Years of tips
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First tool box
Ken Collier is the Editor
in Chief of The Family
Handyman. Like many
DIYers, he alternates
between sitting in front
of a computer and trying
to keep his antique house
from falling apart.
Here he is at age 7, the
proud owner of his first
tools. His wife calls him
“the whanger” because
of his penchant for
whanging together weird
contraptions to solve
problems most other
people don’t seem to have.
he goes camping whenever
he can and is slowly
learning how to weld. He still has all 10 fingers.
I started working at this magazine 24 years ago, moonlighting
from my day job as a cabinetmaker. In the years since, I’ve hung
around with builders, remodelers, plumbers, electricians, painters,
tree trimmers, carpet cleaners—pros from just about any trade
you could name. I’ve seen more tool tips than I can remember.
But some stand out in my mind because they’ve changed the way
I work. They may not be the best tips of all time, but they are the
best to me. Here are a few of them, and I hope one or two make
a difference in your DIY life.
Sanding doesn't have to be dusty
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I spent years of my life hunched
over sanders and blowing my nose.
At least that’s what it seems like.
This contraption changed all that.
It’s a shop vacuum with a tool-actuated
switch, a long soft hose
and an adapter for a sander. My vac
is made by Fein; I like its low noise
level, but other vacs will do just fine.
The tool-actuated switch is handy
but not necessary. The rest of the
rig you have to cobble together.
You can get 1-1/4-in. hose
anywhere shop vacuums are sold,
though you may need two lengths,
and you can find rubber or plastic
adapters at woodworking stores or online (see the Fein step adapter, available through our affiliation with Amazon.com). But you may need hose
clamps, bits of rubber hose or even
a whittled block of wood to fit the
hose to your sanders. Persevere,
though. The joys of sanding without
a dust mask (and in a dust-free
shop) are priceless.
I'm finally a convert to tool belts
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Tool belt organization
Lots of pockets save time-consuming trips to the toolbox.
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Tool belt basics
I'm a rightie, so most of my tools go
on the right. On the left side, I keep
nails, screws and a couple of tools
that I hold in my left hand.
OK, go ahead and laugh,
carpenters. I’m used to
wearing a shop apron, and
it took me years to become
a convert to the tool belt.
Now I feel naked if I’m
working on my house
without it. I’ve probably
saved enough steps to walk
to China, just by having the
basic tools right at hand.
We all have our own
system for organizing a
tool belt, but one basic idea
is almost universal: Have
tools used by your dominant
hand (right for most
of us) on that side, and fasteners
and tools used by
your “helper” hand on the
other side. Hammer on the
right, nails on the left.
Pencils on the right, square
on the left. Other way
around if you’re a leftie.
The basic tools I keep in
my belt are shown in the photo.
Here are a few more tips:
- I like to keep a voltage
sniffer permanently in
my tool belt. If it’s always
there, I actually remember
to use it. Usually.
- Ditto safety glasses and
ear plugs, which ride
around the small of my
back in a sunglasses
pouch I got at REI (my
favorite camping store).
- I keep one small pocket
as my “garbage can.”
Bent or pulled nails,
stripped screws and other junk go in there so
they don’t get stepped
on or mixed up with
- An Altoids box is the
perfect home for drill
bits, driver bits, countersinks,
etc. It’s just the right
size and won’t break.
My Old-Guy Belt
Twenty years ago I
injured my back. Got a
padded belt for my tool
pouches (see tool belt photo above). Ain’t NEVER
goin’ back! (Padded belts are available at Amazon.com.) Try it. Even
the young bucks wear
them when they’re
carrying around a truckload
For soup and router bases, homemade is better
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Custom router base
Make specialty bases for your router from 1/4-in. acrylic, like this half-base for flattening out solid-wood shelf edges.
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Replace factory base
Instead of the factory router base, try a more stable square base.
Get a chunk of 1/4-in. acrylic at any home center and
learn to make replacement bases for your router.
You’ll never look back. I keep large square ones on
my routers at all times; they’re more stable and more
accurate than the factory one for
pushing along a straightedge.
You can make jigs, like
the one shown in the photo, which
is for trimming solid
wood edging flush with the plywood. (The base only
goes under half the router and has a handle for holding
it flush.) Another trick is to make the base out of a
long strip, put a pivot hole in it and rout circles. I’ve made
curved windows and moldings that way. Or you can turn the plate over and
drop it into a router table. You’ll find dozens of good uses for them. To make a
base plate, remove the base plate from your router, clamp it to your piece of
acrylic and use a Vix bit (a self-centering bit) to drill the screw holes so they’re
perfectly aligned. Then countersink the holes.
New to Plastics?
Here's a tip: To
smooth the sharp
edges, lightly play
the flame of a
propane torch along
the edge, just barely
enough to melt the
plastic. It's 10 times
faster than sanding!
