What’s in My Bag? – John Baichtal

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.

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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.

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Writing Stuff

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.

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Tools

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.

-- John Baichtal  

[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 editor@cool-tools.org. See all of our What's in my Bag? posts. -- Mark Frauenfelder]



Flip-Pac Camper Shell

I’ve had my Flip-Pac six or eight years. The pictures on their web site will pretty much show you what it is and how it works. It is very convenient, extremely comfortable, sets up and folds downs quickly and easily.

It allows us to quickly and easily camp out anywhere we can find a reasonably level spot to park our 4WD truck. We sleep off the ground on a comfortable built-in mattress (about Queen size) with plenty of screened windows for ventilation and stargazing if the weather is nice, and – with the rain fly – absolutely dry under the wettest conditions. A couple small interior lights run off the truck battery.

When we are not camping: we still have full use of the carrying capacity of the truck bed same as we would if we had a conventional camper shell. The mattress and tent live under a headliner and take up only about six inches of space under the roof of the shell.

Compared to other pop-up campers: it is light weight (less than 300lbs, important if you have a small truck), cheaper, sturdy enough to carry stuff on the roof [I had a friend make racks for kayaks and boating gear]. I can use all the camping equipment I already had – stove, coolers, folding chairs and table. etc – without the cost or inconvenience of built-ins, which would compromise the usefulness of the truck for hauling stuff around. In pleasant weather we’d sit, cook, and eat outside; in foul weather, this can be done inside, but in a small truck bed it’s not what one would call “roomy.”

It’s very hard to find these used, people who have them will find another truck they can be used on when the first truck wears out.

Possible negatives: they are made to order in Riverside, Ca. (only). When I got mine – years ago – I had to put 50% down, wait maybe a month and a half, then arrange a date when I showed up at the shop where they make them and had mine installed. Back then, they installed one in the morning and another in the afternoon: so they are a small shop and not a big assembly-line operation. I’m sure today the price is higher and the wait longer…

I could have had it delivered to a dealer in Phoenix, who would have installed it, but then I would have had to pay AZ sales tax; I elected to drive to Riverside instead, about the same cost – and no sales tax!

While this has never been a problem for me… some people complain (on the Internet) that it is inconvenient (or impossible) to put up the rainfly without folding up the Flip-Pac; in other words, you need to install the rain fly when you first set it up, you can’t easily change your mind in the middle of the night. Where we camp – the desert SouthWest – this is no problem; but it seems that in the Pacific NorthWest it is.

The tent is made of a vinyl type fabric that resists a light rain or sprinkle well, but for a real rain you want the rain fly [an option available at additional cost.] But with the rainfly installed, there is no way you can get wet or have any water get inside, it is very well designed and functions perfectly – although it eliminates the views out the windows. In the morning after a downpour, you and all your gear are dry – even if the truck is in the middle of a large puddle.

For cold weather camping, we use a small “Mr. Heater” propane heater to keep it warm inside before we crawl in bed, or when we get up in the morning. It sleeps two adults comfortably on the bed [over the cab and hood of the truck] and can also sleep a small adult [or child] on a shelf over the truck bed. Or the shelf can be used to store gear…or folded out of the way altogether. When the Flip-Pac is erected, there is plenty of room for a tall person to stand up in the truck bed.

 

-- Drifter Smith  

[People love their Flip-Pacs. Check out this forum with plenty of photos.]

Flip-Pac
$6,000 and up

Manufactured by Flip-Pac



 

Last Copies

If you are reading this blog, then you probably have a copy of the Cool Tools book. If you do, you know that it both extremely handy and very inspiring. You can find some rave reviews in the press on our book page. The most common praise points to how diverse its interests are; it has something for everyone. Cool Tools, the book, is especially aspirational for a young person. It opens up a world of possibility they were probably not aware of. In other words, Cool Tools is a great gift. Even better it is a meta-gift, in that it also contains a thousand gift ideas within its pages.

Unfortunately, last year at this holiday time, Cool Tools sold out. Right before Christmas none could be found on Amazon or in bookstores. We did another printing since then, but we don’t intend to print anymore. This was a one-cycle project. After the current pile is sold, there will be no more.

I don’t imagine there will be many copies left after the new year, so if you’d like to give the Cool Tools book away as a gift to the young people in your life, or to anyone who likes to make things or make things happen, or, to yourself, I highly recommend you reserve one now on Amazon. The delights of this immense book are hard to describe but almost everyone who has received one is wowed.

Amazon discounts the $40 book deeply, but variably. It currently sells it for $27, a great bargain.

