Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Building a Server Rack

When it comes to electronics, whether you are talking about computers, communications, or sound, the serious gear usually comes in rack-mount cases. Often, you can pick up used gear that is a few years old for not much money. Unfortunately, the racks themselves don't get obsolete, so even the used ones are pretty expensive. This means that you may end up paying more for the rack than you did for the equipment inside it.

Luckily, a real handyman can build a rack much more cheaply than he can buy one.

My main computer cluster lived on cinder blocks for months before I got around to putting it in a rack. Not only was this setup hideously ugly, but the vibration from the fans resonated the blocks and translated through the floor joists to make a constant hum that drove my downstairs neighbor nuts (that was OK, he already didn't like me). I decided to build a proper rack. When I went online, though, most of the designs I found were made out of dimensional lumber and looked almost as ugly as the cinder blocks.

The Cinder Block Approach

Working from a cabinetmaker's sensibilities, I designed the rack that I built this week on the show. It is structurally efficient, better looking than most of the home-made racks on YouTube, and channels the air flow from the fans through a particle filter to keep dust and hair out of the machines.
You can build a rack the size of mine for under $50. Without even counting shipping or assembly costs, this is less than half what an equivalent store-bought rack would cost. I chose the dimensions mainly to make the best use of a common furnace filter from the hardware store. You could easily make it twice as tall and use two filters, or find a smaller filter and make it lower. You could also go without the filter, but I would only recommend this if you were running your computers in a fairly clean indoor environment. Computers suck a lot of air and any dust in a room is going to end up in your fans.

If you are using this for radio amps or stereo equipment you may want to adjust the width and make the cabinet a bit shallower; most amps I've seen are not nearly as deep as a server computer.

Measured Drawings

A high resolution .pdf file, suitable for printing, can be downloaded here.

Or, you can take dimensions off these screen shots. You may need to zoom your browser to read them:
Panel and Frames

Casework Construction

Door Construction

Step by Step

  1. Cut out the OSB pieces, using a table saw or portable circular saw.

  2. Cutting OSB Panels on the Table Saw

  3. Cut pieces of 2x2 softwood to go all the way around the bottom deck. It is easiest to mark the 2x2 directly from the bottom deck and cut to the mark with your saw. Attach these cleats with glue and either clenched nails or drywall screws

  4. Adding Cleats to the Bottom Deck

  5. Cut out the face frame. Optional: If a jointer is available then rip the pieces a little bit oversize and use the jointer to make sure the edges are perfectly square. When crosscutting the face frame pieces to length you will want to use your squarest saw and, if necessary, clean them up with a disk sander or a block plane. If you are working with portable tools, you may want to build a shooting board to use with your hand planes.

  6. Build the face frame, using your preferred joinery technique. In the video I use a pocket screw kit. Biscuits or dowels would also be a good choice if you have either a biscuit jointer or a doweling jig. If you don't have any of these three and are thinking about investing, I would recommend a pocket screw kit because it is the most affordable option and the most frequently useful under job site conditions.

    You can also just drill dowel holes freehand after carefully marking and center-punching the locations. This is a very slow way to build face frames, but it does make acceptable joints.

  7. Building the Face Frame

  8. Sand all of the joints flush on the front of the face frame.

  9. Attach the face frame to the cleats on the bottom deck. Leave a 2 1/2 inch space between the front of the face frame and the front of the bottom deck. Attach the the frame with either pocket screws or dowels.

  10. Attaching the Face Frame to the Bottom Deck

  11. Attach the side panels to the bottom deck and face frame, using glue and either drywall screws or 1/4" pneumatic stapler. Be extra careful not to split the face frame.

  12. Attach two 1x2 cleats around the back opening of the cabinet. Use either screws or staples with glue.

  13. Cleats Around the Back of the Cabinet

  14. Attach more pieces of 2x2 horizontally across the back opening, keeping each piece exactly level with the corresponding rail on the face frame. Hold each piece in with glue and a 3" deck screw.

  15. Place 2x2 blocking between the face frame rails and the 2x2 rails in the back of the cabinet. Use 9d finish nails on the face frame side and common nails on the back. For larger equipment (like a 4U server or an interruptible power supply) you will want to use 2x3 or even 2x4 blocking, or add another piece down the center. Use straight pieces of wood. A bowed piece will make it hard to get your equipment in and out.

  16. Blocking to Support the Equipment

  17. If, like me, you left extra space for future equipment cut a piece of cardboard or poster board that you can wedge or staple in to cover the gap in the face frame. This will keep the equipment fans from drawing air from the hot side of the rack.

  18. Add a few pieces of 1x4 blocking across the top of the the cabinet. These will give you something to screw the top panel to and will make it sturdier, in case some fool decides to sit on your rack.

  19. Sand everything flush at the top of the cabinet so the top panel will have an air-tight fit.

  20. Attach the top panel. Use screws without glue so you can get in if you ever decide to modify the rack at a latter date.

  21. Build the door frame, using the same process you used for the face frame.

  22. Cut thin cleats to hold in the filter. Getting the cleats the right thickness can be tricky, as you want to hold the filter snugly and also have a relatively tight fit with the case to minimize air bypassing the filter. You will probably want to chamfer one edge of the cleats with a plane or on the table saw to get more clearance for opening the door. Use fine brads to hold the cleats on wile the glue dries.

