Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Shop Tools 101

What Tools Do I Buy First?

When my good buddy Chad Anderson, drama and music teacher at Oklahoma Christian Academy in Edmond OK, first posed this question to me a couple of years ago he was in the process of transitioning there school from having a “school play” to having a full fledged performing arts program with a broken shoestring budget, so it really mattered. After some consideration I came up with this list.

First you need a good set of hand tools consisting of at least a hammer, a tape measure, a couple of pairs of pliers, a crescent wrench, and at least one each standard and Phillips screw drivers, you might also want to invest in a handsaw if younger students are to be doing any of the cutting but I highly recommend you do most if not all of your cutting with a power saw of one sort or another.

That being said here is my list of essential power tools in order of priority.

1. A good circular saw. Be sure to choose a major brand and do not go in for anything fancy such as lasers and the like. Porter Cable, Dewalt, Milwaukee, Bosch, and Ridgid are all good brands. Make sure to get the best saw for the money. It must be a 7 ¼ saw, any other blade size will be less usable. DO NOT buy a cordless if it is the only circular saw you have, no one makes a battery that will go for more than just a few cuts. Two measurements of power are RPMs or revolutions per minute which is a measurement of how fast the blade spins, and Amps which is a formula to tell you how much power the tool uses. Rule of thumb more amps good thing. Get one that is at least a seven. Also if you can, buy the rip fence for it unless you have a table saw.

2. A good cordless drill or two or three. I put this second because you can always use nails instead of screws in a pinch but you never should without a reason. It is almost more important than the saw. DO NOT be fooled into buying the 18 or 24 volt homeowner special! It may seem cheaper and bigger and flashier, but trust me as a guy who spent five years in a cabinet shop with one of these on the end of my arm six to eight hours a day a good 12 volt will work circles around a flashy 24 volt. Here again check RPMs and this time Torque, which is the measurement in “foot pounds” of how hard your drill will turn! If you can, get the Porter Cable twelve volt. Having used several different ones I can tell you it will last longer and out perform most 14s plus when you are on top of a ladder the extra weight of that 24 volt battery is a bear! Next in line would be Ridgid, which I use now due to having my Porter stolen, boo hoo! Dewalt is a favorite with some but seems to have more problems, especially if you do not get the contractor grade.

3. A jigsaw. DO NOT buy cheapo, you will regret it. The thing to look at here is the adjustable speed. The trigger should be sensitive to pressure from the lightest touch, slow, to the big squeeze, fast. Also, check to see what type of blades it carries I like bayonet style but they are sometimes harder to find. They are the easiest to change. Try to avoid saws that have set screws to hold the blade. These have a tendency to wear out and nothing is worse than reinstalling a blade every two minutes! Porter Cable, Dewalt, Bosch and Ridgid are good brands. By the way someone somewhere is going to tell you that Dewalt and Black and Decker are the same, not unless we are talking about the red and black Black and Decker industrial line, B&K is Dewalt’s economy line. Make them show you the spec sheets and you may even educate them.

4. An air compressor and a pneumatic stapler. This combo will revolutionize the way you do things. While not as strong as screws staples are a great quick way to attach almost anything made of wood or fabric. Get a compressor with at least a five gallon capacity or it will be running all the time. Also make sure it is capable of pressure loads up to 125 pounds, at least. On the staple gun Porter Cable and Senco are excellent brands. Lesser tools tend to jam and misfire more easily which is not only aggravating but it creates a safety hazard. Be sure you buy tool oil and know how and when to use it. DO NOT use staples where strength to support a human is required (ie platform frames , decking is okay, ladder rungs etc.)

5. Belt sander: This will come in handy in a lot of situations. Grind a door down to fit its frame easily, strip paint, smooth out rough lumber, distress almost any wooden surface. With this tool the heavier it is the easier it is to operate. A light weight belt sander will have a tendency to pull forward, hard, very hard.

Once you have these five mastered you should be ready to choose your next tool on your own. Remember to keep them locked up, tools are big money for thieves, I know we lost $4000 worth in April of 06. One more thing, safety first!
In addition to the tools you will need to purchase eye and hearing protection, always dress appropriately and you may want to keep a pair or two of leather gloves on hand as well. If your scene designer is not comfortable ask around, chances are there is a carpenter among you who would be glad to provide safety training to avoid preventable accidents!

Here are some tool reviews to help you.

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