 



Roku 3 Streaming Media Player

We’ve used the Roku for several months now. It enabled us to “cut the cable.” There are plenty of great Roku channels including PBS (which makes my wife happy to get to watch Downton Abbey!), Netflix, Amazon, and Spotify. Roku coupled with our Amazon Prime subscription and Hulu Plus means that we get to watch pretty much anything we want when we want to watch it.

Also, we do much more mindful television consumption this way. What I mean is, we no longer have cable so we no longer turn the TV on the minute we get home from work and mindlessly watch whatever is on and far too often, there was NOTHING worth watching on 100+ channels. Plus, with the exception of Hulu, there are no commercials — BONUS!

Finally, we love the Roku Media channel, which allows us to view our pictures and videos or listen to our music on a USB drive that you plug into the side of the Roku. It does help to have a high-speed net connection. We recently traded in our Comcast “high speed” net for FIOS and it has improved the buffering and time-outs from quite often to non-existent. I’ve never used others, this is my first media streaming television device, but for the cost, I sure feel like it is a great deal!

-- Scott Buel  

[This replaces the Roku 2, reviewed here.]

Roku 3 Streaming Media Player
$85

Available from Amazon



 

Brett Doar, Multidisciplinary Artist [Cool Tools Show #16]

Subscribe to the Cool Tools Podcast on iTunes |RSS | Transcript | Download MP3 | See all the Cool Tools Show posts on a single page

Brett Doar, an artist/maker renowned for his Rube Goldberg machines, shows us some little tools that can make a big impact. He cites both a penny and the humble paperclip as his two most valuable tools. He also recommends an inexpensive 3D printer for making custom components.

Brett’s Website

Links to Brett’s work:

Baby Mobile of Death

Mobile de Piccinati

rotating thing toy

Survey of Work up to 2006

 

DaVinci 3D printer $500

“…that the filament comes in cartridges instead of just a spool…the cartridges are 28$ for a 600 grams of filament where if you’re doing something like Makerbot or something it’s 50$ for a pound…It’s got a heated bed. It’s all enclosed. It’s a crazy value.”

 

 

Clamp-tite clamp maker

“It’s a wonderful thing to use… Anything that you need to stick together, you can make a little clamp for this. All you need is some semi-flexible wire.”

 

Penny on a String ~$.01

“…because I was making this stuff out of wire…I would mangle my fingers…but if you’re using a penny or something you can use it almost like a thimble. A penny is just about the right size for my finger. It basically fits right at the end of my finger and you just put the string around your neck and you’ve got this tool around your neck.”

Paper Clips $7.50

“One of the reasons that paperclips appealed to me at first was because they were all a set length and so you can use them as a form of measurement. You can unfold it and you basically know that you can connect them end to end and make a wheel and then everything is based on the same sort of unit of measurement…I’ve built things that are three feet wide and a couple of feet tall that are made almost entirely out of paperclips.”

 



Cool Tools 2014 Holiday Gift Guide: Mark’s Pick’s

In the weeks leading up to the holidays, we’ll be presenting a series of gift suggestions. This week: Cool Tools editor Mark Frauenfelder’s favorite tool reviews from recent years.


Bialetti Stovetop Percolator ($28)
 ”I originally bought this classic Italian coffee maker for camping, but the coffee was so good I use it every day. It is so simple to use and the result is superb.” — Angus Miller


Golden Mean Calipers ($35)
 ”Aside from just wandering around with my kids and having them put it up to just about everything (‘Dad! this has a golden mean in it as well!’ — I’ll never get tired hearing that) you can also use them to bring some simple relational beauty and balance into anything physical that you make.” — Eric Warner


Fagor 3-in-1 Multicooker ($100)
“The Fagor is also a slow cooker and a rice cooker. Because it is so versatile, I use it almost every day. The throw-everything-in-the-pot-and-push-a-button approach has broadened my cooking horizons. I’ve made rib roast in the slow cooker that had my in-laws coming back for thirds.” — Mark Frauenfelder


Victorinox Swiss Army Manager Pocket Knife ($25)
“This has been in my pocket for nearly 2 years. This compact tool has all the useful stuff you expect from the line of Swiss Army knives: blade, scissors, tweezers, file, bottle opener, and separate flat-head & Phillips-head screwdrivers. What makes it a must-have is the retractable ballpoint pen.” — Sean Singh


Kuhn Rikon Epicurean Garlic Press ($36)
“I’ve used this tool for about 10 years and it’s still going strong. It’s probably the best garlic press in the world. It’s constructed very robustly from stainless steel; it has an unusual lever-action which is far superior to the one-to-one action of most garlic presses; it opens up easily and is trivial to clean.” — Stuart Wray

Want more gift ideas? Take a look at our other 2014 Holiday Gift Guide and 2013 Holiday Gift Guide posts.