  23. Optionally, add a few strands of cord or wire across the cleats to hold in the filter (an old boot lace would probably work well). Mine fit tightly enough that I didn't bother with this step.

  24. Add hinges and a latch to the door. I used small strap hinges and a magnetic cabinet latch but other types would probably work. You may need to chop out pieces of the cleat to get enough space for the hardware. You can also add a knob or handle to the door, if you want.

  25. Closeup of Hinge and Door Cleats

  26. Hang the door, adjusting the hinges and latch as needed.

  27. Install your equipment. You may need to plane or pare away some wood where the fit is too tight.

  28. Installing the Equipment
Now you know how to build nice racks for electronic equipment. Hopefully, this means that the next time you see a wicked awesome tube amp or web server at the swap meet, you won't have to pass it up because you'll be able to build a place to put it.

The Finished Rack Cabinet

For a better looking cabinet you could easily build this using plywood and hardwood, then paint or stain it. Or, if you are into high performance applications (bitcoin mining?) it would be pretty easy to plumb this with copper water lines or peltier junctions for cooling. As designed now, though, it will should fine for a small computer cluster for an office or a research group.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Dealing With Really Strong Rare Earth Magnets

In the video this week, I solved a technical problem for some librarians, building a very simple jig out of 2x4 and conduit to separate some extremely powerful magnets.  At the time, I was working very intuitively...and it turned out fine.  Actually, this is the only Handyman Kevin video so far that I was able to record in a single take.

I thought it would be interesting to actually look at how an engineer would deal with this problem.  I once flunked out of a pretty good engineering school and I have actually spent a few years working as an engineering technician, so I definitely know enough to be dangerous.   This digression does raise an interesting point, though, which I would like to emphasize.  Even though we handyman types spend 99% of our careers working by intuition and rules of thumb, there does come a time when you need to stop and think about theory a bit.  It can be the difference between whether that bearing wall collapses and takes the client's house (and maybe you) with it or not.

But anyway, back to magnets.

A (very cursory) look around the web indicates that magnets this size have a pull force around 200 lbs.  Remember, though, that the force between two magnets is twice that much.  Actually, since there were three magnets in the stack, it was even more.  How much more?  A quick trip around the web reveals some disagreement between physicists about the exact formula.  Engineers, however, seem to do well enough applying the inverse square law to magnets separated by distance. Unfortunately, I haven't been an engineer for a long time.  My Googling skills are top notch, however, and a few moments later I found this magnet calculator from K&J Magnetics.  After fiddling around a bit, I was pretty sure that the force on the holding the end magnet to our stack of three magnets was around about 240 lbs.

Fortunately, we didn't have to tear it straight off; we could slide it off sideways--shear force, in other words.  One thing I did remember from engineering school, is that the static friction force between two magnets is equal to the coefficient of friction between them, times the normal force pressing them together.  A little more Googeling showed that the coefficient of friction between these sort of magnets is about 0.2.  Therefore, the amount of shear force we needed was about 240 lbs x 0.2 = 48lbs.  This was a little more than I could generate with my bare hands, mainly because there isn't a good way to get leverage.  With our scissor-type separator jig, though, this was no problem.

The scissor jig uses leverage for a mechanical advantage, trading distance for force. The force required out at the end of the handles is only about 1/3 as much as at the magnets, or 16 lbs.  Even a beat-up handyman like me can put 16 lbs on the ends of some 2x4s.  

To there's your lesson for the week:  engineering mechanics applied to 2x4 technology.  Perhaps next time we will delve into more high tech materials.  A rock, perhaps, or some bailing wire.


Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Sawhorses are useful things.  There should be at least one pair in every handyman's pickup.  Pull them out, and they become your temporary work surface in a client's driveway or back yard.  If you need a workbench, then throw a board over them and you're ready to go.  Make some waist-high ones and clamp your miter saw to them.  Better yet, make three (one a few inches taller than the others) and use the third as a support for long pieces.

Make a couple of short ones, put a piece of 2x12 across them, and you have the perfect little bench to stand on when you are hanging or finishing ceiling drywall.

Did you get stuck helping with your church's (school's/lodge's) pancake breakfast?  A couple of tall sawhorses and piece of plywood make a great table, and you can still use the plywood afterwards.  Trestle tables have been in use since at least the dark ages, because they are so handy to break down.

Ever drive on a freeway and see a granite counter-top or window guy's pickup? He probably has a big wooden trestle in the back that he clamps his counter tops or windows to so they won't get damaged in transit.  It would be handy to know how to build one of these, if you ever need to transport a counter slab or a window.  Luckily, it is constructed exactly like a sawhorse, except for a couple of extra boards nailed on for clamping surface.

Now, if you just need a couple of sawhorses, I guess you could got to your local home center and buy a couple of the plastic jobbies.  I guess I should come clean; I've bought them before myself.  Plastic sawhorses get the job done, but they have their drawbacks.  First of all, they aren't cheap.  You'll pay at least twice as much as you would for the lumber and nails to build your own.  Second, they only come in one size.  Third, they don't weigh much, so as soon as the wind picks up, they are going to go flying.  Fourth, they just aren't sturdy enough to trust your weight to.  If I am going to dedicate space in my truck to sawhorses, then I want to be able to use them with a plank for scaffolding when I am painting, finishing drywall, or any other task that has me working just a couple feet too high for comfort. 

