Cool Tools Wanted

I’m looking to fill some holes in our coverage. Here are a few questions I hope readers can answer. Comments will be turned off on this entry. Please answer in the Ask Cool Tools link. Comments there with sufficient helpfulness will count as possible reviews for the weekly contest of Best Review.

— KK

Does anyone use Sirius XM radio? If so, for what? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

What is the best music scoring software? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

Looking for a great laptop MIDI keyboard. What’s a great buy? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

Need a guide to math software. (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

What is the best digital motion sensing camera for wildlife? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

Are there any productivity apps that you’ve used for more than a year? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

Best aids for learning acting? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

Anyone have experience with crowdsourced design services? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

Super pogo sticks? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)

Help me sort out the streaming music services. What’s what? (Answer at Ask Cool Tools)



Visual Reference Library

I go to books when I need to stimulate my imagination. Books never fail. I am a visual thinker, even when I write words, so I especially respond to visual books full of images, graphs, and pictures. Over the years I’ve accumulated a pretty good library of visual source books. Today, used books are cheap. You can build a good library of inspiration rather easily and inexpensively. These reference books will be the last to be replaced by digital screens, and they will still work perfectly well in the next century — no obsolescence. If you can find space to keep them, a good reference library is a working treasure.

I probably have several hundred visual reference books, so I will list only the two dozen or so that I would truly hate to loose. I am mostly omitting single-artist retrospective books, including my favorites, since these are easier to find than the ones I include here, which are not obvious and less well-known.

— KK

Parallel Encyclopedia
Batia Suter, 2007, 592 pages

A fat encyclopedia of thousands of pictorial gems taken from old books. These old-timey results won’t show up on Google image search. Each page is a wonderful orthogonal view of our world– Items are roughly grouped by category. It’s a constant source of amazement, kind of a visual curiosity cabinet.


-- KK  


Cool Tools Wanted

While working on the Best of Cool Tools book, I’ve collected a bunch of queries that need good tool candidates. Please answer if you have a recommendation. We’ve turned off the comments for this posting, so follow the Answer link to the proper Ask Cool Tools thread to answer.

What is the best decent portable metal detector? Not best, not cheapest. (Answer here)

Looking for a good book or website that supplies ergonomic figures for all kinds of activities: best table height, diameter of tool handle, space needed for steering wheel, height to put swicthes, etc. (Answer here)

What is the ideal starter welding rig? Just to try out for simple jobs. (Answer here)

Best guide for raising rabbits for food? (Answer here)

I’d like to set up a digital weather station in our yard and read the results in my office. Need a basic reliable unit. (Answer here)

I like the idea of using a chain saw mill to make big lumber from logs. Does anyone have a recommendation for the hardware? (Answer here)

Need a good source — book and website — for beginning a marine aquarium. (Answer here)

I am in the market for RV-ish vehicle: a small thing I can sleep in and live on the road, but not a full-fledged RV. (Answer here)

My friend’s cabin needs a composting toilet. What’s the best off-the shelf unit? (Answer here)

Has anyone installed a backyard windmill with battery for electricity? (Answer here)

Now with eBay is there any point to government surplus? Are surplus auctions worthwhile? (Answer here)

Can anyone point me to great advice for using junk yards these days? How it works, what not to do, etc.? (Answer here)

What’s the best guidebook for homemade backpacking food? (Answer here)

I need a good but inexpensive respirator for solvents you’d use while finishing wood. (Answer here)

Looking for recommendations on learning primitive skills, like making a bow and animal traps. Youtube? DVDs? Website? Book? Workshop? (Answer here)

Is Troybuilt still the best garden tiller? Any reputable and cheaper alternatives that you’ve used? (Answer here)

What’s the best deal for soft-pellet guns? (Answer here)

Where should I go for advice about how to lobby state or federal legislators (responsibly)? (Answer here)

Is there a “world’s best” garden shovel? (Answer here)

-- KK  

Northern Tool

Northern Tool is an emporium for heavy-duty tools of every variety. This is your source for all cool things belonging in the barn, the garage, the warehouse, the basement, the workshop, or the maintance yard. Their catalog offers some 10,000 tools and parts, with an astounding selection that makes the big box hardware retailers look empty. I find it is worth inspecting their wares every now and then just to see what kind of new tools and materials are available in the world. In addition to their website, they also print a big fat paper catalog, ideal for inspired browsing.

