13 December 2017
We had a Black & Decker electric leaf blower. It also had attachments to turn it into a leaf sucker/grinder. That thing was the loudest sumbitch ever, we really needed to use ear protection when that thing was out, but, y’know. But it blew okay, using a cord was a PITA, and anything in the leaves besides leaves would seriously ding up the plastic blower blade if you were sucking up leaves – we didn’t use that much as it seemed to just be asking for catastrophic system failure. Overall, it got the job done but really was a showcase in what a non-Cool Tool could be.
Thanks to The Wirecutter’s roundup, last year I bought an Ego blower. It’s battery powered – no cord. It’s well designed – not sucking up shirt or jacket ends, and, when you’re not using it, it sits down politely, ready to go back to work. It’s light-weight & well-balanced – forearms function nominally after a long session with it. It’s quiet; I mean, it makes noise, but not enough to wake babies or make anybody close their windows and has no weird frequency issues. The battery is capacious and its charger is fast; one full 2.5Ah battery can usually get as many leaves moved and piled as we care to deal with, and if we have lots of leaves, we can’t use “stupid slow charger” as an excuse to stop. It’s speed-adjustable, so you can be smart (less mindless?) when using it. It’s got an appropriately named Turbo button that easily un-jams soggy leaf piles behind & under shrubbery & such – it’s not a gimmick, it really works well. Besides being good at wrangling leaves, it’s also a quickie way to uncover back-yard-dog-poop before things get worse.12/13/17
13 December 2017
I find myself reaching for this titanium nitride shop snip a couple of times per week. It is like nice sharp pair of scissors with (almost) the power of tinsnips. It is VERY sharp and will cut through tough materials like vinyl cove base, nylon pallet strapping, or rope quite easily. I recently had to cut some vinyl trim that was too thick for scissors, but got mangled up with tinsnips. This tool cut the material perfectly. Fiskars says this about the Titanium Nitride coating: “EXTREMELY DURABLE Titanium Nitride coating resists wear, nicks and scratches as well as corrosive chemicals and sticky substances while reducing friction for easier cuts.” I found the rubber grip is comfortable and the tool is very easy to control. It seems very well made. It has nice little touches such as: the tab that keeps the blades locked closed is powdercoated.12/13/17
(This is a Cool Tools Favorite from 2005 — editors)
12 December 2017
Reusable connectors for cardboard creations
The cardboard boxes that come as packaging for my family’s numerous online purchases were formerly an annoying nuisance, piling up until we could cut them apart and add them to the recycle bin. But for the kids at my wife’s school, cardboard is a wonderful construction material. Thanks to Makedo’s plastic screws, this cardboard can be magically transformed into the raw material for forts, castles, suits of armour, etc. A Makedo building kit comes with a serrated plastic knife (non-pointy for extra safety), for cutting up the cardboard, thirty plastic screws that can be used to hold layers of cardboard together, and a special screwdriver that works on these plastic screws. Nothing is sharp enough to hurt the kids. Even sitting on the pointy end of a screw would merely be uncomfortable. Equipped with these simple tools, it’s amazing to see what the kids can do with cardboard. Eventually, the cardboard constructs get left out in the rain, lose their structural integrity, and must be tossed away. When this happens, the bright blue screws are easy to spot and and remove from the junk cardboard, keeping lost screws to a minimum. We buy ours from Lee Valley Tools, but I think Makedo’s construction tools are widely available from other suppliers too. A full set is under $20.12/12/17
11 December 2017
Geometric diamond pattern buffs away hard corns and calluses.
I cover 12-15 kilometers per day while hiking and traveling, which is understandably hard on my feet. For multiday trips, good foot hygiene becomes indispensable for preventing blisters, ingrown toenails, and the dreaded “trench foot.”
I used a generic foot file from my local big box retailer. They seem to work well when brand new, but quickly become gunked up or lose their grit over time. Not to mention most of them are heavy, bulky, and break when dropped. When one file reached the end of its life, I’d buy another and thought that’s just the way it was.
My sister introduced me to the Diamancel #20 about three years ago. Unlike a typical file, which is essentially glorified sandpaper, the Diamancel is made with spiculated diamond-impregnated circles that absolutely decimate rough skin. After just a few uses you will revel at much smoother and softer your soles are on a day-to-day basis. The gaps between the circles collect and channel dead skin away so the file virtually never clogs.
