20 May 2022
19 May 2022
Gareth's Tips, Tools, and Shop Tales - Issue #121
Got a tip to share? Tool to recommend? Tall shop tale to tell? A tip to bust? Please share with the class.
Organizing Cables and Other Gear Using Hanging Storage Bags
Twitter user laen posted this fantastic idea for organizing and storing cables. He uses hanging storage bags on a rod. Cables and misc tech accessories are the bane of my existence. This is a great solution for not only storing cables but other sorted small parts. See the comments on the tweet where others share some useful storage “hacks.”
A Mini-Tutorial on Using GitHub for Arduino Projects
In this Andreas Spiess video, Andreas provides an excellent 16-minute tutorial on why GitHub is essential to anyone working in software development and makers doing microcontroller projects. Andreas covers downloading libraries and projects, creating a project Fork, publishing a project on GitHub, and how to create a Pull Request (how you alert others to changes you’ve pushed to the branch of a GitHub repository), among other things.
11 Cheap Tools You Want to Have in Your Workshop
Which Bit Holder is Best?
A simple bit holder for use in an impact driver can cost anywhere from a few bucks to over $20. So, is paying more worth it? That’s the question Todd is looking to answer in this Project Farm video. He tests 19 brands for maximum torque before failure, magnetic bit retention holding strength, magnetic hold on fasteners, speed of driving in fasteners, and wear resistance. In the end, the $9 DeWalt (Locking) holder (currently $12 on Amazon) performed the best, with the $20 Wiha (currently unavailable) a close second. The Hilti, at $8 (currently $11 on Amazon) also got an overall A rating.
The Duh Department
This is one most of you likely know but it might be worth a reminder. Your phone is a perfect tool for visual note-taking. Here are some of the ways I use mine: Documenting a teardown of a piece of hardware, taking a pic of paint to match (not super color-accurate, but better than nothing), noting a product I see in the store, remembering a parking space, quotes from books, taking a pic of something off my computer screen, taking pics of things I can’t easily see like the hook-ups behind my TV. The list goes on. If you have other note-taking uses for your phone, I’d love to hear them.
Reader Gary Shell writes:
“Where is Todd from the Project Farm Videos finding tools at the prices he mentions? The link to the Irwin wire strippers takes me to a page where they are $25 not $14. This is the second such disappointment. Last time was the needle nose pliers a few weeks back. Every link I found had the at almost double his price.”
I’ve noticed the same thing. And also that after a Project Farm video goes up, the items are often out of stock on Amazon. I’ve sent Todd a message to ask him. Will report back.
Michael Ritchie wrote in to say that the story of the ground up/ground down outlets didn’t tell the whole story:
The original National Electrical Code (NEC) standard (100 years ago) was to install outlets Ground Up or Ground Left if installed sideways. This was in the NEC up through the 1980s. This is why certain municipalities still have it in their standards. When I was apprenticed to be an electrician by my father and grandfather, they taught me this and I remember looking it up in the NEC book. They also informed me that the standard was never enforced by inspectors and the common ground down orientation was preferred by consumers because it “looked like a face”. The ground up requirement was removed from the NEC at some point but the ground left requirement remained (but is not enforced). Many outlets sold today have writing on them that indicates the manufacturer’s intended orientation and you can find examples of both ground up and down.
