What is the Tinkerer’s Tool Chest?

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the direction of this blog. In addition to being a project log of sorts, this is a place for me to organize my thoughts, learn a little bit about things that intrigue me, and to voice my opinions about the issues at hand. But what kind of tool chest does the tinkerer use (no, the blog is not the “tinkerer Stool chest” as some have mused that’s just gross!).

Let me give you a hint in the form of a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci:


The human head drawn by Leonardo da Vinci

The human head drawn by Leonardo da Vinci (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The tool chest to which I refer is the noggin’ that the Good Lord gave each one of us. The tools that are used in tinkering are for the most part your mental faculties. Regardless of what mechanical aptitudes or physical tools you possess we all have the ability to gain knowledge. Knowledge it the greatest tool of all.

I have talked some in previous posts about my approach to the “Prepper” mentality, and I think this subject is the perfect example of what I am talking about. I don’t know how most other people are, but I react much better to a difficult situation if I am mentally prepared. Having prepared mentally for a challenge makes success much more likely.

So while I may talk some about tools here (My previous top 10 tools posts) the majority of my time at the keyboard is spent talking about subjects that can teach us something. Regardless of the funds available, the time that you have to spend, or the availability of the facilities to work on a project, we all can read and learn. Having the knowledge of a few basic skills makes us all more rounded individuals and a better asset to the society in which we live.

So get out there and try something new. This weekend. Learn a new skill or exercise an old one. Work, sweat, and strain those muscles and mental faculties. It makes us all a better people for doing it.


“I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.” — Vincent Willem van Gogh



Why Do It Yourself?

I have already admitted my almost obsession-like fascination with tinkering. Why do I do that? Why do I feel the need to take things apart and see how they work, why they don’t work and how I can make them work again? Why do I feel a strange compulsion to do everything myself? Why can’t I just pay someone to change my oil? As is the case with most problems now-a-days, I blame my parents. (Kidding of course, but not really).

From a very young age I can recall seeing my dad work on the car in the driveway in front of our house. We had a late 70’s or early 80’s Chrysler Lebaron Towne and Country station wagon, and like most of the Chrysler products I have had experience with it was plagued with powertrain problems. Yes, ours had the same wood grain paneling on the sides and was the same color as the one in this picture I found.

I can distinctly remember helping dad change the engine once and I think the transmission as well (give me a break I was like 4 okay!?).  Add to that the fact that my mom was of the crafty sort and made little crafts and toll painted notions and sold them at flea markets and craft stores and I was exposed to a variety of tools at an early age. Apparently those times spent handing dad tools must have made an impression on me because I began to emulate my father’s actions and I started taking things apart. As dad was out walking the dogs in the evening he would pick stuff up along the way that people had set out for the garbage man (another habit I have inherited to a degree) and bring them home for me to take apart for inspection. Old record turn tables, small home appliances, computer hard drives, and the like soon turned into me taking apart non-working lawn mower engines. I can remember trying to make simple repairs on a couple of old lawn tractors we had when I couldn’t have been older that 10. I had caught the bug for sure.

As I got older I began to express my frustrations to my parents about not having the money to buy the things I wanted and to this day I credit my parents for helping me to understand the value of earning your own way. I began mowing yards in the summer time for some spending money when I was probably 6 or 7 and was given my own tool box and tools for my 6th birthday. By the time I turned 12 I was working on a dairy farm where our family lived for a little while. That job made an indelible mark on me as a young man and it was a job I would hold in one way or another until I was 19. My Grandpa had been a farmer and part of that generation and that lifestyle is that you fix what you own yourself. You don’t pay to have things repaired when you can make the necessary repairs yourself. I can remember watching my grandpa change tractor tires himself, rather than paying to have the local tire company do it for him. It was a grueling job for sure, but again, it could be done yourself so it was done without outside help. I must have felt in some way that by working on a dairy farm I was following in the footsteps of my dad and my grandpa, even though by that time my grandpa had passed away. So for 7 years I spent summers and afternoons working on the farm. I started just doing the little odds and ends that a youngster on a farm would do, but by then end of my time on the farm, I was spending a good portion of my time working in “The Shop”. We repaired a lot of machinery there in that re-purposed chicken coop. We restored the farm truck, tore down and rebuilt an entire combine, rebuilt the engines in a couple of tractors, built some of our own equipment, and fixed just about whatever broke. Those years taught me more than I ever could have imagined and just served to fuel the fire for my little “habit”.

