When I grow up I want to be Adam Savage.
February 22, 2010 12:36 PM   Subscribe

I want to possess the knowledge, tools, materials, and workspace to make whatever the hell I feel like making, whenever I feel like making it. Because I can’t do this overnight, I want to start with the most versatile tools and skill first.

I want to be able to build a Stratawhovius violin one week, a steel trebuchet the next week, a Stormtrooper uniform (Galactic Empire or WWII Germany, doesn’t matter) the following week, and a Construction-Worker-From-The-Village-People costume for my cat the week after that. I don’t want to be “a woodworker”, “a metalworker”, “a computer guy”, or “a guy who can sew”, I want to be all those things. I don’t need to make money from any of them, nor do I need to be an expert at any one thing.

I want to be a human Swiss Army knife.

I’m off to a pretty good start. I have a decent collection of hand tools, electronics tools, and a couple power tools. I have a Dremel. I have a basement with lots of space to put stuff. I'm geeky enough to install and futz with Linux. I know how to breadboard.

I already subscribe to Make Magazine, which is probably one of the greatest things ever, though I prefer the more practical things. The artsy “this will be awesome at Burning Man” stuff, not so much.

I have nothing specific I want to make, nor do I have a specific skill I want to focus on. I really enjoy building things that require different skills. I built a MAME emulator arcade cabinet that required some woodworking, electronics, computer skills, etc. Same with the Death Star costume. I probably wouldn’t want to build a wooden chair unless it’s part of a flight simulator cockpit.

I’m looking for:

General tool advice. What tools are the most versatile? What tools should no shop be without? For example, I keep thinking a tabletop sander could be used for working with wood, metal, plastic and pretty much anything else. Is this true? Can a bandsaw be used for anything but wood?

Book advice. What should a maker’s library not be without? What is The book for learning woodworking? Electronics? Plastics? Whateverthe hell?

Skills to possess. What can I learn from a book vs. what would I be better off taking a class in? What skills carry over to other things? Like if I learn basic woodworking would that help me if I learn about metalworking some day?

Where to learn. Interesting places to learn interesting skill in the Boston area.

Materials I should have on hand at all times? I think I’m starting to get a fetish for angle brackets I’m finding so many damn uses for them. What else is like that? Don’t say duct tape. Duct tape is overrated. Electrical ties, now there is a versatile thing to have.

General shop advice. How best to organize a multi-use workshop? How do you organize your shop? Build or buy workbenches? Where do you get cheap little parts organizer thingies.

I'm also happy to hear of fun projects that might require learning a mix of skills.

Sorry this question is so vague. It’s kind of like one of those “Help my outfit my kitchen and pantry, and oh yeah I also want to learn to cook” questions only with a greater risk of eye injury.
posted by bondcliff to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (48 answers total) 247 users marked this as a favorite
You're asking for a lot of stuff here; my catch-all advice is to go work in a theater's tech shop. If you can volunteer at a big enough theater, you'll be able to see a fully-functioning shop that is setup to fabricate all sorts of things, from complex fly rigs to victorian credenzas to dinosaur heads. It'll incorporate electronics, sound, lighting, and mechanical features. You may want to start by volunteering to help strike (tear down) a set at the end of a show's run. Once they realize you're not going to shoot yourself with a nail gun, they may find other ways to use you. Helping a big high school or college with its productions will give you variations on this theme, though they often have plenty of volunteers from the student body.

Also, most of the guys I know who can or could fix anything (farmers, largely) were hoarders. They had sprawling shops full of things that might be useful some day, and a near encyclopedic knowledge of where everything was at a given time. Not sure if you have the ability to pull that off or not.

If you haven't already, I would put welding (mig and arc) and soldering at the top of your to-learn list, since they are skills that come in handy all the time once you start tinkering.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:48 PM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: Books (know how to do what you are trying to do):
-The Art of Electronics
-The Machinery's Handbook

Resources (know what you can just buy, knowing that something exists already can save so much time and effort):
-McMaster Carr
-Harbor Freight

-Soldering Iron
-Band saw
-Reasonable drill press (and pick one that can take side loads to you can add some translation stages to the table/clamping surface and fashion it into a mill)
-Any handtools that you buy, get craftsman. (They have a silly lifetime warranty, you can walk into any Sears and give them a tool that you threw through a wood chipper and they will give you a new one no questions asked)
-A good working surface with plenty of light, and lots of convenient places to plug things in (this is something you will use again and again and again, do not skimp here)
-A good way to store all of your spare parts and bits and pieces, nothing is nicer than knowing what you have, and where it is in a pinch
posted by milqman at 12:52 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: You're asking for a lot of stuff here;

Yeah, I know. Sorry. Perhaps I should first learn the skill of brevity.

tl;dr: Hobbyists of all types: What tools and books are indispensable for your craft?
posted by bondcliff at 1:14 PM on February 22, 2010

In my limited experience, the best way to buy tools is to acquire them as needed. A fully outfitted shop should start with a workbench, lighting, and a project. The best builders I've seen in action are not necessarily the ones with the best collection of tools.
posted by theora55 at 1:21 PM on February 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

Get an old motorcycle or car and work on it. It'll teach you a lot about mechanical relations, problem solving, diagnostics, kloodging, and dealing withe the consequences of kloodges.

