Category: Tools & Workshop


This Company Makes Furniture with Salvaged Railroad Materials

Knotty timber and centuries-old iron rails become hardy, arty furniture in the calloused hands of Rail Yard Studios.

Rail Yard Studios Furniture - Desk

Photo: railyardstudios.com

As the owner of a railroad contracting and maintenance firm, John Hendrick oversaw a crew responsible for, among other things, disposing of old or unusable rails and ties. After a while, Hendrick grew tired of seeing so much beautiful, often historic material either junked or sold off for scrap. That’s when he developed an idea.

His newest company, Rail Yard Studios, works to transform railroad cast-offs into pieces of fine furniture. Since Hendrick had trained as an industrial designer, it wasn’t much of a stretch for him to envision a second life for these heavy-duty components, particularly with his carpenter father involved as a business partner.

Rail Yard Studios - Adirondack Chair

Photo: railyardstudios.com

Today, Rail Yard Studios fashions chunky yet chic tables, seating, desks, bed frames and more from steel rail, spikes, wooden ties and brackets. Each one-of-a-kind piece manages to capture the rugged romance of American train travel, with many steel members still bearing the imprints of industrial titans like Andrew Carnegie.

Though you may find evidence of past centuries, you won’t find any hazardous materials. Rail Yard Studios relies on timber rejected due to knots and splits and other imperfections that, while not conducive to supporting massive trains, are ideal for furniture that’s handsome, heavy, and definitely not for the dainty-of-heart.

All aboard!

Rail Yard Studios - Coffee Table

Photo: railyardstudios.com

For more information, visit Rail Yard Studios.


This Company Makes Furniture from Salvaged Fire Hose

Not long ago, decommissioned fire hose went only to landfills. Now, the Oxgut Hose Co. repurposes as much of the material as possible into unique modern furniture and homewares.

Oxgut - Fire Hose Mat

Photo: oxgut.com

Every single month, tons of fire hose reaches the end of its useful life and must be disposed of. That’s when Oakland-based Oxgut Hose Co. steps in. Since 2013, the company has been working with fire departments around the U.S. to salvage decommissioned fire hose and launch the unique material in a new direction.

Manufactured in synthetic fiber and cotton, in bold colors, and subject to character-defining wear and tear, fire hose is of course rugged and durable, but it’s also—unexpectedly, and in a utilitarian way—beautiful. Plus, every fire hose features a fascinating history—or as Oxgut chooses to phrase it, a “heroic past.”

Oxgut - Fire Hose Chairs

Photo: oxgut.com

Taking its name from the fire hose of Ancient Greece, Oxgut partners with contemporary, locally-based designers, challenging their talents to develop fresh ways of repurposing the material. If the past provides any indication, fire hose serves well as a main component in a surprising range of functional, aesthetically pleasing furniture and home accessories. So far, Oxgut products have ranged widely, from lounge and dining chairs to floor mats, log carriers, and hammocks.

Oxgut - Fire Hose Carrier

Photo: oxgut.com

To a great extent, Oxgut offerings depend on the nuances of the fire hose itself. Different sizes and textures tend to send the designers off in different creative directions. Due to the non-uniform nature of the material, everything from Oxgut can be said to be one of a kind, and it’s all crafted by hand, domestically.

In honor of the fire hose and its original purpose, Oxgut donates a portion of every sale to the Children’s Burn Foundation.

Oxgut - Hose Company

Photo: oxgut.com

For more information, visit Oxgut Hose Co.


Bob Vila Radio: Every DIYer Needs a Rotary Tool

Dremel-type oscillating tools rank high on the list of the all-time handiest multi-taskers. Here's why.

If you’re a do-it-yourselfer and you’re not familiar with oscillating tools, such as the type made famous by Dremel, it’s high time you got to know these versatile wonders.

Everyone Needs an Oscillating Tool

Photo: dremel.com

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Listen to BOB VILA ON OSCILLATING TOOLS or read the text below:

The original Dremel was marketed in the 1930s by toolmaker Albert J. Dremel. Since then, other companies have come out with similar tools, and the Dremel name has become a generic (e.g., Kleenex).

Dremel tools are small drill-like devices, shaped sort of like an electric toothbrush—minus the brush. They’re designed to tackle a wide variety of jobs, depending on the type of bit or burr that’s inserted into the collet of the tool. Those jobs include drilling, grinding, cutting, routing, engraving, sanding and more.

Both single- and variable-speed models are available in corded and cordless models. Generally speaking, variable-speed models give you more control, while corded models give you more power.

If you’ve got a wide variety of jobs on your to-do list, add an oscillating tool to your arsenal.

Bob Vila Radio is a 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day carried on more than 186 stations in 75 markets around the country. Click here to subscribe, so you can automatically receive each new episode as it arrives—absolutely free.


