Camping! An American pasttime

As the weather warms (it is supposed to be 75 degrees today) our minds start to look toward the summer and its leisure time activities. One of the favorite leisure activities of our family is camping. I grew up spending our family vacations in the summer time camping out and our family has continued the tradition. Camping is an inexpensive, and (for us) very enjoyable way to spend some quality family time together. The majority of our trips are filled with food, fun and friends. Many a summer’s evening is enjoyed by our family sitting and cooking around an open campfire. Camp cuisine for us includes the traditional camp classics like pie iron pizzas and dessert pies, s’mores, and hot dogs as well as some less conventional family traditions like home made ice cream, Skyline Chili, and “walking tacos”.

Regardless of your budget, there are lots of degrees to which you can get into camping. Many families enjoy camping out of the trunk of a car with a dome tent, others prefer the ease and comfort of a full size travel trailer. But for us, our family of 5 is comfortable in our pop up camper. It is about the largest pop-up (some call them tent trailers) that is available and the model we have now has a slide-out dinette that serves to enlarge the space inside the camper. This is especially nice when you are faced with spending some time inside the camper due to inclement weather. A trip to a camping expo is all that is required to see the width and breadth of the camping trailer designs available on today’s market. There are literally hundreds of options ranging from the bare bones basic “You want me to sleep WHERE!? tent camping approach to the plush and comfortable “That’s not REALLY camping” Approach taken by the inhabitants of a class A motor home.

One of the benefits of camping that our family enjoys is that it provides a useful outlet for purchasing some pieces of gear that are really helpful in the event of an emergency. Anyone who has read more than a couple of my posts knows that I am always scanning the horizon trying to forecast what may be to come and to be prepared for it when it gets here. Call it paranoia, call it a “prepper” mentality, but I like to be prepared. I might even say that I enjoy being prepared. Battery powered lanterns, a small propane powered stove, water jugs, sleeping bags, and the like are useful not only when you’re out for a weekend at the campground, but also if the power goes out and remains out for an extended time. One piece of gear in particular that I got recently is an ingenious little item called a “Kelly Kettle“.

English: Storm kettle in operation (this one i...

Kelly Kettle

It is a device that allows you to heat water to boiling in a matter of minutes using anything that will burn. Whether camping or in an emergency, boiling water is a real asset and it is what this device was designed for. It can boil water literally in minutes, taking only  3-5 minutes to bring 1.5 liters of water to a boil — our stove at home can’t even do that! The kit that I got (thanks to my family) as a birthday present includes attachments that will allow you to cook over the unit at the same time. I won’t go into greater detail right now as I may spend the time to do an in depth review some time soon. Suffice to say it is an ingenious little device.

But by far the biggest asset that is found by camping is that of the time and memories spent with family and friends. The memories that are made sitting around a crackling fire are etched forever into our memories. (Would it be too cliche to say that they’re “burned” into our minds?) The first time the kids were old enough to remember going camping as a family they pretended they were camping for weeks after we had returned home.

So fuel up the truck, check the trailer lights and load up the food. Camping season is just around the corner. I for one can hardly wait!

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Top 10 Tools for the Automotive DIY’er

Socket Set Deep and shallow well, 6 pt.

Time for another “Top 10 tools” list. This list is the top 10 tools for the automotive DIY’er. I have been wrenching on cars most of my life and I seldom (okay, never) take my car to a shop to have someone else perform service or repairs to it. I would rather spend the money on tools! While I know a lot of people aren’t willing to perform an engine overhaul, or change a transmission, I bet there are a lot of people who wouldn’t mind changing their own oil or doing a simple brake job and having the tools to allow you to do the job is the first step toward empowering you to do so.

My approach to automotive hand tools has been to buy from reputable tool manufacturers. While a cheap hammer will still pound nails, a cheap ratchet or a bad wrench will cause headaches that you just don’t need when you’re dealing with an automotive repair. I tend to buy the best hand tools I can afford for automotive repair. Right now, at this stage of life, that  means I can not afford Snap-On, MAC, Cornwell or any of the other high end, professional quality tool manufacturers. What I usually end up with is Craftsman tools because decent prices + respectable quality = a good value. I have mentioned it before that I like buying from Craftsman because they have an unconditional lifetime guarantee on many of their hand tools, and I have had the opportunity to hold them to that guarantee on more than one occasion. This is not to say that they are the only place to get decent tools, since there are other high quality hand tools available as well from Kobalt, Stanley and others. The best word of caution is to look at where the tools are made; nothing against China, but  they don’t make good hand tools, Taiwan is in the same boat. If you get a tool made in the USA or even Mexico, you’re likely holding a fairly decent piece of gear.