Scrap-wood cord reels
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Organize extension cords
There are as many
systems for storing
extension cords as
there are people who
use them. Me, I cut up
plywood scraps into
“reels.” They make it
easy to unwind as
much or as little of the
cord as you need, and they keep long cords
from getting tangled. The neat bundles fit
well in buckets and toolboxes. These reels
are especially good for 16-, 14- or 12-gauge
cords; thicker ones don’t wind well. And
remember not to keep the cord all wound
up if it’s going to draw a continuous heavy load; the cord can get dangerously hot.
Best Tool Tip Ever?
Old as the hills, used by every
pro, and you probably know it.
If you don't, you should!
Here goes: Keep extension
cords from coming undone
by connecting them with an
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From left to right: High-tech work gloves, insulated pigskin gloves, rubber and knit gloves, gray work gloves, and goatskin TIG welding gloves.
Two decades of working in an office have made me a softie
when it comes to my hands. I also live in Minnesota, where you
need gloves (or mittens) nine months of the year if you’re working
outside. Here are some of my favorites (left to right in the photo).
Modern high-tech work gloves, with enough dexterity to pick up a
finish nail. These live in my tool belt. Mine are Mechanix Wear (available at Amazon.com), though
there are other good brands. They can set you back $25 or more, but
they’re true power tools for your hands.
Insulated pigskin gloves. The pigskin stays soft after it’s
been wet, and the cloth back helps them breathe in cold
weather. Mine are by Kinco (available at Amazon.com), and I wear them all
winter long. They’re tough. My dogsledding friends use the
same gloves for mushing. ’Nuff said.
Rubber and knit gloves. These rubber gloves give you a
great grip on wet or slippery stuff. Good for mucky yard work
and plumbing. Want tougher yet? Get the same style in nitrile.
Mine are Atlas brand (available at Amazon.com) and cost only a few bucks.
Cheap gray work gloves. Semidisposable
for rough work with concrete
block, metal, firewood, etc. Basic go-to gloves, for
about $1 a pair. What other great tool can you get
for a buck? When they get torn up, I cut any still-good
fingers off and use them to protect chisels
and other sharp tools.
Goatskin TIG welding gloves. The combination
of dexterity and resistance to sparks is unmatched,
at least for $10. Very comfortable gloves for metalworking.
Get them online or at a welding supplier.
Bright lights are my best friend
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Find flaws right away
One of my rules is: Your shop
should be brighter than where
your project is going. If there
are flaws in your work, you
want to find them while you’re
still in the shop. This is crucial
when applying finishes. Get a
bright reflection right off the
finish and you’ll see everything:
skips, drips, brush
The same goes when you’re
painting walls: Make the room
brighter than it’ll ever be again,
and you’ll see flaws that need
more work. Bright lights are
especially good at a low angle,
and when the surrounding
area is dark. The older I get, the
more I need them!
Basic but beautiful stop block
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This is the stop block that has lived
on my miter saw table for many years.
You can’t get much simpler: a block,
with the corners knocked off so dust
buildup doesn’t throw off the precision,
and a slot that fits snug over a little
bar clamp. Perfection. You can gild the
lily with a little adhesive-back sandpaper
on the back of the block to be
double-sure it won’t slip out of place.
Miter gauge for super-precision
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Table saw miter gauge
For the best miter cuts, use a table saw with a top-quality miter gauge.
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Setting a miter gauge
Best tool for
setting a miter
gauge to 30,
45, 60 or 90
The plastic drafting triangles sold at office
I love my big honkin’ sliding miter
saw. But when it’s perfect cuts I
want, I go to the miter gauge on
my table saw. Call me old-school,
but properly set up, it gives me
surgically precise results.
Here are my three best tips:
Get the bar to fit right. Loose
enough to slide, but no wiggle. If
the fit is sloppy, make a dimple on
the edge of the bar with a punch.
It works for a couple of months
until the dimple wears down. Or
buy an aluminum miter bar from
a woodworking supplier.
Use an extension fence. The
kerf from the blade shows you
exactly where the cut will be,
and you can clamp to it. I
sometimes attach stickyback
sandpaper to it, which prevents boards from creeping, especially
when cutting angles.
Keep a separate miter gauge just
for 90-degree cuts. Once you’ve got it
dialed in, don’t touch
it! It’s a delight to cut
totally reliable right
angles without any
setup. A second miter
gauge can cost $35 to
$70 from the usual
suspects: Rockler ,
Dirt-cheap flip-up stop
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Miter gauge stop
I've used this setup for
30 years. It's a classic.
Flip it up to cut one
end of a board square
(see Miter gauge photo above); flip it
down to cut the board
to length. If you make
one, choose a hinge
without much play,
and knock off the
corners of the blocks so
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Cut multiple boards the exact same length with this simple table saw stop.