A Year in the Life of a Model Railroader

The Town of Here

The Town of Here

The HO model trains in this display were collected over the course of one year by a gentleman we’ll call “Gunney.”  Gunney lived in Bellingham, Washington, with his devoted wife, Violet.  He suffered from a debilitating lung disease (COPD) over the last few years of his life which severely limited his ability to move around and exert himself.  The thing that gave him his greatest pleasure and reward over the last year of his rich life was model railroading.  “It made his life count,” says Violet.

Gunney served his Country over three decades in the Korean War and Vietnam, retiring as a Sergeant in the Marine Corps. He worked as a carpenter and other professions using his agile hands and sharp mind.

As Gunney’s illness progressed, he went on disability and searched for life experiences to enjoy: He bought an ATV with the intent to go to the backwoods, find a promising stream and pan for gold; unfortunately the hike into the wilderness proved to be too taxing. Then he acquired a fishing rig; this also became too difficult to manage with his breathing problem.

In his youth, Gunney played with model trains, like so many others boys of his generation and since. Later in life he would recall his boyhood hobby as something he might want to do again, but was reluctant to spend the money. When he mentioned this to Violet, she encouraged him to take up his hobby again. Violet saw that model railroading made her husband smile, and was a perfect fit for him in this stage of his life. And so, in the last year of his life, Gunny got into model railroading with a passion.

Gunney"s Train Washing Station

Gunney’s Train Washing Station

He constructed over three dozen HO scale model building kits of every description, paying close attention to detail and setting. Violet describes her husband as eagerly heading out to his “train shack” to spend the better part of each day working on the buildings which made up his sizeable layout. He built (with the help and support of his many Veteran friends) chest-high train tables, and placed the buildings as a realistic scenic railway. Some of the buildings, like the train washing station, were scratch-built to scale by Gunney using parts and imagination.

Gunney collected roughly 80 pieces of rolling stock over the course of the year. He purchased instructional books, magazines and DVDs. He acquire “miles” of track, cork road bed, modeling tools, landscape materials and people figures to populate his village, which he christened “The Town of Here.”

As Gunney grew weaker, he became bedridden. Gunney never got a chance to lay any track before he passed away.

So, as a memorial, Violet and all his friends gathered together for a track laying ceremony: Violet laid down the first section of track; then each of his buddies laid down another section of track one at a time until the entire route through “Here” was complete.

Gunney will be long-remembered by his family, his Brothers-in-Arms, his friends and neighbors, and strangers like you and me as, in the words of his memorial, “a committed Marine, a devoted husband, a loving father, a selfless mentor and an unconditional friend.”

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The Ins and Outs of Doors, Part 2

It was a dark and stormy night.  Without a sound, the study door began to slowly swing open until it struck the wall with a soft “clunk.”  A rush of cold air entered the room, sending chills up my spine.  Was this the spirit of a long-dead lodger, a disembodied specter, or the ghost of Christmas bills past due?

Doors seeming to open or close of themselves might be the source of at least some if not most of the reports of ghosts and hauntings over the many centuries to the present.  It’s a common phenomenon with a cause based squarely in the world of the living.  It’s even got a name:  ghosting.

Part 1 covered the ins and outs of properly installing an interior pre-hung door.  This post covers some of the idiosyncratic issues associated with doors, their diagnosis and repair, and how to retrofit a new door slab to an existing jamb.

Doors that ghost are leaning, perhaps imperceptibly, as a result of shoddy installation or natural movement of the structure over time. Fixing doors that ghost can be a bit of a project, but worth the effort to eliminate the annoyance and potential embarrassment of a door opening unexpectedly, especially a bathroom door…

Believe it or not,  I have two doors in my home that ghost open.  And, yes, one of them is a bathroom door.  The other is a bedroom door.  The bedroom door also does not latch when closed against the stop.  We’ll fix that, also, but first let’s exorcise the ghost.

Fixing a door that ghosts can be as easy as removing the middle (or top) hinge pin, supporting it between two scraps of wood and striking it with a hammer.  This action puts a slight bend in the pin; when reinserted in the hinge, the bend creates just enough friction to overcome the tendency for gravity to open (or close) the door.  Because of its simplicity, it’s worth trying a second hammer blow to make a larger bend; just don’t take it to the extreme of bending it into a “C” or “U.”