Just work on stuff. If you need a new water heater do it yourself. Take a wall out of your house. A book can't teach you general skills. Fucking up your transmission/toilet/bread/computer and having to fix it will.
posted by cmoj at 1:24 PM on February 22, 2010

Theater shop--excellent idea.

Get a sewing machine. You can make frigging anything from curtains to the uniforms to an elasticized cover tarp for your lawn mover to the coolest leather jacket in the world.

Also, take sewing classes to learn the basics, but focus on the classes that allow you to ADJUST the sizes of existing patterns. To make the perfect jeans for yourself, you need to figure out a lot of weird angles and curves, which I think can be very satisfying for someone who likes to build stuff and create.

Now that the Fabric Place has closed *sob*, there aren't as many sewing classes around, but I intend to go and try Laura's Sewing School once I get some free time (hah).

Also: ever make your own soap? I do. Great hobby (Plimoth Plantation used to have demos, and the lady there offered separate classes). Don't fall for the "melt and pour" kits; all you're doing is melting a big bar of soap so that you can pour it into molds to make little bars of soap. Start it from scratch by rendering your own beef fat (can give you more info if you're interested).
posted by Melismata at 1:29 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I've spent the last year building up a workshop. My interests skew away from building large wooden things, and toward building small, relatively precise things -- robots, camera mounts, high speed book scanners, and tools to make other tools. I'm big into modifying electronics and the like. My suggestions will forego a lot of obvious stuff for some less-obvious stuff that will make your workshop better.

1. Good, plentiful lighting. Lights everywhere, movable lights, architects lamps, large overhead fluorescents. Do not underestimate the value of good light.

2. Industrial hot glue gun. Faster than wood glue but almost as strong, handy as a temporary clamp, good for securing cables, potting electronics, a thousand uses. I run out of glue sticks constantly. Two bags of glue sticks.

3. 10" sliding compound miter saw with carbide blade. Cuts everything. Always ready. Saves hours of hand-work. Can handle lots of different shapes and sizes of material.

4. Outlet strips. Buy good ones and mount them all over your workshop. All my lighting and tools are controlled by an outlet strip. I have at least two on every wall and table. This is also reassuring when I leave the shop -- I can see, at a glance, that the solder station, hot glue gun, and heat gun are all turned off.

5. Computer. Internet access keeps me from going back to my house to check email, look up part specs, or search for something. Any old beater computer will do. I keep a 900mhz machine loaded with Corel Draw so I can plan stuff.

6. Box of razor blades. I can't believe how many shops I've been in don't have a nice, sharp blade available. Buy by the hundreds so you can be "wasteful" with them.

7. Big box of pens, sharpies, and small notepads. I keep a notepad taped to every table and a few in the drawer so I'm not marking up the workpiece. One taped next to my laser for laser settings. These save valuable ideas and hard-won settings from wearing on my limited brain capacity.

8. Digital camera. Have one, or two old crappy cameras around, and have them working at all times. Constantly taking pictures of things as you take them apart, videos of objects, and so on, not only provides comprehensive reference for repair and sharing online later, but also gives you a way to archive your notebooks, save important ideas, and more. This may be the most important suggestion on this list. DO NOT WORK WITHOUT A CAMERA.

9. Wall of tape. I have at least one roll of tape for every job.

10. Digital calipers. Can be had on sale for $15. No more going to Home Depot and guessing if a bolt will fit or not, or playing the "will this PVC pipe adapter fit my camera lens" game. Armed with your digital caliper and your digital camera, you can tell exactly how well something will fit and save the trip. Also comes in handy for EVERYTHING EVER.

11. Flashlight. I use a Nitecore D10. It is in my pocket all the time, everywhere, and I use it at least once or twice a day.

12. Headlamp. In spite of all the great lighting you'll have installed after reading the first item on this list, you'll still want to work on something in a dark corner with TWO HANDS. Can be a real cheapy. Keep alkalines in it so they don't go flat.

13. Cordless drill and a pile of different wood screws. I have a RIDGID drill and it kicks ass. Huge power. The next best thing is to have two drills, one with a driver bit and a cheap one with a drill bit in it for pilot holes. That way, you never have to switch out the bits.

14. Fuck a tablesaw, get a cordless or corded circular saw and a long piece of aluminum bar stock. You can clamp the bar to any large piece of wood and cut it in half just like a tablesaw, but you don't waste the floor space.

15. Sawhorses and clamps. As many as you can afford. You can afford many at Harbor Freight. I must have a dozen of these clamps and I always buy more when they go on sale for 1.99.

16. Multimeter - preferably a couple, one for the house, one for the shop.

17. Solder station. Weller WES51. You have not soldered until you've used a real solder station. I currently use a beat-up Hakko but it's not as nice as the Weller units.

18. Sewing machine. I have a Bernina 1130 and a super-heavy duty Pfaff. They have a dedicated table with a rotary cutter, cutting mat, and a tarp to keep them clean and dry.

19. Measuring tools of all kinds -- two tapes, a T-square, etc.

20. Not everyone can have this, but I have a laser cutter. I will die without it.

21. A bench power supply. I have one that goes up to 24v, 2A, and it's been sufficient for most testing and production work. Saves hours of digging around for AC adapters, etc. Good for testing weird one-off parts like motors and bulbs.