They are so good with finding cool new stuff that we are including a whole bunch of sample tools from their pages. I have not used any of these, so I am not recommending them per se, except as examples of what is available from this catalog.

-- KK  

Sample Excerpts:

NorthStar Trencherman Backhoe — 270cc Honda GX Engine

The NorthStar® Trencherman Backhoe is built bigger, heavier and stronger for amazing digging power — over 4400 lbs. of ripping force at the bucket. Easily towed to any jobsite, with 16 1/2in. x 8in. tires, and a 3500-lb. capacity 2in. coupler.


NPower Wind Turbine — 400 Watt, Marine Grade

The NPower™ 400 Watt Wind Turbine efficiently harnesses wind energy 24/7. AC output at the wind turbine body ensures you keep the most possible power over long distances from generator to batteries. High-quality marine-grade coating and construction provides versatility in both land or sea environments. Begins to supply power at a low 5.6 MPH wind speed, so even if the wind dies down, your power won’t. 400 Watt max power is reached at 28 MPH wind speed.


Q Standard Belt-Drive Drum Fan — 48in., 1 1/2 HP, 19,500 CFM Model# 10248

This two-speed Q Standard Belt-Drive Drum Fan features a 4-blade design for even airflow.


Northern Industrial Machinery Mover — 13,200-Lb. Capacity, 360° Rotation

Easy and safe transport of heavy machinery and household appliances. Smooth movement and 360° rotation improves work efficiency and safety. Sold as singles.


Quantum Storage Wire Shelving System with 25 Clear Bins — 6-Shelf Unit, 36in.W x 12in.D x 36in.H, Model# WR-36-1236-102CL

Quantum Storage all purpose complete bin system provides high-density storage with easy visibility to stored contents. Clear view polypropylene shelf bins are tough, durable and economical. Features wide hopper front, label holder and multiple grips. Shelf rack is made of chrome steel and holds up to 800 lbs. per shelf.


Northern Industrial Hand Press Pump

Needs no gas or electric power to draw well water. Simple, durable hand pump is engineered to last. Old-time styling 19 1/2ft. suction head.




We have not tried this set up, so can not vouch whether it is a cool tool. It is a new modular household that unfolds from the back of a SUV, rover, or car with hatchback. See the website for a full expansion.

The feature-set is great idea for certain kinds of travel; what is not clear is how well the set-up is executed, and whether it is worth the price of at least $4,000. But for some excursions, the arrangement and design might be ideal. It is cheaper than buying an RV. There is at least one installation of the larger version being tried on a pan-African expedition. You’d have an mobile kitchen, bedroom, shower all in one system packed in a standard van or SUV, instead of an RV. You would still have daily disassembly, but you would gain in fuel efficiency, maneuverability, and cheaper cost of the vehicle.

The manufacturer is currently offering two versions: a full heavy-duty outfit (about $8,000) and a smaller compact version, which is shown above.

If someone uses this, please let us know how well it works. Also, there are competitors, such as Yatoo and Westfalia. I’d be interested in a review of any of these systems if someone recommends them.

— KK




Factual eBook Review

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Download the Universe
The Science EBook Review

This is pretty good. A site that reviews original science-based long-form factuals on ebooks. OK, that means serious non-fiction that is shorter than a book, but longer than a normal magazine article, yet that is only available as an ebook, and not available on paper or previously published. In other words a true digitally native “book.” These new things also colonize a middle duration between a blog post and a epic saga. They take a couple of hours to finish reading rather than days, and more than minutes. This emerging genre sports the marvelous compression and intense editing of a good magazine story, but gives the subject a bit more depth. And the e-booklets generally sell for $3 or less, download instantly, say as a Kindle Single. Amazon itself is publishing these at a rapid rate, dealing with authors directly. TED conference is publishing them. Scientific America is publishing them. And this website, a gang of science writers, is reviewing them. So far, the quality is great.

