Christmas Shopping Help for Your DIYer

Even though no one set out to make Christmas a challenging time of the year, that’s what it has become for a lot of us. And a big part of the burden has to do with the whole gift thing – more specifically, choosing good gifts at reasonable prices without spending a whole lot of time getting overheated in malls. What you really need are good ideas before you hit the stores. And that’s what you’ll find here.

The $30 Gift:

Ryobi P740 Cordless Radio

Ryobi RadioLots of tool companies make great cordless gear, but Ryobi does something better than anyone else. They’ve committed themselves to keeping their battery system simple, inexpensive, and universal. The same $35, 18-volt batteries fit all Ryobi cordless tools which opens up the kind of possibilities you see in their P740 jobsite radio.

For $29.97 you get a portable FM radio that also does something you’re going to see more of. An external input port let’s you hook up an iPod (or other types of MP3 players) so you can listen to your music or podcasts anywhere for hours and hours. The unit is small and light, but has lots of volume. Just plug a universal Ryobi batteries into place and you’re good to go. The connection cable that comes with the P740 also plugs into the headphone jack on your laptop, making it perfect for amplifying music, videos or power points. You’ll find the P740 at Home Depot stores. My kids and I have used one for three months and it’s great!

The $80 Gift:

La Crosse Radio Controlled Clock

La Crosse Wall ClockWhen it comes to keeping track of time, I’m weird. Set my watch within a few minutes of the actual time, and I’m happy. After all, it’s just going to drift out of whack in a day or two anyway, right? Why get retentive? But what if you had a clock that always kept absolutely perfect time – I mean absolutely perfect down to less than a second? Now that’s cool! But the promise of perfect time — all the time — isn’t the only reason why I bought an $80 La Crosse radio controlled wall clock for my workshop (; 800-267-8767). At least as important to me is the fascinating story of how the device works.

On the surface, my La Crosse looks like an ordinary analog wall clock with hands that rotate around the 18”-diameter face. Nothing fancy. It runs on a single AA battery and you can mount it indoors or outside. But hidden behind this ordinary appearance is a radio receiver that does something I didn’t think possible. It allows the clock to set and reset itself as needed based on a radio signal that’s continuously broadcast from Fort Collins, Colorado by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology. This signal carries the correct time as determined by an atomic clock that’s run by a bunch of people who take precision pretty seriously. Their time signal is true to within ten billionths of a second per day.

Slip a battery into the La Crosse, punch a button that corresponds to your time zone, then forget it. The hands automatically move to the correct position and reset themselves as needed to keep in sync with absolute truth. The clock even adjusts itself as we move in and out of daylight savings time. Do I really need this kind of precision? Not really, but it’s fun!

The $150 Gift:

Porter-Cable 371K compact belt sander

Porter-Cable SanderIf you need to smooth a lot of wood on a workshop project or home renovation gig, then a hand-held belt sander is the tool for the job. Except for one problem. Belt sanders have always been at least a little on the big side; some are huge. You can’t get them into tight spaces and they’re more than a handful for people with small hands.

The 371K solves the size problem. It’s the first belt sander that’s tiny (just over 10 inches long), light (just over 8 lbs.), and easy to use with one hand. The curved top is made of soft rubber that’s particularly easy to hold. At $149, the 371K is cheaper than many other belt sanders. It’s also much easier to manage if you’re starting out with wood or have trouble holding full-size power tools.