22. A mess of storage bins. One of my favorite finds are these minute plastic boxes from Harbor Freight (can't find a link). When I work on things, I put all the small parts in their own box. That keeps me sane and the parts safe.

One of the lessons I've learned is that it's a lot more productive to have things on hand than to go out searching for stuff (even though that is fun, sometimes). As a result, if I buy something useful and I can afford it, I usually buy two. I keep tape, glue sticks, razor blades, solder, screws and nails, 2x4's, etc all well-stocked so that when I want to build something, I don't have to waste two hours driving across this wasteland shithole of a city, I can just build stuff and enjoy my life. Same thing with those little fiber-reinforced cutting wheels for your dremel, BTW.

Also, a small fridge with beer (and for me, diet lemon soda, no idea why) can make the difference between leaving the shop and staying to complete something.

Finally, I bodged together a pretty decent stereo from a broken Sony boom box and one of those APEX DVD players that plays MP3. I have ten or twenty hours of kick-ass music on CDR so that when I'm in the workshop, I'm automagically in the mood to create.

Any questions, feel free to ask.
posted by fake at 1:46 PM on February 22, 2010 [76 favorites]

You should look for a membership based shop near where you live. They're pretty much made for what you want, and going there to see what it's like, how they did the layout, etc., would probably be helpful. (As an example: TechShop, although they don't have a location near you. Here is the list of equipment they have. Also they have classes on how to use all of it.)
posted by anaelith at 1:51 PM on February 22, 2010

the best way to buy tools is to acquire them as needed.

This. Set up a really nice physical space -- sturdy benches at the right height, good lighting, lots of plugs (including 220v), centrally piped compressed air, etc -- and outfit as you need it.

And then, to contradict myself, remember that part of doing different things is to not do them all in the same space. Some of it is just common sense -- sewing and woodworking don't go together, because fabric collects sawdust. And some of it is safety -- don't weld without good ventilation, and never near flammable materials. So don't try to set up some mythical perfect space where you can do everything, unless you have access to a 5000 square foot warehouse and an unlimited budget.

If you are working with wood, you can guarantee you will eventually want a circular saw, table saw, router, and lots of clamps. If you are working with metal, you'll need a chop saw and/or a band saw, in addition to a cutting torch and welding equipment. Sewing, especially of costumes, means having a heavy duty sewing machine, not a light hobbyist's machine. And so on for other materials. This is all expensive, unless you are lucky and find it underpriced at an estate sale. So unless you are a trustifarian, outfit as you go rather than trying to buy at once.
posted by Forktine at 1:51 PM on February 22, 2010

A Pocket Reference is mighty handy.

A nice set of wrenches and sockets.

A quality drill/driver, lots of my friends bought the little impact drivers but frequently use their regular cordless drills more often.

a compressor, the bigger the better taking in space considerations.

A ventilation system, saw dust is considered carcinogenic, helps with paint fumes as well, welding fumes, etc.

A respirator with disposable filters.

A table saw or at least a contractor's saw, see here for a nice run down.

As theora55 says you buy tools when you need them. My old lady and I have a huge amount of tools and are always getting more.

I could write list of tools for woodworking, welding, painting, do you have budget constraints?
posted by Max Power at 1:52 PM on February 22, 2010

Argh, I forgot my other most-used item: A blowtorch. I splurged and got one of the push-button ones so I couldn't lose the sparker. I use the thing constantly -- from plastics testing for my laser cutter, to drying water-based paints, bending and flame-polishing acrylic, cleaning crud from the end of screwdrivers, starting the grill, etc etc. Torch = must have.
posted by fake at 1:56 PM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, at least as important as your workshop is having a pickup truck, or a 4x8 or larger trailer that your car can tow. Yes, in theory you can rent, but that's not a great solution when someone phones you at 10pm because their neighbor just dumped a mountain of beautiful lumber on the side of the road, or you find a huge drillpress for sale for pennies on the dollar.

In other words, if you can't move your own tools and supplies around when you need to, you are going to be very limited in what you can do.
posted by Forktine at 1:57 PM on February 22, 2010

Response by poster: So unless you are a trustifarian, outfit as you go rather than trying to buy at once.

I could write list of tools for woodworking, welding, painting, do you have budget constraints?

Mostly I'm interested in multi-taskers. Budget is your basic suburban homeowner budget. I'm not going to go drop a wad of cash tomorrow. I'd like to, over time and as I need them, acquire the tools that will allow me to be as versatile as possible. While I'd love to have a laser cutter, it ain't gonna happen.

Fake's answer is just the sort of thing I'm looking for and kind of lines up with my own way of thinking about stuff. The Wall-o-Tape is a thing of beauty, for example.

There was a picture in a recent Make Magazine of Adam Savage's case full of measuring tools. That sort of thing, a kit to do a certain task under any circumstances, gives me a boner.
posted by bondcliff at 2:04 PM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: Don't forget the old brain...pick up a Miquelrius flexible graph paper idea book. I am a compulsive sketching- writing- designing- note-taking- type, and that is the best I've found so far, in terms of flexibility, paper quality, and fits-in-with-a-workshop-ability.