The first time you make a sawhorse, it will take you at least half an hour.  By the third time, you'll have that down to 15 minutes.  When I make large batch of them, I can turn one out every 10 minutes without too much trouble.  Building sawhorses is a valuable skill and, once you master it, you will never run out of uses for the things.

In the video I made a sawhorse the same height as my tables saw to use as an out-feed support when I cut long pieces.   I have included a few critical dimensions in the sketch below.  These may not be too useful to you, unless you have the same model of saw I do.  Incidentally, I've been pretty happy with the Rigid saw, so you might want to consider it if you're in the market.

Most of the time, you will want to use some sort of 2x stock for the top piece and some sort of 1x stock for the legs.  In practice, most of them get built out of whatever wood was left over from the last job.

I went over the general process in the video, but here it is again.  I think I am slightly indebted to Fine Homebuilding Magazine for this technique, because I believe that is where the guy who taught me learned it, back the '80s.

  1. Cut a piece of 2x4 or 2x6 to length for the top piece.  Sawhorses are usually between 2 and 3 feet long.
  2. Cut the legs out of 1x4 or 1x6.  Run them about 6" long at this point, so you will have plenty of room to angle the ends.  
  3. Mark and cut the gains in the top piece.   Remember that the legs splay outward in two dimensions.  This step will be much easier of you set your bevel to the approximate angle, mark it, and then use your combination square to mark the gains.  Frankly, the exact angle isn't critical, as long as you have the same angle for all the legs in a set of sawhorses.
  4. Nail the legs into the gains, letting them run long at the top.  Use 6d or 8d nails, and add a dab of wood glue it it's handy.
  5. Use a hand saw to cut the tops of the legs level with the top of the sawhorse.
  6. Nail gussets (made of 1x, OSB, or plywood) to the legs to keep them at the proper angle.  It usually helps to gut out one gusset, then use it to mark the other side.  
  7. Cut the compound angle on the ends of the legs.  If you are trying to make the sawhorses a certain height, the you want to turn the sawhorse upside down and use a straight edge to transfer the dimension.  Otherwise, you can measure to an arbitrary length and use your bevel to mark.  
That's all there is to it.  With a little practice, you will be able to crank out as many sawhorses as you need in no time flat.  At some point, you will probably even be able to do it with the camera rolling while trying to explain yourself.


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Easy Camera Mounts

This week I showed you how to build a handy little camera mount out of a couple pieces of job site debris and a 1/4-20 machine screw.

On a "run and gun" how-to documentary like Handyman Kevin, finding a good way to hold the camera is an eternal challenge.  I usually need both hands free to demonstrate the project, yet I often don't have another person around to operate the camera.  I do have a regular tripod, which I use quite a bit.  However, it is sometimes too big to fit in tight spots and I don't always remember to bring it with me.  In other words, I've had to make a few of these little camera mounts.

The Job Site Scraps Mount

Here are the steps to build it, in case you missed some of them in my video:

  1. Find a smallish piece of 1x4 (or wider) lumber and a longer piece of 1x2 lumber.
  2. On the 1x4 mark out a piece about 3 1/2" x 6" with an off-center 1 1/2" square hole in it.
  3. Cut out the square hole by drilling holes in two opposite corners, then cutting along the lines with either a coping saw or jig saw.  At this time, also drill a 1/4" hole for the screw that will hold the camera.
  4. Cut the piece of 1x4 to width and length.
  5. Cut the 1x2 piece approximately in thirds.
  6. Use a knife or rasp to round the corners of one of the 1x2 pieces.
  7. Use drywall screws to assemble to 1x2 pieces into some sort of sturdy base.
  8. Mount the 1x4 piece to the base with two drywall screws.  It should fit tightly enough to hold the camera in place with friction.  If it is too loose, shim the edges of the square hold with paper or scraps of aluminum cut from a soda can.
  9. Put the 1/4-20 screw through the hole in the mount and secure it in place with nuts.
This mount works surprisingly well, considering how crude it is.  Not only does it hold the camera at whatever angle I want, but the base actually makes a pretty stable handle for hand-carry shots.  However, I would have made one design change:  If I had had them, I would have used wing nuts instead of drywall screws to hold the head in adjustment, as I did in the next mount.  Not only are they easier to adjust, but they last longer.  

The F-Clamp Mount

One of the problems with the kind of videos I make is that I often need shots where I am up a ladder on an outside wall, or in a crawl space.  The next camera mount works well for these because it can clamp to rafters, joists, fascias, or columns under houses.

Note:  I have a relatively light camera.  If you use this mount with a larger video camera, you will probably want to beef it up accordingly.  Also, it you have an expensive camera and are planning to hang it from the second story, think about a safety line attached to a second clamp, in case you fumble when you are undoing the clamp.

Camera Mount on a Fascia

Camera Mount on the Bottom of a Floor Joist
I was at home when I built this, so I had access to my main resource piles and could choose the best hardware for the job.  The most important piece is an f-clamp with a 1/4" hole drilled near one end.  I suppose this is one more use I should have listed for f-clamps in last weeks blog.  One nice feature is that, if I need the clamp back, I can unscrew the mount and stow it.

I drilled a hole in the end of the clamp and attached two angle brackets, allowing the camera to be positioned in three axes.  The connections between the angle bracket and the clamp and between the two angle brackets are made with double wing nuts on a 1/4" bolt (a short piece of all-thread would also have worked).

