Monday, May 06, 2013

Notes from the workbench

Spring is in full swing here and the weekends are full of the sounds of the season…lawn mowers, hedge trimmers, circular saws, hammers, paint sprayers, and cordless drills. It seems like all of suburbia is turning out to work on home improvement projects, and nowhere is that more clear than the hardware stores.

I found myself in one of the big box stores over the weekend (I think it was the green one, but it might as well have been the blue one or the orange one.) Mad-house doesn’t even begin to capture the scene. There were no unused carts to be found in the store when I arrived. They were all being filled with garden tools, laws spreaders, 2x4s and power tools. Watching people pile prepackaged tool sets into their carts reminded me of something I read in an old book.

 Back in 1924 Henry Saylor wrote a book called “Tinkering with Tools,” and in it he attempted to describe a proper home shop workbench.
My envy is all too frequently aroused by those marvelously equipped cabinet benches that the hardware store displays as its center of interest in the holiday window. Folding doors are thrown back, bristling with tools of every conceivable kind; the top lid is raised to display supplementary racks of more tools; drawers and cupboards of such an arsenal must be an inspiration sufficient to keep the home craftsman aware from meals, sleep, and family life, while he creates masterpieces in wood. Strangely enough, I have never known a man who possesses one. Perhaps the man does not live who dares buy one and face the responsibility it seems to entail. He would be left absolutely without an alibi for the neglect of anything that henceforth needed attention in the household.
Mr. Saylor may have been poking fun at the hardware stores and their attempts to commercialize the amateur craftsman, but I suspect he’s dangerously close to a sore spot. Take a close look around and I bet you’ll find any number of houses with dripping faucets, drooping cabinet doors, stuck windows, dead electrical outlets, and all of the tools needed to fix these things idle in the garage.

There are some people in the world who have access to a fraction of the tools being wheeled out of box stores and yet they work wonders with mechanical systems most people could only gawk at. I know of one gentleman in particular who spent many years in a little factory on the equator. If you wanted something fixed you asked Mr. Mac, and he would get out a toolbox about two feet long and less than a foot in the other two directions. It was full of simple tools, many of them modified for specific purposes. Trimmed down wrenches, home built hammers, hand whittled pry bars made up to fit odd angles and tight spaces all rested amongst an assortment of well worn sturdy hand tools. Regardless of what you needed done, he would go to that toolbox and find exactly the tool he needed for the job.

Many of us could take a lesson from Mr. Mac and his toolbox. I know I have a backlog of repairs to make around the house. I also have enough tools in the basement and garage to keep me from having any excuses.

There’s the normal assortment of wrenches, hammers, and pry bars. Most are pretty generic, people have forgotten that a pipe wrench is really a Stillson wrench. The pry bar apparently has a name too, but I think whoever came up with it was either from Germany or else he moonlighted thinking up undergarment names for women’s clothing.

Of course I have a small assortment of soldering irons, guns, and torches, but this little beauty tops them all.


Resistance soldering units are a bit like the butt welders of the soldering world.  They pass current through the joint to be soldered and the resistance creates very localized heat to melt the solder.  That all works very well on paper, but if you don’t get the contact-switch on-smoke-switch off-release sequence right you can easily go from soldering to spark eroding. 

Of course the lathe and the milling machine are great tools, but don’t forget the distant cousin the die filer.  Well this one is actually a bench-top filer.  My parents managed to nab this at an auction several years ago, which is very neat since you seldom see these anymore.  What do you need this for if you can do the filing by hand?  Well unless you have a wire EDM machine in your basement, this is one of the best options you have for making a square hole.  (Can you say falling block?!)

And then there’s the shop-smith.  My grandfather picked this up for a fraction of the original cost and put it to use for several years.  These are solid machines with simple mechanisms and few weak points.  Even better, you can still get spare parts, and plenty of online help for rebuilding them.  

