Archive for November, 2012

Breast Drills and Eggbeaters

Saturday, November 10th, 2012

Heavy drilling, not to mention constant screwing, obviously benefits from rechargeable hand tools, but I’ve been rediscovering some of the lost pleasures of the human touch.

Millers Falls 77a

As a youngster, I was not allowed to use Dad’s electric drill, an intimidating monster, its die cast interior sparkly with alternating current.  With its chuck key and missing ground pin, and long before double insulation, maybe safety concerns were justified.  If I wanted a hole, I had to gnaw it out myself using a Stanley eggbeater hand-cranked drill.


In a sort of return to the safer and quieter days of my youth, I’ve been experimenting with a Millers Falls 77a. As long as you chuck up a sharp bit, its surprisingly effective, and there is something satisfying about using a tool without a plug. I’m not sold on the way the left handle is concentric to the drive wheel—it reduces your leverage, encouraging the entire drill to rotate around the handle when you crank it.  The Stanley I grew up with had the left handle offset from the axle, and people tend to be most comfortable with the drill of their childhood.  The arrangement of the 77a means you have to put your left hand on the rear handle, which probably helps add some thrust, but if I need that much pressure on the bit, there’s a better option.

Val D'or Breast Drill

For heavy-duty, human-powered, hole-hogging, I’ve got a brute of a breast drill that I picked up at the Windsor, Berks car boot sale. Its got a 2-speed gear box (change speeds by moving the crank to the other axle), a sturdy ball bearing thrust bearing behind the 3-jaw chuck, and a breast plate so you can hold it against your chest and really lean on it. It’s labeled ‘Val D’Or’, apparently a French company from Tours.

I’m Never Fully At Home Without Tools

Sunday, November 4th, 2012

Our species is characterized by tool use, and I just feel more human when I’ve got the right tools and a place to use them. Living in an urban apartment in Austria, and then a rental house outside of London, I was always short of some vital tool, and whenever something broke, I had to take a trip to the hardware store to buy a screw or part. I was chronically short of pieces of wood to beat on, or to use for a joint brace on some deteriorating Ikea furniture.

Cabin Basement Work Area

Soon after we were able to move into the cabin, I setup a work area in the basement with tools and fasteners for patching, prep, and putzing. The workbench was built by my Grampa Heiser for my 5th birthday, and he designed it so the table height could be raised as I got taller.  I used it through high school, and later re-milled the oak top and repainted the base, in its original machine shop green, for Kirk.

Cabin Basement Work Area

Elizabeth found a $1.50 rechargeable jig saw, the stoo,l and the retro red toolbox at garage sales. She also got a great deal on a pair of vintage Luxo L-1 lamps, one of which I clamped to the workbench.  I’ve got a favorite subset of tools to carry around in the red tray, along with a well-worn Ryobi rechargeable drill, inherited from Elizabeth’s dad.

Cabin Basement Work Area

I admit to being a screwdriver junkie.  Craftsman are always cheaper by the 2 or 3 dozen, so I splurged and bought a large set, with their reassuring red & blue slotted screw, and clear-handled Phillips.  Black & clear handled Torx turn out to be necessary for chainsaw repairs.  The only non-Craftsman are a #2 square drive that I needed to fasten the cover on the junction box for the septic leach field, and a large Yankee of unknown provenance. I’m gonna try to get along without the Reed Prince that Sears used to toss into the set (red and white handle?).  The Marples chisels, which I once spent several hours lapping (but got bored before I fully flattened the backs), have seen a surprising amount of action on picture frames, wobbly furniture, and door frames.

Stanley Wooden Bottom Smoothing Plane

Summer humidity meant that several pine-framed doors needed the edges planed down so they would shut.  A few years ago, I found a small treasure trove of planes and spoke shaves that had belonged to my Grampa Grender, including this old Stanley  wooden base smoothing plane.  In storage since my grandfather’s death in 1971, the tools are all scary sharp. Both of my grandfathers were artists with the whetstone, and even though it wears slightly every time I use it, creating two-foot long, paper thin shavings from the edges of our Amish doors is a transcendent connection to my grandfather .

Cabin Basement Work AreaCabin Basement Work Area

Grampa Heiser’s 1964 workbench had a small pegboard that arrived with a uselessly small pipe wrench, a small claw hammer with a handle that I eventually broke, a slotted screwdriver with a purple wooden grip, and a hacksaw—my first tools.  Grampa Grender took me to Uncle Bills (an early and short-lived discount store chain in northern Ohio) to buy a small and long lost wood saw with interchangeable blades.  I don’t know where all of my hand tools went, I don’t know where all the stuff pictured above came from, but a half century later, that useless little pipe wrench is still hanging on the pegboard behind Grampa Heiser’s workbench.  Grampa Grender carved a new handle for the tack hammer, and after 45 years, the cherry has darkened nicely.