The screw that holds the camera is used very similarly to the one in the previous mount.  The double nuts hold it at just the right depth to fully engage the tapped hole in the camera.  Life will be easier if you put a dab of Loctite on one of the nuts, so keep if from turning when you adjust the other nut.

Completed F-Clamp Mount

Close-up of Head Articulation

Other Ideas

Hopefully, these two designs have shown you how easy it is to make your own camera mounts.  The same basic ideas can be used to create a wide range of camera holding fixtures.  You could glue a piece of 1/4" all-thread into the end of a broom stick, put a crutch tip on the other end, and you will have a very workable monopod for taking pictures on a hike or at your kid's soccer game.  Or build just the head from the job site scraps mount, Velcro it to the fender of your truck or to the nose of your skateboard, and go out to make some YouTube magic.  Just try not to break your camera or your neck.

With a little creativity, you could probably even make a pretty decent tripod.  I'm not sure it would dollar out, given how affordable they have gotten recently, but it might be a good handyman conversation piece. 

A Primer on Home Security

This week  I showed you some simple things you can do to increase the security of a house, especially an older house.  When thinking about your security situation, you might want to remember two guiding principles.  You could think of them as Handyman Kevin's two laws of security:

  1. Security is relative.  If you're house is more secure than the neighbors, then the bad guys will rob the neighbors.  
  2. You will never be able to keep someone out who really wants in, but you can slow him down and force him to make a lot of noise doing it.
The first law reminds me of a saying we had when I was growing up in Montana: "You don't need to outrun the bear, you just need to outrun your buddy." Criminals are lazy by nature. That's why they make a living from crime instead of having a real job. Contrary to what you may have seen on daytime TV, they almost never bother picking locks, defusing alarm systems, or anything else that is complicated or time consuming. Given a block of houses, they almost always choose the one with the unlocked window. If all the windows are locked, they chose the one where all they have to do is break a back window or pry off a doorjamb. Given two houses, they choose the one that is less likely to have an alarm. This means that if you do a few simple upgrades, and the neighbors don't, then they will hit the neighbors instead of you.

The second law is closely related to the first.  If you make it hard on criminals, then they will move on.  Anyone who is willing to employee serious tools and make some noise is going to get in if they really want.  Trust me, I've made openings in a lot of walls in my time.  But if you create a situation where they need to use big tools or power tools, then the neighbors (or cops, if you are in a good neighborhood) are much more likely to notice that something is up.   Likewise, if you make it so they need to break glass or kick in doors instead of just jimmying them open, then that is also more likely to attract attention.

So that covers the philosophical portion of the lesson.  Let's look at some specific areas and what you can do.

Entry Doors

Re-key your doors  when you move in, and any time you think your keys could be in the wrong hands.  The "wrong hands" includes your sketchy ex-boyfriend, the cleaning lady you fired, the teenage stepson you threw out for smoking crack, that former roommate who still owes you money... you get the idea.  A locksmith can change the keying on the existing locks, but will charge you at least $100 to do it.  It is often cheaper to just pick up a package of lock sets and just change them out.  Generally, the only tool you need is a screwdriver. 

Always Change the Locks When You Move In

All doors to the outside of the house should be made of either solid wood or welded steel.  You would be surprised at how many interior doors I have seen installed on the outside, especially by miserly landlords who don't want to pay triple digits for a door that's just going to get kicked in next time a tenant gets arrested.  These interior doors are thinner than entry doors, hollow, and basically useless for security or insulation.  If your doors are not exterior grade, then replacing them should be an early priority.  We will talk about hanging doors in a couple weeks. 

You might think about putting security screen-doors over your entry doors.  These force an invader to deal with twice as many locks on their way in.  Make sure that the frame holding the screen door is held in with lag bolts, not screws, and that they are long enough to go all the way through the siding into the wall studs. 

A Security Screen Door

The normal way that burglars break into an entry door is to use a flat bar to break the door jam away from the house frame.  This works because the door latch hardware is usually held on with dinky little brass screws that only go into the jamb.  You can make it much harder on them by replacing the screws with sturdy 3" steel deck screws that go all the way into the studs.

Another possible failure point is the wood around the doorknob, which may break if they pry hard enough on the door.  I didn't show it in the video, but you can buy metal security plates to reinforce this area. 

The last thing that I want to mention about entry doors, is to remind you that you are only as secure as your weakest door.  In most houses I go into, the front door is the sturdiest and has the best locks.  This is backwards.  Thieves nearly always prefer a side or back door, and they will circle your house until they find the easiest one to get through.  Spend your upgrade money equally. 

Sliding Doors

Sliding doors tend to be much more of a security risk than entry doors.  The older ones, in particular, are very easy to knock off of their tracks.  The aluminum frames are relatively soft and can sometimes be pried apart with a screwdriver to expose the latch.  Unfortunately, other than covering the whole door with a security screen (which can get expensive) you can't do much with the basic door structure.

You can, however, give attackers less to work with by driving anti-jacking screws into the door frame.  Leave enough clearance for the door to slide, but not enough for it to be lifted off its track.  It's also a good idea to jam a broomstick or piece of 1/2" conduit into the track when the door is closed.  That way, even if they defeat the latch, it will still be hard to open the door.

Anti-Jacking Screw

Supplemental locks are available which clamp onto the frames of aluminum doors and windows.  I'm not sure they work any better than a broomstick, but they don't cost much and they probably help. 