Furthermore, I fully recognize that there are literally hundreds of variations of specialty tools for automotive purposes. Professional automotive technicians spend thousands of dollars on their tools and have some very specific specialty tools for individual applications. I’m not going to get into those tools in detail. What we’re going for here is a quick top 10 of the most versatile and useful tools for general use in repairing your auto. Also, I am going to assume that if you’re interested in repairing your auto, you’re interested in repairing your home as well, so in the interest of simplicity I will not be including any of the tools that were on my previous lists of Top 10 Hand tools and Top 10 Power tools for the homeowner.

Okay, enough with the tool drivel, on to the Top 10 list! Here in no particular order are my top 10 recommendations for getting your automotive tool collection started (witty, yet somewhat dry pun intended, yeah you probably had to read it again didn’t you?).

  • Combination Wrench Set – One of the most useful things you will buy in working on your own auto is a good set of combination wrenches. Whereas many applications in the home will allow for the clearance to use a crescent (adjustable) wrench, when you’re working on your car, clearance is almost always at a premium. Having a wrench that will fit into the tight spots on your car is of tantamount importance. The first wrenches that I reach for in my collection are from the manufacturer GearWrench. These wrenches are a typical combination wrench with an open end and a closed (box) end, but they have the added feature of having a ratchet mechanism built into the box end of the wrench. Placing the box end over a fastener allows you to operate the handle in a back and forth motion without removing the wrench from the fastener. The ratchet mechanism loosens or tightens the fastener depending on the direction you have the tool set to operate. Some wrenches have a lever that you flip to reverse the direction of operation (Mine are like this) and some, you simply flip the tool over. These things are really handy! I have tried other gimmicky wrenches, but these are in a class of unparallelled usefulness all by themselves. These are truly a great tool. Of consideration is whether the auto you’re most likely to work on uses Metric or Standard (SAE). If your car is an import it likely uses Metric sizes on the fasteners, if it is a domestic car, well then it’s a crap shoot. Many Domestic cars are a strange hybrid of metric and SAE fasteners as some of the parts are made overseas. My projects (even on domestic cars and trucks) are using metric tools with increasing frequency. Long story made short, it is a headache but you may need both. If you have to choose one, I would suggest that you buy the metric sizes and make sure that the set includes all the sizes. Many cheaper sets don’t include all the metric sizes and they are likely to skip sizes that you may need. Typically automotive applications use 10,12,13,14,15,17 and 18 mm sizes. Spend a good amount on these tools and you won’t regret it. A set of gearwrenches goes for around $80 while a set of standard combination wrenches is considerably less. Buy cheap wrenches and you will be calling down curses upon your own head as you try to extract rounded off fasteners than no wrench on earth will fit.
  • Screwdriver Set – Unlike my home owner list where a 6 or 10 in one screwdriver was the best tool for the application, in automotive work, you often need screwdrivers of varying sizes and lengths so buying a set of decent quality screwdrivers is a good investment. Philips and Slotted head are both needed.
  • Floor Jack and Jack Stands – If you have ever tried to use the poor excuse for a jack that is sold with most cars these days, you will understand this one. A hydraulic floor jack is a must for doing your own auto work. A 2 ton unit is typically sufficient for a regular sized car or minivan, but you should look for something a bit larger or a “SUV” model if you have an SUV or truck. Typically weight rating is not so much an issue as the maximum lift height can be. A smaller, less expensive jack will in most cases be more than powerful enough to lift your vehicle but may not lift high enough to get the wheel off the ground. Jack stands are also a must. If you are working on your car (or under it) with it supported by a hydraulic jack, you are entrusting your life to the fluid and seals within that jack. I don’t know about you but I don’t feel all that comfortable trusting life and limb to a $.05 o-ring. Having the rigid support of a jack stand is a much safer approach to supporting the vehicle for repairs to be performed. I list these together since many retailers offer them together as a kit.
  • Work Light –  I know I included work lights in my previous list, and I said I wouldn’t duplicate items in this list, but this is a more specialized type of light than you may be purchasing for another application. An automotive work light is small enough to be hung in a wheel opening while you’re doing a brake job, but needs to be powerful enough to provide enough light so you can see easily. There are lots of options here, so just find one that works for you. One thing to remember, however is that a unit that uses an incandescent light bulb will get HOT. The last thing you need when working on your car is one more way to hurt yourself, so try to stay with something that uses a fluorescent or LED lamp.
  • Oil Filter wrench – While there are a lot of different types of filter wrenches out there and each one has its strengths, the one I use the most is a Craftsman wrench similar to the model below. It is adjustable for size and fits into the tight spaces that I need to get into and does a good job loosening a filter for removal. If you’re worried about chewing up the filter while installing it, don’t be. For installation of a new filter, you don’t typically need a wrench. Most filter manufacturers will tell you that the only tension necessary is to tighten the filter until the rubber seal on the bottom of the filter is contacting the filter base, and then an additional 3/4 a turn or so. IN other words hand tight. Any tighter than that and you’re just making more work for yourself when you have to strain to remove the filter next time.
