Tough Tool Questions Answered
TOH's editors identify your flea market finds, offer tool maintenance tips, and tell you what's worth buying
This one's for the tool lovers. Every month, we open the popular Ask This Old House section of the magazine with a stunning capture that showcases how beautiful tools can be. From wrenches to hand planes to spokeshaves, we've curated a year's worth of these handsome hardworkers. So, sit back, relax, and take in some artfully presented antique tools and home products, as the TOH TV crew and magazine editors explain their origins and uses.
Q: I found this interesting saw on eBay. What can you tell me about it? —Paul Cooper, Yorktown Heights, N.Y.
A: Interchangeable blades allow this tool to morph from a crosscut saw (far left) to a pruning saw to a backsaw (for making dovetails) to a jab saw (for cutting holes in drywall). Getting four saws for the price of one seems like a good deal, but only if a solid connection can be made between the handle and each of the blades. Otherwise, it's just an unusual, and not very useful, artifact.
Q: Which is more useful: a set of combination wrenches or a socket set? —John Rolfe, Red Hook, NY.
A: Actually, you need both—and not just to build a comfy office chair, like the one shown here. (Nice, huh?) Combination wrenches, which have an open-jawed wrench on one end and a closed box wrench on the other, come in handy when space is tight. Sockets are real time-savers if you have enough clearance. Thanks to a socket's ratcheting handle, you don't have to remove and reposition it when the handle encounters an obstacle. Sometimes you'll need both tools at once: a combination wrench to hold a bolt head steady as you tighten its nut with a socket.
Q: When's the best time to rototill my garden? —Maryanne Collins, Islip, N.Y.
A: You may not need to rototill at all. If your soil has the right pH, a good balance of organic matter, and is light and fluffy, a power tiller or a manual cultivator, like the one shown at left, can actually wreck the soil's structure and reduce its fertility. But if a soil test shows that amendments have to be added, tilling does make sense. Till when the soil is damp, not wet or dry. Just squeeze some in your hand. If it holds its shape when you open your fist, it's too wet. If it crumbles, it's too dry. If it cracks apart, it's ready to cultivate.
Q: Do robot mowers work and are they worth the money? If not, then how will we know when the day of the robot is really here? —Jim Babcock, Omaha
A: Yes, these mowers do work, and I suppose they're worth the money if you really don't want to mow, or hire a lawn service, and your yard isn't bigger than 5,000 square feet. We'll know robotic mowers have arrived when they can cover about five times that area, have an onboard GPS to steer them efficiently without the need for buried wires, and there's a network of repair shops you can go to when they need fixing. —Roger Cook, TOH Landscape Contractor
Q: I can't seem to coil a hose without it kinking. I'm left-handed—is that the problem? —Lee Daley, Edison, N.J.
A: I don't think that matters, but it could be your hose. Rubber hoses like the ones shown here don't kink as easily as vinyl hoses. Also, try this technique: Drain the hose, lay it out straight, then wrap it around the base of a trash can. Now lift the can off your nice, neat coil. Once you get the hang of it, try it without the can.
—Roger Cook, TOH Landscape Contractor
For our annual Reader-Created issue, TOH fan Bob Jones in Denver shared with us some wood planes that belonged to his great-grandfather:
"My great-grandfather Frank Verbeeck was head carpenter at the Drake Hotel in Chicago during the 1920s. These are two of his planes. I think they are about 100 to 120 years old. The long one is a jointer plane and was used to make board edges perfectly straight. The shorter one is a jack plane, which smoothed boards in preparation for the jointer.
I actually used the jack plane earlier this year to trim the bottom of a door that could no longer open. The blade could use a good sharpening, but it still worked!"
Q: I found these in my grandfather's toolbox. What are they, and what were they used for? —Mark Lionetta, Acton, Mass
A: What you have are wood mallets, which can knock together wood joints or drive home plugs that might dent or fracture under the force of a normal hammer. The iron or brass hoops on some of these mallets add weight to the head and prevent the face from splintering.
Q: I picked up this handsome tool at a garage sale. Can you tell me what it's used for? —Randy Foco, Hale, Mich.
A: What you have is a fine example of a loop-handled spokeshave, a tool originally used to round over the wood spokes on a wagon and carriage wheels. Nowadays, they're mostly used for shaping furniture legs and canoe paddles, but they can also be employed to make or refurbish simple balusters, newels, and porch columns. By the way, this one was made in Birmingham, England, by Edward Preston & Sons, a respected 19th-century toolmaker.
Q: What makes a hatchet different than an ax? —Rob Luskey, Placentia, California
A: Technically, a hatchet is a type of ax, one that weighs 3 pounds or less. Heavier axes have large heads and long handles, just the thing for heavy-duty work like tree-felling, limbing, and log splitting. You can't put a lot of power into a light, short-handled hatchet; it's better suited to finer work. The hatchet at left was for installing lath, and the one immediately below it was for shingling. They both have polls shaped like hammerheads for driving nails. The squarer, more robust hatchet head in the foreground would be good for splitting kindling.
Q: My dad used an antique circular plane to build rocking chairs. Do they still make this tool today? —Mike Penrose, Wylie, Texas
A: Circular planes, also called compass planes, have a flexible steel sole that can be adjusted to smooth both convex and concave surfaces such as wood wheels, boat parts, and staircases. This one, a Stanley #113, dates back to 1877. It was discontinued in 1942. The closest thing to it that's being made today is a Kunz #113, which can be found in specialty woodworking catalogs and online.
Q: Why are there so many types of wire brushes? —Christelle Laprade, Jersey City, N.J.
A: As you can see from the wheel-style wire brushes on this brush-and-blade "tree," they do come in a variety of diameters and widths—with fine, coarse, straight, crimped, or twisted bristles made of regular steel, stainless steel, bronze, and brass—each one suited to a particular metal-cleaning task. For example, to remove rust from steel, a 4-inch wire wheel that fits in a drill and has aggressive, crimped-steel bristles is a good all-around choice. (Brushes 6 inches or more in diameter are intended for bench grinders.) But on aluminum, stainless-steel bristles are better because they won't leave black carbon deposits. Softer brass or bronze brushes won't spark or scratch steel. If you aren't sure which brush to pick, a good rule of thumb is to start coarse and go finer as the job demands it.