Several Types of Sliding Window Locks


Windows seem to be a more popular access point for burglars than doors, if only because people tend to leave them open in the summer. The nuclear option would be to cover them with steel security bars.  However, this is expensive, and way beyond the abilities of a handyman or DIYer.  It can also cause evacuation problems in a fire, and it will enrage your neighbors because of the impact on their resale value.  The exception would be if all the neighbors already have bars, in which case you should stop reading this and go buy some (see the first law, above).  There are some less drastic things that you can do to harden your windows, though.

Sliding windows are a lot like sliding doors, and the same advice applies.

Jalousie windows, the ones with the individual louvers that open with a crank, are just hopeless from a security point of view.  Anyone with a flat blade screwdriver can pry the panes out in under 5 minutes (I know, because that's the first step I follow when I replace them).  They are also ugly and not weather tight.  Replace them immediately with a proper sash window.  It's pretty easy, just remove the louvers and the mechanism, then screw the new window directly into the old window frame.  Trim it out and caulk carefully, and you're done. 

Sash windows are my personal favorite.  All you need to do is drill a small hole in the frame to accept a pin, and you can restrict them so they only open a few inches.

For windows that will be left open most of the time (e.g. in a bathroom with no fan), think about making a wood or metal screen that you can install in the window.  Size it so the security pin jambs the sash against the screen, for extra security.   

Sash Window


From a security point of view, you just can't have too much lighting.  Install motion sensor flood lights on the outside of the house.  You don't want to leave any routes for people to approch the house in shadow, or any places for them to hide and ambush you when you come home.  A basic incandescent motion-sensor fixture costs under $20.   You can get an LED fixture for about three times that, but you may make the extra cost back over the years in decreased power bills.  If you are lucky, you will be able to replace an existing fixture, in which case the new fixture will bolt to the same box in the wall.

Motion Sensor Flood Light

It isn't that hard to wire new fixtures, but it does go a little beyond the scope of this article.  Just be sure to follow the NEC which requires, among other things, that all wiring connections occur inside a box, and that any cable that runs on the outside of the house be enclosed in a conduit. 

In recent years, solar powered lights have become a viable option.  Since they charge with their own solar panels, you don't need to pull any cables.  I haven't used them myself yet, but installation seems to be a simple matter of screwing them to the wall. 

Alarms and Surveillance

I need to make an admission here:  I really don't work much with alarms or surveillance systems.  Low voltage wiring just isn't my thing.  One of my best handyman buddies is a wiz at it, but doesn't enjoy finish carpentry.  I turf most of my low voltage wiring work to him, he sends me his woodworking, and everyone is happy.  

From what I've seen, though, the current generation of alarm or surveillance camera kits are relatively affordable and meant to be installed by the average weekend handyman.  Look at online reviews to find a package that has worked well for other people at your skill level and price point.

I did install a two camera surveillance system to cover the entrances of the commercial loft where my handyman service used to be based.  I bought it from Harbor Freight for about $70.  It came with two cameras and a little black and white TV, and was useful for making sure no one was waiting to jump me as I left the building, since my windows didn't look down on the entrances.  Installation was a matter of drilling two holes in the wall, screwing the cameras to the eaves, and zip-tying the cables down.  It wouldn't have been that useful to foil burglars, though, because I never got around to putting a VCR on it to record and, once a bugler got in, their first priority would probably have been to wreck the VCR.  Nowadays, no one has a VCR anymore and most systems record to your computer with some sort of USB interface.  That works fine, unless the burglar steals the computer.

Of course the most effective electronic security systems have a live person on the other end monitoring them.  If you hire such a service, they will probably also install and maintain the equipment.  That sort of thing is a little beyond the financial means of a simple handyman, however.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The 10 Critical Hand Tools

Imagine a person who is just getting started in the world of being handy.  This person doesn't have any tools yet--or at least no decent tools.  What should they buy right away?  Maybe you are this person, or at least know them and want to give them advice.  Alternately, imagine a guy like me, who has some fairly specialized tools.  What should I put in my main tool bag, the one that I grab and toss in the truck no matter where I'm going?  This week's episode is about the 10 tools that I absolutely can't live without and think every adult human should own.

Mind you, the number 10 is pretty arbitrary.  I could easily have come up with the top 20, 50, or even 100.  But these 10 tools fit nicely in a small tool bag, and will allow you to tackle at least 80% of the regular household repairs that you will ever encounter.  If you buy these tools and master them, then buy other tools because you need them for specific projects, you will soon have a versatile, all-around tool collection.

Back when I was actually working in the trades, I would not have been ashamed to show up for work with just these 10 tools, plus a cordless drill.

NOTE:  Where appropriate, I have inserted a link to Amazon for each tool, where you can buy it.  You certainly don't need to buy them there.  However, keep in mind that a percentage of any sale on Amazon will go towards keeping Handyman Kevin "on the air". 

A Few Words on Cost Control

Buying these 10 tool will cost around $150.  I realize this is a big investment for many people.  It would be for me; that's two or three days pay for a handyman.  If you are on a tight budget, you can probably find many of these used at pawn shops, estate sales, or swap meets.  A used name brand tool with a few good years left in it is always better than a cheap import tool.  Also, keep in mind that tools tend to go on sale around Fathers' Day, Labor Day, and Christmas; you may want to schedule your purchase accordingly. 

