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Fools for Tools

Start talking tools and most folks will listen in
and often have something to say. It was no different when we chatted with a handful of contractors around the country about which tools delivered and which didn’t. In an industry that has been evolving since man quit relying on caves for shelter, it’s not surprising that no big technological breakthroughs seem to have occurred in this specific year just passed to boost production or ease of use on the job site. In fact, the

tools that were most appreciated were
old standbys, in the most part, or ones
that had been around a while and
become the norm.

When “Good and Screwed” Is Good

A hawk and trowel still can’t be beat
when it comes to putting materials onto
a wall, as far as the plaster contractors we
talked to were concerned.

Screw guns and powder-driven nail guns
are several times faster than conventional
hammer/nail and screw/driver approaches,
even when in the hands of an
old hand, and almost every single contractor
gave the nod to these tools, especially
the better-quality battery-powered
models. Not having to drag a cord
around the site reduces time on the job
50 percent, according to a contractor
from California. The Hilti 351 received
a special mention from a Colorado contractor
for its lo-shot magazine and its
capability for dialing the load power up
or down.

Another recurring winner for contractors
is the laser. The rotating laser works
well for a Californian who is a one-man
show, because it allows him “to do several
different things. You can transfer a
green line, put down by an engineer, several
hundred feet by yourself. You can
plumb up vertical lines on a building
several hundred feet by yourself. A lot of
guys don’t know how to use their tools
and so they aren’t getting the full bang
for the buck out of them. When someone
is trained on how to use them to
their full potential, they can save a significant
amount of time, reducing layout
time by 70 percent.”

“Self-leveling, much more compact and
easier to set up,” is how a contractor
from Arkansas sees lasers these days,
while talking of 100 percent improvement
in productivity since they were
introduced. “They also remain calibrated
and accurate much longer, so we get
better service from them.”

Plumb Gone

Lasers make an interesting case study
when it comes to advances in building
technology. They are based on Einstein’s
idea 85 years ago that light energy isn’t
a continuous wave or a particle but bundles
of wave energy (called photons). It
was a pretty weird idea at the time, but
he earned a Nobel prize for his work on
the subject. But the idea sat around
without any application to hang it on
until the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Even then, when the first optical laser
was invented, it was called “an invention
looking for a job.” Lasers were still a far
cry from the job site.

It was not too long in the overall scheme
of things before lasers left the welfare
rolls. Now they shine in everything from
“laser precise” hospital operations to
supermarket scanners, compact disks to
job sites. No doubt, in time, laser technology
will also be discarded as hopelessly
inefficient, based as it is on 20th America the Inventive
century concepts of energy just as we are
now discarding the old plumb bob.

But there was a time when the plumb
bob, too, was cutting edge, hooking as
it did onto the weird-for-the-time theory
of gravity The application of this theory
to construction was assured with the
keen observation that permanent dwellings
stay more permanent if the walls are
built upright, and that a plumb bob is
just the ticket for achieving this standard.

There’s nothing wrong with a tool that
remains in use for millennia, of course,
but it does get a bit old after more than
4,000 years, especially when one is trying
to use it in windy conditions and it
moves around, or when one doesn’t have
an infinity of time to complete a project.
For the ancient Egyptians, their lives
were more likely to be on the line if the
pyramid ended up as a trapezoid than if
the engineers didn’t make a deadline. So
the plumb boards, A- and T-Levels, and
plumb squares they used for surveying
trueness of plumb or horizontal level
were very adequate.

Spirit levels were the next big breakthrough
during the Industrial Revolution
in getting things straight, but
plumb bobs were still needed to transfer
an exact point from one height to
another in tall buildings. But then came
lasers, and they finally spelled the end for
plumb bobs—and even for those unwieldy
4-foot spirit levels. As a Californian
said without much regret,
“Everything is pocket or ceiling lasers
these days. I don’t think too many guys
have plumb bobs anymore. I can still
work one, but I don’t know if these other
guys can.”

America the Inventive

And so, in our lifetimes, plumb bobs have joined the long list of tools and implements that have fallen from use, from buggy whips to smoke signals. What tool will be next? It’s hard to say. Contractors are pretty pleased with the tools
in their workbox these days, as expressed
by a Floridian when he said “there isn’t
really a tool that hasn’t been invented.”

But it’s a question of frame of reference,
or the “everyone knows that . . .” idea.
Everyone knows that you need scaffolding.
Well, is that really true? Technology
already exists that would make scaffolding
obsolete and nobody would shed a
tear, especially those who have to put it
up or those whose heads it falls upon
from time to time. The ancient Egyptian
theory of gravity, and Sir Isaac Newton’s,
still hold true-or do they?

