Vol. 03: The Maker's Ultimate Tools

The tools we use — or wish we could get our hands on.



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As promised, here's Saul Griffith's narrative that accompanies his ultimate tool buying guide in Volume 03. Enjoy! -editors

Tool Fetish Ultimate Extremism

I grew up in suburban Sydney. In Australia, there is a long history of heroicising the DIY guy. Before duct tape, fencing wire was the universal salve, and you had risen to master of the handy arts when people would say, "He/she could build a time machine with nothing but pliers and fencing wire." When your island is six boat months from the "mother country," you either had to make do or do without; handiness and resourcefulness are requirements, not perks. When I was growing up, it wasn't quite as frontier - we didn't need to make our own axes - but nothing was free, and overnight delivery companies didn't exist to send you the bolt or spanner you needed the day you needed it.

My grandfather was a master machinist and toolmaker for the Australian railroads. He made most of his tools, and fortunately, my father saved and kept enough of them that I have a small collection of these marvelous devices. He passed the love of good tools onto my father. My mother is an artist from a family of artists and similarly loves the tools of her trade. God forbid you'd dare to borrow her sables to paint a toy car or bend the tips of her pallet knives when you really should have used a screwdriver. The point here is that good tools are heirlooms and only increase in value as they go through the generations. Battery-powered hand drills may be invented, but there are still times when you want to use your grandfather's hand-cranked drill. If you buy the best tool now, your grandchildren will love you in the future.

That is all to say I grew up in a family of tool fetishists. Christmas would go something like this:

Father: "Pamela darling, you bought me a drill press! How wonderful! Now I can make you the wine rack I promised to build two years ago. And a hammer drill! Ooh, wow, now I can finally finish the balcony extension to the house."

Mother: "Ross, how lovely, you bought me Chinese horsehair brushes and a jigsaw for cutting my etching plates! How romantic!"

Around the corner from me lived another overactive kid called Tim Eggar. His family was similar - they built EVERYTHING themselves. They wanted a swimming pool, so they rented a digger and dug one. Tim was the eldest of a dozen or so kids, and when the house grew too small, he bought a jackhammer and dug out a basement living quarters for himself out of the Sydney sandstone beneath the house.

We occasionally joked that between the two families we had the tools and resources to launch a space program. (About as far as I ever got was launching a rebuilt and hot-rodded Land Rover eight feet into the air behind my high school - two tons of steel makes quite a thud from that height.) When I inevitably left home to go to school at MIT, both my parents broke into tears at the airport, each for completely different but not necessarily invalid reasons:

Mother: "You'll meet some fat-ankled, loud-mouthed American girl and I'll never get to see my grandchildren!"

Father: "What if MIT doesn't have as good a workshop as our own? What will you do?"

Both fears have come to pass; eventually, I was given a budget with which to bring my MIT's lab up to scratch by buying tools, and I met an American girl with thin ankles, though the loud-mouthed bit is a harder problem.

Anyway, what's this article all about? Some people find thinking about the best possible football team of all time to be a pretty cool thing to do on Sunday afternoons over beer with their mates. I have a different set of mates, and most of our "ultimate" fantasies relate to tools and the shed or basement of our dreams.

So here it is: an extremely biased guide to outfitting yourself with the ultimate shop for launching your own space program. I've built things from nanometers and nanograms through to tens of meters and metric tons using tools old, new, and even, in my grandfather's tradition, by building new tools that enable me to make things that weren't makeable with the old tools. It's a habit. It's a drug; building stuff is addictive. The failures are generally hilarious and the successes satisfying. If an angel out there were to bestow upon me my wish list, it would probably look something like what you are about to see: how to build the ultimate tool shed one hammer at a time.

The problem with writing this article is that everyone has a slightly different, or very different, idea of what they want to build with their toolkit, which changes what it will look like. If you are dedicated electronics hacker, a lot of this stuff will be a luxury.

If you are a dedicated wood-worker, a lot of your desirable tools won't even be on this list. If you want to do homebrew organic chemistry, forget it. This is really a list of an extremely expensive ideal tool box for a person or group of people who want to be able to make pretty much anything from ultimate fighting robots to hybrid go-karts and even play around with microelectromechanical systems. I personally am a fan of waiting until you can afford the best quality tool. A cheap tool will only frustrate you, break, or worse, ruin what you are making. Having said that, cheap tools are the ones you can modify to create specialist tools, or use disposably in reckless ways you otherwise wouldn't. I've cut the handle of many a cheap wrench to make it fit into a tight space to repair a 1970s-era European sports car.

For want of a better taxonomy, I broke the tools up into six groups: hand tools, power tools, computer-controlled tools, electronics tools, fetish tools, and safety/visualization/measurement tools. Naturally, there will be a little overlap between the groups.

Regardless of what you build, you will need hand tools to finish things nicely. In fact, with the right hand tools, you can build anything, but it just takes a hell of a lot longer. You could carve a complete car out of a block of aluminum with no other tool than a nail file, but that's probably not the best use of your time. As someone wise once said to me, "If you can understand how the tool works, then you don't really need it." I interpreted this sage's words to mean that if you know how an electric planer works, then you know that you can do the same thing with an X-Acto knife if that's all you have. Hand tools are versatile and the best place to start in building out your kit.