You will want to learn to draw your ideas with one-line-one-kill precision, that is, not all sketchy-looking. As you get better at this, purchase Pilot Hi-Tec C pens (now sold as G-Tec C in the US) from a place like Jetpens. Those of us who are serious about concepting ideas tend to love those pens more than even the vaunted G-2.

You will also want a personal wiki for your computer use, perhaps even the Firefox Scrapbook extension for collecting ideas you get while on the net. For the personal wiki, I recommend Dokuwiki and the Minimalism theme.

If you haven't already, get a web host, get some web space, and think about making some of your project details public.

Since you live near bodies of water, do not neglect the fact that shipbuilders have been there and done that as far as your workshop question goes. Many shipbuilders make their own tools and you should think about that as well. Look at old shipbuilding books from the 50s and 60s; read the story of Joshua Slocum.

If you don't have a bicycle already, get one. A sturdy bicycle practically begs to be worked into a traveling laboratory for exploration and idea-gathering.

I have an upcoming MeFi post on this subject, so I hesitate to give too much away, but think about workshop-building as something that is not just a one-time thing. Once you have a workshop going, and are comfortable with it, think about how much more radical you could make it if, for example, it could be towed on a trailer, or if it was designed to float on water, or if it was designed to travel into remote places for use as an amateur science and engineering station.

Finally, these are some pretty broad strokes that will get people fascinated by what you do. Don't forget to acquire a video camera if you haven't got one already. Document your work, at the very least for posterity.
posted by circular at 2:14 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ah, one other thing. Most of my stuff, like workbenches, mini-fridge, overhead lights and power strips, were found on the curb during Spring Cleanup Week. You can save a small fortune by trawling your town during such events, or shopping at Habitat for Humanity ReStore.
posted by fake at 2:31 PM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: A couple of angle grinders, one with grinding wheel and the other with a cut off disk, a bench vise, and a gasless MIG rig along with some basic hand tools are all you need for a wide variety of metal working projects. And they don't take up much space. Mine all fit in about 12 cubic feet.

fake writes "Fuck a tablesaw, get a cordless or corded circular saw and a long piece of aluminum bar stock. You can clamp the bar to any large piece of wood and cut it in half just like a tablesaw, but you don't waste the floor space. "

This really depends on what you are doing. The more production your work with wood the greater the likely hood you'll find a table saw useful. So if you're making a single base cabinet then a circular saw will do. If you are cranking out 20' of uppers and lowers (for your new workspace maybe :) ) then a table saw is going to be a lot more apealling. Especially if you use dadoed shelves or rabbetted back panels.

And once you have a decent saw home made jigs open up tenons, custom mouldings, interlocking rails and stiles, all sorts of custom dimension lumber, box joints, inlays, and floating panels to name a few. Many of these have dedicated tools to do the job faster but a good table saw can do just as good a job in small projects.
posted by Mitheral at 2:43 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

This really depends on what you are doing.

You're absolutely right, I overstated my case there.
posted by fake at 2:56 PM on February 22, 2010

I have done things from remodeling my house to building guitar FX pedals to fixing VCRs to sewing curtains to fixing my car. Here are the things I use the most:

1 - Cordless drill. Make sure it has extra batteries, otherwise you will break it out of frustration the first time you need to drill only 2 more holes, and have to wait half an hour for it to charge.

2 - Lighting. A couple of high powered flashlights that can sit on the ground and point in different directions will get you most of the way there.

3 - A couple of nice screwdrivers with interchangable heads. I have a ratcheting one that is great when needed.

4 - Locking pliers. The kind that you can adjust the opening, and when you squeeze them they stay shut on whatever they are attached to.

5 - Skill Saw. A miter saw is also good, but for bigger projects a miter saw won't cut it, while a skill saw can be used for smaller projects if needed.

6 - Good work gloves. Don't cheap out here. DON'T!

There's a lot more stuff that gets used regularly in our home, but the above is probably what I use the most for all types of projects.
posted by markblasco at 3:21 PM on February 22, 2010

Oh, and my dad does a fair bit of tinkering, and loves these work gloves with a light built in.
posted by craven_morhead at 3:28 PM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: A few tips I've found while working on projects:

1) Have a big, open table to work on. This tables stores nothing but your project while your working on it. If it's a big project, have a clear floor area to work on. The more room you have to work, the better -- always.

2) Keep a clean working area. Have your tools organized with a specific spot for each. When you need a Philips screw driver, you want to be able to just turn around and grab it off the wall, not dig through a huge bin of hammers, screw drivers, razor blades, tape, etc. Put things back when your done.

3) If you're not sure if you need a tool or not, hold off. Have some money put aside for tools/materials whenever you need it rather than going out and buying a bunch you may or may not need. This way you can quickly get a tool from the store right when you need without wondering if you have enough money for it.

4) Buy good quality tools when possible and it makes sense to do so. Also, use the tool for what it was made for. Your good screw driver isn't a paint can opener and your hand saw isn't for cutting edges. Even if it seems easier at the time, use the right tool for the job. If you don't have it, buy it (see tip #3). It will save you time, save you money (in the long run), save you from injuries, and save your project.
posted by Kippersoft at 4:34 PM on February 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Most of the basics have been covered, so I'll just add a couple of thoughts.