If the lean angle is significant, the above technique might not work to stop the door’s movement.  Now comes the fun part:

Carefully pry the casing away from both sides of the door and remove it.  You’ll want to slice the paint seams with a razor knife to avoid tearing away paint, etc.  Taking time and care to do this will avoid damaging the trim pieces and allow you to put them back neatly when done.  Remove nails from the jamb; the nails that stay in the molding can be reinserted in their holes when replacing the casing.  (Hey, I made a rhyme…)

Now you have the area around the door jamb exposed.  If there are issues with the door slab not touching the stops evenly all the way around (see Part 1), now is the opportunity to fix that as well.

Note which way gravity is causing the door to swing.  Move both jamb legs to make the door plumb; use a long level to find plumb.  It should now not ghost.  You might have to split and remove shims to free up the jamb to move.  Keep the nails in place; they will hold the structure and bend enough to move the jambs plumb.  Replace the shims snugly, add a new nail or two, replace the casing and take the dog for a walk.  Good boy!

The bedroom door doesn’t latch because the bolt doesn’t line up with the hole in the strike plate.  The easiest way to make them line up is to take off the strike plate, make the hole in the jamb larger in the location it needs to be, cut the mortise for the plate in the new location with a utility knife and/or sharp chisel and attach the plate with screws in the new location.  (Old screw holes causing problems?  See below…)  You can dress up the old mortise cut with wood filler.

On the other hand, it would be a great learning experience to remove the problem door from its rough opening and reinstall it following these guidelines in Part 1.  There is no better teacher than experience.

A replacement slab door should be sized precisely based on the old door it is replacing.  Measure the height, width and thickness of the old door slab.  The direction of swing and “handedness” (left or right) can easily be determined by simply backing your rear end up to where the so-called butt hinges are on the jamb and noting whether the door swings to the left or right.

This is called the “butt-to-butt” method for obvious reasons.  When you put in the order for the new slab, this information will save mistakes and misunderstandings.  Also, a picture is worth a thousand words:  Make a plan drawing (“bird’s-eye view”) of the room and door and take that with you to the door store.  (Whoops, I did it again…)

To digress:  The absolute simplest, fool-proof way to ensure an accurate replica of the former door is to give it to the fabricator/lumber yard/door store which is supplying your new door.  Then, it’s all on them and nothing can be lost in translation.

If you are doing the mortises for the hinges, measure their locations carefully on the old door and duplicate them on the new door slab.  The lockset borings will probably also be duplicated, but check the specs (there I go again) that come with your new lockset hardware.  A spade bit is used to bore the bolt hole in the edge of the door, 7/8″ or 1″ diameter depending on the specifications of your lockset.  The handle hole requires a hole saw of the correct diameter, usually 2 1/8″.  Start the big hole on one side; bore through until only the pilot bit comes through the other side.  Now cut the hole from the other side using the pilot bit hole to avoid blowing out (splitting) the wood when the hole saw emerges.

Hinge mortises can be drawn with pencil and cut out free-hand with a trim router set at a depth equal to the thickness of the hinge leaf.  Use a straight bit of the same radius as the corners of the hinges to route the round corners easily.  Square corners can be cut out after routing with a knife or chisel.

The face plate on the latch assembly requires mortising as well; this is best done with a razor knife to cut the outline, and a sharp chisel to remove the wood to depth.  No face plate — just a round insert?  Skip this step.

Bore hinge screw holes with a drill bit smaller than the hinge screws; the screw holes should not be deep or large to ensure the screws get a good bite on the wood.  I’ve install umpteen doors that came from the factory with screws that were spun in their holes from overzealous workers using a drill motor to tighten the screws on a Friday afternoon trying to finish up before the corner bar fills up with hockey fans watching the big game.  Oh Canada.

If you encounter a screw or two (I can’t stop myself) that spins as you tighten it, the fix is easy and reliable:  Grab some wooden toothpicks from the local bar; remove the loose screw; add copious amounts of carpenter’s glue to the hole and toothpicks; jam the toothpicks tightly into the hole; break or cut off the toothpicks; replace and tighten (not over-tighten) the screw; go back and finish your beer.

No Disassembly Required

No Disassembly Required

A door that rattles when closed needs a simple fix;  the bolt and strike plate are mismatched.  Look inside the strike plate hole; see the metal tab?  If it has a slot, take a slot screwdriver and gently pry the metal tab  “out” a tad.

