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August 2011 Archive for In the Shop

RSS By: Dan Anderson, Farm Journal

As a farm machinery mechanic and writer, Dan brings a hands-on approach that only a pro can muster. Along with his In the Shop blog, Dan writes a column by the same name as well as the Shop Series for Farm Journal magazine. Always providing practical information, he is a master at tackling technical topics and making them easy for all of our readers to understand. He and his wife, Becky, live near Bouton, Iowa.

In The Shop: The Pros and Cons of Impulsively Buying Tools

Aug 31, 2011

 Put me in the tool department at Sears or on the Snap-on tool truck, and I'm like a kid in a toy store. Most of the time I get a grip on my wallet and walk out empty-handed, but sometimes I can't resist buying myself a trinket or gadget. That can be good or bad, and I never know which way it will be until several weeks or months later.

A torch tip cleaner kit I bought is a good example. It's a pencil-size gizmo that has a dozen teeny little drill bits stored inside, with a teeny little drill-type mandrel on the end. You select a drill bit, clamp it in the mandrel, and then spin the pencil-size housing with your fingertips to drill out or clean out clogged tips on acetylene torches. It was an impulse buy that cost maybe $15 that I regretted as soon as I wrote the check. But that little gizmo has come in so handy so many times that I rate it as one of my most useful, though rarely used, tools.

Another impulse buy that I had second-thoughts about was a set that contained a plain ol' metal machinist's ruler and a plain ol' metal caliper. Nothing fancy, just two decent-quality measuring devices that caught my eye at a moment when my buyer's resistance was low. But over the years I've been glad I bought them when I needed to precisely measure metal components. When you need to measure 32nds or 64ths of an inch, a carpenter's tape measure just isn't the best tool. And...I've been known to cheat and compare the "inch" scale to the "millimeter" scale on the opposite side of the ruler to translate metric measurements into standard measurements.

Not every impulse buy turns out to be a good purchase. I absolutely had to have a nifty relay tester when I saw it--I figured I'd use it all the time to test relays on computer boards. It's a really cool tool, and every so often I get it out and play with it. But I've yet to actually use it to test a relay.

That's the problem with impulse buys---they're a roll of the dice as to whether or not they turn out to be useful or not. Enough of my gambles have "worked" that I continue to occasionally yield to temptation and take a chance on a shiny tool that calls my name. Just like a kid in a toy store...

You Might Be a Shop Rat If...

Aug 27, 2011

Some of you are shop rats. You are happiest surrounded by tools, equipment and clutter. You like the smell of arc welding fumes. You can never get all the grease and grime out of the skin of your hands, no matter how hard you scrub. If you have doubts, here are ways to tell if you're a shop rat:

You might be a shop rat if:

-you can tell which way a ratchet wrench is set to turn without "test turning" it. 

-you know immediately what size wrench comes between 5/8" and 3/4". Extra points if you know the metric equivalents of 5/8" and 15/16" wrenches.

-you have an old frying pan or FryDaddy in your shop to "cook" bearings before installation.

-there are one or more overstuffed chairs or recliners in a corner of your shop near the wood stove, oil burner or heater. Give yourself a gold star if your shop is air-conditioned.

-you have ever given instructions for a friend or helper to locate a wrench or tool "under the bench, in the old ammo box at the back, inside the coffee can with the cracked plastic lid, wrapped in a blue shop towel," and it was exactly where you said it would be.

-it's easier to shovel the floor of your shop than to sweep it.

-the UPS and FedEx men don't waste time hauling boxes to your house -- they bring them directly to your shop.

-there is a designated parking area outside the shop for friends, helpers and loafers.

-you have any project in a back corner of the shop that has been torn apart and awaiting reassembly for more than two years.

-you use old towels and discarded clothes from the house as shop rags. Extra points if you've ever flopped a set of oily gears on the parts counter at the local equipment dealership and realized you have them wrapped in a pair of your old, torn underwear.

-you do much of your repair work on the tailgate of your pickup just outside the shop door because you can't get the truck inside and all the workbenches are too cluttered to actually work on.

And finally, you ARE a shop rat if your wife, girlfriend or hired man has ever found you at midnight in the shop, asleep...and left you there.

In The Shop: More Tool Design Considerations

Aug 18, 2011

 Continuing from my previous blog about things I've learned about tool design:

-While there is no difference (other than price) in the performance or durability between "sand-finish" and polished hand wrenches made by the same manufacturer, there are differences in the "shape" of wrenches that can make a difference. Economy-grade wrenches are often thicker than premium-price wrenches. Thicker means heavier. Heavier isn't a big deal with small wrenches, but when you're working with wrenches larger than 15/16-inch or 24 mm, excess weight becomes clumsy. "Thick" wrenches can also cause problems when working in tight spaces without much clearance around nuts and bolt heads. 

-Another issue that becomes apparent when using larger wrenches is the design of the handle. Premium-price wrenches are rounded or flattened on the thin edges of their handles. Economy-grade wrenches often have tapered, almost sharp, edges on their handles. The difference is especially noticeable when you're using big wrenches that require a lot of pressure to tighten or loosen fasteners---sharper edges quickly become uncomfortable when you put all your body weight into loosening or tightening.