Tape Measure

If you can't measure something, then you can't mark and cut it.  If you don't know what size something is, then you can't buy another one.  The tape measure is critical and there is no real replacement for it.

Get a 25 foot tape.  This is the size that most tradespeople carry 8 hours a day because it is big enough to measure most rooms, yet small enough to clip to your belt.  Try to find one with a reasonably stiff blade that you can stick out a ways before it collapses.  A bright colored case is a nice feature, since it will make it easier to find after you drop it in tall grass or a pile of scraps.

Any "name brand" tape is fine, but Stanley has dominated the market for years.  I currently use one of their bright green tapes because it has nice rounded profile that fits well in the small nail pouch on my tool belt. 


Utility Knife

The knife is one of mankind's first and most fundamental tools.  For job site work, a sturdy utility knife with replaceable blades is an absolute necessity.  It is both a marking and a cutting tool.  You use it instead of a pencil to mark boards when you want to make a precise cut with a handsaw or chisel; the teeth of the saw or edge of the chisel slips in and follows the knife mark.  As a cutting tool, it is the appropriate way to cut drywall, carpet, linoleum, tar paper, shingles, and many other materials.

Most brands work pretty well.  I personally use a Stanley with quick-change blades (below), but this is mainly because that is the style they had in the tool rooms when I worked in factories, and I got used to it.  I do like that I can get to the spare blades and change them without a screwdriver, and it fits well in the knife holster of the nail bag that I use when I'm hanging drywall, which some of the funkier designs don't.



For such a simple tool, there is a bewildering variety of shapes and sizes of hammer.  However, the best all around hammer to have around has a 20 oz head, a straight rip claw, a smooth faced head, and either a fiberglass or metal handle.  You might get others later, but this is the hammer that you will reach for most of the time.

The 20 oz size is a medium--light enough to drive tacks and finish nails, but heavy enough for occasional framing.  At the risk of appearing sexist, I will share an observation that I've made.   Women I have known nearly always buy hammers that are too light for the work they are doing.  Good hammering technique uses gravity and inertia to do some of the work for you.  Weight is a good thing, and a you will actually need to work harder with a lighter hammer.  Men, especially young men, tend to have the opposite problem.  They buy the heaviest hammer they can lift, and wear themselves out carrying it to the job site.  Both men and women should start with a 20 oz hammer and buy other sizes later if they need them.

The straight rip claw is a more versatile design than the curved "claw hammer" style.  While this style makes it more awkward to pull nails, it makes up for it by being much more useful for prying and digging.  You can even sharpen it up and use it like a little sideways axe.  When I'm framing I usually keep the claw of my hammer quite sharp.  Then, when I need to let in a brace or a nailer in a wall I just cut the edges with my saw and hack out the wood between with the claw of my hammer.  You wouldn't believe how fast it goes (although you'll see for yourself when I get around to doing an episode on framing). 

The smooth faced head is a compromise.  You bend fewer nails with the hammers that have a milled or knurled head.  But you can't use them for finish work because they chew up the surface too badly. They can also damage the butts of chisels and similar tools.  Your "all around" hammer should have a smooth face.

Your first hammer should also have either a fiberglass or metal haft.  I actually like the action better on wooden handles, but they just aren't as durable.  This is your main tool-bag hammer and it needs to be rugged enough to face whatever you run into.  Also, I can tell you that less experienced workers break a lot of wooden hammer hafts, because they don't have a good understanding of the forces they generate when using the hammer to pry things.  Someone like me can get years out of a wooden handled hammer because he knows how much leverage is "too much".  If you are just starting out, steer clear of wooden handles. 

I'm really hesitant to recommend specific brands or models.  The best way to buy a hammer is to go to the store, pick a bunch of them up, and buy the one that feels the most natural to you.  When I bought the hammer that I have been using for the past 6 years (which appears in several videos in this series), I went into the hardware store with $40 in my pocket.  I picked up every hammer in the store, and ended up going home with the one that cost $8, because it felt the best in my hand.

However, if you do want to buy a hammer online, the three below all match the description above and seem pretty popular (going by what I've seen on job sites).


Channel Lock Pliers

The generic name for these is "groove lock pliers", but everyone calls then Channel Locks, which was the first, and is still the best brand.  These will be your number one tool for anything involving plumbing or pipe-fitting.  Get the kind that have curved jaws (also known as V-jaws) becuase they work better on pipe.  The 12" size is the handiest.

During my time in the Fire Sprinkler business, various members of Sprinkler Fitters' Local 709 showed me a bewildering range of uses for this tool.  Every self-respecting sprinkler fitter has a pair of 12-inch "channies" sticking out of the pocket of his overalls at all times.   A few of these uses:

  1. Turning pipe and plumbing fittings, particularly when a pipe wrench isn't available or is all the way at the bottom of the ladder
  2. Lifting manhole covers
  3. As a hammer to pound in pipe hangers
  4. As a pair of tongs to pick up red-hot objects
  5. To grab and bend metal objects
  6. As a nail puller
  7. To turn bolts that are bigger than our biggest wrench
  8. To compress brake cylinders when changing brake pads
  9. To undo the tie-downs on the truck when we forgot the leverage bar
  10. Etc, ad infinum
If I was going to be stuck on a desert island with only one set of pliers, I would pick a 12" pair of Channel-Locks.