It’s eminently portable, unbreakable, and can be cleaned by simply rinsing under the tap. Although the #20 is labelled for “foot calluses”, most users consider it perfect for everyday use. The vast majority of reviews on Sephora are quite effusive but I will pass along a few tips: Your skin should be bone dry (use before a shower, not after) and don’t press too hard i.e. let the diamonds do the work. And for Pete’s sake use it over the bathtub — you’re going to be astonished at what comes flying off. It’s expensive, sure, so I asked my sister for my own as a birthday present.12/11/17
11 December 2017
A roundup of inexpensive useful tools
I’m going to reel off some of the most interesting tools I’ve come across this year that are under $10. Some of these relatively new to the market, and some were just off my radar.
CANARY Corrugated Cardboard Cutter — Unfortunately, one of the most common tools for working with cardboard is a boxcutter knife, which is a dangerous tool for anyone of any age. It’s also really not a great tool for shaping cardboard. It cuts the stuff, but there’s really not much nuance with it.
Cardboard is an abundant resource for making crafts and mocking up design ideas. It’s especially great for kids.
Unfortunately, one of the most common tools for working with cardboard is a boxcutter knife, which is a dangerous tool for anyone of any age. It’s also really not a great tool for shaping cardboard. It cuts the stuff, but there’s really not much nuance with it.
The Canary Cardboard Cutter is a much more satisfying way to cut and shape cardboard. It has a finely serrated edge on both sides and a blunt tip. The edge could cut you if you sawed into yourself, but it’s unlikely to cut you from casual handling.
But when this thing comes into contact with corrugated cardboard, you can work through it like butter. Even without a pointy tip, you can easily work your way into any spot just by starting with the side of the blade and then pushing in.
It works against the corrugation or with it. And unlike scissors it doesn’t pinch the material at all and you can make long, swooping cuts with ease.
But what this does better than any other tool I’ve used is kerfing, which is to make a flexible joint on a material with a series of incomplete cuts. Using light pressure, you can get a consistent kerf cut for making hinges or tubes in cardboard designs.
As a bonus, I’ve had equally great results using this knife on foamcore, without any of the bunching you’ll sometimes get with a box cutter or x-acto blade.
Best of all, it’s just $8. If nothing else, it’s a great, relatively safe tool for breaking down cardboard boxes for recycling.
Fiber Fix — This stuff is sold as a single use roll and pitched as a kind of super tape that can mend broken tool handles, or attach the muffler back on your car.
Using the included gloves, you soak the roll in water for a few seconds, wrap it around the thing you’re fixing, and after a 10 minute setup time it’s supposed to stick everything together and become hard as steel. Sort of an all-in-one fiberglass and resin wrap.
Sounds cool, but I really had to wrack my brain thinking of something to use it on. I’m hoping it can help me with my gokart handlebar, which is this mashup of bike parts that tends to slip out of alignment. By wrapping it up, I’m hoping it will seize together, and maybe even look cooler.
A little piece of sandpaper is included to rough up the surface, which helps it stick. Gloves are also included because apparently this resin in here is no fun if it sticks to your skin. I soak it in water for 5 seconds, and then quickly wrap what I’m trying to fix before it sets.
After it’s wrapped, it’s recommended that you wrap it again with this included vinyl strap, just to keep pressure on it while it sets up.
Here it is after 15 minutes. It’s hard like the outside of a cast and you can sand it or paint it. But unlike a cast where your arm can still slip around, the resin in here sticks hard to what you’ve wrapped it on. Supposedly it’s watertight. I can at least vouch for it being tough.
The big downside as I see it is that it’s a one-shot deal. As soon as you open the bag, moisture from the air is enough to begin the curing process. You can cut it as use as much or as little as you want, but there’s no saving the rest for later.
That said, for $8, it’s one of those tools that’s probably good to have on hand or as part of an emergency kit.
Coated Trauma Scissors — These non-stick coated medical shears are autoclavable and can be boiled or run through the dishwasher. They’re short, with a blunt tip, but they have great leverage and known for their cutting power.
I was worried that without the notch these wouldn’t work as well on produce, but the serrated blade did a great job gripping things as it cut into them. I didn’t have a chance to use these on meat and bone, but that’s kinda what they’re made for, so I suspect they’d do well.
One thing I noticed is that because these are tensioned so tight by design, they’re not great for making lots of quick cuts. You’re trading speed for power.
