Ahh, Christmas! Like everyone, I have many fond memories of Christmas’ past. The nice chill in the air to break the summer’s heat; the opportunity to recommission the hot tub and restock the wood crib; sitting by a warm fireplace on a cozy winter’s night..
This is the time of the year my wife decrees that all the decorations from past years come down from the attic, and then devotes days and days into transforming our home into a winter wonderland.
But then there are the aspects of the Christmas season I could do without.. the blatant commercialism which begins earlier and earlier each year; the 10 Christmas songs played over and over on the radio, many performed by the most unlikely and unwanted candidates (Freddy Fender.. really?)
The most egregious sin to me, a committed car tinkerer, is the assault mounted by every home improvement and big box store, enticing “significant others” with piles of must-have crap at the entrance.. the stuff they couldn’t sell during the rest of the year.. now offered as the “perfect gift for that man in your life”.. You know the drill (pun intended).. the “handy” homeowners tool kit, complete with a 3 ounce hammer and a pair of pliers that couldn’t uncap a longneck bottle; one of those “multitools”, the kind that come with little triangular, postage-stamp-sized sanding pads… all gifts destined to wind up in the very bottom of a guy’s toolbox, if not (more likely) eventually finding their way into the trash bin.
Then there are the car magazines, touting such stuff as blower vacs to dry your car off after a wash, or plug in volt meters for the car’s lighter socket.
Most likely each of these “must-have” gadget articles were written by some recent escapee from journalism school, who has never actually used any of them and probably wouldn’t be able to change a flat tire if their life depended on it!
To counter that onslaught to our intelligence, I offer here a selection of lesser known (but none the less useful) tools, every one of which I personally own, have used, and would be unwilling to give up without a fight.
Granted, some of these tools might only find use once a year or so, but when a guy needs it, there is no real substitute. Where possible, I have mentioned purchase sources and prices:
There are times when you just can’t get your fingers in to access a tight area to start a screw. Nothing is more frustrating than dropping a screw multiple times before you finally get it started. I found that Klein, a respected hand tool maker, offers both a 3-driver set for slotted screws (yes, you WILL need all three sizes), and a separate phillips driver, both of which perform exactly as advertised, holding the screw firmly and straight until it gets started in its intended location. All are available at Amazon, or even your local specialty tool supplier:
Air-powered Angle Drill
Don’t waste your time or money on those huge electrically powered, Harbor Freight angle drills, nor those angle drill attachments you can buy at your home improvement big box. The problem with either is that, when you really need to accomplish some tight quarter drilling, you usually need a REALLY TIGHT QUARTER drill. The standard drill chuck itself, combined with standard-length bits, just ain’t gonna cut it. At the very least, you are going to need some 5-6″ inches of clearance to use one of these “chucked” drills.
In order to really get in close, you need a drill that doesn’t use a bulky chuck, and that can accommodate very short bits. A correctly designed air angle drill can do just that. Special drill bits have a threaded shank that screw right into the head of the drill, eliminating the chuck altogether. I bought my drill used on eBay, finding a US made unit that would have sold for about $700 new, but used at a bit over $100. threaded bits are widely available online at reasonable prices for these drills.
Amazon does offer a complete drill kit, with an assortment of bits, for about $320. Pricey, but you WILL use it, and when you do the cost of the thing will be just a blur on your memory.
Recently, while replacing the seized water pump on our vintage Buick, I managed to break off one of the mounting studs that went into the block casting. My first recovery attempt was to weld a big nut onto the end of the protruding stud, but that sucker was in there, and my attempts just culminated in snapping the stud again, this time closer to the threaded boss.
The only thing left to do was to drill out the old stud and replace. If I had only had a standard drill, this would have required removing the entire radiator, not a job to be taken lightly on a 1940 Buick.
I broke out the trusty air angle drill, and had the problem solved in about 2 minutes. Case closed!
Brake Flaring Tool
I know, I know, a manual brake flaring tool can be had at numerous online sources for $30 or so. If lucky, you might get 2 or 3 uses out of it before something breaks. However, if you are changing out all the brake lines in your vehicle, your chance of getting 100% leak-free flares at every joint is just about nil.