If you can, get the real Channel-Lock brand, which is made in the USA and is still the best:

If you are on a constrained budget, I have had decent luck with the Stanleys.  Just be prepared for some ribbing if you work with union sprinkler fitters.   



You can never have enough screwdrivers.  You will eventually want one in every shape and size.  However, to start out, get a multi-screwdriver (also known as a 6-in one screwdriver).  This style has the four most popular screwdriver bits, plus a shaft that functions as two sizes of nut driver (one of which happens to be the right size for most kinds of hose clamps).  I keep one in my tool belt at all times.  Since they are pretty cheap, I also keep one in the glove box of my pickup, and another in a drawer in my kitchen.  Most hardware stores that I've shopped in have a display of them right next to the cash register.

The one I've carried in my tool belt for the past few years is made by Stanley, and often sells for under $5, which I consider to be a pretty good deal.


Adjustable Wrench

The world is full of nuts, bolts, and other things with wrench flats on them.  While the channel locks will handle some of these, you will never be able to put as much leverage on a nut without destroying it as you would with a real wrench.

If you only have one wrench, you want it to be adjustable.  Even if you're like me and you own a pretty good selection of wrenches (SAE, metric, special shapes for bicycles, special shapes for plumbing, etc), you probably still find yourself fishing out an adjustable wrench on a regular basis for those sizes that you don't have.

Most people call this style a Crescent wrench because Crescent was the company that first came out with it.  Prior to that, a style called a "monkey wrench" (invented by a guy named Charles Moncky) was the most popular.  Monkey wrenches still turn up now and then, and they work fine, but the same length is both heavier and bulkier than the Crescent style, and can't fit in as tight a spot. 

Anyway, the wrench you want for your tool bag is about a 10" Crecent-style adjustable wrench.  You will use it to tighten and loosen all sorts of things.  Later, when you have a chance, try to pick up a little bitty one (say 6") and a big one (at least 14") to keep around the shop.   

This kind of wrench can also be put on the back of a screwdriver or another wrench and used for additional leverage.

Using Crescent wrench as a "Cheater" with Screwdriver and Smaller Wrench

An adjustable wrench is also great for bending pieces of metal.  I used to use one in the bike shop to bend derailleur hangers when bikes weren't shifting right.  I know several people who work on medieval armor who like to use them for fine adjustments on pieces of plate mail, or for closing chain mail links. 

Finally, when I have to make house calls in bad neighborhoods, I often tuck one in my belt.  A crescent wrench to the side of the head is a pretty good attitude adjuster, and it is less likely to get you in trouble with cops than a "real" weapon.  Just keep it in plain view.  Not only does it show the locals that you are prepared, but it avoids leaving you open to a concealed weapons charge.  (Such nice places you get to go in the handy-business...)


5-in-1 Tool

Don't ask me what the original five uses of this tool are, but I must have found at least 100 so far in my career.  I really can't imagine doing any sort of painting without one close at hand.  I keep one over the workbench, one in my main tool bag, one under the kitchen sink, one in...well, you get the idea. 

First and foremost, it is a scraper.  It works well for old paint, dried wood glue, dirt in rain gutters, old window glazing, old caulk, and many other things.  The cut away part of the blade lets it get into tight corners.  All of them have the end ground for scraping flat things, and many have the curved parts ground for scraping round things.  If you need to scrape a floor and don't have a floor scraper (eg, because you are about to glue down carpet), you can lash one of these to a broom stick and get a lot of leverage.  I've also used a 5-in-1 on the end of a stick to scrape hides when I was making rawhide.

Next, it is a light duty chisel.  Mind you, it will never take as sharp an edge or be as precise as a good bench chisel, but it works fine for a lot of the sort of rough and ready "hammer it in and pry" jobsite stuff that you would never want to risk your expensive bench chisels on.  I particularly like to hammer it into drywall to square off a hold I've made so it will be easier to patch.

It works as a thin prybar for removing moldings, cabinet face frames, and the like.  Because it is thinner than most regular prybars, you won't need to repair as much damage afterwards.

It can work like a froe to split green wood.  You can take a relatively straight billet of green wood and split it into stakes by hammering your 5-in-1 into the end.  With practice, you can make stakes this way faster than you could set up a power saw to rip the wood, and stakes come in handy for all sorts of things on a job site.  

The square bit on the side is made for opening cans of paint.  I like it better for this use than the church key things they give you at the paint store.  This part is also a good size to undo the big screw that holds the iron in a bench plane, as well as the screw that holds my camera to its tripod.   

The handle is sturdy enough that you can use it to hammer paint cans closed.  Some of them have a steel butt cap, and can be used to dimple a nail hole in drywall before you spackle it.

Some of them have cutouts in the blade for pulling nails, opening bottles, or changing tips on a paint sprayer.

In a pinch, you can use a 5-in-1 as a putty knife to apply spackle or wood filler.  It is a little too stiff to be a good putty knife, but it will work.  There are some spots that you can reach with a 5-in-1 easier than a with a putty knife.  What it does works rather well for is to scrape the putty knife clean after you are done with it. 

I think you get the picture.   


You can never, ever have too many clamps.  If I was rich, I'd probably have a whole room full of them so I would always have enough of exactly the right size and shape.  The one that I usually keep in my tool bag, however, is a 12" f-style clamp, which seems to be the size I use the most.

The two obvious uses of a clamp are holding things together while they are gluing and holding things down while you work on them.  It usually makes things much safer if you can find a way to clamp down a piece of work before you use a rotary tool like a circular saw or router on it, and sometimes its just nice to have another hand free.