No Slot

No Slot

No slot?  Remove the strike plate and use pliers to bend the tab a tad (that’s more alliteration than rhyme, but who says poetry has to rhyme?)  The door should now close with a little shove and a soft “clunk.”

(If a door opens by itself in an empty house, does it make a sound?  Yes.  Clunk.)

Finally, here is a short list of related issues that will keep your interior doors working perfectly long into the future:

  • Avoid hanging anything on the door, like clothes racks and children.  Sagging and loose hinge screws will ensue.
  • Lubricate moving parts occasionally.
  • If the door begins to rub or stick, fix it right; don’t butcher the door with a saw!
  • Declaw your pets; better still, train them, except cats, which is impossible.
  • Keep a key or unlocking tool handy to avoid having to tear down the door to free someone like that guy at the Olympics.
  • On painted doors, install with a bit wider reveal to prevent sticking as you add more layers of paint over the years.
  • If your bathroom door opens by itself unexpectedly, keep the lights off while you’re in there.

More on doors (this is getting old) later.

The Ins and Outs of Doors, Part 1

Borrowing from the effusive Sally Field, “You like me!  You like me!” I am just cresting 3,000 views in one year (I assume this is good) and, turns out, the subject of doors is the most popular view to date!  Following your lead, this post covers basic installation techniques for interior doors.

Door installation is as much an art as a skill.  Rarely is the rough framing into which the door is placed square, plumb or level.  In remodeling, this can be due to settling and movement of the house over time; on the other hand, in all the time I worked as a trim carpenter in new construction, I never saw a framer (the guy who builds the walls) use a level or a plumb bob to ensure the walls and door openings were not leaning, twisted or shaped like a trapezoid.

In new construction you begin by assessing the rough opening.  The rough opening is the hole in the wall built by the framer where the door will be located.

Measure the inside width of the opening from stud to stud, top, bottom and middle.  This dimension should ideally be about one half-inch to one inch larger than the width of the door in its frame (jamb.)  You will need this extra space to place shims in order to square up the door so it will operate perfectly.  Measure the outside width of the door frame (jamb) from the outside of the hinge jamb to the outside the latch jamb to check the door width.  These vertical jambs are also called “legs.”  You should have a 1/4″ – 1/2″ gap all the way around if everything is sized correctly.

Measure the height of the rough opening; this number should be a bit taller than the overall door height (Remember:  “door” refers to the door slab hanging on its hinges inside the jamb or frame.   This is referred to as a “pre-hung door.”  We’ll discuss hanging a replacement slab in an existing jamb later…)  The top piece on the door jamb is called the “header.”

Go get your levels.  For door installation close is close enough, so if the bubbles are intact and there are black lines on either side of the bubbles, your level will work fine; we’re not building a boat here, as they say.  An assortment of 2-foot, 4-foot and 6-foot levels will come in much handier than one of those 6-inch levels which fits neatly in your tool box but is about as much help in hanging doors as a one-armed wallpaper hanger.

Levels should be accurate; the best way to ensure accuracy is to spend a little more for a good set.  Keep in mind the maxim about tools:  You get what you pay for.

Set the pre-hung door unit aside and just work with the rough opening for the moment.  Place the 6-foot level vertically on the hinge side of the rough opening; get rid of any protrusions like nail heads, staples and dried drywall mud so the level sits flush with the stud.  Note whether the surface is plumb (straight up-and-down.)  If it’s plumb…Frank Lloyd Wright built the house.  Use cedar shims to space the hinge jamb away from the rough opening the distance you measured earlier.

The shims are wedge-shaped; put them together to make flat surfaces to go against the stud and the jamb.  Nail the shims to the stud at the same heights as the hinges on the door.  They will stick out on both sides; you will cut them off later.

If the stud is not plumb, arrange the thicknesses of the shims to make a plumb surface (the shims) to attach the door jamb to.  This is where the wedge shape comes in handy.  Use your level to find plumb after installing, say, the top set of shims, then fit the correct thickness of shims between the stud and the level at the other end.  That makes the middle set easy to fit.  Now you have a plumb surface to fastened the hinge jamb to.