  • Socket Set – Again this is an area where you can spend from a few dollars to a few hundred dollars, it just depends how serious you are. In my opinion this is something that you can buy just once in your lifetime and have to pass on to your kids, so I would tend to spend a bit more on this area. I generally prefer to have 6 point sockets as opposed to 12 point since they are less likely to strip out a rusted or stuck fastener than a 12 point socket would be. There are different size drives (1/4″, 3/8″ and 1/2″) that will include ratchets of different sizes, but if you’re just buying one, I would suggest a 3/8″ drive as a good starting place. A 1/4″ Drive set typically also contains smaller size sockets that will be very useful for removing fasteners on the body and interior of your car. This picture shows both 6 and 12 point varieties.
  • Pliers Set – There are a lot of different types of pliers on the market, but a set of at least 5 or 6 pliers is a great way to ensure that you have the tool you need for the job at hand. The most commonly used pliers in my tool chest are a pair of bent nose needle nose pliers similar to the ones shown in the picture above (4th set in from the left). These are really good for getting into awkward spaces to release spring clips and the like. Again, most of these in my personal collection are Craftsman, but anything from Channellock, or Klein Tools will be of equal or greater quality than what I have.
  • Vise Grips – This one is almost too cliche to mention, but it really is an irreplaceable tool in terms of the function that it fills. Having a good set or two of Vice Grips in your tool box is insurance against being stonewalled by a rounded, broken or stuck fastener. This is one tool that if you don’t buy a good set, don’t bother buying any at all. A cheap set will cause more problems than it solves. In this case the Vice Grip name is a prerequisite for a good pair of locking pliers, although I have a set built by Proto and they seem to be of equal quality. The Vice Grip company was sold to Irwin tools a number of years ago and, unfortunately, since then their quality has been on the decline. Yard sales and eBay are still good places to source the genuine “Vice Grip” brand tools. Look for the distinctive logo as can be seen on the pair in the picture above. I have had other types of locking pliers and different gimmicky tools similar, and they just don’t hold a candle to the original.
  • Oxy/Acetylene torch – Okay, practical for most people – maybe not; dangerous – definitely, but this one is really the be all end all for auto work in the “rust belt” where I live. Rust, road salt and water combine to seize fasteners into place and in many cases a little heat is the only way to free them up. Enter the “Red Wrench” or “Fire Wrench” as some call it. Heating the seized nut or bolt up to cherry red will allow the metal to expand, and it will burn off the rust that is holding the fastener in place allowing you to remove it with a wrench or socket. Add to this the ability to use the torch to “cut” off a bad exhaust or fastener and with the proper technique and safety tools in place, the fire wrench can get you out of a bind in a hurry. It can also get you INTO a bind in a hurry too. It is useful for setting ablaze just about any combustible item in the vicinity so don’t use it without a fire extinguisher, wet rags, a bucket of water or all of them handy. Draping soaking rags over delicate items around the work space is helpful in safeguarding your project, but you really need to be careful. For all the dangers inherent to this tool, it is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal and knowing when and how to use it can be a huge asset. Smaller, portable units like the one pictured above can be had for around $200, take up less space than their full size brethren, and are more than capable of doing the job for smaller projects. There are some new products on the market that perform the same function by a magnetic induction process and without the fire. While these should be safer and faster alternatives, I haven’t had opportunity to see any of them work, so I can’t comment on their function.
  • Computer with an internet connection – This one may be a bit obvious but it bears to be restated. The WWW is your friend in your forays into automotive repair. There is an online forum devoted to about every car manufacturer and model under the sun and it is, no doubt populated by people that specialize in the DIY approach to caring for the car of your choice. Belonging to one of these forums is typically free and opens you up to a world of resources and experience that is truly priceless. Countless hours of frustration can be spared by the experience of the men (and women) on these sites. This is by far one of the most valuable tools you can have access to. Even without the benefit of being able to ask your questions directly, you can search past discussions, and generally find the answer you were seeking. There are YouTube videos on how to perform basic services to your car and even services where for a nominal fee you can register as ask your questions directly to a professional mechanic. The internet is possibly the best resource you have in learning how to do this work yourself.

Honorable Mention:

  • Impact Wrench – This is one tool that while not practical for everyone, if you have an air compressor you will really appreciate the convenience of having this tool at your disposal. It is the ideal tool for removing lug nuts on your wheels. There are electric models available as well for those who don’t have an air compressor at their disposal. This really makes short work of rotating your own tires.