Power tools are all the great things that electric motors have enabled; the 18V cordless drill is a necessity, for example. Since getting mine, I've become complacent about drilling and screwing by any other method. If you are lucky, you might even have space to install a large-capacity air compressor. This opens up a whole new world of pneumatic tools; air tools are cheap, fast, and robust, but you need to be tethered to a big tank and pump via an air hose. The best of these power tools are often 25-year-old ones. Your best bet for a robust lathe, mill, drill press, and band saw are probably to fish around eBay for old industrial models. The cheap new ones are invariably pretty nasty, while an old industrial one will last for generations and will be repairable when it breaks.

The revolution of DIY and making stuff that we are on the cusp of made possible by the digital aspect: the fact that the tools for sharing your work and the results of your work are now available. You can send the files for your polycarbonate bike to your sister in Sydney to replicate there, or collaborate on low-power radio transmitters with culture jammers in eastern Europe. This is the realm of the 3rd category: computer controlled tools. Think of them like printers of atoms or stuff, wood, metals, plastics, and ceramics included. The highlights of this category are definitely the laser cutter, plasma cutter, and water jet, in that order. The laser cutter is 50 or so watts of tightly focused laser energy that literally burns it's way through most plastics, cardboard, and wood. It won't cut metal, but you'll find you use it all the time if you can afford this luxury tool (both Epilog and Universal make pretty much equivalent models). All of these computer-controlled tools are basically cutting tools attached to an X-Y or X-Y-Z or X-Theta gantry and control system. The plasma cutter is a great example. It's like an electric oxy-torch on an X-Y axis and will cut steel and aluminum sheets into intricate shapes for you - great if you need custom parts for a robot, a wild riding chopper, or for restoring or customizing a car. Torchmate (www.torchmate.com) makes a nice one that is pretty reasonably priced; at around $6000, you'll be making aluminum candelabras in a few hours. Their particular model is nice because you can bolt on a router or pretty much any of your electric power tools and have them sculpt three-dimensional objects that you have designed on your computer. At the deluxe end is the Water-Jet cutter, which is basically like taking a fire engine's water pump and shooting it through a syringe with some abrasive grit. The water travels subsonically with enough energy to cut through six inches of granite or a few inches of steel. They don't come cheap and you'll need to reinforce your garage floor, but now you are in the realm of seriously making stuff. 3D printers are the next on your Christmas list. These machines build additively 3D objects from computer files. Most machines in the world take a slab of stuff and carve away at it. These guys work in reverse; they construct your masterpiece layer by layer. The materials are getting better, but all of the technologies are still largely design/aesthetic. They are brittle and fragile and will likely break if you drop them. Z Corp (www.zcorp.com) makes the cheapest and fastest of them, and as an added bonus, they print in full color so your self portrait, as a 3D bust, will have ruby red lips. Stratasys makes machines that build in somewhat tougher plastics, but they are a little slower and the materials are more expensive. These are a luxury unless you are an industrial design firm, but over time, the cost of these types of tools will drop.

In the electronics section, I've tried to outline a nice kit for starting to hack your own electronics. It is surprising how few tools you will need to get into this, but you will have to spend a lot of time learning the arts of routing circuit boards, soldering up a storm, and debugging strange circuits with your oscilloscope. Buy a nice bench microscope if you get seriously into this, and it will improve your life tenfold.

In the fetish section are tools that are highly specialized though incredibly good at the specific things they do. If you want to make water- or air-tight inflatable structures, you will want to have an ultrasonic welder. The same thing can be done with an old fabric iron and a piece of wood, but it will test your patience. You'll need an optics bench if like Lego for adults. It is tones of stainless steel and anodized aluminum pieces for putting together optics rigs and building your own laser displays, but it also comes in surprisingly handy for prototyping any sort of laboratory bench work. I hope Santa has a really big stocking for you. If you are going to get into making your own MEMS and electronics devices, you'll need a mask writer for patterning things at the micron level, so this is pure luxury, but if your hobby is building micro-mirror arrays, start saving your pennies for one of these.

The safety, visualization, and measuring section is for all of those other bits and pieces that you will ultimately need in order to do things well. The safety devices (goggles, gloves, hearing protection) are all necessities, and the calipers, rules, levels, and microscopes will let you measure up and examine what you are doing.

Ultimately, this list will be enticing yet disappointing to everyone, and I'm bound to have missed a lot of tools that you might want. I only found, at the last minute, that I'd missed out on screwdrivers, an obvious necessity. If you build buildings, you'll need to add bulldozers, graders, and cranes. If you restore antique furniture and homes, you'll want a slew of other application-specific tools; some of you will need vacuum chambers. Hopefully though, this will whet your appetite for what you could do with an ample basement and a generous benefactor. As a first pass on the cost, I entered as many of these tools as possible into www.mcmaster.com, McMaster-Carr's website, and it gave me a $26,349 invoice. And that's basically only the hand tools and power tools; once you start buying the NC (numerically controlled or computer-controlled machines), the bill will quickly go very high. They might be a better choice than a midlife-crisis sports car, though.

You will do better by getting some through eBay and by using Home Depot's buying power or other catalogs, such as MSC Industrial Supply or Grainger. The question that came to me when writing this was "Why don't any of these places have a wedding registry?" It is probably best not to tabulate the cost column and get overwhelmed. If you are a true maker, you will find all sorts of ways to bury the costs in obtuse justifications, and over a lifetime, you'll fill your shed and feel like a king who got it all for free.

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