Get a hammer if you don't already have one, and learn when to use it. Sometimes a large impulse is required. You could lean on your wrench all day trying to remove a really tight nut, when hitting the wrench with your hammer will get it right off. Don't waste money on plastic handled nonsense though.

If you have a workbench, get a bench vise. It's the most basic tool in a way -- something that will hold an object in place no matter what.

A cordless drill is nice for some situations, but even a good one is weaker than a corded drill, and far more expensive. A drill press will give you better results than any hand drill.

Metal fabrication is great fun and incredibly useful, but it takes a lot of big, expensive tools before you're equipped to handle a full range of tasks. Blacksmithing, on the other hand, uses very few tools, and you can make them yourself once you have a hammer and tongs. It's a pretty esoteric skill in today's world, but it's hard to beat in terms of satisfaction.
posted by scose at 5:00 PM on February 22, 2010

Check out garage and estate sales and auctions to find a lot of this stuff. All kinds of folks will dig themselves into a hobby and then decide they don't like it and offload their stuff. Craigslist, too. Like someone pointed out earlier, always watch out for Craftsman hand tools in these venues, because even if a screwdriver is all beat to hell, you can go exchange it for a brand new one, no questions asked.

It sounds like you ought to pick a project and collect what you need for that, then the next thing and the next thing, until you have yourself a kick ass shop space. I'm a dabbler myself (though I tend toward the crafty end of the spectrum), and I always try to remind myself to be patient and give myself time to get stuff right. It takes awhile to get proficient at sewing, for instance. Many, many projects later, I can finally whip up a cute dress for my daughter in an afternoon.

Great question!
posted by wwartorff at 6:08 PM on February 22, 2010

Magnifying glasses. Get good quality ones that don't distort what you're looking at.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:13 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Shop Savvy is one of my favorite shop books. Mostly what I learned is that if you don't have the tool you need, go ahead and make it. Don't have a lathe, here's how to do it on a drill press. Need a wrench of the right size, go to the grinding wheel. Heaps of good stuff.

I avoid buying anything made after 1953 if I can help it. That means I can fix it.
posted by mearls at 7:00 PM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: If you intend to do much woodworking, I should like to add a Kreg jig for pocket hole joinery. Have it laying around and it will magically make uses for itself. Anything from full blown custom cabinetry without any other fasteners to sticking 2X4's together for that trebuche. Also, if you haven't yet, check out instructables.com for yet more inspiration on how to do weird things in novel ways
posted by Redhush at 7:23 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Craven Morehead's hoarder reference is right - I can remember helping my dad in his workshop and there is a kind of organized, elegant hoarding going on.

Some of the random stuff that I would recommend from mine:

Sewing machine - If you want a rock-solid all purpose sewing machine, get something like a Singer 31 15. This particular model has a couple of things going for it - it is entirely cast iron and steel, with no extra bells and whistles. This means it rarely breaks. It is also wide enough that larger pieces can be worked on it easily. I have used mine to sew the heaviest sail fabric as well as double thick leather (4mm x 2) and even carpet. But then I just put in a finer needle and I can sew some ridiculously thin silk or gauze. It is amazing.

If you get an industrial machine, not only will your motor be strong enough to handle a lot of different things, but because it is belt-driven and mounted on the underside of the table, you can disconnect the belt and use the motor to power other things - I have made a lot of cord and light rope and spun threads by adapting it with the same motor and belt attached to a maple flywheel.

A bolt or two of 109" muslin never hurts to have, you can make anything from a ghost costume to a kid's tent to the emergency chuppah. They are also good for clean rags and cover or backing for any flat plaster work.

Other folks above have covered hand and power tools, but I have found that having two sets of wood carving tools is VERY handy. One set I use for scratch (on things like plaster, formica, and worn/driftwood) and sharpen as I need them, one set I keep pristine and only use for fine woodworking and detail (but never on driftwood - it has tiny particles of sand and mud that absolutely kill the cutting edge). I find it is better not to mix the two up.

Clamps of every size and shape.

Pulleys in every size and shape and rope. If you are like me, you will be doing a lot of this alone and three pulleys can be the difference between lifting that piece of marble just right and breaking it in 37 pieces.

Good scraps of maple. I find that they are so smooth that I can use them as clamp padding on any number of projects (not just wood) and they don't transfer color or texture.

I usually keep two bags of gypsum setting compound (the heavy-duty, not the easy to sand variety) on hand. I also keep some cartons of plaster of Paris around for more finished work.

I like to have wiring around. I keep spools of 10, 12, and 14 gauge solid copper in white and can then color it. I also keep spools of 14, 16, and 18 gauge lamp wiring on hand.

I used spend a lot of time on scale and size trying to determine how big I was going to make something and how it would fit in a space in relation to other things. Know the golden ratio. I use it as a starting point when I cannot decide how tall and wide to make a couch or a bookshelf or how I want the edge of something to look. If I know where one measurement has to be, that gives me a starting point for the other. I use it in clothing and finishing wood as well - it really seems like magic 90% of the time.