From the Hudson Valley, Furniture with a Sense of Place

A husband-wife duo are the principals of Sawkille Co., a contemporary furniture company steeped in the present and past of the Hudson Valley.

Sawkille Furniture

Photo: sawkille.com

Jonah Meyer and Tara De Lisio are partners in marriage—and partners in business. In their first venture together, the couple converted an abandoned gas station into a showroom that became a cultural hub and veritable roadside attractive in the Catskill Mountains. Here, along with a curated collection of housewares, there were many intriguing pieces that seemed to blur the line between sculpture and furniture. These were made by Meyer himself, a visual artist who’d begun to experiment in a new mode. Over time, Meyer focused more and more on making furniture, and soon it became clear: People loved his work and would pay for it.

Sawkille Furniture - Chair

Photo: remodelista.com

In 2010, Meyer and De Lisio embarked on a new adventure. They established Sawkille, a modern furniture company steeped in tradition. Meyer works with a small team in Kingston, NY, crafting each piece the old-fashioned way—by hand. On the opposite shore of the Hudson River, in the small town of Rhinebeck, De Lisio oversees the Sawkille retail storefront. Meanwhile, Meyer and De Lisio live in another Hudson Valley town, perhaps its most famous—Woodstock (which happens to be where De Lisio grew up). So even though Sawkille has been covered in the international press and sells furniture to people far beyond the company’s little corner of America, it’s a local business in so many ways—if not from a standpoint of reach, then from a design, production, and philosophical standpoint.

Sawkille Furniture - Bed

Photo: sawkille.com

Yes, if furniture can be said to convey such things as a sense of place, then Sawkille sings of the Hudson Valley, present and past. Many of the company’s most popular pieces are actually pared down, modern interpretations of pieces whose provenance goes back to the earliest New York settlers, the colonists and the Shakers. Made with wood harvested and milled nearby, Sawkille offers stools and tables, benches and bed frames, all finely detailed and in their farmhouse simplicity, timeless. While the company adds new pieces to its expanding line, Meyer and De Lisio continue to work closely with clients on custom furniture and casework. So the next time you’re driving through the narrow, meandering lanes of the Hudson Valley, why not make a stop in Rhinebeck, get out, and say hello?

Sawkille Furniture - Stools

Photo: sawkille.com

For more information, visit Sawkille Co.


Bob Vila Radio: Master the Mighty Miter Box

Technology progresses and tools become ever more sophisticated, but for angled cuts, the miter box still rules.

If your next do-it-yourself woodworking project involves making angled cuts, then get to know the miter box, as this timeless tool may soon become your best friend.

Miter Box Tips

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Listen to BOB VILA ON MITER BOX TIPS or read the text below:

Typically made of thick plastic or wood, miter boxes are shaped a little like a lidless shoebox with the ends cut out. There are multiple angled slots on the sides of the box, each lining up with a slot on the other side.

Miter boxes are designed to be used with miter saws, tools with teeth set for crosscutting (cutting across the grain of the wood). In simplest terms, you just mark your workpiece where you want to make the cut, slide it into the miter box, position your saw into two corresponding slots that match your mark… and saw away!

Miter boxes work best when secured to a workbench, with the workpiece battened down with clamps. Another option is to fasten the box to a small sheet of plywood, clamping the edges of the plywood to your bench. Employ either technique, and your work shouldn’t wiggle.

Bob Vila Radio is a 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day carried on more than 186 stations in 75 markets around the country. Click here to subscribe, so you can automatically receive each new episode as it arrives—absolutely free.


New Kits Make DIY Profitable for Some, Foolproof for All

Darby Smart makes DIY easy, both for novices who want nothing more than to learn, and for veterans wanting something beyond recognition.

Photo: darbysmart.com

Like so many other do-it-yourself enthusiasts, Nicole Shariat Farb frequently browsed blogs and social media sites, always in search of her next project. On many occasions, however, her attempt would pale in comparison to what had inspired her. After a while, experiences like these finally led Farb to develop a business idea. And the more she researched the market, the more she came to believe in the promise of a company now known as Darby Smart. A new type of online marketplace, the mission of Darby Smart is to make DIYing easy for everyone, while providing the opportunity for talented makers to profit from their passion.

Darby Smart - Mason Jar Light

Photo: darbysmart.com

For consumers, Darby Smart offers dozens of mail-order kits, each containing instructions and all the materials needed to build a home accessory, be it a mason jar lamp or wood block candle holder. Engineered to be completed in less than an hour, each virtually foolproof kit carries a price tag between $15 and $45, shipping included. Importantly, a sizable portion of every sale goes to the outside person who came up with and submitted the idea for the kit. So for all the makers whose talents have brought large followings online but little financial reward, there’s now a way to earn money by making clever and beautiful things.

Darby Smart - Light Bulb Planter

Photo: darbysmart.com

For more information, visit Darby Smart.