If there is one country where the spirit
of adventure and drive to improve are
still alive and well, it is the US of A, and
the same folks who brought us lasers,
screw guns and TrackFast (another tool
mentioned by those surveyed as being
especially useful for larger jobs), will
keep pushing the envelope, trying this
and that, and one day, the science fiction
concepts will be old hat and ‘the way we
do it.” Like lasers to measure, guns to
fasten, and anti-gravitation devices
instead of scaffolding.

Who better to come up with ideas for
improvements than the folks faced with
the problems on the job site, day in day
out? So when one contractor from
Georgia says that he’d like to see jet
packs used to access higher floors or wall
areas, then that’s an idea whose time has
not only come but is long overdue. If
James Bond used one in a movie 30
years ago, isn’t it time it arrived on the
job site? There’s no reason jet platforms
couldn’t be created, as well, but using
some better form of beating gravity.
“Beam me up, Scatty,” is understandably
a few years up the line, but there has
got to be a better way than scaffolding,
which, incidentally, has been used in the
building trade for at least 4,400 years,

Looking for Some Bite

Less futuristic, though, is finding a solution
to a problem that, one-for-one,
contractors working with exterior framing
structural studs who were asked,
were experiencing difficulty with: cutting
heavier gauge studs with existing
chop saws. One contractor from Colorado
suggested “something similar to
the tool the rebar people use, where you
put the stud through a die, pull a handle
and it cuts it like a shear. Or maybe
some plasma arc cutter.”

For contractors experiencing similar
problems in cutting 16 or 18 gauge,
there is already a solution on the market,
however, and even if the cost is sky-high,
it is actually more economical than existing

An Arkansas contractor provides the
heads-up. “We have started using a diamond-
impregnated chop-saw blade that
looks like a concrete blade. They are
expensive-the regular trunk-slamming
contractor wouldn’t be able to afford
them at $300 plus-but they are worth
every penny. You pay about $5 for a friction
cut blade, and after a few cuts on
structural studs, you have to change the
blade, even though you have only used
up half of its capacity, because it is past
its capacity co cut the width of the stud
you are working on. So then you have to
take the blade off and put on another
one or go find another one first. Meanwhile,
you’ve lost the damned arbor bolt
to secure the blade, and so it goes. We’ve
done thousands and thousands of cuts
with just one diamond blade, so they
pay for themselves many times over just
in material, let alone labor time saved on
not having to change out blades.”

But as the same contractor points out,
part of the problem is that “most chop
saws do not have the power they really
need to cut heavy gauge, wide studs.
They need something with a little more
‘ass’ in it. We really need to see a chain
saw motor with a round blade on it. Put
a diamond blade on one of those that
can turn some RPMs, and that’s a bad boy, right there-it will
do a number on the structural stud you are cutting, because it
has enough RPMs and power to cut through it. Yet most electric
chop saws are around 15 amps, and they just don’t have the
horsepower they should have to cut through 16- and 18-gauge,
regardless of the blade you are using.”

Expecting Edsels

Other contractor ideas for new tools include a magnetic tool
for retrieving the hundreds of abandoned nails and screws on a
job site and one that proportionately mixes and dispenses EIFS
materials. Some contractor ideas may end up being the building-
industry equivalent of the Edsel, but heck, if people didn’t
try, we’d be using plumb bobs for another 4,000 years.

And that’s why we maybe shouldn’t be too harsh on those tools
that don’t live up to their promise and that don’t stay in the
workbox for long. Such as nail spotters that create more trouble
than they are worth, arch benders that take forever to bend
(5 years ago) so that the contractor only orders-in prefabs now,
and “newfangled ways of applying EIFS materials such as pressure
machines dispensing material through the end of a trowel,”
according to a Californian contractor. “It’s pretty hard to
beat the old hawk and trowel, although spraying in the right
applications and Corneraid have made a huge difference in our

But those products that are just plain poorly made are the ones
for which no real love is lost, only money. Such as plastic chalk
boxes, 22-caliber fastener guns, and hammer drills that fall apart
. . . and chop saws with plastic handles, and switches, that also
fall apart, and reduction gears that tear up. And one-ton delivery
trucks that are not only poorly designed from the standpoint
of functionality, but also fall apart long before they should
(according to a Colorado contractor who has been through
most makes and models so far).

For any manufacturers who may still be producing such products,
the writing is on the walls and ceilings, according to one
contractor from Arkansas. When it comes to tools, most folks
aren’t fools. As long as contractors keep shooting the breeze
about their tools, word of mouth will drive tool selection more
than any amount of convincing advertising, and toolboxes will
continue to house only those tools that deliver on their promise.
And the truth is that most do.

About the Author

Steven Ferry is a free-lance writer based in Dunedin, Fla.

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