 



Bonavita Variable Temperature Gooseneck Kettle

I have been using the Bonavita electric water kettle for over a year. It serves that same purpose as essentially all other water kettles, but the primary advantage over other water kettles is its gooseneck water spout, which allows for slowing pouring. Slow pour is nice when making pour over coffee. Other advantages: it allows the user to choose any preset temperature (rather than just a few as I’ve seen in other model), allows the user to choose to have the kettle hold the desired temperature for an hour, and also allows the user to set a timer when the kettle is removed from its base.

-- Mitchell Olson  

Bonavita 1-Liter Variable Temperature Digital Electric Gooseneck Kettle
$95

Available from Amazon



Ring Weeder

The Ring Weeder is a new gardening tool developed by a 30 year landscaper. I saw it last summer on KickStarter and ordered one immediately. Received it last month and it’s terrific. You start by sliding the Ring Weeder on to your ring (index) finger. Then point with your finger and direct the tip. You can really get under the roots of a weed and then you use your thumb to grab the backside of the weed and out it comes in a pinching motion.

-- Doug Lindal  

[Watch a video of the Ring Weeder.]

Ring Weeder
$8



This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Nest Protect Smoke Plus Carbon Monoxide

Smart homes continue to get smarter and the Nest Protect Smoke and Carbon Monoxide (either battery or wired) is everything you would expect from the people who brought you the Nest thermostat.

We have had this 5 inch x 5 inch x 1.5 inch smoke and CO detector on the ceiling of our kitchen since it became available. What I think is especially cool about it is…

  • It can be checked for readiness from a simple smart phone app indicating its state as well as that of the battery (if that’s your choice of model).
  • When it does go off for reasons other than an actual fire (like your bacon is burning) or CO2 alert, simply waving your hand underneath it, turns the alarm off. The Nest also gives you a gentle verbal warning rather than an unexpected shriek. when an actual alarm is coming.
  • Testing consists of pressing the center most button and the Nest announces its intentions – to perform a simple test including a countdown. All steps are verbally communicated so you know exactly what’s happening.
  • Should you be a Nest thermostat user as well as a Nest Protect user, and should there be an actual fire, the Nest thermostat will shut down the gas furnace as that could be a further source of fire or ignition.
  • And, should the alarm go off for any reason, a message is sent to your smart phone.
  • Especially cool is that the illuminated ring around the center of the monitor acts as a night light when the lights in the room are turned out and also does such in the event of a power failure.
  • And for those who really care about such things, it’s beautifully designed.

Worth the $100 when you can get one for $15? If you’re into the smart home thing, certainly. But, even if not, it just seems more than worth it given the long lasting battery with no chirping to awaken you at night when batteries run low, really easy testing and just a bit more gentle on the senses than the standard howling alarm.

-- Neil J. Salkind  

[We have added this to the Dead Tools category because many people have complained about its reliability. We'll keep an eye on this tool, and if the company addresses the problems, we will consider un-deading it. - Mark]

Nest Protect Smoke Plus Carbon Monoxide
$99

Available from Amazon



Jura-Capresso ENA 9 Automatic Coffee Center

Let me start by saying I like coffee; strong, black coffee. Some years ago I treated myself to a proper home espresso machine. I also bought a burr grinder. I didn’t go as far as buying green beans and roasting them myself (I did consider it), but I did by small batches of freshly roasted quality beans.

Unfortunately what I soon realized is that I like coffee, not making coffee. Yes it’s therapeutic on a Sunday morning in the dressing gown to go through the process, but usually when I want coffee I just want coffee.

Anyway, I looked into coffee making further and realized that a good bean-to-cup machine is really what I should have bought. I went to several cafés that used such machines and tried their coffee and it tasted just as good a places that used traditional espresso machines, often better as there was no operator error involved in the tamping, etc. Most places used Jura machines, so looking on line I found they did a home range. So I purchased a Jura Ena 3 nearly two years ago and haven’t looked back since. There is plenty of adjustment that can be done to get the coffee exactly how you like it then it is just a matter if pressing the button and a perfect cup of coffee comes out every time.

The most important thing is still the beans. Either roast your own, if that’s your sort of thing, or buy small quantities of freshly roasted quality beans. Lots of specialist roasters do sample packs so you can easily compare lots of different coffees so you can find the right taste for you.

If you like coffee, but not the hassle of an espresso machine, or going out, queuing and getting coffee how they like it rather than how you like it try one of these. You won’t be disappointed.

-- Graham Simpson  

Jura-Capresso ENA 9 Automatic Coffee Center
$1,399

Available from Amazon