerful search and personalization options.

Find a geocache
The game can be played with any geo-location technology. Some urban cachers rely solely on Google Maps, printing out aerial photos of hide locations. Entry-level consumer GPS units or geo-location add-ons for smart phones are available in the $100 price range. Those who become serious about the hobby will want a GPS unit with these qualities:

* Ability to keep a satellite lock in poor signal conditions — from urban canyons to redwood canyons
* Rock solid firmware — there’s nothing worse than having to reboot the unit in the middle of a hunt.
* Good ergonomics and user interface
* Durability — tough enough to take a beating in the field
* Easy computer interface — for downloading and uploading cache coordinates, logs and descriptions


Although they’re not the latest products in the company’s line, the Garmin 60Cx and 60CSx are the workhorse GPS receivers of hard core geocachers. (The only difference between the two models is a compass and altimeter independent of the global positioning system featured on the 60 csx.) These models score on all the points above, coming short only on the computer interface, as they don’t mount as a drive on your computer desktop. However, they have USB interfaces and are well-supported by paperless caching applications on both the Windows and OS X platforms.

Hide a geocache
After finding a few dozen geocaches, most players will think of a nearby place that needs a cache and want to hide their own. There are some common-sense rules for placing and registering new hides on Geocaching.com, including keeping off property where the public isn’t welcome, not using a container that can be mistaken for a bomb, and labeling the geocache as such. Most geocaches are made from recycled or repurposed containers and camouflage, and many cachers pride themselves on creative reuse of materials in their hides. One essential quality of a geocache is remaining watertight through years of handling and tough climate. Two types of containers that are resistant against both weather and other geocachers are military surplus ammunition cans, and Lock&Lock-type plastic storage boxes.


Small 30-caliber or large 50-caliber military surplus ammunition cans work well. (When reusing ex-military containers, always sand off or paint over the military markings, which can be quite alarming to those not expecting to find a box of rifle ammo or grenades in their local park!)


Lock&Lock-type storage boxes are available as a pre-labeled set, or you can get an assortment of sizes to camouflage yourself.


Simple cache camouflage can be amazingly effective for hiding your cache from those in and out of the game, particularly in park hides. Camo tapes and paints designed for use by hunters are readily available, and one roll or spray can will cover many caches.

-- Tim Oren (geocaching as PurplePeople)  


Garmin GPS Navigators
60Cx, $395 from Amazon
60CSx , $640 from Amazon

Ammunition cans
Available from MidwayUSA

Triple-Cache Container Set
Available from Groundspeak.com

Lock & Lock Polypropylene 20 Piece Set
Available from Amazon

Camo Duct Tape
Available from Amazon

Hunter’s Specialties Camo Spray Paint Kit
Available from Cabela’s


In trying to reclaim floor space in our son’s bedroom, we bought this colorful cube composed of four stackable trays and a lid. Three of the trays have open grids of differing sizes, and together, they function as a phenomenal pickup, sorting (by size) and storage solution for Lego bricks. You just scoop the bricks up (our son has a dustpan that’s dedicated just for Lego duty), dump them into the top tray and shake away. The smallest bricks sift down to the bottom level; each higher tray retains slightly larger bricks. At this point you can either further sort each tray by color and dump them into storage bins or just put on the lid. The cube itself is 10¼” on a side and purports to hold approximately 1500-1700 Lego bricks.

BOX4BLOX has been instrumental for well over a year now in keeping our son’s collection of several thousand Lego bricks in some semblance of order and reasonably clear of his bedroom floor. So we sent one to our nephew for Christmas last year. In my son’s eyes, as well as mine, BOX4BLOX really is a transformative tool— one that elevates a dreary task into something that’s actually fun to do (and done well).