Also: Learn the proper names for things. I can see how things work and how to fix/use them, but am often at a loss for its name. This ignorance makes communication difficult when I am looking for parts and tools.

Sorry for the length - this question and the other answers got me so excited!
posted by Tchad at 8:59 PM on February 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't suggest this as your first purchase, but a 3-axis CNC mill is just about the greatest thing ever. If you don't want to shell out the dough, you could make a 2-axis one with no problem & that'll get you pretty far. Also, I'm amazed at the things I can make a lathe do with a little ingenuity. I know these are both expensive things, but they are the difference between dreaming projects and executing them.
posted by Dmenet at 9:19 PM on February 22, 2010

Dmenet, do you have a mill? If so, what are you using to model/produce Gcode? Though I built my own CNC mill, I still haven't found a way to program it that I really like.
posted by fake at 9:26 PM on February 22, 2010

Hmmm... I have nearly all of these tools. I love me some Harbor Freight. I also cruise the tool section in Big Lots when I go there. I spent most of last year refurbishing a house to rent out and what I didn't have already I went to HF and got. It's a pretty good feeling when you realize "crap, I need a hole saw. Oh wait, I thing I picked up a set at Big Lots and it's right.... here."

Also, start collecting 5 gallon plastic buckets, the kind that paint, drywall mud and industrial quantities of floor wax and pickle slices come in, they make the best tool caddies going, are stackable as long as you don't over fill them and you can categorize your tools and just grab the right bucket(s) for the job.
posted by lordrunningclam at 4:39 AM on February 23, 2010

I worked a mill at my old job & right now I spend lots of time at an old school mill & pressuring my bosses to get a CNC mill. I used this program to turn very carefully made DXF files into Gcode. It has been a while, so proceed with caution - I had about 6 different priority layers set up to allow bit changes as well as ensure the lowest priority goes to separating the piece from the clamping surface. I also had to manually offset the lines of the drawing to account for bit size. I think all objects had to be eXploded and I had a custom AutoLISP script to do...something or other.

There were a couple speed bumps, but when it was fresh in my mind I got along very well with it.

MSG me if you have any problems.
posted by Dmenet at 7:22 AM on February 23, 2010

I recommend The Prop Builders Molding and Casting Handbook. Learn all kinds of mold making in this book plus learn how to make sugar-glass bottles to break over your friend's heads!

The tool I use most at my place is a chop saw purchased at a pawn shop.
posted by cda at 8:19 AM on February 23, 2010

Response by poster: Some great answers here. Thanks, folks.

FWIW, I'm already pretty much set with most hand tools, including a cordless and corded drill or two. I've done some home improvement and other projects so I'm off to a good start tool-wise.

Power tools we (Wife and I) have include: Table saw, circular saw, ancient drill press, drills, jigsaw, random orbit sander, reciprocating saw, bandsaw, Dremel, compound mitre saw, router.

I'd like to learn to weld but so far I haven't really seen a situation where I would use it.

I'd love to build a fabrication machine some day but right now it sees fabrication machines are still in the "from CAD to novelty birthday candle in 20 steps!" stage.
posted by bondcliff at 9:11 AM on February 23, 2010

Best answer: I'd like to learn to weld but so far I haven't really seen a situation where I would use it.

Get one and you will. Make your own shelving/framing, build a brew sculpture, restore the body of an old car, make a forge. There are all kinds of things to weld. A simple MIG like a Miller 180 or something similar should be the perfect thing for a dedicated hobbyist. You can do steel or aluminum with a spool gun. Anything bigger than 5/16 and you can rent or find a friend with a heavier duty welder. Sometimes Craigslist has great deals on welders.

Check out the plans for this no-weld grinder. This can be built with the reciprocating saw you have or even with a hacksaw. Grinding wheels are invaluable tools in the shop.

Also, a lathe, a good anvil, an oxy/acetylene torch, drill press, a bunch of different-sized vises, a decent air compressor, tube bender, and a heavy duty angle grinder.
posted by Demogorgon at 12:01 PM on February 23, 2010

Adam savage here. I'm on location right now, and typing on my phone just won't cut it. I will pipe in later on today with an answer.
posted by asavage at 1:06 PM on February 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Okay,

Back from location, read through the above. Fantastic suggestions. All of them.
One thing I'd suggest is that you (as you are learning a new skill/technique) recognize how applicable every skill is to other skills. I don't consider there to be much of a difference between carpentry, sewing, making things from paper and cardboard and welding. They are all moving around planar forms under various constraints and joining them under various constraints.
Remember that not much is beyond your ability to learn: that less-smart folks than you do the skill-you-want-to-learn every day, and well.
One of the best ways I learn things is to take a skill I'm interested in learning, and choose a project that uses that skill (or, in the past I've gotten hired to do a project that uses that skill, makes a good fire under the ass to reach completion) because there's NOTHING like a purpose to facilitate the right kind of prioritization.
Looking at any skill, there's a dizzying array of things to learn. How do you prioritize them? Take welding for example; there are entire books on the subject, but when you actually put on a mask and jacket, sit in front of some steel, and fire up a 120v Lincoln MIG welder, dial the controls to what is recommended for the thickness you're welding, and weld it's quite simple.

Most things are more like that than the reverse.