Fast forward a few years and I was getting married and had a place of my own. I already had quite a few tools I had purchased over the years. By this time I had moved on from my employment at the farm and was working for an electrical contractor. This served to expose me to a completely different sort of experiences and I was buying a little more in the way of tools all the time for work. Our first house had a small garage and it didn’t take long until I had turned a portion of it into a workshop of my own. By this time in life I had moved to the status of the family handyman (or at least auto mechanic) and was making small repairs for friends as well as the occasional “side job” for an acquaintance.

That tells you the how of my little habit, but may not explain the “why”. For that, I have to get a bit more personal yet. I cannot explain fully why I feel compelled to work with my hands, but for some reason I experience a deep sense of satisfaction in working with my hands. Whether it comes from the experience of seeing the literal “fruits of your labor” in those years on the farm, or by some sort of compulsion of knowing that this type of thing runs in my family, I don’t know. What I do know is that when I open something up and carefully inspect its innards I get a feeling for how it is designed and how it should work. The understanding of how mechanical things work helps make sense of the daily grind of life. Every part has a specific purpose. Each component, no matter how small has a specific role to perform and for the greater machine as a whole to be functional each part must accomplish its task at the given time. I believe in a greater power, a master designer that lovingly and carefully engineered this universe to run as it should. Seeing things, no matter how great or small that we can design and build gives me an even greater understanding and appreciation for the level of design that it takes to make the rest of the world work. Maybe I am mixing the philosophical, the theological and the mechanical to a degree to which they are not meant to be combined, but in my mind they are interwoven.

One thing is for sure. I will see to it that my son (and daughters) are exposed to some of the same factors that impacted me as a youngster. Maybe I am indoctrinating them, isn’t that a parent’s job? My son is already “scrapping” his old and broken toys; taking them apart to the smallest piece possible and looking at the parts. It’s about time I get that boy a proper tool box and set of tools. After all, isn’t it the duty of a parent to see to it that a child has the proper tools and knowledge for life?

The Internal Combustion Revolution – Part 5 The Six Stroke “Crower Cycle” Engine

Gear heads of that have been around a while will immediately recognize the name of Bruce Crower. The founder of the engine parts manufacturer that is know by his name, Crower Cams are a big big name in motorsports. Needless to say Bruce Crower understands how an engine works and what needs to be done to make them run well.

I first saw an article about Crower’s work on a 6 cycle engine a couple years ago, and in fact the date on the story I link to below is about 6 years old. Crower has pioneered an approach that combines a typical internal combustion engine with the power of steam and I for one thin he may have really stumbled onto something here.

Unfortunately I can’t find a whole lot of recent information on the project so I don’t know where it stands. The design would have one major downfall that I can see and that would be the added weight of carrying a second fuel tank full of distilled water (and the rather problematic issue of finding a way to refuel that tank). Other than that I think the design is pure genius.

The engine’s first 4 strokes are the same as those of a typical Otto cycle engine: Intake, Compression, Combustion, Exhaust. Where this engine departs from the norm is that after those initial 4 strokes, a shot of distilled water is injected through a diesel style injector and onto the super heated surfaces of the piston and cylinder. The water immediately vaporizes, expands to approximately 1600 times its original mass and produces a second power stroke of the piston. He has essentially combined an internal combustion engine and a steam engine into one cylinder and in doing so capitalized on the most inefficient part of the internal combustion process — excess heat. Reportedly the process uses so much heat that Crower thinks the engines could be run with no cooling system whatsoever.

This one has got to be one of my favorite designs. It is simple, effective and truly a different approach to the process of making power.

Check out the story at the link below:

6 Stroke Engine

The Internal Combustion Revolution – Part 4 The Split Cycle (Scuderi) Engine

Another intriguing example of an innovative design in internal combustion engines is the Split Cycle or Scuderi engine. Essentially this design uses matched pairs of cylinders to split the 4 strokes of a piston driven engine. A smaller piston and cylinder handle the intake and compression strokes while a larger piston handles the combustion and exhaust strokes. This effectively allows each pair of pistons to produce one power stroke per revolution of the engine, whereas a typical Otto cycle engine takes two full revolutions of the engine to produce a combustion event. This, in effect allows the engine to make more power out of a smaller engine.

Again this design utilizes many of the latest gadgets and gizmos to squeeze every last drop of energy out of that gallon of fuel. Variable valve timing, turbo chargers, and a full compliment of electronic controls make this engine another up and coming design that may help the auto makes of Detroit meet the impending CAFE standards.