That’s a lot of tools, I know but there are lots of options when purchasing your tools collection. The method that I have taken was to buy (or receive as gifts) a few tools at a time and accumulate this array of tools over a period of time. Others may prefer to buy a large tool set all at once. Buying the tools as a large set, is no doubt a cheaper way to get the tools. It might be a good way to use part of a tax return or bonus, and many tool sets will come with some type of tool box or organizer to store them in. As I have said before, I tend to ask for tools as gifts around the holidays or for gift cards to stores that sell tools. Having a list to work off of is a good way to start watching for those items to go on sale and stretch your dollars as well. Used tools can occasionally be bought at yard sales, auctions and online auction sites like eBay for less than new as well. Regardless of how you choose to go about it, it is money well spent in my opinion.

Well I think that is more than enough for now, Happy wrenching!

–DIY

Top 10 Power tools for the Home Owner / DIY’er

Time for another “Top 10” list!

It has been said that half the difference between  the pros and the amateurs is having the right tools for the job. I tend to think it is more than half the difference, but one thing is for sure. Having the right tools for the job makes the project easier, faster and a lot more enjoyable.

In keeping with the homeowner / DIY theme from the last list, this list is the top 10 Power tools for the home owner or DIY enthusiast. Again, this is from my personal experience and these appear in no particular order.

  • Cordless Drill/ Driver – This is easily the most frequently reached for power tool in my collection. There are literally dozens of different companies manufacturing battery tools these days and in general, the more you pay for the tool, the better the quality. There are, however some pretty good values on the market for the home owner who does not intend to use the tool for your livelihood all day every day. I have had or used tools from Craftsman, Dewalt, Milwaukee, Hilti, Porter Cable, Makita, Bosch, and Skil. There have been complete articles written on the merits and strengths of different brands and offerings, so I won’t spend a lot of time in talking about the individual brands or models, but one thing is for sure, it will be one of the most used tools in your arsenal.
  • Circular Saw (Skilsaw) – For rough framing projects, cutting sheet goods like plywood, and just general cutting use, it is hard to beat a corded circular saw. The one I have been using for the last 10 years was a bottom of the line model from Skil. It appears to me that there is a reason why many people refer to this tool by that manufacturer’s name. Try as I may to burn that saw up, I haven’t been able to kill it. It is lacking some of the more advanced features of some models, but for a bare bones basic saw, it just keeps cutting.
  • Compound Miter Saw – This one is one that sneaked up on me. For years I didn’t have a power miter saw. I cut or coped moldings by hand and used the circular saw for cutting dimensional lumber to length. I never would have though I would use this tool as much as I do. For cutting moldings to length it can’t be beat, but I use it more for cutting 2×4’s and dimensional lumber to length for framing projects than anything. It makes a nice square, clean cut every time and it does it much more quickly than by any other means. The model I have, is once again an inexpensive, basic model from Delta, but it serves its purpose without having the lasers and more advanced features of some other models. If one thing should be kept in mind, I would suggest that a 10″ blade be a minimum size for general use. Smaller models, just don’t have the capacity to cut larger framing materials.
  • Reciprocating saw – I am not talking about a handheld jigsaw, but a larger tool such as is known by Milwaukee’s model name “Sawzall”. This is another one of those tools that is a true jack of all trades. For demolition, remodeling, cutting metal stock, even the occasional automotive project this tool is versatile and has proven an invaluable addition to my tool collection. The model I have is in fact a Milwaukee corded model and it sees a fair amount of usage. With a little practice and a steady hand, clean straight cuts are achievable with this tool. I would stick with a corded model for general use as the battery powered models typically don’t last long enough for more difficult tasks. The battery models are handy for a quick cut here and there, but for extended use, the power and durability of a corded model cannot be paralleled by a battery powered tool.
  • Table Saw – This one is an area in which there are near limitless ways to spend your hard earned cash, but even an inexpensive model will prove to be extremely useful. The model of saw that I have is, once again an inexpensive model from Delta. It is a portable model that many refer to as a “contractor’s saw”. It has an attached stand, but it’s light and small enough to be somewhat easily transported from site to site. Larger “Cabinet Saw” style saws typically have a larger table and offer a better degree of precision and quality, but unless you’re building cabinets or doors (actually I have done both of these with my saw too) or performing some other kind of precision carpentry, a portable model is sufficient for most jobs.
  • Lights – This one is a bit on the obvious side, but you have to have light to see to work. I am a bit of a flashlight addict, but the most useful lights in my collection are my Maglight LED flashlight, the battery powered spot light that came with my Milwaukee cordless tool kit, and my dual head 500W painter’s light. The flashlight I use a lot for brief tasks where concentrated light is needed, and the LED 2D cell model that I have is bright enough to blind you. The battery light that came with my Milwaukee tool kit is useful for temporarily lighting a job since it has an adjustable head that can be pointed to a project as it sits on it battery base. The painters light is for those occasions where an all-out solution is needed and the project will be of slightly longer duration. A word of caution about the painter’s lights is that they could easily double as portable heaters. Those dual 500 watt halogen lamps get HOT! Be careful when you are using these things.
  • Corded Drill – I don’t use my corded drill an awful lot, but it is one of those tools that when you need it, there is no replacement for it. Battery drills are very handy for most jobs but there are some jobs that require more power than can be dished out by a battery drill. For drilling large holes or holes in masonry, mixing paint, or boring a lot of holes at once, a corded drill is faster and just plain does the job better. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to pick up a used Milwaukee 1/2″ corded hammer drill for $20 at a yard sale. This tool is yet another example of how the right tool for the job cannot be beat.
  • Belt Sander – These tools are designed for sanding long stretches of straight material, but I have found dozens of “unintended” uses for my belt sander. A 80 grit belt and the sander turned upside down is great for sharpening cutting tools like an axe or hatchet. The same technique and a 120 grit belt makes the sander a handy way to shape small wooden parts. This is another one of those tools that with a little creativity can be used for a lot more than its intended uses. Mine is a cheap Black and Decker model, but it serves its purpose well and didn’t cost me a lot. For occasional use, it works well.
  • 4″ Angle Grinder – Another jack of all trades is a 4″ angle grinder. Most people are familiar with the most well known job of this tool which is grinding on metal, but a thin kerf blade can be affixed making this tool very handy for cutting metal parts as well. A cup wire wheel can be attached for stripping paint off metallic items, a flap disc can be affixed for sanding wood, metal or stripping finishes. I even have a diamond blade for mine that will allow you to cut tile, brick, concrete and masonry. I enjoy doing a fair amount of metal work and I have collected several of these tools, a pair of different models from Milwaukee, and an inexpensive Clark model. This allows me to work with metal, leaving a different wheel in each tool, cutting down on time when going between tasks. It may surprise you how many uses you can find for an angle grinder.
  • Air Compressor – This one is the granddaddy of all versatile tools. From inflating a tire on a bicycle or wheelbarrow to powering a nail gun or impact wrench this is one of the most versatile tools you can buy. For most DIY’ers a small compressor is all that is needed. I have a larger model that stays in the shop and a smaller pancake style compressor that is a lot more portable for those jobs away from the shop, but I use these things all the time. Blowing dust and dirt off projects with an air chuck (blow gun), inflating tires, powering an impact wrench, air ratchet, die grinder, cutoff tool, air chisel, paint sprayer or even a sandblaster – the air compressor is the heart of the system. Another thing to keep in mind is that air tools tend to be less expensive, smaller and more lightweight that electric tools. Keep the tools oiled and a small compressor will work for most small projects. Larger projects like operating a paint sprayer will require more air than a small unit can produce, so if you intend to do a lot of uninterrupted work without allowing the compressor time to catch up, you need to match the air consumption of the tools (rated in CFM) to the capacity of the compressor.

