Tool-topia

July 14, 2010
Paul Studebaker, CMRP, editor in chief, is searching for the right balance between innovation and proliferation.

They’re trying to wear me down. Harbor Freight is putting a page of tool coupons in half a dozen of the magazines I read every month. Home improvement, car, motorcycle, engineering, science — each magazine has a page of nine or 12 coupons offering, Harbor claims, “quality tools at ridiculously low prices.” Hundreds, maybe thousands, of pounds of stuff I’ve always wanted but could never justify buying are lurking at the company’s store just off my path home, calling out like Ulysses’ sirens to be scarfed up and stuffed in my trunk.

But quality is in the eye of the beholder, and even at prices that I agree are ridiculous (a 1,500-lb capacity hydraulic ATV/motorcycle lift for $59.99?), I don’t have the space for more tools that I’d seldom use. That’s because my garage is already stuffed full of tools I seldom use. With the space taken by necessary possessions from my grandfather’s planes and my dad’s table saw to my shop crane and parts washer, adding anything means I might have to give something up, and while my collection is far from perfect, I’ve pretty much gotten to where there’s nothing I can’t do with it. If I can clear enough space to work.

Still the tool sirens call. We can easily buy tools from anywhere in the world, and inventive souls everywhere are innovating like crazy. Do you remember when wrenches came in two kinds, box- and open-end? When I bought them back in 1974, only the pros owned ratcheting boxes. Now you can choose straight, curved, S, X-beam, flex and combinations thereof in standard, long, or stubby; rough or polished; pawled or pawless. Or I suppose you could just buy them all and put them in a toolbox that weighs more than my car.

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Every category of hand tool — pliers, screwdrivers, even hammers — shows similar proliferation, as have chemicals and supplies (have you chosen a roll of masking or duct tape lately?). You have dozens of options for replacing your trusty multimeter, and while you’re looking, you’ll be tempted by laser measuring and leveling tools, infrared thermometers in infinite variety, and task-specific instrumentation from borescopes and vibration analyzers to HVAC and CanOBD2.

As you might imagine, we at Plant Services are constantly informed of new tools for industrial applications. Many are genuine but incremental improvements that add value when it’s time to replace an existing tool, but they aren’t likely to justify an additional investment in your already significant collection. Some vendors think throwing a 90° bend into a handle is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but is it worth making space for it and lugging it around?

Maybe. Ingersoll Rand just did that to the air impact wrench. Its new Hammerhead is configured like an air ratchet but powered with an impact motor, so it can do the work of an impact wrench in spaces where a conventional impact won’t fit. The head height is less than two inches, it delivers as much as 180 ft-lb, and it spins to 7,100 rpm. They say putting that much impact torque through a set of bevel gears was not a daunting challenge to a company with Ingersoll Rand’s experience, but it took extensive testing to prove its reliability.

I had a chance to try it out at the tool dealer show. It’s powerful and easy to handle, and lets you exert a lot of torque in tight spaces. You could save a lot of time on jobs where a super-powered air ratchet would make a big difference. If I were still a professional mechanic, I’d buy it before an air ratchet or impact wrench. And if I had to haul all my tools to the job, I’d pack it instead of an air ratchet and an impact wrench, unless I expected to need more than 180 ft-lb.

But now I’m an editor with an overcrowded toolbox, so my Hammerhead will have to wait. Well, maybe if I gave my old 3/8-drive impact to my brother in law...

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