What People Are Saying About Tips and Tales Volume 2
Have you picked up the second volume of my best-selling Tips and Tales from the Workshop? Buying it is a great way to support me and this newsletter. Here is some of what people are saying about Volume 2:
A delightful collection gathered from makers far and wide (I even have a few tips in there). Really fun read and a great gift for any maker, craftsperson, or hobbyist. – Legendary toy designer Bob Knetzger
Branwyn is the perfect curator of the actual practice of being a maker and a tinkerer. Any level of DIY experience will benefit from the tips in this book. This is a book brimming with personality and shows a real love for that special time working on a project. –Peter Bebergal, Strange Frequencies author
Gareth has spent years gathering the best shop tips, tricks, and hacks for making projects easier at every step. There are tips in this book that you will use for years to come. –John “Graz” Graziano, maker and co-star of the hit Netflix series, Making Fun
Every page you turn you’re like “I wish I had known this!” Full of handy hints, inexpensive DIY gadgets, best practices, and rules to protect your thumbs! Tips for artists, engineers, tinkerers, and cosplayers – along with the shocking revelation of how much we all have in common as makers. Perfect for the shop, garage, or mad scientist lair. Highly recommended! –Carl Leonard, robotics engineer and sci-fi podcaster
I refer to this book regularly for guidance or just read it for entertainment and inspiration. Really a high value book in its genre. – Ross Hershberger, audio engineer and Make: contributor05/19/22
18 May 2022
Travel case with four multi-directional spinner wheels
I saw your review of the Travel Pro Crew, which seems popular with a lot of airline staff. A few years ago, I saw one of them wheeling something different: a Samsonite Winfield 20-inch. I asked why and she said she found the “spinner” feature (four wheels instead of two) much better for long walks in airports. She also said it was way less expensive than the Travel Pro, which is good if you want to replace your luggage every year. I bought one and have been very happy with it since then. The wheels have survived being part of checked baggage just fine, and I too like walking with the case upright in airports.05/18/22
17 May 2022
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.05/17/22
(This is a Cool Tools favorite from 2017 — editors)
16 May 2022
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 of 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.05/16/22
(This is a Cool Tools favorite from 2017 — editors)
15 May 2022
Recomendo: issue no. 305
Cool Tools Show and Tell
Every week for 6 years we’ve recorded a podcast featuring the cool tools of a remarkable person. Earlier this year we paused the podcast, but we have now relaunched it as a video-cast in the same format. Every Friday I interview a remarkable person and ask them on screen to show and tell 4 of their favorite tools. This program, called the Cool Tools Show and Tell, streams on our YouTube channel. And the audio channel of each session will resume streaming on the old Cool Tools Podcast subscription for those who only want to listen. I really look forward to each session because I am always surprised by what interesting cool tools people will recommend. — KK
Find out if you’re close to burnout
IT Burnout Index is a 10-question survey that will tell you how close you are to burnout, and what your risk level is for Exhaustion, Self Inefficacy, Cynicism and Depersonalization. It only takes 2 minutes to get the results and you can then choose to check out Yerbo’s personalized insights and exercises. It’s anonymous, and doesn’t require an email. — CD
Cheap healthy recipes
Budge Bytes is a recipe website of delicious meals that cost very little to make, other than your time. The recipes use fresh ingredients and are accompanied by tantalizing photos. Try the Comeback Sauce for roasted vegetables. — MF
Easy plant replication
Most plants can be propagated by pinching off a bit and setting the piece in soil to grow into a whole new plant. You can increase the likelihood of success by dusting the pinched piece with plant hormone to speed root growth, such as Bontone II Rooting Powder. We have generally propagated our entire garden by pinching. We can increase success even more using the Hormex set of 3 different strengths of the hormone based on how woody the plant is. — KK
Mack’s moldable silicone earplugs are superior to squishy foam earplugs because they completely seal the opening to your ear. They do a fantastic job of blocking out sound. These silly-putty-like plugs have saved my sleep many times when staying in noisy hotels and Airbnbs. — MF
Get oldest Google search results first
Oldestsearch.com reverse-orders all Google search results so that you see the oldest webpages first. This is refreshing to use, because I so often feel like all the top results are repetitive. — CD
Show and Tell #313: John Markoff
Geometric diamond pattern buffs away hard corns and calluses.
Gareth’s Tips, Tools, and Shop Tales – Issue #120
COOL TOOLS SHOW PODCAST
WHAT'S IN MY BAG?
19 January 2022
What’s in my … ? issue #136
ABOUT COOL TOOLS
Cool Tools is a web site which recommends the best/cheapest tools available. Tools are defined broadly as anything that can be useful. This includes hand tools, machines, books, software, gadgets, websites, maps, and even ideas. All reviews are positive raves written by real users. We don’t bother with negative reviews because our intent is to only offer the best.
One new tool is posted each weekday. Cool Tools does NOT sell anything. The site provides prices and convenient sources for readers to purchase items.
When Amazon.com is listed as a source (which it often is because of its prices and convenience) Cool Tools receives a fractional fee from Amazon if items are purchased at Amazon on that visit. Cool Tools also earns revenue from Google ads, although we have no foreknowledge nor much control of which ads will appear.
We recently posted a short history of Cool Tools which included current stats as of April 2008. This explains both the genesis of this site, and the tools we use to operate it.