For cutting tape, the good news is that the non-stick coating resists tape. I think it would be hard to get these gummed up. The bad news is that the relatively short blade length makes long, precise cuts more difficult.
Breaking down boxes was also a mixed bag. On one hand, the little blunt lip on the end made it easy wedge under tape for taking boxes apart carefully and not accidentally stabbing yourself or whatever’s in the box. On the other hand, the inability to just jab these into cardboard and get the job done forced me to approach the task a little differently.
Overall, for $8, I’m definitely keeping these around. The blunt tip makes them more kid-friendly. You don’t have to be precious with them. And they’re incredibly powerful.
Gear Ties — These are essentially giant twist ties. There’s a bendable metal wire inside and the outside is made from a waterproof, UV-resistant rubber.
Just like you’ll usually see twist ties used to bundle produce or secure products in a package — these are great for wrapping things together.
They’re great for wrapping cords together.
They can be used to hold together a bedroll or a rolled up yoga mat.
You want to secure a Go Pro to a pole? You can do that.
You want to create a makeshift mount for your phone. You can do that.
Make a stand for your flashlight? No problem.
It’s just a great, generally handy thing to have around. Great for camping or traveling. A lot of reviewers recommend them for tying things down on boats or kayaks, or just generally rigging things together temporarily.
And one tip from my own experience is that you can very simply twist these together to double the length. The ribbed, gummy quality of the rubber sticks to itself pretty well.
USB Soldering Iron — For electronic work, next on the list is this $9 USB soldering iron.
Here’s what I like about it.
1. It’s skinny. It’s the skinniest iron I’ve ever used, which makes it really nice to hold. Altogether with the cord it’s super compact.
2. It’s cheap. Even if it’s not your favorite iron, at $9 you can put one in every kit you have and not be precious about mistreating it.
3. USB is everywhere. You can plug it into your computer, or a portable charger, or a wall adapter. There’s nothing to recharge.
4. There’s a built-in safety. Touching this little button turns it on. If it’s let go for more than 15 seconds it turns off.
Now, it’s definitely not perfect. It only really gets hot enough for general electronic work, and the skinny tip loses heat quickly.
Also, while it’s portable, it’s not exactly cordless. You still have to plug this into something, even if that a portable battery. Which also means that if you lose this adapter cable, you’re hosed.
Still, I’m glad I have it around. And at $9 I think it’s a great value just to have as part of your toolbag.
Diamond Whetstone — The manufacturer, DMT, does most of their business selling larger diamond whetstones for sharpening knives and tools. This is that same product on a smaller scale.
The face of the file has this polkadot pattern. The red is from the plastic backing showing through. Those holes are just slightly recessed and provide a place for little bits to collect as you file things down. The color is also there to indicate which grit you’re working with. This red one is considered Fine — around 600 grit if I understand it right. Lenore had been using the blue, coarse version, which might be better for some applications.
Now the metal part is where the magic is. You can’t tell from looking at it, but there’s a layer of industrial diamonds embedded in the metal surface. The metal is actually electro-formed around the diamonds, so it holds up to repeated use.
The back is just plastic, stamped by the manufacturer, showing that this is made in Marlborough Massachusetts.
Because diamonds are so incredibly hard, they work as an abrasive on just about anything. You can file your fingernails, sharpen small metal tools, knives, and generally just knock the edges off anything you throw at it. It can be used wet or dry.
And because it’s not all stabby like a traditional metal file, you can travel with this without raising any eyebrows with TSA. Plus, how cool is it to have a tool made of diamonds?
Metallic Sharpie — For something super cheap, how about a metallic sharpie?
With the metallic sharpie you can write on even the darkest, glossiest surface, and be able to read the mark.
Black plastic, dark metal, dark fabric, rubber, black gaffer tape, beer bottles, and it’s a great way to label black plastic wall warts so you can remember what goes to what.
They’re cheap, high-contrast, there’s no shaking or dripping, and it’s a cool look.
Beadle Wraps — Think of this as a cross between a zip-tie and a velco or hook & loop strap. It’s cheap and plastic like a ziptie, easy to reuse like velcro, but also kind of it’s own thing.
Let’s say you’ve got a cord to tie up. You wrap it around, thread it through the bottom hole, and then when you go back through the top hole you get a loop you can use to hang this up.
