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Home Builder Magazine Ask Jon Eakes

By Jon Eakes

Real Tools for the Real World

Twenty years ago I was active hands-on in renovation, and my hands were considerably younger and more flexible, I must say. Since then I have occasionally taken on some site work and done a lot of short testing of tools and products, but mostly consulting and working on a computer keyboard. So when I had a full month of work ahead of me for the "adjustments" that were deemed necessary for a 1982 four-level split that my wife just graced me with, I thought it a great opportunity to really test both products and tools.
Out came the cheap ventilation system that was installed in the attic - I always preach against attic installations because of the holes in the ceiling and the bad climatic conditions. It was in fact rusted out, full of mould and the filter had not been cleaned for a number of years - typical for an attic installation. In addition, its primary function appeared to be to pump bathroom steam down into the basement, or at least what did not leak first into the attic. In went a full hard-ducted LifeBreath HRV installed to R-2000 standards while we videotaped how to hide ducts throughout a four-level split, an interesting challenge aided by three superimposed closets and dropping a hallway ceiling on the top floor. Of course I decided to run a full residential sprinkler system parallel to the ventilation ducts, while everything was open anyway. Why keep things simple when you can make them complicated?
Then there was the question of tools. As you might imagine, my shop, and now my renovation site, looks a bit like Norm Abrham's overstocked workshop. The tradespeople who came to work on the house all spent extra time drooling over the tool table and trying things out. It is true that you can get most things accomplished by working harder with the wrong tool, but when you have a specific tool for the job, the job is done faster, better and even with pleasure. Let me share with you some of the tools that really made a difference in my real world.

Better tools
Years ago I hammered and chiselled away at concrete, mortar and glue during renovations. Now I use the Bosch mini-jack-hammer - a good sized SDS chuck hammer drill that has three operating positions: drill, hammer drill, just hammer. Of course, the exceptionally good accessories are the concrete/mortar chisels, and the little known wood cutting chisels as well as the keyed chuck with an SDS shaft that converts this powerful drill into a mortar mixing tool or a heavy duty hole saw. We discovered a wonderful clutch kick-out feature on this drill that saved many a strained wrist when we were cutting with 4- to 6-1/4-inch hole saws (lots of ventilation ducts). When the saw would bind in the hole, the clutch would kick out and we did not go spinning around the room. That and the reciprocating saw took care of the demolition with little sweat and great time savings.

When we got to the finer work, my young assistant wondered how anyone ever renovated in the past without the Fein MultiMaster tool with all its speciality blades: concave knife blades for cutting carpet on the floor; convex knife blades for cutting jute-backed carpet in the air; metal cutting blades for cutting through nails delicately where the reciprocating saw is not appropriate; metal cutting blade for cutting holes in drywall or flush cutting drywall with very little dust; that great Japanese tooth blade for all the fine flush cutting of wooden trim; and we haven't even got to the carbide grit blades for the old tile grout or the scraper blades for removing glue. It does nothing fast, but everything precisely and with very little dust. It is noisy, as is the Porter Cable drywall dust capable shop vac, and we often ran the two together for a dust-free wall penetration, so having a couple of pairs of quality ear muffs turned out to be a must.

Cordless drills
Having a dozen cordless drills to work with gave me a great chance to compare weight, balance, power and features. The most striking thing when rotating through all those drills for a month was the universal conclusion by everyone on the site that the German keyless chucks (Fein and Bosch) were by far superior to the North American chucks. Our regular keyless chucks tend to scrape the skin off your fingers when you tighten or loosen them, and sometimes they are not even tight enough. The European chucks have some kind of a ratchet feature that you can hear click in and out - and to your hand it is like the slow ramp up speed on a good router. They simply do not rip the skin off your hand and they do chuck in very tightly every time. Also it became evident that a light and a more powerful drill made a good constant pair. With the good keyless chucks, two of the same size drills was useless, but different drills weighted to the power needed was ideal and less tiring.

Everyone loved the Senco cordless collated drywall screw guns, and their new model with a reversing switch and even better depth control. Yes, I do end up with two and three models of the same tool, just to see the differences. Sometimes I even get jealous of myself.
Cordless is the norm now and, in fact, with the exception of the big Bosch drill and the Makita recrip saw we didn't use very many corded tools. Given my wide variety of tools and brands, we had to have a whole table just for all the battery chargers. Did the batteries do the job? Yes, with the exception of the Bosch cordless mitre box. This is a beautiful, well made mitre box and we did a lot of cutting with it. But if I wasn't trying to test its practicality, I would have changed it for a corded mitre box. It was a pain to realize slowly that it was losing power. The first sign of loss of power was poor cuts; in the rush of the work, you don't realize right away that it is simply a dying battery. To maintain good cuts, you need to work on the top part of the battery charge and change over the battery more quickly than we do for drills. Even on sites with no electricity, you will need to have battery chargers close-by - why not just plug in a mitre saw?

Circuit finder
The Zircon Circuit Finder quickly identified which circuit breaker controlled which line without a lot of trips up and down the stairs, and the Radio Shack hands-free Walkie-Talkie speeded up snaking communications wires and I-Pex Auqua water lines through this four-level split.
Of course, the one tool that slowed us down a great deal was the video camera and crew, one reason I am no longer a rapid renovator.

Montreal-based TV broadcaster, author, home renovation and tool expert Jon Eakes provides a tool feature in each edition of Home BUILDER.

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