Tool update: Laser levels, pneumatic nailing


January 16, 2000|By Karol V. Menzie and Ron Nodine

DO THE WORDS "some assembly required" send you scurrying for the sofa nearest the TV remote? There's a lot of fear of tools out there, but the fact is, having the right tool for a job is half the battle.

It seems hand tools haven't altered much since animals started using sticks to pry insects out of crevices. But that's about to change, as technology gets its icily efficient grip on such things as screwdrivers and drills.

Admittedly, we have a weakness for tools. Ron, of course, has a professional license to check out new tools. And Karol has been a tool freak since she used to accompany her do-it-yourself dad to the hardware store every Saturday. But there are some neat new things available to help pros and handy people accomplish things faster and more easily.

Of course everyone already knows about cordless drills, and they come in all shapes and sizes -- from the size of a screwdriver to the big 18-volt ones that can break your wrist. Something in the middle would be best for home use. You can use them for all sorts of tasks, from drilling to driving screws and even nuts and bolts.

There are attachments you can get to make the drills even more efficient. Black & Decker's DeWalt series of professional tools, for example, has a quick-change system where the drill bit and screwdriver are at either end of the same tool, so you just flip it around to drill the hole and drive the screw. Stanley JoreTech uses a push-pull collar system in its Fast-Change Connector to make switching from drilling to driving simpler and faster.

Stanley also offers a set of screw guides, essentially sleeves that slide down over the screw to make driving it straight a cinch.

While you're checking out cordless drills, also check out cordless circular saws, reciprocating saws, jig saws and flashlights. They come in several different combo packs.

If you need to drive a lot of screws, you can get an electric screw gun that has an auto-feed system -- the type pros have used for years (Robertson Holz-Her and Quik Drive are two brands). The screws come in strips that automatically feed into the screw gun, and the device even has an extension so you don't have to bend over. Ron spotted recently at a local home improvement center a less expensive attachment that you can put on your own drill to turn it into an automatic feed.

Cordless seems to be the way of the future, but a number of manufacturers are offering a battery-shaped device that has a plug-in cord -- in case you run out of batteries.

Electronic and laser levels sound like something from the future, but they are available now. One brand is the Smart Level. It can read any angle; the LED will tell you what degree it is. The laser (RoboToolz is one brand) shoots a beam of light across the room, and it shows up on the opposite wall as a little red dot. They're great for leveling over longer distances.

If you are driving a lot of screws or nails, you can work faster with pneumatic nail tools. (Some brands are Stanley Bostich, Hitachi and Paslode.) These have been around a while for pros, but now, if you're willing to spring for a compressor (or find a use for the one you bought last year in case of Y2K glitches), you can find handyman models, too.

Air-powered nail guns are easy to use: You just point and pull the trigger. They do framing, finishing and roofing, and there is even one for hardwood floors. It's much easier than trying to drive the nails by hand. These tools can be expensive to buy (a pneumatic framing hammer can cost about $350, a trim hammer $250), but you can rent them at all the tool rental places if you just need one for a particular job.

There are also cordless pneumatic tools from Paslode. They're great for working on roofs, but pricey, around $500.

Finally, even old-fashioned hand tools have gotten an ergonomic tweak from OXO, the people who make those terrifically easy-to-hold, easy-to-use kitchen tools. There are screwdrivers with rubber grips that offer a little more torque than plastic ones, and a hammer with a plastic wedge on the head to help keep it from marring walls when you're pulling nails. And the driving tools have magnetized heads, so screws don't drop if you lose the groove. OXO Good Grips hand tools were recently named by the Good Housekeeping Institute as one of the seven most innovative products of 1999.

Ron Nodine is owner of American Renovator Inc., a Baltimore design-build remodeling firm, and former president of the Remodelors Council of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail Ron at Or write c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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