Well that should really get you started spending your discretionary income for a while. Just think of it this way, the money you’re saving on doing the projects yourself can be invested in the tools, and you’re still way ahead of what you would have paid if you had contracted the work out. My approach to buying these tools has been to buy a tool at a time when I have money or the projects to justify it. In this way, you won’t break the bank and you can collect quite an impressive cache of tools. Do It Yourself and you have the satisfaction, the experience and the tools to do it again next time. After all, home improvement projects are just excuses to buy tools anyway, right?

Top 10 Hand tools for the Home Owner / DIY’er.

This is likely to be the first of a series of my “Top 10 Tools” posts.

I will admit I am a tool junkie. My entire family knows that if they are ever at a loss for something to give me as a gift, a gift card or gift certificate to anywhere that sells tools (Lowe’s and Sears are my favorites) is always a well appreciated gift. It’s a sure bet that I will end up with something that I will use and hopefully, something that I will have for a long time. I would in most cases, rather do the work myself, and spend a fraction of the money I would have spent on hiring something out to buy the tools to do the job right. In my opinion, this is an investment in the future since the next time the same or similar task comes up, I will have the tools and experience to do it myself.

The first listing I have assembled is the Top 10 hand tools for the home owner and Do-It-Yourself enthusiast. These will be non-electric hand tools and these come from my experience. These are probably the most valuable or at least most frequently used tools in my collection, but first a quick word about hand tools.

Here is my take on hand tools: I can’t afford to buy the best, but I can’t afford to buy cheap tools either.What I typically do is to look at how the tool will be used, how frequently it will be used and then buy accordingly. While I would love to buy an entire collection of hand tools from the likes of Snap-On, MAC, or Cornwell, that kind of stuff is a little out of my price range. As I have hinted at previously, I do a fair amount of my tool buying at places like Sears and Lowes so many of the tools in my collection carry names like Craftsman, and Stanley. I like these brands because they have a lifetime warranty on many of their hand tools and a majority of them are still made right here in the US of A. These companies have replaced tape measures, sockets, ratchets and the like for me at no charge, so for hand tools, I like to stick with them. There are, however some exceptions to that rule as you will see in the list that follows. There are some companies that I feel offer higher quality offerings of some frequently used hand tools, so I tend to go with them. One word of caution is to look at where the tools are made. Tools made in China, Taiwan, etc. tend in my experience, to be of very low quality. They are typically made of lesser quality materials and they just don’t hold up to what I would consider normal use. This is an area where you really do get what you pay for. Buy a high quality tool, take care of it, use it for its intended purpose and you will likely have that tool for a long, long time. As the saying goes, “I’m too poor to buy cheap tools”.