Some serious woodworkers might scoff at multi-machine systems like this but they’ve probably never been able to roll a table saw, woodlathe, shaper, sander and drill press around their garage with just one hand!

Really though, the most important tools I have aren’t in the garage or the basement shop.


A little knowledge and some ingenuity go a long way towards accomplishing things whether or not you have the tools you want. These books are full of tips and tricks that you can apply to all kinds of situations, and once you start thinking a bit sideways about how to do things it’s easy to improvise.

There was one time in a factory (in the middle of nowhere) when a well meaning mechanic broke off a pipe fitting in the end of a large manifold. He and some of the other mechanics tried desperately to remove it so they could get machine running again. I asked them where to find an easy-out and was, not surprisingly, met with blanks looks. I watched not-so-patiently while they attacked the broken bit of fitting with vise grips, small grinders, files, hammers, and punches. As they wore themselves out, my patience wore thinner until I finally I started digging through the toolbox (note the singular noun) at our disposal. I didn’t find much of use, but I did manage to come up with a wrench, a hammer, and a square piece of aluminum. I coaxed the mechanics out of the way and then proceeded to drive the aluminum bar into the fitting. Once that was done I put the wrench on the bar, gave it a twist, and out came the remainder of the fitting. I showed it to the mechanics and walked off while they stared at me as though I were from another planet.

That bit of a broken fitting is the only souvenir I brought back from that trip.  It rests on the shelf with some other keepsakes, reminding me of how much can be done despite limited resources.


At 7:20 AM, Blogger jon spencer said...

isn't the Wonder Bar a copy of the Vaughan Superbar?
Nobody had a inside pipe wrench?

At 5:02 PM, Blogger Brigid said...

Don't forget the Red Green advice on tool substitution - If the job is fitting crown molding, use a mitre box, not a chainsaw.

At 9:04 PM, Blogger og said...

It's called garagineering. You haven't lived until you've drilled a hole in a wheat penny and sanded it flat to make a banjo fitting washer in the middle of no damned place.

At 9:18 PM, Blogger Mr. Engineering Johnson said...

We only had one inside pipe wrench, and it was lefthanded! ActuallyI think the Wonder Bar is a knockoff of the Superbar, but I like it because every time I pry something loose I get to exclaim 'wunderbar'

Never drilled a penny, but I have hammered bottlecaps flat to use as plaster washers. Oh and the brass fitting being bored fits on the front of my dremel, so I can clamp it to the lathe as a makeshift toolpost grinder.

At 6:35 AM, Blogger og said...

Bice! Hey, if you like wrenchingbooks you should find a copy of the "Farmer's Shop Book" by Louis M Roehl. I have hjad two now. Each time I loan one out, someone decides they want it more than I do. You can read it online here;seq=13

but you'll want a copy of your own. I( bet it's the sort of thing you'd enjoy immensely.

At 6:56 AM, Blogger jon spencer said...

I have never seen a one way inside pipe wrench, all the ones that I have seen and used have had a eccentric that worked in both directions.

At 7:28 AM, Blogger Mr. Engineering Johnson said...

Og, I'll keep my eyes peeled for one. Looks like an excellent resource.

Jon, Eccentric? There's no need to get personal here!
(Just having some fun with you. I doubt if there was an inside pipe wrench within 100 miles of that factory)

At 10:40 PM, Blogger Dr.D said...

For my 15th birthday, in 1955, I received a ShopSmith, just about like the one you have shown in this post. I used that machine until 1997 when I had to give up woodworking on account of the sawdust - I was hacking too much for it! I gave the machine to my daughter who thought she wanted to learn woodworking. She did little or nothing with it until about 2011 when she gave it to the school run by her Church. Today it is still in use, helping kids learn woodworking.

In all those years, the only part I ever replaced was one motor after about the first 20 years. It was a great machine, very versatile, and with plenty of power and adjustable spindle speed for just about any job. Over the years, I made a lot of simple furniture and engineering prototypes using that machine.

Anglican Priest


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