05 March 2021


Spencer Wright, Founder of The Prepared

Cool Tools Show 268: Spencer Wright

Our guest this week is Spencer Wright. Spencer is the founder of theprepared.org, where he edits a widely read newsletter about engineering, manufacturing, and other meaningful work in the physical world. His career has spanned construction project management, bicycle framebuilding, consumer electronics, and generative design software. He also co-organizes the New York Hardware Meetup and spends a lot of time trying to get his four-year-old daughter excited about hanging out in his Brooklyn workshop. You can find Spencer on Twitter and Instagram @pencerw.

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Show notes:

Cord reels & overhead power
We’re in an old, old, industrial building in Brooklyn and it has these great high ceilings. And the ceiling is all concrete, which kind of has some downsides, but has some upsides. And in this case, we mounted all of this conduit and these receptacles right to the ceiling and then hung these overhead cord reels, with these retractable extension cords right next to them. The result is that whenever you want power anywhere in the shop, we laid these things out on a grid. And so you just reach up and grab the closest extension cord from right above head and pull it down to you. The cord reels themselves, they’re about maybe a foot in diameter. They hang from the ceiling very easily and then they have a 25 or a 30 foot extension cord coiled up inside them with a spring retract system. And the result is that you have this easy access to power anywhere in the shop and no extension cords around the ground to trip on. Even in a smaller shop, something with a roughly eight foot ceiling, you could mount them right in the corner, right where the ceiling meets the wall and you have the same effect. Where they’re out of the way. You’re not walking into them all the time and they’re easy to reach. And again, your power is all above you and so whenever you do need an extension cord, you’re not tripping over it.

PartsBox is a digital way of managing all of the inventory of everything you keep in your shop. Basically, you know when you get a small parts cabinet, that have either a bunch of little drawers or one large drawer with a bunch of sub-compartments. And usually they give you a booklet or a tape of these little stickers or cards that you are supposed to write the part number on or the specifications and then stick it to that drawer. PartsBox is a digital replacement for all of that. It’s a website and you create your own catalog of parts and then tell PartsBox where each part is stored, how many you have there, what they cost, so on and so forth. You go to your physical part cabinet and you just name every single compartment in it. And PartsBox has easy ways to do this where you just kind of create a grid and you say, you have columns and rows. And so this is bin A4 or whatever it is. And then you add whatever parts that you have in your inventory into PartsBox and assign them to that storage location. I name all my parts that McMaster-Carr number or whatever it is and then add enough detail so that PartsBox’s search system can easily find what I might be looking for. For instance, I use mostly metric fasteners and if I’m working on a project, I need an M5 socket head cap screw, I’ll go to PartsBox. I won’t look at my physical parts storage at all. I go to PartsBox first, I search M5 socket or something like that and up come the 20 different parts that meet that description. And if I click on them, then it tells me what storage location to go to to look for them.

Paulk style workbenches
I built a Paulk workbench. The Paulk workbench design is something that’s distributed by this guy, Ron Paulk, who is a YouTube and internet personality. He’s a woodworker who has created this design and sells plans for it. And the idea is that you make it yourself. It’s a woodworking workbench that’s made primarily of plywood and the workbench top, instead of being a solid, like a butcher block, is a plywood box that uses what’s called a torsion box system. And so the workbench top, in my case is 200 millimeters tall and it has a top surface and a bottom surface and then some ribs and sides to hold them together. And the result is that you have this great built-in storage area in your workbench top, you have kind of a shelf, where you can keep commonly used tools. And then the standard Paulk workbench uses plywood saw horses for the base. I actually used this industrial framing system called Flexpipe, which is a kind of a steel pipe system to build this substructure. But then the idea with the workbench is that you use it to mount both your table saw and a router table as well. And it becomes kind of the central workstation for your entire wood shop. Geared mostly towards folks who are making things out of plywood.

