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Basic Tool Kit

When buying tools, value for money is important. On the other hand, quality is important, especially for equipment like chisels or screwdrivers. Here we look into the world of hand tools, how to select them and a few tips on how to get the best results.

Tape measure

There is no excuse for getting frustrated with a sad old tape measure, with such a variety of cost effective models available. These tapes can last a builder all year, through a wet and muddy winter, so they will last you for years. Try one out and you'll see what it means to get what you pay for.

Good measuring tapes have a tip that slides by a millimetre or two, accurately compensating for measuring over something (tape pulled tight) and measuring inside something (tip pushing against a surface).

Avoid letting the tape retract at full speed back into its case. Run the tape between finger and thumb to slow it down and clean it off in the process. This will help prolong its life and protect the tip, keeping your measurements accurate.

Knife

Get a comfortable, quality knife with good side grips and always put good blades in it. Spending more on blades will pay you back two fold as will they last longer, you'll spend less time and expend less energy achieving better results.

There are two common knives to consider:

1. Retractable blade: Available in a large selection of blade shapes and quality, these knives are standard in a builder's apron.

2. Retractable with snap-off blades: Allows you to break off a small piece at a time to expose a fresh tip. These can be cheaper when you are using them on tough materials or cutting through onto concrete and are easily replaceable. The blades are available in two widths, 9mm and 18mm, but just one shape.

Tip: Avoid the temptation to expose more than part of one breakable section at a time to get a longer blade as they can end up breaking.

Hammer

A hammer is a hammer? Mechanic's ball pein, geologist's rock hammer, panel beater's timber mallet and cooper's hammer... the list goes on.

If you have an old hammer in the garage you might be very surprised to know how effective newer hammers are. Think about 30 year old golf clubs alongside modern clubs - improvements you could not have imagined.

There are some basic variations in carpentry hammers that we'll cover here to help you make a choice.

The choices are endless -straight/curved claw, fibreglass/steel shaft, vinyl/leather grip, magnetic nail starter and weight-forward.

When it's time to upgrade a useful hammer for DIY carpentry should be between 16oz and 20oz. A heavy hammer (22oz +) might drive nails in faster, but it requires more energy to lift and swing.

Choose your hammer based on:

1. Intended projects

2. Comfortable grip. Some grips are specifically designed to reduce shock.

3. Comfortable weight. A hammer that feels nicely balanced will seem lighter, but will often be more expensive. A 'finishing hammer' of 16 oz is a very useful tool around the house.

Swing your hammer as an extension of your forearm - keep them in line. Swinging the hammer with your wrist is very tiring, and inaccurate.

If when hitting nails the hammer seems to slide off the head of the nail, you should align yourself better with the nail. You can sand the surface of the head of the hammer to help with this, but bear in mind you may void the warranty on good quality hammers. The other option is to buy a hammer with a milled face.

When you accidentally leave bruises in timber (hammer mark) you could try applying moisture in the hope the timber will swell and hide the dent. Again, you may need to align yourself better with the nail, alternatively, stop driving the nail a little early and use a nail punch to finish.

Saws

Most likely you have a number of saws hanging around - some fresh and sharp, some old and sharp and several blunt ones you don't want to throw away. With basic saws now available for $10-$20 we have little incentive to get saws sharpened anymore, however, anyone who has a saw with a beautiful timber handle will know plastic handles never come close.

Saws can be a bit of mystery at first glance, so, a couple of useful terms can often found on the packaging:

TPI - the number of Teeth Per Inch. Sometimes 'points' per inch is used so a saw with 14 points per inch will have 13 teeth per inch.

Kerf - the thickness of the cut, not the thickness of the blade.

Saws are usually stamped out of a piece of sheet metal. The saws worth looking at are then hardened along the teeth. Anything without hardened teeth is a waste of money.

How many teeth are best? Generally speaking, saws with fewer teeth will cut faster; saws with lots of teeth per inch will cut more slowly but with a cleaner, more controlled cut and a finer surface finish.

Modern timber saws are a combination of the older Rip and Crosscut saws. The teeth are sharpened like chisels to tear/split timber with the grain (Rip saw) and sharpened like knife blades to cut across the grain (Crosscut).

Other useful saws to have in the garage include:

Tenon saw: Generic name for a family of saws with a stiffening rib attached to the side opposite the teeth. With fairly fine teeth (13-15 TPI) and often used with a mitre box for cutting specific angles, like a 45-degree mitre on architraves.