A couple things I wish younger me had known:
The OPERATING of a tool, i.e. to do cutting, chopping etc, is the SMALLEST component of that operation. That is, set-up is everything.
A craftsman makes just as many mistakes as you will, he (or she) can just see them coming from farther away and adjust.

When presented with a large problem to solve that involves a subset of smaller problems, I start often with the simplest part, that I know how to do. While I"m working on that part, I think about the next step.

Theater. The theater. Just the single best place hone whatever skill you want.

I'd take freelance jobs that needed a skill I didn't have, but wanted to gain, and give them a huge break on price if I could keep the thing I made when they were done with it.

Welding is easier than anyone who hasn't done it thinks. Entry-level welding is almost trivial, like a hot glue gun that spews steel.

I didn't have the internet when I started gathering skills. I would actually go to the library and xerox the pages from a technical manual about tapping and drilling. It was FAR more information than I'd ever need, but there was no easy filter back then. The web is a phenomenal resource.

I'm rambling, but it comes down to this: it's not about the skills, it's about the problem solving. That's what I get from your question. The skills are arrows in your quiver to solve problems. Commercial and film special effects are phenomenal industries where high-end problem solving on a daily or hourly basis is key.
Theater is also an industry that requires a lot of seat-of-the-pants problem solving. Theater has a lower threshold for entry than film and tv.
Farming. There's more I'm sure.
One good axiom for problem solving is to never be too clever. Think always: can I do this in a simpler way?

Tools and stuff I can't live (or problem solve) without:
An electrical meter
Tape of every kind.
Baling wire
Cordless drill
Drywall screws
nthing fake above about razor blades. I always have about a zillion single edge razor blades and exactos in my kit. You CAN'T go through too many.
Good knife on my belt.
Multitool (I use the leatherman Charge right now)
Big hammer. BIG hammer
A good set of saws: small razor saw, Japanese woodworking saw.
My belt flashlight is a Fenix 3w
Sturdy Tape Measure (and a soft seamstress' tape to boot)
Plumber's tape (that metal ribbon with regularly spaced holes for holding you water heater to the wall, the stuff has gotten me out of more jams that I can count)
Cyanoacrylate glue and accelerator (any hobby shop) in a pinch baking soda can be used to kick crazy glue and even works better than the store bought accelerator for some things.

When I first got to ILM, they had a laser cutter, and I wanted to learn how to use it so badly that I forced myself to make all my xmas presents with it. Everybody's gift smelled faintly of burnt plastic that year.

There's a whole book on this, one that I hope to write or contribute to one day, but hopefully this will suffice.
posted by asavage at 4:07 PM on February 23, 2010 [146 favorites]

Response by poster: Fucking hell. I love this place.

I feel like I just got a bass guitar lesson from Les Claypool. Thanks for chiming in, Adam. I'm happy to report I own or use 90% of the stuff on your "tools" list.

In an amazing coincidence, "like a hot glue gun that spews steel" was what it said under my high school yearbook photo.

Thanks to everyone. There's so much valuable information in this thread.
posted by bondcliff at 8:03 PM on February 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I couldn't imagine being without a bench and good vise. Something small like a panavise or a 12" bench vise; both will help. After that, add a light or three. If you can't have some place to work, have something to hold your work, and see your work, you will get frustrated.

For woodworking or metalworking, sandpaper, sanding blocks, a drill, drill bits. Regular drill bits cut wood or metal; no need to really specialize if you don't have to.

If you were very flush on cash, the table saw is the centerpiece of almost every woodworker's arsenal. It also lops off fingers quite well. Saving that, a large hand saw to cut large pieces of wood to smaller ones helps, but a Japanese dozuki (razor thin pull saw) is really good for fine work.

Honestly, I've found that as far as power tools go, the woodworking router can do anything with the right bits and jig. It is the swiss army knife of power tools.

Having around some glue never hurts; Titebond II.

A multimeter, tin snips, razorblades, screwdrivers...

And I realize I'm rambling.

Pick a project that teaches you to do something you don't know how to do. Do it. Either repurpose tools you have, build new tools, or buy tools to be able to accomplish your goals with that project. Focus on learning new skills on a project basis.

Build a spice rack, cutting board, or box out of wood.
Build a box out of metal. Make motorcycle pegs.
Sew a handkerchief or t-shirt.
Buy an Arduino, and learn how to program it.
Learn to make bread.

When in doubt, find people you can talk to who know things you don't, and ask 'em for ideas. (Good plan, that.)
posted by talldean at 8:58 PM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

For woodworking, I'd strongly recommend just watching The Wood Whisperer video podcasts. He walks through beginning and intermediate fine woodworking in 10-minute chunks, give or take. There are 120ish free podcasts; if something doesn't appeal to you 10-minutes-worth, ignore it.

I appreciate his instructions over almost all others because he often gives an aside, "if you don't have the tool I'm about to use, you could also use X, or even Y, and maybe Z if you had an extra hour free." That's *huge*; it's not about the tools as much as the underlying skills.

A great one to start might be end-grain butcher blocks, which requires hardwood, saw, glue, clamps, and sandpaper. There's an easy introduction to how lumber is sold, which explains the difference of S2S, S4S, FAS, 4/4, 8/4, etc. There are also larger projects, like a six-part series on end tables.

