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The Right Tools for the Job

You need the right tools to do work you’ll be happy with. And when you’re talking about improving your home—the very place you live and love—then the right tool for the job is vital.
       If there is one thing I learned in my years as a home improvement contractor, it was that I needed to buy the best tools I could afford to help me do the best work I could. It’s a policy that has faithfully proven true through every project I’ve ever done. The following are the tools that I couldn’t live without. They are not the only ones I’ve used over the years, but they are the core.
—Mark Clement



“This was the real deal. This was action. This work didn’t require a pencil; it required muscles and ladders, calluses and steel demolition tools.”

Toolbelt tools. If you’re going to do a project more involved than hanging blinds, like a deck, replacement windows, or chair rail, you need to have crucial tools with you so you can get them with a quick, no-look grab. Every tool is much harder to use if you can’t reach it because it is in a pile in the corner or scattered around the room--and not where you and your work are. Mark keeps his tools in leather side bags so tough that he’ll wear out way before these bags could. Inside the bags, he carries:

• 20 oz rip claw hammer, suitable for framing and trim
• 30-foot tape measure. Don’t get a wimpy little tape. The minute you have to measure a long distance, it’ll fold over and you’ll be mad.
• Retractable blade utility knife
• Speed square for marking lumber and for use as a saw guide. He uses a framing square for rafter and stair layout.
• 6-inch combination square. Mark uses it more as a marking gauge than anything else.
• Scratch-Awl.
• Japanese Nail Set for setting finish or deck nails.
• Carpenter and Schoolboy pencils
• “Dog” Chisel. This chisel is dull and beat-up, but good for whacking out a hunk of framing that doesn’t show. Mark would never treat a finish chisel like he treats this one.
• 5-in-1 Tool. This gets used more than the hammer. It’s great for prying, scraping, gouging, opening paint cans, closing paint cans—1001 uses.
• Chalk line
• Nails, screws and whatever else needed for the project

“I swung the leather toolbelt around my waist, metal tools shifting in unison with each other inside the bags, and cinched the silver roller buckle tight over the hard hip bones hiding under my soft belly. I could feel the mass of leather and steel pulling at my skin as I leaned the orange fiberglass extension ladder against the age stained gutter.”

“In his vein-mapped right hand, his hickory-handled rip claw framing hammer blazed, setting the 8 penny nails in one fearless whack. Then the steel in his hammer head vibrated, causing the tool to sing like a tuning fork as it struck nails, which he drove home in one savage blow.”

“My heart pumped gallons of blood through my veins. I reached for my tape more like a gunslinger going for his six-shooter rather than a timid (albeit middle-aged) apprentice afraid to do the wrong thing.”

Power Tools. There is something beautiful about a miter saw that cuts a perfect 45, about a table saw that leaves a dead straight rip in a piece of lumber, and a circular saw that hogs through framing and comes back for more. There’s something beautiful about the precision and efficiency of steel, aluminum, and carbide combining to work wood that’s almost as beautiful as the thing the wood will ultimately become. For me, that is the allure of power tools.

Saws. There are five main saws you are going to need at some point if you get serious about fixing your home. Circular saw, miter saw, table saw, jigsaw, and reciprocating (or recip) saw.

• Circ saw is for cross cutting and rough ripping lumber, like for framing a backyard deck. You can also use it with a homemade “shoot board” (a straightedge guide for getting really straight cuts.) – good for projects page Mark uses one for cutting panels or for cutting door bottoms.
• Miter saw is for cutting angles, usually in trim. The Mac Daddy of miter saws is the slide compound miter saw. Mark uses these where he can from framing to finish, using a an appropriate blade each time.
• Table saw is for rips in long material and for woodworking projects. You can get pretty straight rips from just a portable table saw and some are even suitable for more advanced woodworking projects. Mark uses them for ripping trim boards and basic woodworking.
• Jigsaw is for cutting round or curved shapes. Mark doesn’t use one every day, but when he needs it, he really needs it.
• Reciprocating saw is for demolition. You can use it for cutting out studs, through a roof or plaster walls, or for anything else that’s in your way—including wires and pipe, so be careful!

