All political and moral post-rationalizations aside, I really just enjoy working on stuff. It is at times an irresponsible tendency, but it’s one which, after years of internal struggle, I now try to cut myself slack on. You can drag me kicking and screaming out of the workshop, I suppose, but it’s much harder to drag the workshop out of me.
So it is with great pleasure that I present to you the tools which I found most delightful, ingenious, and effective in tackling the work I did in 2020. Each of the items below has a home in The Prepared’s workshop, and I recommend them to you without hesitation.
Enjoy, and be sure to check out everything on The Prepared's tool guides from previous years as well - I have war stories about everything there :)
Planning & Strategy.
- At the risk of being a shill, the professional-ish thing that kept me most sane this year was the way in which everyone in The Prepared’s Members’ Slack put their intellect and enthusiasm into making it an energetic and stimulating place to just hang out. I can’t emphasize enough how much they all have contributed to my sanity and understanding of the world over the past 12 months, a period in which I left a good job to become self employed during a pandemic 🤦. In retrospect, this year should have totally hollowed me out, but somehow it’s been the most social and rewarding experience of my professional life.
- If you ever need to open a paint can, you should use a paint can opener.
- I love, love the big legal-sized hardbound lab notebooks we got for theprepared.org.
- I finally got a good set of over-the-ear hearing protectors with bluetooth audio, a tool that might seem superfluous but which fits the intersection of “wants to use power tools, like, ever” and “recognizes that all of the audiobooks aren’t gonna read themselves.”
- I’m working through both Toolchest and The Way Things Work (which I read with my dad) with my 4 year old daughter, and they’re both wonderful.
Making & Manufacturing.
- By far my largest tool purchase this year was one I already owned: The Walker Turner drill press that I (lovingly? foolishly?) stripped, repainted, and installed a new three phase motor and a variable frequency drive onto. I also added a keyless Jacobs chuck (really a beautiful object), and the finished result - an 80 year old machine tool that’s more capable and versatile than when it was built - is quite satisfying.
- There are a wide range of mallets and dead blow hammers in The Prepared’s workshop, but our new Gedore Kombi-Plus is a quick favorite. With metal and plastic faces and a light dead blow action, it’s a great replacement for a ball peen hammer in a shop that doesn’t do much peening.
- If I could have only one garden tool, it would be a hori hori (a Japanese gardening knife).
- I finally got tired of using diagonal cutters for stripping wires and bought a nice set of automatic wire strippers - the Knipex Precistrip16s. I also got a less expensive set of Felo automatic strippers to try out, and while they’re not as versatile or as satisfying to use, the benefits over stripping wires by feel are amazing.
- For years now we’ve used the same Wiha torque limited screwdrivers on The Public Radio’s assembly line, and for the benefit of ensuring consistent assembly specs they’re a bargain.
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- Probably the most satisfying physical project I did this year was to cut a broken handle off an old sledgehammer and put a new hickory handle onto it - a half hour very well spent. At this point I don’t think I’d buy a new sledge ever again: Used ones are inexpensive on Ebay, and the experience of restoring an old tool far outshines the experience of unwrapping a new one. The project also gave me a chance to use my kugihiki (a Japanese flush cutting pull saw), and it was nice to be able to make a close cut without marring the head that I had just cleaned up.
- We added a drill bit sharpening jig to the Tormek sharpening center in The Prepared’s shop, and it’s pretty awesome to quickly grind a like-new edge on a drill bit that’s seen some abuse. We also got a DMT diamond honing cone, which makes quick work of sharpening serrated blades.
- I bought an OTC 5-ton gear puller I don’t know how many years ago, and every time I have to service a machine it comes in handy. The main argument for owning a gear puller is that if you don’t own one, and you do any work that involves gears or bearings, then inevitably you’ll end up hitting the gear/bearing with a mallet and will either damage it or install it crooked - not a good look.
- The Hozan C-356 is the superior fourth hand tool for bicycle repair. You should also have a legit bike stand.
- If you have any harsh chemicals at all in your shop (from acetone up to MEK), I strongly recommend preemptively getting a pair of butyl gloves. There is really nothing like having a pair of nitrile gloves melt on you when you’re in the middle of a project.
Distribution & Logistics.
- I dramatically increased my cargo-hauled-by-bike this year, and got a *lot* of usage from a short spool of shock cord and a bunch of bungee hooks. Making your own bungees is kind of a perfect micro-project: Something that you can do cheaply and quickly, and which produces a totally visible positive effect. I also keep little bundles of paracord in all of my bike bags (and around the shop), and for that (and for all the random occasions when a discarded length of climbing rope will solve a problem *really* quickly) I *really* appreciate having a handheld hot knife. Life is too short for frayed rope.
- We *just* finished The Box in The Prepared’s Members’ reading group, and it totally stands up to the hype. A comprehensive and very engaging story about a deserving topic.
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- I vastly prefer using millimeters for general carpentry. The Komelon 8 m tape measure is the best construction-grade metric tape measure I’ve tried.
- I became aware recently that the cool wood shop kids are all about Woodpeckers squares, but I just can’t get over the beauty of the forged steel Starrett 300 mm/12 in combination square that I got from an old machinist years ago. I mean, that little scribe pocket - come on.
- I’d be remiss if I didn’t plug my own product, The Public Radio - which continues to delight me in ways I would never have expected.
- I gifted myself a Teenage Engineering OP-Z back at the height of NYC shutdowns this spring, and it is an absolutely engrossing object.
- Possibly my favorite toy-cum-feat-of-engineering is the Aerobie, which is sometimes known (apocryphally, IMO) as “the orange ring Frisbee thing” but which is truly its own totally transcendent thing. For those with limited space I recommend the Superdisc, though there’s really nothing like casually hucking an Aerobie Pro across a football field.