A Johnson bar
My last pick is a Johnson Bar. Johnson bar is kind of like a cross between a crowbar and a hand truck. It’s this big piece of steel or wood, usually about six feet long and one end there’s a handle and the other end, there are two little wheels and a little lip. A pry lip that you can use to lift really heavy things off the ground. They’re used mostly to move heavy machinery and they can lift up to 5,000 pounds pretty easily just with one person. They only lift them a couple of inches, but they’re kind of magical. It’s kind of like an Egyptian way of moving heavy things around where you have this really, really, really long lever and are able to scoot something that’s very heavy, a very small distance. And the beauty of owning the Johnson bar is that they enable you to take unloved, heavy equipment off other people’s hands. There are a lot of milling machines and lathes out there that someone bought decades ago and they’ve been sitting on a garage floor ever since. And they decline in value, partly because they’re just difficult to move. Now you’re not going to use a Johnson bar to move something down the street, let alone to a different city or something like that. But you can use it to just get a heavy item up onto a dolly or a hand truck or a pallet jack. And it really is just an incredible super power to be able to lift this heavy thing just a couple of inches and then actually move it.

About The Prepared:
The Prepared is a weekly newsletter that I word as meaningful work in the physical world because, it’s partly about manufacturing, partly about logistics, partly about construction — kind of the areas of my career that I’ve worked in. And it’s divided up into some industry news, some just engineering factoids and then the random kind of interview or plenty of manufacturing videos as well. My belief is fundamentally that being a generalist helps you make good decisions. And in addition, it’s personally enriching to be aware of things kind of in the adjacent possible. Some of my favorite conversations with engineers have been folks who work in industries that I would never consider working in. And The Prepared is kind of meant to treat all those things with at minimum, curiosity and ideally with some degree of respect. There are plenty of really interesting engineering topics happening in oil and gas and aviation and also in single family home construction. And my belief is that you don’t have to agree with them, you don’t have to study them at much length, but being aware of them and at least considering what their implications are, can make you better at the things that you do, whether or not you work in the physical engineering world.


We have hired professional editors to help create our weekly podcasts and video reviews. Please consider supporting us on Patreon. We have great rewards for people who contribute! If you would like to make a one-time donation, you can do so using this link: https://paypal.me/cooltools.– MF


05 March 2021


Nite Ize Figure 9 Carabiner

Knot substitute

The Figure 9 carabiner lets you quickly fasten — and quickly loosen or adjust — a small-diameter rope to a fixed point without a knot deploying a clever combination of friction and angles. To those of us with knot-dyslexia, this is a real boon. The only requirement: your fixed attachment point must feature either a place to clip the carabiner (i.e. a metal loop in a pick-up truck bed or a thin, sturdy tree branch), or something around which your line can be looped. That could mean securing a Tarptent to a tree, improvising a handle around a bundle of cables, or securing a travel clothesline between window-grate and curtain-rod.

All you need to do is pull the rope through in the right sequence and finish with the rope’s loose end tugged into the notched “V” section to keep the rope attached and taut. There are actually multiple sequences and ways to work the geometry. Three methods are diagrammed in the instructions that come with the carabiner (see below).

Thus far, I have used the devices only with standard-issue parachute cord, but they’re sized to work with a range of small-diameter ropes. Though the tying system looks suspiciously wimpy, I’ve found it is as robust as promised. I ordered the Figure 9s to replace the mesh netting that came with the roof-rack basket on my car. Not only do these make a decent replacement (i.e. riding around with a kayak strapped to my car this summer), but tying one more knot under the car is something I’m glad to skip. Note: the device is anodized aluminum and weighs a bit more than I expected (slight downside to ultra-light hikers); still, “Not for climbing” is printed on the packaging, repeated in the instructions, and emblazoned on each carabiner. I think they mean it.

-- Timothy Lord 03/5/21

04 March 2021

Tuning Up a Harbor Freight Hammer

Gareth's Tips, Tools, and Shop Tales - Issue #82

Tuning Up a Harbor Freight Hammer

Hammer time.

Hammer time.

In this newsletter, I’ve frequently talked about buying lots of pencils, rulers, scissors, and other relatively inexpensive go-to tools and stashing around the shop (and home). But this commonly-used tool saturation is not practical for more expensive tools. Or is it? Pocket83 bought some $3.99 Harbor Freight rip hammers to keep throughout his workshop. Before he put them into service, he spent some time “tuning” them up. He rounded off the hard edges of handle and heads, sanded and re-finished the handles, reinforced the eye hole (where the head and handle attach), and he added rubber grips using recycled inner tubes.

Paint-On Copperplating?

What is this sorcery?

What is this sorcery?