Drills. You need a small army of drills to get into the various materials you find around the house like wood, plaster, tile, and concrete.

• Cordless Drill/Driver. Mark uses a 14.4 volt drill driver for basic screw driving and lighter duty drilling. It’s light but powerful enough. Once you use one, you’ll always use one. If Mark knows he’s facing down a long project of heavy duty screwing and nut driving (like for a deck) He switches out and uses a cordless impact driver. Small package—big power.
• 1/2-inch drill/hammerdrill. You’re going to have to drill a big hole in wood or drill in masonry or concrete at some point. If you’re only going to buy one tool for it, this is it.
• Rotary/Chipping Hammer is the tool for serious concrete drilling or for chipping work, like removing tile.

Router. Routers do a lot. They can round over or put a profile on the edge of a shelf or they can cut grooves called dadoes. And, using the right jig, they can mortise door hardware, which is how Mark uses it most. If you have one, you’ll use one.

He was incredibly efficient and there was no wasted energy or extra moves. His cut station was perfectly set up with a miter saw, workbench, and clamps.”

“I opened the circ saw box where the thick, black two-prong cord was neatly wrapped around the metal saw body of the tool, closed the tough steel box, and returned the box to its designated spot before plugging in the saw.”

“The carbide teeth on the miter and table saw blades leapt from the rusty blade plates. The bundle of perfectly coiled yellow and orange extension cords and nail gun hoses hung brightly from a homemade wooden hook by the door, still charged to go.”

Pneumatics. Hand nailing one room of molding is no big deal, but when you’re staring down a several year project improving your home one room at a time, investing in pneumatic tools is worth it. You’ll need a reliable compressor, hoses, and the right nailer for the job.

• Finish nailer. Mark uses a 15 gauge angled finish nailer. It’s great on everything from door casing to detailed crown molding.
• Framing nailer. This is the big dog of pneumatic tools and shoots the heavy duty framing spikes you need to hold a deck or addition together.
• Brad nailer. This is the little guy on the team and good for small nailing projects where a light touch—and small nail—is required.

“…the old roofing nailer, a tool punished by blasting out hundreds of nails an hour while being dropped and dragged across shingles so rough they made sandpaper feel like tissue.”

“Once I build the energy for a power-take-off, I’m going and I won’t stop. While my nail gun rapid fires nails through the plywood into the studs and rafters my body temperature rises. My blood courses like a freight train through my veins. I’m transformed by the effort of pushing beyond myself.”

Hand Tools. In the 21st Century, people think there is a power or air tool for everything and that is just not the case. You’ll be disappointed if you don’t have the right hand tools to pick up where there power tools leave off.

• Complete set of screwdrivers, ideal for setting door hardware properly.
• Complete set of SHARP chisels, required for any kind of trim or wood work; chisels only do what they’re designed for if they are sharp.
• Side cutting pliers, channel-lock TM pliers, nail nippers. You’ll need them. Don’t worry.
• Handsaw. I use Japanese style saws that cut on the pull stroke—awesome for any place you’d use a handsaw.
• Nail puller. Everybody makes mistakes.
• Flat bar, See above. Plus, they’re key for demo.
• Spring and bar clamps. They are that third hand when there’s no helper around.
• Coping saw. Don’t trim without it.
• Rasp. Great for cleaning up cut drywall edges.
• 4-Foot level. Plumb, level, and square is the carpenter’s triptych and the level is what you need to measure for two of the three.

“…a site-made hand-carry toolbox, the likes of which rode in the back of his pickup truck for all the years I knew him. It was a workman-like pine box filled with hand tools, razor-sharp chisels carefully rolled in a leather pouch, and any other carpentry implements he required.”

“My father’s 4-foot level looked older than I did. It was sawn and milled from old-growth mahogany, then bound in brass corners to keep it true. This “whiskey stick” (so-called because the vials on old levels have alcohol in them to keep the liquid from freezing in winter) was heavy, too, like dense exotic hardwoods usually are.”
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