That being said, lets get into the list! Here in no particular order is my list of the Top 10 Hand tools in my collection for the Home Owner / DIY’er.

  • Claw Hammer – This one should go without saying. There is a reason why most tool belts have a dedicated spot for this tool; you need to have a good hammer to get just about anything done around the house. From hanging picture frames, to building outdoor projects, you’re gonna need a hammer or you’re not going to get a whole lot done. I tend to prefer a framing hammer design because of its relatively straight claw design. This would be as opposed to a carpenter’s hammer which has a curved claw on the back of it. I tend to gravitate towards models with fiberglass handles but a good quality hickory handle will last almost as long. This is just a personal preference thing for me.
  • Speed Square – I have a couple of these and they seem to find their way into the majority of the carpentry projects I get involved with. These things are a great way to square up a joint before you fasten the boards together, they work great for marking lumber prior to cutting, can be used as a square guide when making cuts with a circular saw, and if you know what you’re doing they can help you lay out a stair riser, and calculate hip and valley joints in roofing. A good Swanson speed square and the accompanying “Little Blue Book” will go a long way towards keeping your projects on the straight and narrow.
  • Crescent Wrench – I will be the first to admit that there is a definite time and place for a combination wrench set to be used, but for most home repairs, an adjustable wrench or crescent wrench is the first thing I grab. It is typically more than sufficient to handle the little jobs that are encountered around the house. Some call it a “hillbilly socket set” but I call it just plain handy.
  • Tape measure – There aren’t many home projects that can be completed without a measuring tape. A good 25′ tape measure is a must for just about any project. I have tapes from several manufacturers but one of the oldest names in the game, Stanley, makes the tape I reach for the most often. Some of the newer tape measures are even available “cheater style” and show the fractional measurements right on the tape. While these may be a good way to start learning to read the measurement marks, a standard tape is easy to read after just a few minutes of explanation of the meaning of the markings. Just remember, measure twice, cut once. Otherwise you will cut the same board twice and it will still be too short (a little carpentry humor for you there).
  • 2′ Spirit Level – A tool for an exorcism in your home? No, just a tool to keep your work level (horizontal) and plumb (vertical). While there are literally dozens of types and designs of spirit or “bubble” levels, if I had to choose one and only one, it would be my Stanley aluminum 2′ I-beam level. Bigger jobs are better suited to using my 4′ Stanley (which is, incidentally made of aromatic cedar, mmmm smells nice!) but it is just too large for many jobs. Torpedo levels are a nice fit in your back pocket for hanging pictures and the like, and I love my Black and Decker Laser level, but again, if I had to pick just one, it would be the 2′ variety. The aluminum edges double as a nice straightedge for cutting and laying out projects too.
  • 6/8/10/11 in 1 Screwdriver – The interchangeable bits in these screwdrivers ensures that you will have the right tool for just about any screw driving job. Klein Tools makes some especially nice models, some having 11 in 1 capabilities. You typically get 2 different sizes of Phillips head and slotted bits, as well as hex head drivers for 1/4″ and 5/16″ screws. Some also include torx, Robertson’s (square drive), and 3/8″ drivers as well. This one is, quite possibly the most used tool in the house and even the better models usually sell for around $10 with lesser quality ones, even less than that. There are some jobs these drivers cannot do, such as removing screws recessed far back into a kids’ toy for replacing the batteries, but for most jobs this screw driving wonder will do the job. Just tell the kids that you won’t be able to replace the batteries in that toy…it was obnoxious anyway.
  • Utility Knife – This is another one that will be used frequently. Everybody and their brother makes one of these, but inexpensive as they are, spend closer to $10 a get a good quality one. I have one I particularly like that is a cheap model made by Lenox. Stanley also makes some really nice models that have varying features and designs. There are a plethora of different designs and variations of these designs, but I prefer a pretty basic retractable blade version which allows you to replace the blades when they get dull. Spending a few extra dollars on one should get you one that locks the blade in place firmly so the blade does not slip back into the handle in the middle of a tough cutting job.
  • Diagonal Cutting Pliers – Call them side cutters, call them snips or dikes, or whatever you want to call them, in my experience there is only one manufacturer that makes these things right and that is Klein tools (and no, I’m not getting a kickback from them for saying so). Over the time that I spent working in the electrical trades, there was one thing that about 90% of the guys in the trade agreed upon. These cutters were the only way to go if you wanted a good “pair of cuts”. Klein makes several varieties of these cutters with varying handle designs and metallic makeup for different applications, but use a pair of these along side a cheap pair from the dollar store and you will understand why you’re willing to pay close to $20 for this pair of wire cutting wonders.
  • Lineman’s pliers – Another remnant of my days in the trades and another shout out to Klein tools, these side cutting pliers are the jack of all trades (no pun intended) when it comes to your hand tools. Great for gripping, the 9″ handles make them great for cutting off screws and nails as well. They even make a great hammer for the occasional driving job. These things are heavy and they are the workhorse of your tool collection once you get used to using them. Expect to pay around $30 for these, but once you get used to using them you will agree it is money well spent.
  • Groove Joint Pliers (Channellocks) – This is another case where one manufacturer’s design was so iconic or revolutionary that the tool is universally referred to by  their name regardless of who manufactured it. Call them Channellocks, groove joint pliers, water pump pliers, etc, these are a great addition to your tool collection. This is yet another place where I have seen time and time again that you get what you pay for. A cheap pair of these will slip, pinching your hand between the handles, which is usually followed immediately by a demonstration of the aerodynamic properties of these pliers in flight across the work space. This is one area you don’t want to go cheap. Buy a set of these from the likes of Craftsman, Klein, or of course Channellock and discover a whole new plane of gripping, bending, and tightening bliss. Buy a cheap pair, and be prepared to explain your foul language, sour mood and the blood blisters on your palms to the kids and wife.

