So you’re not good with tools, eh?

Oh, not everybody, of course, and if I’m misjudging you, feel free to go elsewhere. But I get it a lot from intelligent people — “Oh, I’m just not handy. When I try to do things it just turns into a botch.” Their screws end up with the heads stripped out, their nails get bent and go in crooked, and their saw cuts meander all over the place (should they be brave enough to try using a saw in the first place).

But I’d be willing to bet that the problem isn’t that you’re bad with tools. It’s that you don’t have any tools.

Yesterday I had occasion to use a “tap”, which in this context means a device for making screw threads in a hole, so I borrowed one from my boss, who used to run a big machine shop and has a lot of the leftovers. Here it is, along with the handle it’s used with:

3/8-24 UNF Taper Tap and Tap Handle

3/8-24 UNF Taper Tap and Tap Handle

That’s it, at the bottom. The thing at the top is the interchangeable handle; the square part of the tap goes into the chuck, so you can turn it. To use the tap, put the tapered part into the hole (which has to be pretty exactly the right size) and turn as if you were screwing it in. When the straight part starts coming out the back, the hole’s tapped properly.

Now look closely at it. The first thing you should notice is that it’s shiny, but not glittery chrome-plate shiny — it gleams rather than sparkling. That’s because it’s made of good metal and polished, not plated. What you can’t see is that even the thread-cutting part is equally polished, as is the tapered entry section. Polished metal slides smoothly, and when it cuts it leaves an almost equally polished surface. As a result, the only effort required to use it is the actual effort of cutting metal — there isn’t any drag or friction. Using it is easy.

I could have bought one at the hardware store, of course. It would have cost about $30, and I would have been awfully tempted by the one beside it that was only $12. That one, too, would be shiny, but it would be plating, not polish; the cutting part wouldn’t be polished, so it would be a lot harder to use and the threads it made wouldn’t be as smooth and accurate. If I didn’t know Jerry that’s the way I would have had to go, and it wouldn’t have bothered me a lot because I’ve done a lot of thread-tapping in the past, and I know how to compensate for the deficiencies of the tool. If you don’t have that practice, if you tried to use the cheap one you wouldn’t do a good job — you might even break it off in the hole, which is a huge problem.

And that’s the problem you have with tools. When you need one, you look at the rack and think, “Well, I don’t do this very often, so I don’t need to invest a lot of cash. I’ll just get the cheap one.” That’s exactly backwards. A skilled craftsman can make do with cheap tools when it’s necessary, but an unskilled or unpracticed person, one who doesn’t use tools often, should always get the best ones available. Tools wear out, too, and become damaged in use. A skilled craftsman can compensate for that, and in some cases can fix them. As a person new to the work you should throw worn or damaged tools away, no matter how much of a pain in the wallet it might be.

One of the biggest things is screwdrivers. You’ve got a screwdriver, right? — tucked away in a utility drawer or somewhere out in the garage. Go fetch it (I’ll wait… ) Now look at the point.

If it’s one designed for slotted screws, is the blade, the very extreme end of it, flat and straight and the same thickness all across? Are the edges of that part sharp and well-defined? Well, no. The end is sort of narrow and round… what you have there isn’t a screwdriver. It’s a dull poniard, suitable for plunging into somebody’s back — or into your hand when the thing slips, as it will. Furthermore, you probably had no idea that the concept of “fit” applies to screwdrivers, but it does. The blade should be thin enough to just go in the slot of the screw, with little if any slop or rattling around, and it should be wide enough to go at least two-thirds of the way across the screw, preferably all the way. That’s why the heads of the screws always turn out scarred and distorted, and the screwdriver keeps slipping off and marring the rest of the work, if it doesn’t actually plunge into the base of the thumb you’re using to hold the piece. The screwdriver doesn’t fit the screw, and in any case it’s round-pointed instead of sharp. It doesn’t help that the screws you’re trying to turn came with the thing you’re trying to assemble, and are therefore cheap, which means they’re made of soft metal that distorts easily even with a good screwdriver. You haven’t a chance with the thing in your hand.

If your screwdriver is for cross-slotted screws, it’s almost certainly a “Phillips patent” tool. Phillips screwdrivers come in sizes, and there’s a reason for that. Screws are also made in sizes, and using the wrong driver sometimes works but usually doesn’t. Sizes go from 000, triple zero, all the way up to #7; the ones you’re likely to encounter are #2 (most common) and #1 (for small stuff). Try to drive a #2 screw with a #1 driver, and it rattles around and you can’t get much force on it; put a #2 into a #1 screw, and the point barely catches, so when you try to twist it just breaks the corners of the slots off. Every household should have good-quality #1 and #2 Phillips screwdrivers, and know the difference, because with the right screwdriver the job is relatively easy, and with the wrong one it’s ‘way hard and may not be possible.

Like with the slotted-screw driver, the very ends of the point should be flat and straight and have sharp edges. Your cheap screwdriver is probably smooth on the edges, which makes it almost certain that if you try to put much force on a screw it will slip out and do damage. In both cases, “straight-slot” and Phillips, the point should gleam like polished metal, not sparkle with plating. Manufacturers know you see “shiny” as a desirable attribute, so they do as much as they can to make the cheap stuff glitter, but the plating is soft and slippery, and makes the problem worse, not better.

Throw the cheap Phillips screwdrivers away; if you want to stab somebody, your kitchen knife drawer has much better tools. Relegate the straight-slot screwdrivers to opening paint cans, prying things too small for a real crowbar, and chipping crud out of grooves. Go to the hardware store, go down to the expensive end of the display, and select:

One 1/4″ straight-slot driver;
One 3/8″ straight-slot driver;
One #2 Phillips screwdriver; and
One #1 Phillips screwdriver.

As you pick them out, remember the above: the business ends should be straight and polished (but not plated) and have sharp edges. That assembly will set you back around $30 – $40, which seems like a lot for something you hardly ever use, doesn’t it? Don’t flinch or waver, though, because that’s the point. Someone who uses tools every day can compensate for bad or worn tools. If you don’t have that experience you don’t know how to compensate, which means you need the best tools you can get. And who knows? — once you discover that you can, in fact, do simple jobs if you have the right tools available, you might decide to tackle more complicated stuff and discover, in the process, that you really are fairly “handy”. You might even be inspired to go hunting for a decent pair of pliers!

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