Tools: Can’t work without ‘em

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“Back the truck up, buddy,” a well-known TV character used to say when the situation was about to get out of control.

Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor, the character played by comedian/actor Tim Allen on “Home Improvement,” often found himself in out-of-control situations, both at home and on the job.

“Home Improvement” ran from 1991 to 1999, focusing on the often-inept host of a cable TV show whose sidekick, Al, knew more about tools than Tim did.

With this month’s issue focusing on Tools of the Trade, Rural Builder asked some of its readers:  “What are the tools you can’t get along without?” and also “What tools are so important and so necessary that you’d ‘back the truck up,’ and return to the shop if  they were missing?”

Not surprising, the voices that chimed in offer some pretty strong opinions and a variety of answers.

Dan Purfeerst, a supervisor for Walters Buildings in its Northwest region, shot back, “As a supervisor, the first question I’d ask is, ‘Why is the tool not in the truck? Were you using it for personal use last night?”

He was kidding. Well, not really. It sounds like somebody might be in deep, um, trouble. 

Purfeerst said his crew members agree that the most important tools vary according to what is on the work schedule that day. But it pretty much narrows down to a category of tools, all of which are cordless.

“I thought about all the tools in our trucks and the ones that come to my mind are cordless,” Purfeerst goes on. “I know that is vague, but I think about how advanced the cordless tools have become in the last 17½ years since I started for Walters.

“When I first started, we had none. Now we have tool boxes full of cordless tools — drills, drivers, saws, nail guns, etc. The freedom of not having to drag out an extension cord saves the industry countless hours each year,” he observes.

To illustrate his point, he rolls out a tool story.

“About 15 years ago,” he recalls, “we were putting a roof on a building in New Richmond, Wis. The roof was screw fastened and this was before cordless tools.

“A co-worker and I were finishing screwing down the panels. Each of us had extension cords and also our fall protection. One of us was working north and south while the other worked east and west.

“It wasn’t long before the fall protection lines and extension cords got all tangled. My co-worker became so angry he threw down his screw gun so hard that the tip went through the steel panel.”

Purfeerst’s earlier point — that cordless tools save time — was driven home, as the job of untangling lines was followed by stopping to replace a panel.

Safety, above all else

And while going cordless has eliminated some on-the-job tangles, don’t even think about talking to Tom Wick about fall protection unless yours is up to snuff. 

As general manager and vice president of Wick Buildings, Wick says fall protection, hard hat and a full complement of safety equipment are the most important tools any builder can have.

“If all of that’s not on the truck,” reports Tami Newman, Wick’s marketing coordinator, “they must turn around and go back for it – first and foremost.”

Wick is adamant about worker safety, Newman says, and the company has a record to prove it, thankfully having no significant injuries for many years. But it took a serious fall a number of years ago to drive home the point and make the company get tough on safety. Since then, Newman says, Wick has been recognized by the National Frame Building Association for its safety record.

Back to the truck

In Newark, Ohio, Bryan Wolford says one tool he’d turn around and go back to get is the chain saw.

“I’d say it’s the Number One tool that we use on our jobs,” says Wolford, construction manager with WC Buildings LLC, a family-owned post-frame design/build firm. “We use it to cut off post, cut any temporary brace and, periodically, some of our girts.

“It is not supposed to leave the tool trailer in the first place,” he says. “And if it does, someone is definitely going to get in trouble.”

A lost, stolen or broken chain saw, says Wolford, means his crews have to haul out the spare they keep on the truck. Two more are back at the office. But even spares are fixed or replaced promptly. They’re that important.

Just as important to Wolford is the laser transit, although it’s too expensive to be stored in the truck or trailer, except for days when it’s needed. Still, he confesses, “there have been a few occasions where the crews have forgotten to take one with them,” and the oversight has resulted in “consequences” to somebody.

However, says Wolford, “if (the laser transit) got lost or stolen, it would set us back a little. But we have two of them, so things would be just a little more hectic for a little while.”

