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Tool Tips: The Editor’s Favorites

Tried and true advice distilled from decades of experience

FH11NOV_FAVTIP_01-2Family Handyman
The Editor-in-Chief of The Family Handyman shares tips from the many pros he's worked with and from his own years of woodworking and home improvement.

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Years of tips

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. Besides woodworking, 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.

Ken Collier
[email protected]

Sanding doesn’t have to be dusty

Tool-actuated vacuum

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

Tool belt organization

Lots of pockets save time-consuming trips to the toolbox.

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 good fasteners.
  • 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 of tools.

For soup and router bases, homemade is better

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.

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

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 overhand knot.

Glove love

Useful gloves

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

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 hairs—everything.

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

Miter-saw accessory

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

Table saw miter gauge

For the best miter cuts, use a table saw with a top-quality miter gauge.

Setting a miter gauge

Best tool for setting a miter gauge to 30, 45, 60 or 90 degrees? The plastic drafting triangles sold at office supply stores.

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 , Woodcraft , Amazon, etc.

Dirt-cheap flip-up stop

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 sawdust doesn’t build up.

Close up

Cut multiple boards the exact same length with this simple table saw stop.

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Clamps
  • Extension cord
  • Orbital sander
  • Router
  • Shop vacuum
  • Table saw
  • Tool belt
You’ll also need gloves, a miter gauge, a padded belt for your tool belt, extra vacuum hose and shop lights.

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.

  • 1/4-in. acrylic
  • Plywood and wood scraps
  • Sandpaper
  • Small hinge