In a follow-up to her recent video where she electroplated the gas tank of her motorcycle with copper, Laura Kampf decided to try a much easier platting method of simply painting on a copperplate solution. She saw a video demonstrating the technique and wanted to try it out. It appears to work. Amazing. As she points out, this could lend itself to all sorts of applications.

The Duh Department
I want to start a new periodic feature where I mention tips that are commonly known but may bear repeating. Introducing “The Duh Department.”

I’ve been cleaning out a lot of my old tech and stored junk. Even though I know to remove batteries from things being storing, I am shocked at how many things still have (now corroded) batteries in them. So, here’s a reminder. Add it to your to-do list. Go through your house and garage and check every battery-powered thing you’re not currently using and remove their batteries.

Faux Woodgrain for 3D Printing

Looks like wood to me.

Looks like wood to me.

I love doing faux finishes. These techniques can come in handy when trying to make a piece of 3D printed plastic look like wood or stone or metal. In this Off Earth video, Darrell shows how you can achieve a pretty realistic faux wood finish by using a mid-tone brown spray paint basecoat and various shades of brown alcohol ink pens.

Getting Bubbles Out of Resin

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble.

If you don’t have a pressure pot, getting bubbles out of casting materials can be a pain in the butt. This CrafsMan video offers 7 ways to remove bubbles from your casts.

Shop Tales
In response to my item in the last newsletter about drafting triangles, legendary toy design, Bob Knetzger, shared this funny little anecdote (and a tip).

In industrial design school, I had an instructor, Todd Smith, who was a very talented renderer. He would give us demos and workshops using colored Canson paper, spirit Magic Markers™ (the stinky ones in the little glass bottles), NuPastel chalks, Prismacolor pencils, and White Out (for making the white, sparkling highlights on chrome, which we lovingly called “bird shit”). We learned to render surfaces like woodgrain, painted steel, glass, chrome, etc. in our realistic drawings of cars, pencil sharpeners, and vacuum cleaners. In one demo, he Socratically asked us “You know why a triangle is your best drawing tool, right?” We all guessed that the 30/60/90 angle was useful in perspective layouts…? No. Cuz the 45 degree triangle helps divides lengths by 2 visually? No. Putting his fingers through the opening to hold the 90 degree corner: “…because it’s a straight edge with a HANDLE!”

Draftsmen always keep the triangle flat on the paper, sliding them to use the edges along T-squares, parallel rules, and other triangles. Renders NEVER lay the triangle flat on the paper (that would instantly smudge the delicate pastel chalk!)—they hold the triangle up at an angle away from the paper surface and only touch the triangle’s drawing edge to the paper. (At least they did back in the olden days….)

Shop Talk
In response to my somewhat controversial post about CA glue having a shelf-life, I’ve had two readers volunteer to do some testing to see if there really is an appreciable difference between old and new CA glue. One reader is a materials scientist and one is a mechanical engineer by education. We are currently working on putting together a testing procedure that both of them can follow. It will be interesting to compare the results. stay tuned. If you have any thoughts on this subject, please message me.


(Gareth’s Tips, Tools, and Shop Tales is published by Cool Tools Lab. To receive the newsletter a week early, sign up here. — editors)

03 March 2021


What’s in my bag? — Karen Morrill-Mcclure

What's in my bag? issue #91

Sign up here to get What’s in my bag? a week early in your inbox.

Karen was an engineer in the Space Shuttle program and is currently the IT person/webmaster at Washington Sea Grant (WSG) at the University of Washington. They also co-chair the WSG Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Workgroup and spend their off hours playing Dungeons & Dragons and games on their Switch. Karen can be found on Twitter and Instagram @kayjumnac.


About the bag

This is my most recent backpack purchase. I mostly use it around the house since I’m not going anywhere right now. It’s from Salish Style ($65). The design is called Raven’s Cross Beam and is by Dylan Thomas (Coast Salish artist from the Lyackson First Nation). Besides the great design, I like the smooth front, the plentitude of pockets inside and the padded straps.

What’s inside the bag

My Diop face mask ($15) is comfortable, adjustable and looks great. I wear glasses, so I appreciate the nose pincher and it has fully adjustable straps. Diop is a black-owned company that makes clothing (and masks) from Ankara (a fabric used throughout West Africa).

