Buy Cheap, Make Better

In the binary existence set forth by the average internet comment, tools are bucketed into either the best ever built, or worthless piles of scrap that, if they don’t kill you first, will turn whatever you are machining/hammering/bending/drilling with them into similarly worthless scrap. While remembering that bad tools can be dangerous, there is a large, rich area between cheap and death-inducing, and perfect. In this realm, tools are imperfect but safe, useful and accessible. And they’re often salvaged from crap status and put there by the efforts of their owners. Spend some time improving a cheap tool, and you can end up with great gear without the bank loan, and most of all pickup a bunch of knowledge that will pay off when you work on more elaborate projects. Here are two things that, with little effort, I was able to make much more usable and durable than they were when I got them.

Harbor Freight Hoist

Engine hoists cost either way more money than you want to spend on such a thing, or way more than you can afford. Many of us settle for the former scenario, and trudge begrudgingly down to Harbor Freight when the need arises to get one that, by first glance, looks and works alright.

The Problem: The bolt that serves as a hinge at the back of the arm is affixed to the vertical support via 2 think tabs of steel welded on. Things look sturdy enough, but a closer examination revealed in my case that what was strong was not straight. As a result, the arm of the hoist was canted to the right by about 4 inches from center when fully extended. Fortunately, I was enrolled in a welding class at the local “Institute of Technology” (i.e. community college, not sure what is wrong with the term “community college” that requires the Orwellians to put their grubby mitts all over it) in which we were given the opportunity to bring in our own projects. The instructor and I made quick work of this problem – an hour or less – with a grinder and a MIG, cutting off the hinge mounts and making a new one from a single piece of square tubing. The bonus here was that, as I was repairing something that would need to take a lot of weight, any insufficient work was pointed out by a certified boilermaker and redone to standard.

The payoff: What resulted was a hoist that felt completely different, devoid of the concern inducing bending of metal to the favored side, and that has given years of trouble-free service.

$25 Shop Stool

A ruptured disk last year sent me to Summit for something to sit on while working to ease the sciatica. Unenthused about any of the selections, I was thankful to at least find one for cheap. 5 legs, wheels, it was light and held up for a few months.

The Problem: Like every garage creeper or stool with casters, the threads on the wheels loosened and stripped themselves out. I dove into the scrap pile and found 3 pieces of square tubing and set about the following list for a quick but massive improvement to a 25 dollar stool.

  1. Removed the legs.
  2. Cut them from the collar that holds the bottom of the stool and ground the collar somewhat smooth.
  3. Trimmed the scrap square tubing to roughly 14 inches to match the dimensions of the old base.
  4. Marked the center of each and drilled out with a 2 inch hole saw. This produced 6 legs with the proper contour at the inside edge to weld to the collar.
  5. Lined up the legs with clamps, got out the MIG and began to weld away.
  6. Done with this part and am using the stool. Wheels are ordered and will go on next, and then fun with a ring bender and some bar stock to create a circular tool tray over the casters. But in a couple of hours, I now have a sturdier stool.

The Payoff: 2 hours of work and some free materials produced a bunch of experience and learning on a project that had no consequences if it was completely ruined. Within a couple of hours and 24 welds, I had a much sturdier stool. Number 24 was certainly better than number one, but all welds were hardly visible. You can spend a lot more time and really mess up an expensive car project with 24 welds.

Welcome, and Happy Learning

With any luck, this first post is the hardest, and the worst. It’s a microcosm of this whole endeavor: rather aimless but not pointless. It’s an attempt to scratch out some coherent documentation of what I’ve come to realize is a lifelong love of creating. There was a busy but impoverished and ultimately euthanized music career – one can’t live with one’s parents forever – that morphed into a hobby of auto restoration and mechanics that fed a dire need for an outlet outside the office. My first victims were old Ford pickups: a ’73 picked up on eBay for $500 and driven from Virginia to Boston, and an ’86, also picked up off eBay and driven from Denver to Boston. The ’73 spawned a bad case of the while-I’m-in-theres, and, once it was reduced to a pair of frame rails flopped haplessly over a quartet of jackstands, it began a long and painful imparting of the lesson that the purchase price of these projects tends to be the smallest bill on them. It really only needed three parts, but that those parts were an engine, a cab and a bed weighed down the progress. A move to the west coast made it much easier to just get another running one, and the carcass went to a PACCAR bodyshop worker. The ’86, a 4wd crew cab with a 6.9 liter diesel and an aftermarket turbocharger, managed a few trips cross country before it was discovered that said trips were accomplished with a cam bearing having made it’s way down to the oil pan, and off it went to the glue factory in favor of some less worn hardware that was needed at the time.

Just needs 3 parts to complete project: 1 engine, 1 cab, and 1 bed.

But that wasn’t the end of the tinkering, and while starting projects was a much more easily attained skill than finishing them, a long and fruitful process of free association was spawned: auto restoration begat an interest in welding, which begat an interest in building other, more easily finished things like furniture and shop equipment. Lifelong interests in sailing and boats made their way into the mix, and I now find myself staring at, along with a yard full of incomplete projects that will hopefully wind their way through these pages on their way to victorious conclusion, the overall topic of creating, and its shepherds: the makers, artists, and fabricators, who have earned my ever increasing admiration and who, with their resourcefulness, gumption, and imagination despite a world increasingly dependent on memorized learning, provide all life, with its problems to solve and skills to attain, with much needed and fruitful enrichment.

God willing and the creek don’t rise, a sliver of that will end up on these pages.