-- Tom Caswelch  

$40 – shipping not included
Available from BOX4BLOX

Board Game Geek

The passionate gamers on BoardGameGeek.com (BGG) devote a lot of time and effort to create comprehensive content and reviews on practically every game that is out there, including out-of-print and small, self-published games. They not only rate the games, but write up rule clarifications, post in-depth game analyses, suggest variants for better gameplay, and even translate rules into other languages. The site features a marketplace where you can buy, sell and trade games with other gamers, forums where you can ask questions, create lists, and tons of other functionality. Of course, the real value of such a large, informed and well-established community is the wisdom of crowds effect you get from their collective opinions. As I write, the #1 game on BGG [Puerto Rico] has 11956 votes compared with 7 votes for the #1 game on the previously-reviewed Board Game Ratings (BGR) [Password]. And since BGG isn’t a retailer (unlike BGR), they have a comprehensive database of *all* games, not just those the store happens to carry.

I probably visit BGG one to two times a month, mostly to browse for new games that might be good (In the past year, I’ve picked up Pandemic, Roll Through the Ages, Caylus, Agricola, Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, Galaxy Trucker, and Ticket to Ride: Märklin.). Also, I sometimes hear about a game through a friend or some other channel, and I’ll go to the site to find out more. Since it’s heavily crowdsourced, and there is such a large, passionate community, I’ve discovered that even the most obscure games will have details like pictures, descriptions, type, and of course ratings. It’s also a great resource when you’re playing a game and need rules clarifications, rule variant suggestions, expansions, etc.

If you are considering buying a game, you owe it to yourself to check out BGG. Granted, the list of top-rated games tends to lean a bit more toward the serious-gamer crowd. But you can use the advanced search feature to look for “light” games with high average ratings, and then sort the results by Bayesian ranking. You’d even do OK just by picking games of the “Hotness” list in the left column.

– Dave Cortright

Board Game Geek

BONUS: For purchasing said games, FunAgain.com is the current consensus among my gamer friends on the best place to buy from, though I’ve also used Fair Play Games with great success. — Dave Cortright



My latest cool toy is the NeoCube, a 6x6x6 cube of 216 small neodymium-iron-boron magnetic spheres which can be arranged into an amazing assortment of geometrical and non-geometrical shapes. You can create various polyhedra, even Buckyballs, and all kinds of familiar shapes, too. It’s basically a 3D tangram on steroids. As fascinating as it is addictive. It is mesmerizing to rearrange the spheres. I carry mine in my pocket and will often spend around 45 minutes at a time just playing with it — at home listening to NPR or in the car waiting for my wife. A supreme time-waster!

Warning: arranging the spheres into a cube is not as easy as it seems in the first video below. That is your first challenge.

It’s not cheap, but if you try to buy the magnets yourself, it will cost much more.


NOTE: I made a Buckyball as per these instructions (scroll down). First you make pentagons and stick them together. It’s really amazing how they just snap into place as if they had a mind of their own. Then I made a compound version shown here. I added a ball to the center of every pentagon and then used the remaining balls as a chain. The magnets are so powerful, the chain easily holds the weight of the entire ball, even as the ball rotates!

-- Laral  

Available from NeoCube

Previously available from Amazon

Toys from Trash

The recycling, reuse and reppropriation of common household goods, trash and miscellany into functional and/or amusing items is something Cool Tools readers know well. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of tinkerers, whether you have children or not, it’s near impossible to visit Arvind Gupta’s Toys From Trash without wanting to attempt at least one of his many projects.

His web site boasts a fantastic range of educational experiments like how to fashion a potato battery and a bottle barometer, as well as a section called “Pumps from the Dump” which includes a stellar-looking Syringe Pump. Granted there’s an array of light experiments akin to the ones you’ll find in the previously-reviewed Science Toys You Can Make With Your Kids. But in addition to the nerdy, educational stuff, Gupta’s site features quick and easy one-offs that aren’t the least bit science-y, like how to fold six types of newspaper hat.