Honorable mention:

The final thing I will add to the list here is really an essential even though it isn’t a tool at all. Your tool collection needs a home. You have to have a tool box, a drawer, a cabinet, or something where everything belongs. Without this, your tools will be scattered all over the place and you will spend more time looking for the tools than you will using them. While I have a number of toolboxes scattered throughout my life, knowing where the tools are is a key factor in getting the job done. Having the self discipline to put things away when you’re finished with them takes a lot of work for some and comes naturally for others, but it really is important. I think this will become apparent the first time your quick afternoon project is derailed because you can’t find the tool you need to finish it.

Until next time,

–DIY

Diesel Pro 6500 Watt Generator project

As I have mentioned previously, a couple weeks ago I purchased a non-running Diesel Pro KDE6500E Generator. It is a diesel powered 6500 watt generator with electric start, and as it was not running at the time of my purchase I bought it for the bargain price of $120. I found the generator via Craig’s List and went to look at it about 45 minutes from my house.

The gentleman from whom I purchased it said that he had loaned it out to a friend in running condition and had received it back not only in non-running condition but in several pieces. He said that the guy that he had loaned it to had put off road diesel in it and now it had no compression. Hmm, I thought, the off road diesel doesn’t have anything to do with it not running, but it certainly didn’t have any compression. It was missing a battery, the pull start was in pieces, the covers were all off the frame, it had parts that even the former owner didn’t know where they went, and as stated it had NO compression. Many small diesel engines (this one included) are equipped with a compression release valve to make them easier to crank and start. This valve blocks the exhaust valve partially open to prevent the engine from making compression. I had a hunch that it could be something simple that was wrong with this engine and it turned over smoothly and seemed “tight” so I took a bit of a gamble. I though if nothing else, I could probably sell the generator head or use it myself with a new engine. The gen head was worth what I was paying for the unit so I didn’t feel it was too much of a gamble. Besides He took my $120 offer when he was asking $150 for the unit. I was feeling pretty good about my chances. So home again we came with my new project in the back of the truck.

As a sidebar for those not very familiar with the design and function of a 4 stroke internal combustion engine the animation below courtesy of Wikipedia may provide a bit of insight into the function of this type of design. This animation is depicting a gas engine (as is evidenced by the presence of the spark plug in the middle of the head) but you get the idea. The piston travels up and down in a total of four strokes per cycle, thus the term a 4 stroke engine. The strokes are known as 1-Intake, 2-Compression, 3-Power (or Combusion), and 4-Exhaust. The blue indicates incoming air and fuel, the brown indicates exhaust. The difference in this animation is that this one shows small cams (overhead cam design) operating the valves directly whereas my diesel generator uses a traditional push rod design. More detail on these dufferences is for another time.

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

Image via Wikipedia

THIS animation and its accompanying description may provide a quick primer into the subject a little more insight into the design and function for those concerned with earning extra credit or just interested in learning more.