PowerAdd external battery ($13). It’s small enough to slip in a pocket when I’m worried about my phone running out of power and it comes in red.

Hanote Spiral Notebook ($19, 3pk). I have exacting requirements for a notebook: thick pages (no ink bleed through), spiral binding (so I can flip the cover all the way to the back), plain front (so I can personalize with stickers), and hardcover (so I can write in it while walking around if necessary) which come from many years as a consultant and a teacher. These notebooks meet all those requirements, are pretty inexpensive, and come in a three pack so I can have one for my D&D adventure, one for personal notes (shown here), and one as a spare.

Uni -Ball Vision Elite BLX ($10, 5ct). My favorite pens in the whole world (right now). Bold tips and colors but infused with black so they are always readable. If you like a bold pen and haven’t try these, you really should.


(What's on your Desk? We are changing things up a bit and want to hear about that unusual and unusually useful items that you keep on your desk. Start by sending an email to claudia@cool-tools.org with a photo of 4 interesting things on your desk (you can use your phone). If you get a reply from us, fill out the form we send you, and we’ll pay you $50 if we run your submission in our What’s in my bag? newsletter and blog. — editors)

03 March 2021


Grandpa’s Feeders Automatic Chicken Feeder

rat-proof chicken feeder

If you have chickens, keeping other animals out of their food can be a constant battle.

I moved several months ago and inherited a dozen chickens from the previous owner. I didn’t really know how much a dozen chickens would eat, but their food was disappearing at an alarming rate. While I haven’t seen any, I know our area has rat problems and I was suspicious. I visited a local chicken supply store, where I bought a treadle feeder. For it to work, a chicken has to stand on a little platform, and a mechanism opens a door to allow access to the food. Rats aren’t heavy enough to trigger the mechanism.

It took my chickens a few weeks to get the hang of it, but now a bag of food that previously lasted 10 days is lasting nearly three weeks.

As a bonus, the feeder holds about 25 pounds of food, so I don’t have to worry about refilling very often.

-- Abbie Stillie 03/3/21

02 March 2021


Nordic Ware Microwave Corn Popper

Best cheap nuke-it popcorn maker

This microwave popper is simplicity itself: 1/2 cup of corn, a little oil (or not), and a little time in the microwave yields a low-cost, low-cal snack you can eat right out of the popper. Unlike other poppers or Tupperware containers, the Nordic Ware’s top cover has nifty ridges that facilitate comfortable removal — i.e. when everything is very, very hot (If you don’t remove the cover immediately, the popcorn gets too moist).

I’ve tried a variety of devices on my long march to the perfect popper… table-top poppers often made a mess (and big noise) and they’re not machine-washable. Some microwave poppers require pads that deteriorate with use and need to be replaced, but are difficult to find. The stove top method, I just could never fully master: burned pans, burned corn, mess to clean. Lastly, microwavable bags of popcorn: If you eat a lot popcorn, you’ll be spending exorbitant sums and — depending on which brand — consuming chemical additives. The Nordic popper does not require oil, so the end-product is essentially the same as an air popper. The Nordic can go in the dishwasher, or just be wiped clean. Plus, the Nordic is perhaps the least expensive one out there. As of late, we’ve been producing popcorn five nights a week.

-- Daniel Wilson 03/2/21


This is a Cool Tools Favorite from 2008


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Black & Decker Accu Mark Level

Ultimate guide for hanging

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Jordan Calhoun, Deputy Editor at Lifehacker

Cool Tools Show 267: Jordan Calhoun

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Beadsmith Thread Zap II

Trim, burns, or melts thread with one touch

Get a grip! 02/25/21

Great Shop Tips from Colin Knecht

Gareth’s Tips, Tools, and Shop Tales – Issue #81

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Biothane Gold Series Webbing

All-purpose strap material

See all the reviews


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Gingher Sewing Shears

Best sewing scissors

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Pattern recognition competition

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Kindling splitter

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Forschner Victorinox Chef’s Knife

Inexpensive great chef knife

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Corrective Swim Goggles

Cheap underwater clarity

See all the favorites



Cool Tools Show 268: Spencer Wright

Picks and shownotes

Cool Tools Show 267: Jordan Calhoun

Picks and shownotes

Cool Tools Show 266: Travis McElroy

Picks and shownotes

03 March 2021


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