I like to use E-Z bend brake lines (available online, including Amazon), which are constructed of a special, non-corrosive, DOT-approved alloy that is slightly softer than standard steel lines, allowing bends without tools, and offer great flare results:
However, my past experience working even with this much easier-to-flare tubing has been fraught with frequent failure, as it seems that getting a nice symmetrical flare with one of those cheapie flaring tools is a bit of the luck ‘o the draw.
When I had an upcoming full brake line replacement task on our 1953 Nash Healey roadster, I decided to bite the bullet and spring for a REAL brake flaring tool. After much research, I zeroed in on a flaring sold by the Eastwood company, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the result. It can accommodate single and double SAE flares, as well as the DIN bubble flare used on many European cars.
Creating a standard SAE double flare with this tool takes literally less than 60 seconds, and the flares come out perfect every time. You just clamp the entire tool onto your table-mounted vise, turn the turret around to the desired tubing size you are working with, strap your tubing in place, and pull the big handle for an instant flare.
The tool isn’t cheap, but at what seems to be the perpetually-offered “sale” price of $189, is likely less than I paid for the 3 or 4 “standard” home flaring tools that have broken on me in the past:
While I was at it, I sprung for Eastwood’s tubing chamfering/deburring tool, which performs the necessary preparation to your tubing prior to flaring. At just about $20, it has been a worthwhile addition to my tool box:
Stud Remover set
Fuggedabout those one-size-fits-all stud removers. To really get the job done correctly, and without buggering up your studs, you really need a set of individual socket removers, sized for each stud diameter. each socket has internal friction lockers to grab the stud and hold it securely while removing.
At $40-50 for a decent set, why waste your time and money on something else that likely won’t work?
Available everywhere online under various brands. Just read the reviews and make your choice accordingly:
Video Inspection Camera
Aren’t smartphones great? 5 years ago, if you wanted a video inspection camera you’d have to shell out $400-500 for a decent one, and then you would still be stuck with a postage-stamp-size display screen, and no way to save or capture what you are viewing.
Along came smartphones, with their readily-available camera apps and beautiful high-rez color screens, and the inspection camera market has been turned upside down.
If you own an Android-powered phone, you can find a complete, ready-to-use inspection camera for well under $20 (iphone compatible versions are a bit more), such as the one pictured below (numerous brands available on Amazon)
It couldn’t be easier to use:
- Download a free camera interface app to your phone (CameraFI seems to be the preferred one for many users)
- Plug in the camera cable to your phone’s (OR Android tablet, for even larger display) standard charging port
- start viewing through the camera
You can perform simple live viewing, still photo captures, or videos with these incredible gadgets. Invaluable for looking inside a cylinder, and anywhere otherwise inaccessible. I liked mine so well, I went ahead and purchased a second unit, to have one at both home and shop!
The Right Tool for the right job
If you work on your own cars, then most likely you possess a tap and die set. One never knows when new threads need to be cut, and a workable set of taps in invaluable to quickly resolve an issue.
I’ll guess most of your sets are the “econ” ones (yep, me too), you know, the ones from the big tool importers. And those can certainly serve their place. My biggest issue with these “cheapie” sets is the cheesy handles that are provided. I’ve gone through any number of replacements, and even a new handle doesn’t adequately grip the tap like you would want.
a few months ago, when I realized I had managed to break several of the taps in my cheapie set, and had cursed the useless handle one too many times, I vowed to get myself a set that would function properly when the chips are down.
After a lot of research and reading user reviews, I settled on a GearWrench 3887 combination SAE and Metric set.
All in all, I suppose a tap is a tap, and a die is a die, but what really distinguishes this set from others is the elegant ratcheting handle that comes with it. It allows “chucking” a tap using finger pressure only, yet it HOLDS! And the nice reversing ratcheting mechanism of the handle makes starting a tap in a hole a piece of cake. Best of all, the handle is a real piece of art, something that provides great pleasure to hold.
If you already have a decent set of taps and dies, then you could just spring for the handle kit itself (shown below).. F
Full disclosure, the handle set itself will likely set you back more than a complete “econo” tap and die set.
The complete set, for those of you without, is available on many online retailers at a shade over $130:
A highly recommended piece of kit for your toolbox.