A cool tool can be any book, gadget, software, video, map, hardware, material, or website that is tried and true. All reviews on this site are written by readers who have actually used the tool and others like it. Items can be either old or new as long as they are wonderful. We post things we like and ignore the rest. Suggestions for tools much better than what is recommended here are always wanted.
This year I worked on a photography project, doing a lot of close-up photographs of objects. This kind of photography is about 5% photography technique, 5% lighting, and 90% cleaning. While compressed gas dusters work fairly well, there is a sense in which they just move dust around. And, more conventional tools like microfiber cloths tend to leave their own debris. I ended up using a type of cleaning gel or “universal dust cleaner” as they brand it. It is basically the same stuff that is sold as “slime” in toy stores, but wrapped up in corporate IT-department friendly packages. Nominally, you can clean things like keyboards with it. But as a tool to trap and remove dust for photography, it’s remarkably good.
This is a classic 6 inch/150 mm steel ruler, or “machinist’s scale”. It’s marked with inches on one side — subdivided into tenths and hundredths — and millimeters on the other. Mitutoyo is one of the most respected names in precision measurement, and this particular ruler is simply a joy to use. I use other scales of this size, but this one is just a little thicker and has eight perfectly square sides. It has a better surface finish (precision ground with satin chrome plating), and has markings that are just a little finer, and easier to read. It feels like they could charge $100 for the same thing and get away with it, but it’s about $15, and worth every penny.
Mitee-Bite is a manufacturer of workholding equipment for machining. They make a wide range of extremely specialized tools for holding chunks of metal — sometimes really weirdly shaped chunks of metal — in place while CNC machines do their thing. I’ve found their little catalog to be one of my most frequent references when designing setups for machining, but also in just designing parts in the first place. There are so many clever tricks that they use to build strong mechanical structures, and there’s a lot to learn from them.
Ask a whole lot of telescope lovers what the best “first” telescope is and you’ll probably hear about the Orion XT8, well and above any other suggestion. It’s a Dobsonian, meaning that it’s nearly instant to plop down on a sidewalk and start observing. It’s big enough to let you see all kinds of amazing things, and upgradeable, if you get into it.