Coping saw: Fine blade held in a small steel frame under tension and used in a similar fashion as a jigsaw. The teeth on the blade face towards the handle, so cutting is done on the pull stroke, avoiding blade breakages by keeping the blade in tension.

Hacksaw: Cutting metal and plastic. Care must be taken when replacing blades to fit the vertical cutting face of the teeth facing towards the front of the saw.

Saws have teeth usually set to cut in just one direction - on the push stroke - this is when the most effort should go in - to pushing, and to keeping on track with your cut at this point.

File

Files are made for working with metal, while rasps generally have coarser teeth and are used for woodworking. Files are available in very fine to very coarse, from flat to full round and triangular. The teeth are usually on all faces of the file and point towards the front end - just like most saws, therefore, the cutting (filing) action happens on the push stroke. Too much weight on the file during the pull stroke can actually round over the tips of the teeth resulting in a blunt file.

There are vast differences in hardness available and therefore longevity. Steel hardness is measured much like a cricket pitch having a key pushed into it - reading how much force is required to make an indentation. You won't find this measurement on the packaging of a standard file however; cheaper files will usually equal softer steel.

Screwdrivers

In a similar way to files, the heads or tips of screwdrivers can be very soft to very hard. The tips make the difference between causing damage and frustration or getting a great result with minimum effort:

Flat (Slotted): Tip is one straight line with two points of contact between screwdriver and screw.

Phillips: Tip is in a 'cross' shape which creates four points of contact. It is important to use the correct size tip to match the screw. The tip can jump out of screw head and in fact it was designed to allow this to happen, to intentionally damage the screwdriver tip and not the screw.

Pozidriv: Looks a lot like a Phillips, but the 'teeth' have a steeper angle resulting in it handling more torque. The screws have a second 'cross' imprinted in the face of the head. It is not so critical to match the correct sizes of the tip and the screw. The screwdriver tip can still jump out of screw head.

Square drive (Robertson): Four points of contact. No forward pressure required toward screw because the tip cannot jump out of the screw head. Correct size match required. This is extremely popular among trade people on a building site.

A small diameter handle will turn faster than large diameter but with less turning force (torque) able to be applied. A large-diameter handle may increase comfort and will allow greater turning force when needed but you'll be turning it a little slower.

Handy options to look out for are:

Magnetic tips: Useful for holding very small screws.

Interchangeable bits: Buy one handle with a range of screwdriver tips in a set. The connection between handle and bit is a standard size hexagonal shape so there are endless choices and replacements available.

Chisels

Chisels are designed to tear or split timber apart, not to cut it. Straight tipped woodworking chisels come in widths from 6mm up to 50mm wide with a bevel of 30°. The sharper your chisel the better your results. Less expensive chisels will probably not be alloyed steel (blended for hardness and toughness). An increase in price should accompany quality and longevity.

Basics of use: Always use with the angled/bevelled face against the work. Take small slices at a time. With sharp chisels you should use no more than hand pressure for most work. Try to work in line with the wood grain as much as possible.

Basics of sharpening: Firstly, new chisels are usually sharp but not honed when sold. Honing is achieved by rubbing the chisel on an oilstone, alternating between the bevelled edge and the back of the blade.

When sharpening, it is important to keep the blade cool. If you use a high speed grinder, the hardened and tempered chisel blade can be damaged by heat, resulting in the tool blunting faster. Regular honing using oil and an oilstone is the easiest way to keep chisels working.

Square or set square

Here is a tool always to hand. A square is useful to:

1. Mark out a 90° line

2. Mark out a 45° line

3. Measure (built-in ruler on both sides)

4. Measure depth (sliding the ruler through the butt/handle)

5. Set a measure and mark this again and again at speed.

6. Level (many have a built in vial or 'bubble') used as an inaccurate guide only.

With a sliding square there may be inaccuracy over time as wear occurs within the slide. You can check this quickly by finding a very straight edge and marking a line 90° off the edge, then turning the square over and marking the line again next to the first line. They should be parallel.

Get one. Look after it. Keep it on hand. If you can afford a much larger fixed steel square these are a very useful addition for marking out sheets of ply or MDF.

Sandpaper

While not technically a 'tool' you would be amazed at the difference high quality sandpaper will make to your enjoyment of your work. Next time, buy a sheet or roll of the best sandpaper available just for a comparison to what you normally use. You'll notice a difference, you'll use less, it won't clog up as much, it will do the job faster and you'll recommend it to your friends.

Good basic tools in your toolkit really make projects fast and enjoyable, hopefully creating better results too, especially when you know how to make tools work for you.