My next project - after the woodworking - is learning to weld, so I can make two bicycles (or more) into a quadricycle. Who doesn't need four wheels and at least two seats?
posted by talldean at 9:07 PM on February 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

20. Not everyone can have this, but I have a laser cutter. I will die without it.

Fake: what do you have? Specifics please if you're willing.

Bondcliff: Thanks so much for posting this. I might be the twin you were talking about.

Adam: You rock. Hard.

I wish I had something more to add but all of my tricks have been covered other than Great Stuff and a couple sheets of foam insulation. I use the Great Stuff for filling molds and making sculptured Hallowe'en props. It's gonna give me cancer but I'll have the best fuckin' props on the block!
posted by Sophie1 at 1:18 PM on February 24, 2010

I'm going to hijack a bit here to ask for specific recommendations on tools, particularly wrenches, hammers, screwdrivers, etc.

When I was growing up the standard was Craftsman. My dad had been using his set for 20 years before I came along, and I'm pretty sure they lasted another twenty.

Who is the standard for durability/quality these days?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:30 PM on February 24, 2010

Response by poster: Who is the standard for durability/quality these days?

As far as I know, it's still Craftsman. See above about the lifetime warranty. Generally when I want a hand tool I go to Sears. Careful though, because Sears also sells some lower quality, non-Craftsman tools.

When I was a field tech, the Snap-On truck would come around now and then. Those were some damn fine tools. I'm not sure they have retail outlets though.
posted by bondcliff at 5:30 AM on February 25, 2010

posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:20 AM on February 26, 2010

I saw this and came back to this thread to add it. I envy fake's setup, though at least I have my own tape collection. great thread.
posted by theora55 at 10:43 AM on February 26, 2010

Best answer: One thing not addressed so far: a box of glues.

At my first professional job, I met The Glue God. 6' tall, 130 lb, white lab coat, hands like a dehydrated cadaver, and filled to the tip of his hairless head with Adhesive Answers. Every time I got hold of an intern, I'd send them on an errand to get some glue from TGG - and ask them to ask him if I was asking for "the right glue for the job". They'd return a half-hour later with a dazed, awestruck look...

Anyway, my point is: there's almost no job on earth that can't be done with glues of some sort. Glues might not always be the best answer, but from chipped teeth to high-performance airplane wings, modern adhesives are increasingly the ultimate fix.

If I had to strip down my glue box to a bare minimum, it would have:
carpenter's glue,
Elmer's(tm) paper glue,
superglue (in those dinky tubes that you use once & throw away),
JB Weld(tm)* or some other, probably-inferior 2-part epoxy,
hot glue gun & tons of glue sticks,
expanding polyurethane glue (such as Gorilla(tm) glue),
plastic wood filler,
plumbing/tub & tile silicone sealant (like Goop(tm)),
popsicle sticks,
and dollar-store "lubricating gel" (as a release/surface protectant).

The latter is especially nice for smearing near the glue joints when using an expanding glue: the overfill won't attach to the visible surfaces, and can be easily trimmed off with a knife when dry.

90% of the time only one of these glues is perfect for the job at hand.

* As an aside: JB Weld! JB Weld! JB Weld for governor! JB Weld for president! JB Weld forever! That shit is a mighty fine, hard, glossy, paintable, fileable, rocklike, grabs-everything 2-part epoxy! Sorry, I just had to get that out of my system...

If your glue doesn't work, you either used the wrong glue (read the label to see what it's recommended for, and know your materials - "plastics", polyurethanes, and PVCs all look alike, for instance, but don't necessarily work with the same glues) or didn't follow instructions (time, clamping, cleaning, surface wet/dryness, surface roughing, temperature). Or, the glue label is a piece of marketing hogwash; never buy that shit again! In my experience, glues are a product where buying the major name brand pays off - those firms can hire the real chemists.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:33 PM on March 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

Shop Savvy is one of my favorite shop books. Mostly what I learned is that if you don't have the tool you need, go ahead and make it. Don't have a lathe, here's how to do it on a drill press. Need a wrench of the right size, go to the grinding wheel. Heaps of good stuff.

I bought this book on Mearls' recommendation and it is fantastic. I just spent the last four hours reading it cover to cover and it taught me a lot of cool things (as well as reinforced some of the things I'd come up with on my own). Highly recommended.

Mearls' answer (IMHO, should be marked best answer) is a book full of the kind of things you're looking for. Buy it!!!!
posted by fake at 8:36 PM on March 1, 2010

Response by poster: Done and bought. Thanks, Mearls and Fake!

IAmBroom, totally agreed about the glue, especially JB Weld. You do know about thistothat.com, right?
posted by bondcliff at 8:56 PM on March 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yep! - but thanks for thinking to put that up.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:04 PM on March 1, 2010

Response by poster: Just a quick followup: I picked up Shop Savvy, based on Mearls' and Fake's suggestion. What an awesome book! It'll be a while before I have the skills and tools do really do much from it, but already it's given me a lot to think about as far as directions I might want to go in. The first section on tools he can't live without, is just the sort of thing I'm looking for.
posted by bondcliff at 6:00 AM on March 9, 2010

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