-It's tempting to use chromed sockets for everything, rather than buy a separate set of "impact" sockets to use with air-powered or battery-powered impact wrenches. I've been there, done that, and paid the price. Chromed sockets are designed for use with hand wrenches. They are strong, but somewhat brittle and risk cracking, even shattering, when used on impact-type wrenches. Impact sockets--universally non-gloss black--are made of softer metal that can absorb the abuse of impact wrenches. If you use chromed sockets on an impact gun, you will eventually have to replace it because the square hole will get reamed out--if the socket doesn't first crack or split. Cracking and splitting becomes an issue because people universally guide sockets with their fingers while spinning them with an impact gun. Since chromed sockets are brittle, when they crack the edges of the cracks are razor sharp. More than a few folks have sliced their fingertips open while holding chromed sockets that cracked during use.

-Air- or battery-powered impact wrenches are wonderful. Their cousin, the air-powered ratchet wrench, was designed by the devil. Yes, there are times when they save the day and are worth every penny, but...most of the time they are the most knuckle-busting, wrist-wrenching tool ever inflicted on professional mechanics. No matter how hard you brace yourself, the torque of ratchet wrenches always seems to slam your hand, elbow, or wrist into the nearest (sharp) piece of metal. Fortunately (hallelujah and say amen!) tool manufacturers have recently introduced new air-powered ratchet wrenches that are "torque-free." The new design reduces kickback from torque and promises to finally make air-powered ratchet wrenches user-friendly. 

No, I haven't got one yet, but it's on my short-list of tools to buy. Unfortunately, that list has two categories: "want" and "need." I don't "need" a new torque-free, air-powered ratchet wrench because my old knuckle-buster works fine, aside from the pain it inflicts. One of the hard facts of adult life is learning that "want" and "need" are entirely separate things.


In The Shop: Related To Wrench Design

Aug 13, 2011

 It's easy to take hand tools for granted, but they actually are pretty cool, engineering-wise. A lot of thought and experimentation has gone into the tools that we toss casually into our toolboxes. Some of the design considerations are good to know when you're shopping for new or replacement tools. For example:

-There is no functional difference between wrenches that are polished and wrenches that have "sand cast"/unpolished finishes. An engineer with SK wrenches once told me that the only possible benefit of polishing is that the polishing process MIGHT highlight any imperfections in the wrench that could someday lead to breakage, but that those imperfections are usually caught during inspections. He said the biggest difference between polished and unpolished wrenches is simply the price.

-It pays to "play" with wrenches in the store before you purchase them. I once needed an 18-inch adjustable wrench on short notice, grabbed the cheapest one I could find at a local hardware store, and forever regretted the purchase. The cheap price bought me a big, heavy wrench that worked fine, but had a handle that was the same thickness from head to tail. Not only did the "thick" handle add to the overall weight of the tool, but it was so thick that I had difficulty getting a solid grip on the end when I needed maximum leverage. My bargain wrench actually cost me extra money because I eventually found a lightweight 18-inch Crescent-brand wrench with tapered handle that is comfortable to use. Now I have two big adjustable wrenches; one I use a lot, and one that is basically ballast in the bottom of my toolbox.

-Speaking of weight, I'll never buy another pipe wrench larger than 12 inches unless it has an aluminum-alloy handle. Our shop has a steel, 24-inch pipe wrench we use to hold arbor bolts on disk gangs. I'm barely man enough to lift it off the peg in the tool room. One of the other mechanics has his own 24-inch pipe wrench made from an aluminum alloy, and it is much more user-friendly. The only problem is price. Aluminum alloy wrenches are expensive. If you see a pipe wrench with "aluminum" handle advertised for a reasonable price, assume that the handle is poor quality aluminum. My experience is that high-end aluminum handled pipe wrenches are pretty pricey, but extremely durable and well worth that price. I've got a 16-inch aluminum-handled pipe wrench and can testify that it withstands not only a 3-foot-long "cheater" pipe, but more than occasional "tapping" with a 32-ounce hammer to help break loose stubborn nuts and fittings.

I'll continue this discussion of tool design sometime in the future. So many tools, so little time...

In The Shop: The Most Important Tool?

Aug 07, 2011

 I used to think the key to being a good mechanic was to have lots of tools. I equated wrenches, hammers and other tools with skill, at least until I met Markie, Wader, J-Rod, Sparky and other mechanics in our shop who proved to me that it's the man behind the wrench that makes the difference. Wrenches, hammers and other tools are for sale at the hardware store. Confidence is purchased with time and experience.

Confidence isn't cocky. Confidence doesn't mean those guys know it all. Good mechanics aren't afraid to say, "I don't know--yet." They do research, dive into tech books, talk to other mechanics, call engineers, and eventually figure something out. Then, with additional knowledge and their fingers crossed, they grab their wrenches and see if they can get the problem fixed.

Time, patience, and a few mistakes--that's the purchase price if you want to gain confidence. When you look at it that way, confidence is expensive. But it's available, often in bits and pieces, rarely in mass quantities. Sometimes when I finish a major repair I stand back and ask myself, "How the heck did I do that?" The overall project seemed beyond me, but in the end, it was nothing except a bunch of small interconnected "jobs" that I was confident I could conquer. If you're confident you can remove and reinstall one bolt, one bearing and one shaft at at time, eventually you can rebuild an entire combine.

I need to find out where politicians gain their confidence. They all seem to know exactly what needs to be done in every situation. Ever notice that the more un-calloused a person's hands are, the more apt they are to have all the answers?

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