If you have multiple cords to bundle together, you can also use that second loop to wrap another cable.
Depending on the cord you’re wrapping, you could also wrap one notch just on the cord, and use the other notch for wrapping the entire bundle. This helps keep the wrap with the cord when you undo it.
If you have something big to wrap and need a longer cord, you can chain these together until you get the size you need. They also just sell bigger and smaller versions of these if you already know what kind of job you want them to handle.
Best of all, these come undone with just a little gentle encouragement. I feel they’re easier to undo than reusable zip ties, but not so easy you have worry about them falling apart.
BabeBot Glue Bottle — It’s a 4-oz. glue bottle made for glue. I’ve got mine filled with wood glue. They also make a bigger 16oz. version but I find this one a little more handy. What this does is make laying down glue a much tidier and more exact process. The way it does this is that the design feeds glue up from the bottom, through a spout — sorta like a fancy tea kettle. And when you’re done squeezing out glue, you get this immediate back pressure that sucks the glue right back in the bottle, so you don’t get that messy string of glue drool. There’s also a little cap here that stays attached. The whole thing makes me feel like a glue pro, and it only costs $7.
Pocket Microscope — I half bought this thing just to see what a tiny $6 microscope even looks like. It comes in this flimsy box, and understandably it’s mostly plastic, but what you get is fairly impressive.
The microscope itself is just this passive lens system that you can focus with your hand. But you also get this series of LEDs you can switch on to add extra light. Switched one way you can look at things under a UV light which is apparently handy for seeing anti-counterfeit marks on money.
I had microscopes as a kid, but they were always the classic style where you had to put samples on a slide, and they were more more or less fixed things.
What surprised me about this cheap, tiny microscope is how much fun it can be to just take it to anything out in the world — the wood grain on a table, the tread of a bike tire, the print in a comic book — all these little hidden worlds open up and you can just instantly peek at them.
If you have kids, it’s a slam dunk. Even if they already have a standard microscope, like my kid, the reaction to this was totally different.
Beyond the novelty, I’ve found this useful a few times for inspecting electronics projects and troubleshooting connections or reading little component values or serial numbers.
And I should also mention that I was able to use this with my smartphone camera to take closeup photos or videos. That’s actually how I shot a lot of this video here. So you can somewhat think of this as a super macro lens adapter for your phone.12/11/17
10 December 2017
Recomendo: issue no. 72
How to be cozy
To prepare for the holidays I’ve been reading The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living written by Meik Wiking, CEO of The Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. Wiking shares tips on how to light your home (aim for pools of light), what to wear and eat (mostly wool and warm drinks), how to create a sense of togetherness, as well as other things that Danes do to be happy all year round. An idea I plan to adopt is to link purchases with good experiences or an important milestone in life so that I’m reminded of it each time it’s used or seen. — CD
A great hack to know during shopping days is to always check out RetailMeNot before purchasing anything online, outside of Amazon. There is a high chance I’ll find a discount coupon for a retail purchase I am considering. RetailMeNot will give you the coupon code, and the rate of success others have recently had in using it (the codes are crowdsourced). Discounts of 10, 20, or 30% are not uncommon in my experience. I don’t shop without it. — KK
Who are you?
Know Yourself is a set of 60 cards to prompt you to examine your beliefs. Example card: “List five things that are important to you in your life. How much of your time do you give to each of these?” The back of each card offers advice to make sure you answer the questions in a useful way. You can use their cards on your own or with another person you feel close to. Be prepared to surprise yourself. — M
You can wake up Alexa by using the wake command “Computer” as in Star Trek. Go to the Alexa app on your phone. Right-swipe to open a panel with Settings choice. Pick your device and scroll down to wake commands. You have a limited choice of four words, including Computer. There is a movement to make that command a common voice interface among all devices. Are you listening Siri, Cortana and Google? — KK
Easiest way to search bookmarks
I added my bookmarks to Chrome’s custom search engine and now all I have to do to find something I saved is type “B” into my URL bar and press enter, then I type whatever search terms I want. Here’s how to do it. — CD
What’s on that barcode?
If you’re curious about the information on barcode or QR code, take a photo or screengrab of it and upload it to this website. It will decode the contents and present it to you in human readable form. I used it recently to get a shipping tracking number I needed. — M
Get the Recomendo weekly newsletter a week early by email.12/10/17
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23 February 2017
An avid cyclist shares his road gear
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