More information on the Scuderi design can be found at the following links —

Scuderi Group

Forbes Magazine Article

The Internal Combustion Revolution – Part 3 The Opposed Piston Opposed Cylinder (OPOC) Engine

This is one of the most popular of the up-and-coming alternative engine designs. A couple of major players in this design are EcoMotors and Navistar. While the appearances of this design are similar to the design of a boxer style “flat” engine, the design has more similarities to the 2 stroke engines used in small power equipment and motorcycles. The main difference in this design lies in the fact that each cylinder contains not one but two pistons moving in opposite directions. The fact that the design harnesses much of the force lost buy inefficiencies in the design of the Otto Cycle engine makes this a very smart and viable design. This engine architecture is on the cutting edge of technology using electronically controlled turbo chargers, and cutting edge design to achieve some pretty impressive results. EcoMotors lists a long list of benefits of their patented design including: lower weight, smaller size, an inherent balanced design, improved emissions, simplicity of design, lower production costs and perhaps most importantly improved fuel economy.The improvements in design improve the engine’s efficiency to approximately 40-50% which is impressive when you compare it to the 24% efficiency of a gas Otto cycle engine and the 33% of a well designed turbo diesel engine.

The fact that Navistar and EcoMotors have joined forces on this innovation leads many to believe that this could be one of the front running designs that makes its way into commercial and automotive use. One thing is for sure, it sure looks and sounds like a promising innovation. Time will tell….

For more information on the OPOC design EcoMotors and their joint venture with Navistar, follow the links below:

Press Release

Engine Design

How It Works — Video

The Internal Combustion Revolution – Part 2 The Wankel Engine

Aside form the Otto Cycle design we discussed last time, the next most popular design used to date has been the Wankel Engine.

The engine design was created by another German Engineer by the name of Felix Wankel. The first working prototype of the engine was completed in 1957. While the Wankel (some may know it by the incorrect slang term “rotary”) design is based upon the same 4 cycles it achieves this by a completely different means.

Instead of having reciprocating pistons that move up and down inside a cylinder the Wankel design uses an eccentric rotary design to achieve the same 4 strokes. Below is a visual that demonstrates the design.

Animation of Wankel engine, with English annot...

Animation of Wankel engine, with English annotation Español: Animación de un motor Wankel Eesti: Wankel- ehk rootormootor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most popular use of this type of engine in automotive use has been in the form of a well known Japanese sports car. The Mazda RX7 is responsible largely for the notoriety of this type of engine.The engines have been used in motorcycles built by Yamaha, Suzuki, and BSA and has been used aircraft as well, but in the minds of many a gear head, when you hear the word Wankel (or “Rotary Engine”) the term summons the picture of an RX7. Driving a vehicle equipped with a Wankel engine has been described by many as being more similar to riding a motorcycle than driving a car. This can be largely attributed to the much higher speeds that the engine is capable of. While most automotive engines have a speed limited to around 5,000-6,000 RPMs and make their best power around the mid range of that speed, Wankel engines are routinely capable of 7,000-8,000 RPMs and their power curve is very linear making the higher engine speeds much more usable.

The major difference in the designs of this and the Otto Cycle engine is that while the Otto needs two complete rotations of the crankshaft to have on power stroke (1/2 power stroke per revolution) the Wankel engine has one power stroke per revolution.

For more information on the Wankel design follow the links by clicking on the highlighted and underlined phrases in the article above.

The Internal Combustion Revolution – Part 1 The Otto Cycle Engine

The reciprocating piston engine has been the basis for modern automotive power for a hundred or so years now and the majority of the engines used during this time frame have had the same basic design. Not until recent years has the automotive world strayed from the traditional Otto engine design to begin looking at an alternative. The advent of the hybrid drive train, while still being based around the Otto engine has, in recent years,  opened the minds of many  to alternative designs.

In the next few posts I intend to review the Otto design, and introduce some promising alternatives that seem to be gaining some traction as they attempt to enter the market.

But since it has been the standard for the past years, let’ start with the Otto design.

Nikolaus Otto

Nikolaus Otto (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The four stroke engine as we know it today was developed first by German Engineer  Nikolaus August Otto in 1876 in Cologne, Germany. It is the basis for the vast majority of the engines used in automobiles and power machinery today. It is based upon a design that uses 4 distinct action or “strokes” to achieve combustion and create power. The strokes are identified as 1-Intake, 2-Compression, 3-Combustion, and 4-Exhaust. The following illustration demonstrates the design.

Four-stroke cycle (or Otto cycle) 1. Intake 2....

Four-stroke cycle (or Otto cycle) 1. Intake 2. Compression 3. Power 4. Exhaust (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This design is the basis for the vast majority of engines in use on land and sea today. The variations of adding turbo charger, supplemental electric motors (as in the case of a hybrid drive train), different fuels (like diesel fuel, compressed natural gas – CNG, and liquid propane) and various configurations of multiple cylinders, all are based essentially on this one singular design.

For more reading on the design and it’s creator, follow the links by clicking on the highlighted and underlined phrases in the post above.