Now you are ready to put the pre-hung unit in its hole.  Man-(or woman-)handle the door into the rough opening.  This is easiest done with the door closed and secured by a plastic or wood “bolt” through the lock set hole into the jamb hole.  Some pre-hung doors come with a screw or nail through the jamb header or leg into the door edge; make sure you find and remove these first to save time and aggravation.

Align the outer edges of the hinge jamb to the wall surface on each side.  Drive one nail through the stop (the small board the door closes against) at the top hinge location, through the shims, pinning the door frame to the stud.  Now you can operate the door to see how to adjust it during installation for perfect operation.  I usually add one more nail towards the bottom, not through the shims, to add stability and ability to make adjustments in the door geometry.

Align the latch jamb with the wall surfaces; “capture” or hold it in place with shims top, middle (behind the latch bolt hole) and bottom friction-fitted between the jamb and the stud.  You will adjust these (see below) for proper gap, a.k.a. the reveal, around the door so it’s even, not too large, and not too snug.  Kind of like Goldilocks’ porridge, but different.

Close the door.  What?  You didn’t take out the temporary bolt yet?  Okay.  I’ll wait…

Close the door.  Gently.  Does it “clunk” pleasantly when it hits the stops, hitting the stops all the way around?  Yes?  Nail it all off and go take a smoke break if you live in Colorado.  Or Amsterdam.

Does it hit the stop at one place but not uniformly around the perimeter?  To fix that, nudge the jamb legs in and out, top and bottom until the door hits the stops all the way around.  This will put the jamb either sticking out past the wall surface, or a little behind the wall surface.  You will deal with this when you trim out the finished door with casing.  Welcome to my world.

Now you can think about seriously nailing the two legs through the shims.  Before you put all 6 X 3 = 18 (yes, 18) nails in the jamb, start with one through the jamb at each set of shims.  Remember the gap?  If it’s uneven when you close the door and exam it all the way around, pry the jamb away from the shims to adjust it until it’s a consistent 1/16″ to 3/32″.  Too large will A.  look ugly; B.  transmit more sound and drafts; and C.  look ugly.  Too small will cause the door to rub and bind.  Adjust shims accordingly for a perfect fit.

You may notice the reveal at the top is a pie-wedge, i.e., uneven.  Adjust the shims behind the bottom hinge, adding thickness or taking it away to even up this gap.  This technique rotates the door slab to change that gap.  You might need to tweak the middle hinge shims to compensate for the bottom movement.  The bolt holes in the slab and the latch jamb should now be aligned.

Almost done.

Finish the installation by installing the remaining nails:  Three at each shim location, one each side of the stop and one through the stop.  If the header (remember the header?) is bowed up or down, shim and nail where it works to get rid of the bow.  Use the 2-foot level to check.

One more potential issue you may face in installing an interior door is a sloped floor over the width of the rough opening.  Use one of the shorter levels to test this before you begin.  Lift up the low end of the level, center the bubble and estimate the amount the floor is out of level across the opening.  This will be the distance between the bottom of the level and the floor on the low side with the level level.  Using a saw, neatly cut off this amount of wood from the bottom of the jamb leg on the high side.  This will compensate for the slope.  I do not recommend cutting the bottom of the door to match the slope of the floor; this is difficult to do neatly, and only draws attention to the slanted floor.  No one looks at the bottom of the door anyway…

Okay, enough for now.  Later we’ll get into a few more tricks and tips that will make you the Dior of Doors.

Oh come on!  Fashion IS Art!

All Nailers Great and Small

Since 1950, when the first pneumatic nail gun was introduced on the market, nailers have grown in popularity among professionals and DIYers to the point where the hammer is fast becoming a museum piece.

Unlike the real custom nail gun in the photo above, real nail guns come in a variety of calibers, better known as gauges.  Let’s cover the various types of equipment using nail gauge as a guide, and along the way we’ll learn the features and applications of each one.

A digression:  Like all tools, not all nail gun brands are created equally reliable and durable.  I went through two – count ’em – two Bostitch 18 gauge brad nailers before realizing the problem I experienced was somehow tied to the flawed design of this tool.  Right out of the box, each of these new nail guns misfired, that is, when the trigger was pulled, no nail came out.  Usually this can occur in older, well-used guns due to wear on the so-called driver.  The driver is moved down onto the nail head by pressure when the trigger is pulled.  If it’s metal shape is worn from countless up-and-down trips in its guide, the driver can “miss” the nail and skip off.  This shouldn’t happen with a new tool.  On the other hand, I have had excellent service life and durability with both Porter Cable and Senco equipment.  I looked up the replacement parts list for a typical 18 gauge Bostitch brad nailer like the ones I owned, and, interestingly, part number 5 on the exploded diagram (an O-ring in the driver mechanism) wasn’t even listed in the parts list!  O-rings are easily replaceable, but they have to also be available!