Clamps are useful for much more than that, though.  You can put them on nearly anything and they become a handle.  Or (spoiler alert!) put a clamp on the bottom of a door to keep it from tipping over while you cut the hinge mortises.  If you get to the point of building your own scaffolding (and you will get to that point very quickly if you work on Victorian houses), you will want to use lots of clamps to make sure that scaffold boards and safety rails stay put.

There are many jobs where you need a helper to hold the other end of something, unless you get creative and find a way to do it with a clamp.  Then you just saved having to hire a laborer or cajol a friend or spouse into helping you.  The definitive book on this topic is John Carroll's Working Alone.  Carroll is a guy who knows his clamps. 

I tend to buy the Jorgenson Pony clamps because that is the brand I got used to when I worked in cabinet shops.  Bessey is also another good brand.  Lately, however, I've noticed that the off-brand (i.e. Chinese) clamps are getting much better and I've been buying more of them; I would rather have plenty of "good enough" clamps than a few "pro quality" ones.  That being said, the one in my tool bag is a Jorgensen heavy-duty model.


Combination Square

This is the basic layout and measuring tool for any sort of precision work.  When I was a cabinetmaker I wore out several, and most machinists and finish carpenters probably have a similar experience.

It is called a combination square because, in addition to being 45 degree and 90 degree squares, it also includes a level and the sliding blade allows it to function as a marking gauge and a depth guage, both of which are incredibly useful when you start to do actual joinery.  Take it apart, and you have a small square (perfect for squaring the blades on circular saws) and a high quality ruler.

Combination squares are sometimes sold as sets with extra attachments that go on the blade.  The most common are a center finding head (useful to wood turners) and a protractor head that lets the square be set at any angle.  Sometimes you also see a surface gauge head, which you can use to mark things that are laid up on a surface plate.  All of the above are nice, but none of them are useful enough to get in the top 10 by themselves.  If it were me, I would just get a serviceable square with the standard head. 

Look to spend around $15 for a square that is accurate enough for general handyman and woodworking use.  Master woodworkers and machinists often fork over triple digits for a top of the line square, but they never take them on job sites where they might get knocked around.  The brands below are all adequate, and I don't have a personal preference between them.

Japanese-Style Handsaw

Even in this day of affordable electric saws, some sort of hand saw belongs in every handyman's bag.  There are still plenty of cuts that you can't finish with your circular saw or reach with your jigsaw.  There are still plenty of work locations where the nearest outlet is 10 feet further than your extension cord, or where you are up to your knees in water and afraid of electrocuting yourself.  And, if you don't have an electric saw, then you will be using hand saws for everything.

There are two main families of saws in the world.  European style saws have heavier blades and are made to cut on the push stroke.  They have thicker blades and leave a wider kerf, so they bind less when you are cutting.  The steel tends to be softer than Asian saws and the shape of the teeth makes it possible to sharpen them yourself (although it takes practice and specialized tools to do it right).  However, the push stroke makes it harder to control the saw with precision and more likely that the back side of a cut will chip out.  When using a European saw, always cut with the good or finish side of the work towards you.

European saws tend to be optimized for a particular purpose.  You use a different saw for cutting with the grain than you do for cutting across it.  A saw meant for cutting plastic will have the teeth shaped differently than one for cutting plaster or wood.  Back in the day carpenters used to carry saw bags with five or six different kinds of saws in them.  These days, with power saws available, you can get away with just carrying a smallish crosscut saw. 

Asian saws cut on the pull stroke.  This makes them easier to control and allows for a thinner blade that you can bend to, for example, cut something off flush with a floor.  Many of the job site models have blades with crosscut teeth on one side and rip teeth on the other.  The crosscut teeth are of a shape that works equally well on wood or plastic, and will cut soft metals in a pinch (although that's bad for he teeth).   Typically, the blade detaches from the handle so the whole thing will fit in a tool bag.

Asian saws are not meant to be resharpened.  The blades stay sharp a long time but, once they get dull, you toss them out and get a new blade for your handle.  A replacement blade costs about half the price of the whole saw.   The exceptions are some high end saws, for which you can mail the blade back to Japan to be sharpened by a master saw smith.

I started out using European saws, and still use them quite a bit for fine woodworking in the shop.  For about a decade now, however, my tool bag saw has been of the pattern the Japanese call a Ryoba, which is made for general carpentry.  Not only do I like the pull stroke, now that I've had time to get used to it, but I love that the saw packs down into a convenient package that doesn't require a super long tool bag.  

A regular European style crosscut saw would also be an option, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you are really used to using one.  If you are starting out and don't have any bad habits, then you might as well learn on an Asian saw.


The Top 25

There were a lot of hand tools that almost made my top 10 list.  I chose most of the ones I did because they are multi-use tools that fill more than one niche.  Other tools didn't quite make it because, while I use them quite often, they only do one thing.  So, for example, a 6" taping knife didn't quite make it because you will buy it the first time you work with drywall, but you won't need it before then.  Still, I thought I had better list the other fifteen tools which I think would go in the Top 25.

If I was starting from scratch and trying to build a tool collection I would probably aquire the first 10, then buy the best cordless drill I could afford (with a basic set of drill and driver bits), then pick up the other 15 as I needed them for projects. 

In no particular order, they are: