Five Little Tools That Matter

Every building or repair job around the house is made of tasks, and every task requires that materials, labour and tools come together. Sometimes the smallest tool, gadget or gizmo can make a huge difference in the quality, efficiency and the outcome of jobs. I call these gems “little tools that matter” and this article is about five of my favourites.

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DEWALT Combination Drill and Tap Bit

Drill and tap all in one. The tip of this tool is shaped like a twist bit and makes quick work of cutting threads for small bolts.

This is one of the best little accessories to hit the market in a long time. Lock one of these hex-shanked bits into your impact driver or drill, then bore into metal and cut threads at the same time. It’s a fast and effective way to prep for small bolts, or to repair stripped threads to take a larger bolt. The five bits in the set I use includes 8-32, 10-24, 10-32, 12-24 and 1/4”-20 threads. I’ve used these to create holes in steel up to 1/8” thick no problem. Works best with cutting oil, but use them dry if you need to. Street price: $50 for five.

Field Notes Pocket Pads

Field Notes is a company that takes pocket pads seriously. This particular model may be worn from my pocket, but the pages are waterproof and quite tough.

One difference between success and failure is the ability to manage details without error or omission. The difference often comes down to whether you’ve got the materials, labour and tools in place and ready to work together at the right time. No one’s brain is good enough to remember every detail of a job without help, and that’s why I like Field Notes pocket pads.

Why not something electronic? Back in the mid 1990s I got on the Palm Pilot bandwagon, then I switched to various Apple devices. Coming back to a real pocket pad and pen three years ago has proven better than electronics in three ways: paper is completely reliable; paper never runs out of batteries; paper can be cheap and tough.  Field Notes makes the best pocket pads I’ve ever bought. They’re always making new kinds and all types have bullet-proof bindings. The current batch of pads I’m on has waterproof paper and stands up to months of abuse in my shirt pocket. Even though I’m a cheapskate, I still think ordering three pads for $19 is worth it. Each one lasts for months.

Does it seem strange to use a paper pocket pad these days? I find it the most reliable and productive option. The pocket pad is my primary info gathering tool. First, everything gets jotted down on the pad i.e. “buy stainless steel screws; pick up anniversary card; call Jennifer about quote”. Next, I review the pad every day or two, transferring items to one of three action streams: email outreach; shopping lists; phone calls to make. Does the review and transfer process seem inefficient? It’s not. Having everything on the pad gives a great overview, and reviewing the pad let’s you give various issues another thought as you transfer them to action streams.

Stanley MR100CG Pop Rivet Gun

My well-worn pop rivet gun and my tray of assorted rivets. If you’ve never used pop rivets, you really need to try them.

I love pop rivets because they let me fix, modify and fabricate better than anything else. Trouble is, pop rivet guns are usually cheap, weak and short-lived. The MR100CG is different. After killing many lesser guns in short order, this die cast model has stood up to years of use – maybe 10 years in all. I can’t remember just when I bought mine.  Lots of leverage, interchangeable tips and comfortable grip are all great features on this tool, but most importantly it just keeps on working – even when popping the big 3/16” shank rivets. Street price: $40

DEWALT Impact Ready Spiral Step Bits

This type of bit is  the best thing for boring holes in thin metal, but work exceptionally well on thicker steel. See video below.

Step bits are made to bore large holes in thin metals, and if you haven’t tried them yet you’re missing out. Twist bits simply can’t compare with the performance and results of a step bit when it comes to thin stock. Electricians have been using them for years to bore cable holes in boxes, but there are lots of other uses, too. While any step bit is a good thing, DEWALT’s impact ready spiral steps are among the best I’ve used so far. Unlike other designs, the spiral shape means the cutting edges encounter the material with a slicing action, not a hacking action. Very smooth, grab-free and rapid results are the differences you’ll notice. Chucks into an impact driver, drill driver or drill press. Street price: $20 for four non-DEWALT bits that work well.

Watch the video below to see a step bit in action bore a hole in 1/4″-thick steel plate.

Milwaukee 20” Jobsite Organizer

There are many organizing trays around, but most are no good because they have removable dividers that rise upwards and let small things get mixed up. This Milwaukee tray system is excellent, in part because it houses individual containers.

There’s no point in having all the little things you need, but then can’t find the little things when you need them. That’s where organizer trays and cases come in. Trouble is, most of them are bad. I know because I’ve used and trashed different ones over the years. The typical faults are all the same: lids and clasps fail; internal dividers fail to keep small items separate; designs that are too small to be useful on a jobsite. The Milwaukee organizer is a serious solution that works; pricey, but works well.

First, this case is tough and rigid. Second, the metal-and-plastic clasps are easy to use and exceptionally strong. And third, internal storage spaces are made of little boxes, not those silly adjustable dividers that don’t work. The Milwaukee cases are also made to clip to each other when you need to carry a bunch together.

Successful home improvements, woodworking, mechanical work and building comes down to dealing successfully with a bunch of little details. And many of these details come down to small but essential things. Get the right kind of little things going for you, and you’ll find the big things fall into place better.

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– Steve Maxwell