(How funny!  I just searched “Stanley Bostitch BT1855K” and looked at “Customer Reviews:”

  • “‘This gun consistently won’t fire.’  (5 reviewers made a similar statement.)”
  • “‘…this one was so frustrating to use.’  (4 reviewers made a similar statement.)”
  • “‘I am going to return it…’  (1 reviewer made a similar statement.)”

‘Nough said.  Read my article on tools for more sage advice…)

Framing Nailers

The biggest guns used for construction and framing actually don’t have a “gauge,” per se.  Generally, they can use nails of more than one shank diameter, unlike smaller nailers that are limited to a particular gauge.  My Porter Cable framer can fire nails ranging from .113 inches to .148 inches in diameter, and 2 to 3 and 1/2 inches in length.  The nails typically come in a sleeve (stick or strip) of 25 or so individual nails held together (“‘collated”) by a plastic band.  Loading any gun is the same:  Pull back the spring-loaded feeder, drop in the strip of nails (pointy end down…) and release the feeder.

Collated nails come angled (20°-34°) or straight depending on the design of the magazine.  Wikipedia says, “Shank styles include plain, ring annular, twisted, etc. and a variety of materials and finishes are offered including plain steel, galvanized steel, sherardised steel, stainless steel, etc. depending on the pull-out resistance, corrosion resistance, etc. required for the given application.”  In case you are wondering:  sherardising is a form of galvanizing for resistance to rust.  (I was…)  Other construction nails come in coils to reduce the frequency of reloading; this is especially helpful in high volume tasks like roofing.

Another (brief) digression:  Nail guns, whether powered by air pressure, electromagnetism, flammable gas or gunpowder are a leading cause of injuries related to tool uses.  Between 2001 and 2007, nail gun injuries among workers and consumers (DIYers) doubled, according to the CDC and NIOSH.  Much of the blame can be traced to rapid fire “bounce firing” in which the gun fires when the trigger is pulled and then the nose piece contacts the work, versus a “sequential-trip” firing mechanism requiring the nose piece to contact the work first before the trigger is pulled improving control.  (Senco actually offers free replacement parts if the trigger type you have is not to your liking.)  Be informed and be forewarned:  Nail gun injuries are horrific.  Don’t be a statistic!

16 Gauge Nail Guns

Known as finish nailers, 16 gauge tools use smooth nails with a minimal head to allow the head to be countersunk below the surface of the wood. This is accomplished in two ways.  In air tools, the pressure from the air compressor should be set roughly between 70 and 120 pounds per square inch (psi); there should be no need to readjust this once set as the compressor will bring itself up to pressure when the pressure falls below its set point.  The depth of the nail head is controlled by a depth adjustment on the tool.  Again, once trial and error determines the correct adjustment, no further adjustment is required.

Finish nails come in variety of lengths ranging from 5/8 inch to 2 and 1/2 inch.  These are used to fasten interior trim molding, window sills, jambs and headers, door frames, crown molding, etc.  A wise old carpenter once told me, “Remember:  you have to fill all those holes with putty,” so less is more.  If you strive to hit the stud behind the drywall at each point, fewer nails can be used.  Techniques to accomplish this include laying out a tape on the floor and noting every 16 inches (or so) there is a stud location; and using a stud finder.  Don’t do what an extra laborer did on one job I was on:  He marked the location of each stud on the stain grade base molding with ball-point pen!  Buy ’em books and buy ’em books and all they do is eat the covers…

Finish nails are also used to fasten sub-tops and underlayment when you don’t want a nail head protruding proud of the surface.

Protruding nail heads (called “shiners”) can be set with a couple of sharp blows with a hammer on the right size nail set.  Then the fun begins:  puttying all the holes…

18 Gauge Nail Guns

Known as brad nailers, 18 gauge tools do the same jobs as finish nailers with one advantage:  the holes are smaller requiring less putty.  They are harder to see from a distance and therefore add to the clean look of the new decor.  Brad nailers come in lengths similar to finish nails, so can be used for the same tasks generally.  A wise old drywaller once told me, “You know 18 gauge nails will hold that trim just as well as those 16 gauge spikes, and the holes are smaller…”  I didn’t immediately mend my ways (because I didn’t think of it first), but eventually came to see the wisdom of his advice.

