Wednesday, March 23, 2011

4 Things You Didn't Know You Needed in Your Toolbox or on Your Workbench

Boy, look at the cobwebs here! It's been a long time since I posted, but I've been working on some 1/6th projects (including a "guard shack" for my photo-illustrated "Minions at Work" web-comic, and it brought to mind some of the more unusual, but useful, hobby tools I keep around.

Here are a few items you probably don't have on your workbench (though you may already have them around the house) that you'll find invaluable once you have them.

Cast aluminum roofing square

If you check your local home-improvement or hardware store you'll find a variety of squares available, and just about all the smaller ones have uses in 1/6th projects, but if you are only going to have one, this might be the one to have.

I like it because it's a good size for many 1/6th construction tasks.  And because many of the materials you'll be trying to mark and cut are flexible, floppy and irregular, it's good to have a straight edge that's heavy enough not to move around on its own, and stiff enough to draw a straight line even if it isn't well supported.  It's even solid enough that you can clamp thin materials to the square itself to hold them for marking.

I also like the large raised lip along the left side that gets a firm grip on the corners and edges of things you're marking (and thinner materials can be put on TOP of the square and butted against the lip to secure them).  The built in ruler and protractor are also useful additions.

Scotch-Brite Pads

Sanding is a common task in any kind of building or refinishing project. and sanding materials tend to be expensive and not hold up very well against the edges and sharp corners found in many 1/6th projects.  Also, there's never a piece of sandpaper around when you need one.

That's why I like these pads, which can be purchased any place that sells household cleaning supplies.  They come in sheets or glued to the back of a cleaning sponge (which means that can be used like those flexible sanding blocks, only they're much more durable).  They're cheap, durable, and can be cut into smaller pieces for those small jobs.  Unlike steel wool, they won't leave little bits of wire (which can actually short out electronics and cause other problems) or rust.  By definition they're water-proof, so you can use them for wet sanding.  And they're easy to toss into your tool-box for emergencies, so you'll always have one around.

I find them especially useful when prepping larger items (like 1/6th vehicles and large equipment) for painting.  Just running the pad quickly over a plastic or metal part will rough up the surface and make paint stick much better.

The main drawback to the grocery-store variety is that they're equivalent a very course grade of sandpaper.  There are "professional" versions that are finer through, and you can find them in an auto-body supply shop.  Be aware that they're usually in different colors (grey, maroon, and white I believe) depending on how fine they are, and may not actually be called "Scotch-brite" even though they're the same product from 3M.

Speaking of, those Scotch-brite pads are tough.  How are you going to cut them?  Why, with...

Kitchen Shears

This may be the best single tool (except for maybe a good hobby knife and razor saw) you'll ever by for your hobby bench, and you'll find it sold in among the cooking gadgets.

What's the big deal?  They're just scissors, right?

Yes, but they're BAD ASS scissors.  The blades are strong and straight.  The handles are big, have wide loops so you can put lots of pressure, and are designed to give you lots of leverage on the blades.  They're designed to cut THROUGH stuff, not just paper or string.  Things like meat, and chicken bones.

They cut paper and cardboard just fine, but they'll also cut plastic like butter.  They can even be used to cut thin wood and doweling. (I rotate the scissors around the dowel, scoring a neat, shallow, cut all the way around.  Then you can just snap the dowel off and smooth end end off with sandpaper or a file.)

When picking a pair to buy, look for sturdy blades and large loops in the handles.  I like symmetrical designs that can be used equally well in the right or left hands.  It's also good to look for a design that has a slip-joint in the pivot so that the blades can come apart for easy cleaning or sharpening.

 PVC Pipe Cutter

This is probably the most expensive and least versatile tool I'll mention today, but it's still worth considering.

If you haven't looked into working with PVC pipe before, you should.  It's cheap, easy to get, and incredibly versatile.  There are a million different fittings and connectors you can get in any hardware or plumbing supply store.  You can use it to build 1/6th steam pipes, street-lights, power-poles, antennas, pontoons, fuel tanks, all sorts of things.  You can also use it to make tables, shelves, supports for photo-backdrops.  I've even built a PVC "lighting grid," around the bench where I shoot "Minions at Work," that I can clamp lights to, and use to hang props from overhead

But the trouble, especially for those of us who don't have a full work-shop is the cutting.  Cutting with a hand saw is a pain and creates plastic "sawdust" and the edges aren't very clean.  A power chop-saw (or band-saw) works better, but how many of us have one of THOSE on our hobby bench? (I do have one in my shop, but that usually isn't where I usually do hobby work.)  Only recently did I spot this tool in the plumbing department at my local hardware store and decide to give it a try.

It works BEAUTIFULLY!  It's a heavy metal handle with a thin, razor-sharp blade (replaceable on a good one).  There's a ratchet mechanism in the handle so it's easy to open, and then you just put the pipe in the jaws, squeeze the handle repeatedly, and the blade cuts smoothly through the pipe almost like butter!  It's very quick.  The edge is clean (though it's sometimes tricky to get an exact right angle, a power saw is still better for that), and you can get precision to within a millimeter or two if that's important for your project.

Drawbacks?  Well, expect to pay $15-20 dollars for this thing, and cutting pipe is pretty much all it does.  And though it's perfectly safe when used carefully, this is by far the most frightening non-power tool I've ever used.  As you watch it cut through pipe, it's easy to see how it could easily cut off a finger or thumb.  Now, it's impossible to move the blade quickly, so you'd have to be incredibly stupid to do this to yourself, but if you have a vivid imagine like I do, well, just try not to think about it!

But the blade is VERY sharp and exposed when the tool is open (it's covered when closed, and most tools have a handle lock to keep it in that position when stored), and you could cut yourself directly.  I imagine the blade is also brittle, like a hobby knife, and if you tried to use the tool to cut something it isn't designed for, you could possibly apply enough pressure to shatter it and maybe send sharp flying bits flying around the room.  For all these reasons, this is NOT a tool I'd EVER leave where a child could possible get it.  A locked drawer or toolbox or at least a high-cabinet is called for here.

Still, I just love this tool, and I use it a lot.  I'm doing far more with PVC then I've ever done before, and with far less effort.

So that's it.  If there's a lesson here, is that you'll find plenty of useful tools for your hobby projects outside the tool section of a hobby shop.  Don't be afraid to check some of the odder corners of the hardware store, or even the kitchen or auto supply.  There are plenty of cheap and useful alternatives to expensive hobby tools.

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