I am using it to find great writing about fascinating topics where I don’t want or need a whole book. This is a bright spot in an industry that could use a bright spot.

— KK



Wiha Quality Tools

Manufacturers sometimes deliberately make it difficult to open their products. A common method is to use odd-shaped specialty screws. Without the right driver, the unit remains sealed. Wiha makes very high quality hand tools, and likes to offer them in great variety. They are a great source for premium versions of specialty screwdriver and screwdriver tips. This table gives a sense of what you can find. Of course they carry a great variety of premium tools in “ordinary” styles (Phillips, slotted, etc.) as well.


-- KK  

Wiha Bits
$45 for a set of 31 bits, also available in smaller kits

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Wiha


Super sensitive digital scale

A reader in Ask Cool Tools was looking for a cheap digital scale that could weigh items to a precision of 0.01 gram. Most kitchen scales run on a precision a magnitude lower at 0.1 gram. You’ll need a wind shield for scales this sensitive because air currents will disrupt the reading at this level.

— KK

Digital 0.01-gram resolution scales are plentiful and very inexpensive (< $20) on eBay and other online retailers. Most of them have a small, flat stainless steel pan, and tare for a container, making them convenient for use with small quantities of food. I used one from eBay identical to this unit and was satisfied with the performance. Note that I was using it for balancing motorcycle pistons, a less demanding task than some others.

Note that you can also obtain scale weight sets for calibration.

I believe that general-use precision weighing of small, light-weight objects is a problem solved by any one of these small,inexpensive digital scales.


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American Weigh Scale Scalemate Sm-501 Digital Pocket Scale, Silver, 500 X 0.01 G
$25 from Amazon

Commenter Stefan Murphy notes that the above item has less than 2.5-star reviews on Amazon. He found a better option with all 5-star reviews, that is also 2/3 the price. However the max weight is only 100 grams, instead of 500. He says, ” A little poking around, and based on reviews the below looks to be much better. I’m in the market for a product like this and will be purchasing the below.”

American Weigh Scale Ac-100 Digital Pocket Gram Scale, Black, 100 G X 0.01 G, $11

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Note: It is worth keeping in mind that when you pay $20 or less for a 0.01 gram scale, you are getting what you pay for. These may be sufficient for your needs, but if you truly need 0.01 gram precision, you aren’t likely to get it. Definitely invest in, not one, but two calibration weights, and check the scale before each use. I say use two weights because the scale may calibrate correctly at, say, 1 gram, but its linearity may be off, and it may be off at every other weight. If you calibrate using one weight and then the scale weighs correctly using a different weight, it is more likely that it is working properly.

You should also note that battery-operated scales will usually require recalibration as the batteries get weaker and their output voltage changes. And keep in mind also that temperature plays a large role in the scale’s weighing. You may find that the scale produces different results after it has been turned on for five minutes and its internal circuitry has warmed up (from the electricity flowing through it).– Joshua Bardwell


Cloning Your Own Mineral Water

You can start with a carbonation water machine, like a SodaStream, Soda-Club, or the previously reviewed home system, and then you can add minerals to make your own artisan mineral waters. There are several ways to calculate how much mineral you need to add. In general you start with an analysis of your tap water (often provided by your water company), then you get a list of branded mineral waters to imitate, and then use a spreadsheet to figure out how much mineral to add. Of course you can also refine your own personal mix that suits your taste, too. Finding a source for the minerals is a little bit trickier, but I suspect selling such salts will soon become a small cottage business for someone (if you know of a source let me know in the comments.) Right now check out this tutorial which tells you how:

How to Clone Mineral Water, Edible Geography

Mineral water salt 460

A spoon full of mineral salts is required for the preparation of 1 liter of San Pellegrino mineral water. Image from Khymos, Mineral waters a la carte

One of the commentors on the Khymos blog noticed that Burton salts, used in beer brewing, and available from supplier like AHS, is very close to the mix of the salts in San Pelligrino mineral water. A quick experiment awaits…

(Has anyone tried more than one off-the-shelf home carbonation machine and would like to recommend the best one?)

— KK