Once we were home again, the tinkering began almost immediately. The first thing I did was to pull the valve cover (this engine is an overhead valve design). When turning the engine over my hand, I could clearly see that the intake valve was moving up and down as it should be but the exhaust valve was hardly moving at all. The push rod coming up to the rocker for the exhaust valve was barely moving. Strange, I though. So The next step was to pull the cylinder head. Since this generator is of the  “IMPORTED” type (Made in China) and information was at a premium, I measured the torque required to remove the nuts from the head studs. This is an imperfect method of measurement, but it was better than having no idea what soever what the torque specs should be. After recording the figures, I removed the four nuts, the cylinder head, and the intake and exhaust valve push rods. Much to my delight, everything inside the engine looked really good. Little or no wear on the cylinder wall, the piston was in good condition, and most importantly, the cylinder head and valves were in good condition. I put the push rods on top of the lifters and turned the engine over by hand. I was able to get both push rods to move correctly this way so I felt confident that the camshaft and lifters were working properly.

Now ideally, after a good cleaning, a new head gasket would have been installed, but since parts are difficult to obtain for these MiC gensets, and since this unit uses a copper head gasket, I though I would re-assemble it and see if I could get it to make some compression. I thoroughly cleaned all the mating surfaces, then re-installed the head. It was difficult to get the valve push rods to line up correctly with the rockers and the lifter while holding the head with the other hand, but after repeated attempts I was able to get everything to line up. I then re-torqued the head stud nuts. Now with everything re-assembled and turning the engine over by hand I had LOTS of compression. So much compression in fact that it was difficult to turn the engine over by hand on the compression stroke. Now we’re talking! Valve cover affixed, oil level checked, fuel tank cleaned out and refilled, fuel shutoff on, attached a car battery to the leads, turned the key and “CLICK” was all I could get. To make short of an hour or more of continued tinkering,  let’s just say that the starter wasn’t working even after multiple attempts to get it to crank. The starter motor appears to have cranked its last. The pull start was inoperable as well since the shadetree mechanic that took it all apart lost the “dogs” that actually make the mechanism turn the engine over. Well Shoot! Now what? I tried turning the engine over by several different methods and was unable to get it to turn over fast enough to start. Did I mention that it had a lot of compression? Finally, in desperation I tried the old tried and true method of rope wrapping the flywheel thimble and giving it a good sharp tug. It turned over nicely by this method, but still wouldn’t start. Now typically I don’t like using ether in diesel engines (or at all really) but I do keep a can of it in the shop. A snort of ether down the intake and a quick tug on the rope, and would you believe it, it popped and fired! Now we were making some real progress.

It would run on ether (and WD-40 which is another diesel engine trick), but would die immediately once the spray was stopped. No fuel to the injector was the diagnosis. I removed the bolts securing the fuel pump and pulled the pump out of the block. I couldn’t believe my luck. Apparently someone had removed the pump in an attempt to “fix” the non running engine and had put the pump back in with the fuel shutoff in the wrong position. The fork inside the engine that was intended to operate the shutoff lever on the pump was in the wrong position to line up with the actual shutoff fork on the engine case. A quick flip of the lever and I was able to reinstall the pump. I turned the engine over by hand with the fuel line to the injector unhooked, and wouldn’t you know it I was pumping fuel now. So I hooked the lines back up, cracked the line loose at the injector and turned the engine over by hand once again until I had bled all the air out of the lines. Once that line was re-tightened, when I turned the engine over by hand I could actually hear the injector click when it “popped off” its spray of fuel into the cylinder. Another quick shot of ether into the intake, a few pulls of the rope, and lo-an-behold! It’s Alive!

So today on my way home from work  I stopped at our local power equipment dealer. This place is a locally owned, family affair in which the whole family is employed, so I try to support their establishment with my business whenever possible. I had talked to them a few days ago and they had indicated that they may indeed be able to source the necessary parts (namely the starter) for my little project. So I stopped in and showed them my parts. For kicks I had thrown the recoil starter assembly in the box with the starter just in case they could indeed get me those parts as well. As it turns out the Diesel Pro generator that I have is the exact same model that they sell under the name Eastern Tools and Equipment (ETQ). The helpful young man in charge of their parts department asked me an unexpected question when he said “Would you prefer new parts or would you consider a used starter?”. What’s that? A deal!? You bet! So a quick trip to look at a unit that they were stripping for parts and it yielded me a new (used) starter and the whole recoil starter assembly for the pull-it-yourself price of less than $100 out the door. I could hardly believe it.

So this evening after dinner, a few minutes of tinkering, a few nuts and bolts from my own personal stock and I was left with a nicely running generator that will start with the key or the recoil starter.

I took the time to put together a cord to connect the 240 Volt output of the generator to the welder outlet in my shop and the generator powers the entire shop with no problems. I connected a number of devices to the generator including lights and my 120V air compressor that frequently will trip a 20A breaker and the engine hardly bogs when the load is applied. Needless to say I am thrilled to have a running (diesel) generator has cost me less than $250 and a few hours of tinkering, which doesn’t really count anyway since this habit of tinkering is a hobby of mine.

Until next time:

–DIY.