“The next most important tool is our skid steer. We dig holes, carry lumber and metal to where it is needed, set trusses and do final grade work with it.  We use a Case 430 which is big enough to do almost everything we need,” Wolford says. “If it was to be lost or stolen, we would have to rent one immediately until the dealership could get us one.”

Sounding the same notes is Scott O’Connor, vice president/purchasing, at Little Construction Co., Inc., in Mount Holly, N.J.

“There seem to be a lot of tools that, if you didn’t have them, would make building very difficult,” O’Connor observes, but “the two that are most important to us are our skid steer and our laser level. We use the skid steer for just about everything, from unloading, to grading and drilling foundation holes. Also the laser level is crucial to setting grades and setting skirt boards.”

O’Connor isn’t joking when he says, “I would hate to go onto one of our sites and see my guys setting the 100-foot skirt board with a line level blowing in the wind.”

Driving the point home

One Indiana builder has a personal connection to one of his favorite tools and a story about how it became important to him.

At the 2009 Frame Building Expo in Nashville, Tenn., Sheldon Weaver wowed a crowd of spectators and blew away all competition in the Nail Driving Contest sponsored by Maze Nails. Weaver, a crew leader for Martin Builder in Goshen, Ind., broke Maze’s long-running competition record by driving three hefty Maze nails in 4.76 seconds. For his efforts, he pocketed a cool $100 bill — “the most I ever earned in under five seconds,” he quipped.

Weaver, like the guys who placed second and third, picked a new Stiletto titanium hammer from among a half-dozen hammers offered for use in the competition. Only an hour before the contest started, Weaver had purchased his own Stiletto hammer at the Expo. Seeing a Stiletto among the contest choices, he decided to give it a “test drive.”

“The gal at the booth really worked hard to sell it to me,” Weaver said. “Trying to push me to use something else was hard. I had used the same hammer for 14 or 15 years and really liked it.” But he ordered a new one anyway.

Back home and on the job, Weaver said it took two months to get used to the new tool. It was a tough transition, but Weaver stuck with it “and now I wouldn’t  be able to do without it.” He thinks the woman who worked so hard to sell the Stiletto would probably enjoy his conversion story.

On the job, Weaver says the hand tools he and his two crews rely on heavily are mostly Makita offerings, particularly the impact driver. They like its weight and torque, the way it fits the palm of the hand, its battery capacity and the way it fits in a tool pouch.

“We have switched,” he said, mentioning they’d used Bosch, Milwaukee and DeWalt, but always to go back to Makita.

 Loyal to another brand is Vance Day, a Wick builder since 1990 and owner of Midwest Building and Door in Arkansas City, Kans. Brief and to the point, Day says his top tools carry the DeWalt label: cordless impact drivers, drills, saws and  metal shears.

Sometimes tools ‘walk away’

Not as fussy about brands, Greg Drechsler just wants the tools to stay where he puts them.

A self-described do-it-all contractor in Eldorado, Kans., Drechsler lives in the same rural area where he was raised. His truck is well-known in town.

One night, Drechsler and his son stowed their tools in a covered tote box in the truck, just the way they’d been doing for years. And the next morning all the tools and the tote were missing.

“We were literally shut down,” Drechsler lamented. “We didn’t have a hammer, a speed square, a tape measure, anything. I had to get my son and go to Wichita and spend about $450 on tools.” In addition to picking up the basics, the Drechslers bought an air compressor that they’d been planning to purchase in the near future.

He reported his loss to the authorities but didn’t get the tools back, although the police eventually found the empty tote and some broken stuff.

Drechsler, a post-frame builder “going on 16 years,” has had Drechsler Construction for about 10. He hasn’t lost his faith in people, but he says he’s a bit more careful with his tools now.

The last word on tools comes from Rural Builder’s Tool Talk columnist, Don Geary. Just to show that he is not an all-work, no-play kind of guy, he responded,  “Right now my most important tools are a reloading bench, spotting scope and benchrest for sighting in a rifle.”

Geary was about to take off on a long-awaited elk hunt in the great Northwest. After that, his favorite tools may be a barbecue grill, a carving knife and a big meat fork.

Geary might devote a future column to his personal top tool picks.  

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