Further, smaller brad nails are ideal for fastening thin material like screen molding and 3/16 inch finished panels.

23 Gauge Nail Guns

At one time I disparaged this size gun, known as a pin nailer or “pinner,” as a toy more suited to building little wooden do-dads and thing-a-ma-jigs.  Then a wise old contractor (who was paying my contract) suggested I use one of these little gems to affix rope trim to a flat spot on the crown molding I was installing on some kitchen cabinets.  The issue was the rope trim was fragile, and larger nails caused it to split and blow out.  The tiny headless pin nails are ideal for this application.  Each is about the size of a sewing needle; available lengths are limited due to their small diameter, which can take only so much driving force before bending.  I now own this little baby of my family of nail guns; I use it for rope trim, beading, screen molding, drawer box construction (with glue), repairs, veneer, and a bunch of other tasks where a larger nail won’t do.

The best part:  The nail holes are essentially invisible, filled or unfilled.

As I said, I own at least one of every size of common nail gun known to man or woman.  There are just no substitutes for the efficiency and utility of the various sizes and features.  (Try driving a 1 inch, 2d common wire nail with a hammer; you’ll be screaming obscenities after hitting your hand on the first or second blow…)  Other types of nail guns are more specialized:

Hardwood flooring nailers take the work (and there’s a lot of it) out of installing floors.  Activated by air pressure and a sharp blow with a rubber hammer, these tools drive and set flooring nails through the tongue of the boards at the proper angle and depth.   A job that could take many days only takes a lot of days.

Powder actuated tools are used for driving hardened nails into concrete and other tough substrates for fastening wall plates and brackets to other-than-wood surfaces. A sharp blow to the loaded tool fires a cartridge to propel the fastener home.

Staplers are handy when fastening non-electrical wire, wood edging on plastic laminate counter tops and other tasks (like sheathing) where an extra-firm grip is required and the staple wire won’t show or it doesn’t matter.

Palm nailers are compact tools that “hammer” (40 hits per second) nails into wood.  The nailer straps to the hand, and is air-powered.  The advantage is their usefulness in tight spaces.

Most nail guns are pneumatic and require an air compressor to use.  Buy a good one, because they go through repeated cycling during use to keep the air pressure at the optimal level.  Compressors are usually oil filled, so maintenance is paramount for a long service life.  Drain the condensed water from the pressure tank(s) regularly to avoid internal corrosion.

What more to say, but that a wise old…

Oh, forget it.

Cheap Tools: Getting What You Pay For

Years ago when I was young, poor and not-so-savvy (now I’m no longer young…), tools had a peculiar mystique.  I realized to do a job right, whether working with wood, repairing a car engine or fixing a leaking toilet required the “right tool for the right job.”  Problem was, I couldn’t afford to outfit with the thousands of tools necessary for the hundreds of handyman tasks out there.  So I acquired a few basic tools adding to my tool box from time to time, and improvising what I needed but didn’t have.  I got by, but life got a lot easier as I built up my collection with better and more specialized equipment.

My Dad was no handyman.  I inherited (or learned) my skill set from my grandfathers who were both Jacks-of-most-trades, tinkerers and – poor.  My Grandpas each made the most of what they had through their ingenuity and resourcefulness.  Harry back in the fifties bought up old wooden wall telephones, gutted what few innards they had, and installed new-fangled AM radios hidden inside.  Suburbanites snatched them up to decorate their new homes with a retro look and cutting edge sound  technology (!)  Lesley repaired everything and anything around his house – and beyond.  He was a dam engineer, for goodness sake!  And a good dam engineer!  There wasn’t a dam thing he couldn’t fix to keep the dam thing working right.  Grandma had a cartoon cut from a magazine framed on her kitchen wall:  Against a backdrop of various antiquated stuff in the yard (a Model – T, a ringer washer, a velocipede…) an Old Woman holding a broken toaster says to her Old Man, ” I KNOW you can fix it; I WANT A NEW ONE!”

