Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tool time

The right stuff is critical

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It all started with a small red tool box my dad bought me for Christmas when I was about 12. It contained a Crescent wrench, a pair of Vise-Grips, some pliers and a few screwdrivers.

This is when the addiction began.

Since that fateful day, I have probably spent more than $20,000 on tools. I'm a sucker for the weekly Canadian Tire flyer and the helpful folks at Princess Auto know me by name. On a few rare occasions I've even treated myself to Snap-On tools that include my wrench set, screwdrivers, ratchets and sockets.

In the beginning, those Vise-Grips and that Crescent wrench were all that was needed to repair my bicycle, but when I moved up to dirt bikes and started stripping every nut and bolt I touched, my dad wisely started giving me more tools as birthday and Christmas gifts.

By the time I was 18 and a fledgling mechanic, the small red box was bursting at the seems. He bought me a large red tool chest that Christmas. A few years later, I splurged and bought the lower matching cabinet.

Nowadays, there are three rolling cabinets with top tool chests that line practically an entire wall of my garage. There are also three metal cabinets purchased at an auction that are loaded with power saws, drills, grinders and all the accessories and bits that go with them.

When my dad passed away in 2005, he left me his tools, meaning I basically doubled my collection.

So, you ask, what the heck do I need all those tools for?

On many occasions while attempting to fix something particularly stubborn, practically every tool I own has been utilized. There was a time at the completion of a job when there were tools strewn across the entire garage. In the past few years, I've turned over a new leaf and try to put my tools away as soon as I use them. This takes discipline, something I severely lack, but the payoff is huge when the next emergency repair job rears its head and everything is in its place.

In the hand-tool department, I prefer Snap-on. Despite the fact I've probably removed 100,000 nuts and bolts, I'm still a bit on the dyslexic side, so I prefer my ratchets to have a simple on/off lever like the Snap-On ratchets have. It makes it easier when you are suspended upside down beneath an ancient vehicle trying to secure the one final bolt on the transmission.

I also prefer Snap-On screwdrivers -- they really bite. On the topic of screwdrivers, I will let you in on a little secret. If you routinely work on Japanese cars, trucks or motorcycles, you need to invest in a set of JIS (Japanese Industrial Standard) screwdrivers. The screws on these machines may look like your typical Philips head, but they are slightly different -- the hole is just a tad deeper. Before discovering this miracle of engineering, I stripped the living daylights out of every screw on every Japanese car, truck or motorcycle I owned, and there's been more than a few. I found my set of JIS screwdrivers on sale at the Back to the '50s car show in Minnesota, but you can find a set on eBay for less than $40. Don't bother asking to borrow mine; I guard them with my life.

My tool boxes have several drawers full of drivers and bits, but every one has a specific purpose. In addition to Torx and Allen bits, there are triple-square drivers and bits. Also known as XZN, these star-shaped bolts have 12 equally spaced tips, each with a 90-degree angle. Triple-square drivers are used in high-torque applications, including cylinder-head bolts and drive-train components. Triple-square fasteners are also commonly found on German vehicles such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Volkswagen.

There was a time when my air tools were always running, but in recent years, cordless electric impact tools have vastly improved. My favourite is a 3/8 cordless Milwaukee impact driver. It is stubby enough to fit in fairly tight spaces and has enough torque to break your wrist if you're not careful. This tool is great for rusted nuts and bolts that are stubborn to the bitter end, and it also makes short work of nylon threaded nuts such as the ones found all over my Kawasaki quad. My back may be killing me, but my forearms have never felt better.

The majority of my tools were designed for a specific purpose and may not be used more than once or twice a year, but it's nice to know they are there when I need them. As for the tools I use practically daily, I have a rolling tool cart that always has commonly needed pliers, wrenches, sockets, screwdrivers and my big hammer for tough jobs.

My office may be a mess and the garage can get disorganized in no time, but my tool boxes are always in tip-top shape. If you want to drive me crazy, mess with my tools.

My buddy Pat likes to open a drawer and shake things up when he stops for a visit. Every year at our annual New Year's Eve garage party, my friend Jay likes to carefully hide food in the drawers he knows I rarely use. This has included shrimp tails and a slice of bologna that dehydrated so perfectly I was tempted to eat it when it was discovered a few months later wrapped around my flaring tool.

Sometimes when I'm bored, I pull up a chair in front of my boxes and shine up my tools. The most cherished items were passed down to me from my dad, and there's even a few that belonged to my grandfather. To the untrained eye, this stuff may just look like a bunch of boring old tools, but when I make a new friend who is also a gearhead, the nods of approval that follow when they see my tools for the first time are like a badge of honour.


Putting together a quality tool set is definitely expensive and takes a lifetime to collect, but if you're just getting started, here are the basics:

-- Ratchets, extensions and sockets (SAE and metric)

-- Wrenches (SAE and metric)

-- Pliers, wire cutters, Vise-Grips, adjustable wrenches, C-clamps

-- Screwdrivers

-- Floor jack

-- Jack stands

-- A magnetic tray for retaining small parts

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2013 F2

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