In The Shop: Small Tools for Big Jobs

September 24, 2016 02:52 AM
 
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Big tools, especially power tools, are impressive, “manly” and sometimes fun to use when working on equipment. But there are times when bigger isn’t always better. Sometimes the smallest tools in the box are the hot ticket to efficient maintenance and repairs. For example:

O-ring picks. Yes, it’s possible to use a small screwdriver or a piece of baling wire to remove rubber O-rings from hydraulic fittings or valves. But a set of $10 to $30 O-ring picks that have right angle, curved and dogleg ends makes O-ring removal and installation much easier.

Traditional O-ring picks look like the tools your dental hygienist uses to clean your teeth. A new breed of O-ring picks is now on the market with tiny rounded and flattened ends rather than needle points. Needle-point picks are great when you have to snag and remove a damaged O-ring, but the new flat, blunt picks are handy when it’s necessary to nudge a stubborn O-ring into its groove, or if you’re planning to re-use the O-ring and don’t want to prick or nick it.

A jeweler’s screwdriver set. Cell phones, display screens in tractors and other electronic gadgets keep getting smaller—as do the screws and fasteners used to hold them together. I used to keep a set of jeweler’s screwdrivers at home for removing screws from TV remote controls and other devices, but I recently bought another set to meet my “tiny screw” needs at the dealership. 

There is a temptation to economize and buy one of the $5 “Made in China” jeweler’s tool sets on display alongside the checkout counter at the hardware store. However, when you’re dealing with teeny, tiny little screws made of soft metal alloys metallurgically synonymous with Silly Putty, it’s best to get a quality set of mini-screwdrivers that have crisp tips made of higher quality metal.

A 1⁄4" drive socket set. There is a fiendish secret plot by engineers to drive mechanics daffy by using non-standardized nuts and bolts in the cabs of trucks and tractors. I’ve seen situations where the dastardly designers used four or more different sizes of small nuts and bolts and screws in a single instrument cluster or armrest console. The only defense against such sadism is a high-quality, full-size ¼" drive socket set, complete with metric and standard short and deep-well sockets and Phillips, flat-blade and Allen-head bits—all organized in a handy carrying case. Tote that fully-stocked set every time you climb the steps to work in a machine’s cab and you’ll have all the tools you need at hand to thwart their evil conspiracy.

A fully-stocked, ¼" drive socket set, complete with fine-toothed ratchet wrench, mini-breaker bar and socket extensions, will cost between $100 and $200, but it’s worth $1,000 when you’re laying on your back with your head and right shoulder under a dashboard, one leg draped over the seat, with the gearshift threaded through your armpit. Having all those sockets in a variety of sizes and designs within arm’s reach doesn’t make the job fun, but it certainly makes the job easier.

​A 2-ton hydraulic mini-bottle jack. My $15 “economy”-grade hydraulic bottle jack is 71⁄2" high when compressed and only 131⁄2" tall when fully extended—which is totally worthless for jacking up big machines, such as tractors or combines or anything that needs to be raised more than the 5" of lift it provides. But it’s the perfect tool for wedging apart pieces of a machine’s frame prior to welding or other types of hydraulic prying. 

Customers have laughed when I pulled out my cheesy little bottle jack. That’s okay. There are several times when it saved me a lot of time and effort. And that’s exactly why some of my smallest tools are my biggest favorites. 

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