Dad did know quality, though.  Back when Sears’ tools were pretty much the gold standard, he gave me a Craftsman socket set for my birthday.  Although I’ve added metric sockets and other accessories over the years, I still rely on those sockets and that innovative push-button wrench whenever I’m forced to do car repair.  The chrome is still intact, the reversible wrench still works and the sockets still grip the bolt head.  And that’s been forty years.

Unfortunately, not all tools (including Sears’ brand) are built to last these days.  Fortunately, there are some tell-tale warning signs of cheap, cheap tools (think:  baby chickens…)

Ten tell-tale warning signs the tool you are considering buying (or just bought) is a Baby Chicken Brand:

  1. The name of the store selling it rhymes with Arbor Eight.
  2. When you pull the motor trigger you suddenly understand the meaning of  “cacophony.”
  3. Other brands of the same tool sell for three times the price.
  4. Measuring twice doesn’t help.
  5. Little flecks of toxic chromium get jabbed under your fingernails.
  6. The battery runs down twice  a day.
  7. You decide to build a trapezoidal box because you can’t cut a right angle.
  8. A hare-lipped beaver could gnaw through wood faster.
  9. Three words:  Made in China.
  10. You see sparks and smell burning during normal operation.

I could go on, but you get the idea:  Most tools are made “overseas” these days which equates with backward quality control and lower quality.  My guess is  Chinese manufacturers in their rush to fulfill the West’s growing compulsion to transfer our treasure have focused on production quotas over quality control.  You don’t have to look far to see the standards in imported tools resemble those of the United States in the 1930s when our industries were just getting the hang of making stuff well.  Of course, not all imported tools are crappy, but enough fit the description to be wary when spending your hard-earned yuan on new tools.

Do your homework first.  Rather than race to the box store, or, worse, Arbor Eight, google information about the particular tool you need and can’t live without.  Believe it or not, some brands of drill motors have plastic gears, believe it or not.  Plastic gears can’t be as durable as most metals used for drive and reduction gears.  How repairable is the brand of tool?  Senco pneumatic tools can be rebuilt forever:  kits are readily available. Try to find a replacement O-ring kit for a Central Pneumatic air nailer.  I did.  It’s “no longer available” for this  currently-advertised tool.

Generally, some brands are reliably reliable and durable.  The following list is based on subjective use experience, trial and error and a cursory search of intermet chat posts:

The Good

Senco, DeWalt, Hitachi, Bosch, Porter Cable, Makita, Fein, Delta, Milwaukee, Grizzly, Shop Smith

The Bad

Craftsman, Bostitch, Ryobi, Ridgid, Skil, Black and Decker

The Ugly

Central Pneumatic, Chicago Electric

While I do suffer from xenophobia, I don’t want to get pegged as an anti-Sino-ite:  obviously, some of the “Good” are made in China, because, thanks to “free trade” and stupid government policies over 30 years, most brands have moved “offshore,” to put a politically correct point on it.  (Kind of like a pinhead has a point…)

Do your due diligence when shopping for tools.  Not only do you want to get a good deal on price, but you want a tool that will last a lifetime  (or two.)  Ask friends and family; talk to professionals about good (and bad) products they’ve used.  When you have learned what you need to know to decide on a particular tool, shop for the best price; sometimes, especially in a down economy, quality tools in good condition can be had at a discount from pawn shops and other second-hand sources.  Of course, you probably won’t get a warranty, but some manufacturers go the extra mile to keep you coming back.  I once bought a DeWalt chop saw (used) and used it until it broke.  I contacted DeWalt about repairing it, admitting not only did I not have an original receipt, but I wasn’t the original owner.  A local tool store shipped it to a distant city for repair; DeWalt repaired it with OEM parts, then, at my request, shipped it to a third party (my son), all at no cost to me!   As the Frankenstein monster would say, “DeWalt good!”  Bosch also replaced an out-of-warranty pad sander at no cost.

Finally, I agree wholeheartedly with the following anonymous quote gleaned from one of those intermet chat rooms:

“I don’t buy any tool based on brand name.  The vast majority of names have some good tools and some not-so-good tools…Grizzly, Craftsman, Delta, Jet, GI, Shop Fox, Steel City, PC, Ridgid, Makita, DW, etc.  I prefer to evaluate the important tools on their own merit and go from there.”

May all your tools be self-lubricating and trouble free forever and ever and ever…  Amen.