Years of tips
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
I'm finally a convert to tool belts
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
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
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
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
Basic but beautiful stop block
Back to Top
Miter gauge for super-precision
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 ,