I first perused Toys From Trash a couple years ago, but found myself diving back in recently after a friend reminded me just how much cool stuff Gupta’s published. Many of us already tinker, create, deconstruct and build stuff back up for fun, work, education, etc. — or at the very least we’re partial to blogs and publications which show us what’s possible. I’m guessing one of the biproducts of the economic downturn in the U.S. will be an increase in DIY and, therefore, even more kids raised on transforming what could be discarded into treasures.

– Steven Leckart

Toys From Trash


Sample Excerpts:


Paddlboarding is a great way to stay in shape for surfing, to explore the coast, to watch birds, and to cruise around in almost any body of water. Paddleboards, like surfboards, snowboards, skateboards and other devices used for moving through space, have evolved greatly in recent years. For years, Eaton paddleboards were the primary manufacturers of quality racing boards. Lately, Joe Bark has been turning out beautiful stock and custom boards. This summer I bought a slightly used Joe Bark 12′ “Surftek” paddleboard in L.A. for $1,000 (“Surftek” is the nickname for lightweight surfboards/paddleboards built with Styrofoam and epoxy resin, rather than the more standard polyurethane foam and polyester resin). The board is feather light (22 lbs.) and lets me skim through the water like a water skeeter. Boards run from 12-19′ or so. The 12-footers are the most popular partly because they are the easiest to transport and store. The longer boards are slightly faster in races (there are over 70 races a year in Southern California), but more cumbersome to deal with on land.

– Lloyd Kahn


12′ Surftech Bark Board
Available from The Frog House

A full range of boards, including standup* boards, available from BARK

This is the board I’d get if I were to buy a new one — LK


*NOTE: There is also stand up paddleboarding (SUP), where you use a physical paddle to propel and steer your way through surf and to catch waves. Giant, heavy surfboards, those have a completely different design. The ones I review above are lie-down (or kneeling) boards, which you *cannot* stand on and are not intended for wave riding (though you can catch small waves). — LK


Deep Fun

Or in other words, how to have good clean fun. Directions for about 25 well-proven games for groups are succinctly supplied by this free PDF book. These games originated in church youth groups, but I’ve seen them used at camps, large family gatherings, company retreats, and even a few tech meetings. They are aimed at building community, and are primarily ones that can be run indoors. I’ve played a number of these games as an adult over the years and they really are deep fun. It is amazing how fast you can unleash your inner kindergartner. Some of this group fun, like Silent Football, have been around since ancient youth camp times. I wish more folks would enliven their stuffy meetings and offsites with a few of these games.

– KK

Deep Fun
Free from UUA

Sample excerpts:

To make this book more user-friendly for youth and advisors, we decided to organize the games into five chapters, loosely based on Denny Rydberg’s “Five Steps to Building Community.” Introducing new games to your youth group or conference will work best if your timing is right–if you choose games that fit the level of community already attained and nudge the group on to the next level.

Hog Call
Parameters: 15 to 60 people
Have the group split up into pairs and come up with a matching set of words or sounds (i.e. “hic-cup,” “peanut-butter,” or “honey-bee”). Have each person choose one of the words as their own. Then have each person announce their word to the group, so that there are no repeats. Then instruct the group to close their eyes and start milling around the space with the goal of getting as far away from their partner as possible. Once the pairs are well-separated, announce that they are to find their partners without opening their eyes, by shouting their word. (If all goes well, Peanut will meet up with Butter).

Angel Wash Variations
Parameters: 15 to 60 people
(Remember anyone can opt out if they don’t feel comfortable.)
Form two lines facing each other. Have one person from the end of the line (or two people holding hands) close their eyes and place their arms crossed on their chest. Direct them to proceed down the aisle of the double line with their eyes closed. As they pass, each person washes their aura with their hands, passing their fingers and hands lightly over their body, from the crown of their head to the ground, without actually touching them. If the person should stray, the people in the lines can gently direct them back on course. When they reach the end, their friends can communicate to them, with touch, that its time to open their eyes. Continue until everyone has had a chance.