A Contractor Duo Designs a More Perfect Hammer

After decades of working as contractors, two brothers set out to design a long-lasting hammer. And they succeeded.

Hardcore Hammers - Product Shot

Photo: hardcorehammers.com

After a combined thirty years in the construction business, brothers Steve and Rick Spencer had grown tired of relying on tools they viewed as merely mediocre. Together, they set out to design a more perfect hammer—powerful enough for framing yet specialized enough for finish work. Within a year, they had completed a prototype and begun Hardcore Hammers. Though axes and hatchets have joined the product offerings, the company’s signature hammer remains the top seller.

Hardcore Hammers - Side View

Photo: hardcorehammers.com

Made in America—entirely in America—the hammer boasts fine craftsmanship and a loving attention to detail. For instance, the hickory handle thickens at the bottom, at the point where you would grip it, but slims down at the middle so as to make the tool as light as possible. Where it really excels, however, is in the unique design of its durable, versatile striking surface.

The Spencer brothers knew that long before the rest of a typical framing hammer wears out, its waffled face loses the traction so important in driving nails. Though that problem had always existed, it actually became more pronounced when the tool industry switched from steel to titanium. While newer titanium framing hammers cost more to purchase, their grooved faces would smooth out even faster than before, thus leaving fairly young tools with useless heads.

For many pros, another frustration with typical framing hammers is how they’re unsuited to finish work; their waffled striking surfaces leave obvious and unsightly marks on workpieces. In the past, you’d have to switch to another hammer, one with a smooth face, just to tap in a few last nails. But with Hardcore Hammers, you can keep on working, with no interruption.

Here’s the breakthrough: Hardcore Hammers have slightly recessed striking faces, with a smooth outer ring around a waffled inner face. That means you can use the same hammer for rough carpentry and finish work. No other hammer on the market gives you the same freedom.

Meanwhile, Hardcore Hammers go a long way toward ensuring that the waffle, once the first to wear down, now outlasts the other tool components. While the outer rim protects the waffled face from striking anything but the nail, the waffle itself has been specially manufactured to last a long, long time. It’s milled, not in the conventional way, but with hardened steel. So only after years of sustained use would the tightly waffled pattern even begin to flatten out.

With a sticker price of $79, it’s not an inexpensive tool. But then again, that’s the whole point: You’re making an investment here, knowing the tool is going to serve you for years to come.

Purchase the Hardcore Hammer, $79


Bob Vila Radio: Flashlights Get a Little Flashy

Like so many other technologies, flashlights have improved dramatically in recent years. Here's what you need to know now.

If you’re in the dark about some of the latest advancements in flashlight technology, here’s a quick summary.

LED vs Fluorescent Flashlights

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Listen to BOB VILA ON NEW FLASHLIGHT TECHNOLOGY or read the text below:

For years, flashlights relied on bulky D-size batteries and bulbs with filaments. Today, two newer types of flashlight are gaining popularity—light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and fluorescents.

With no filament to burn out, LEDs are powered by tiny semi-conductors. Compared to traditional bulbs, LEDs draw a only a minuscule amount of power. That means they last much longer than the bulbs to which you’re likely accustomed.

Fluorescent lights are especially popular in lantern-type products. Thanks to their elongated shape, these fluorescents put out a lot of light and do a good job of illuminating larger areas—say, your dining room during a power outage. Fluorescents do take a lot of power, though, so you’ll want to keep plenty of batteries on hand.

Bob Vila Radio is a 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day carried on more than 186 stations in 75 markets around the country. Click here to subscribe, so you can automatically receive each new episode as it arrives—absolutely free.


A Forgotten Forest Lies at the Bottom of a Lake in Maine

While other companies succeed by salvaging lumber from old barns and similarly disused buildings, Maine Heritage Timber reclaims wood from a forest underwater.

Maine Heritage Timber - Heavy Machinery

Photo: maineheritagetimber.com

In remote Millinocket, ME, there are as many as 1 million cords of wood resting at the bottom of Quakish Lake. Since 2009, Maine Heritage Timber has been pulling those logs out of the water, then milling them into flooring, tabletops, furniture—a diverse range of wood products, all sharing a remarkable backstory.

Back in the early 1900s, logging was big business in eastern Maine. Since interstates and railroads had not yet criss-crossed the country, rivers were the primary means of transporting felled trees. At the time, Quakish Lake, part of Penobscot River system, served as a holding area for logs en route to the Great Northern Paper Company. And while much of the old-growth wood successfully made its destination, some of it sank and sat, silently and untouched, for a hundred years.

Maine Heritage Timber - Lake

Photo: maineheritagetimber.com

You might think that, after so long in the depths, those sunken timbers would emerge degraded and useless. But if anything, those logs were benefited by all that time spent underwater. The deep, cold lake water—and the absence of sunlight, oxygen, and pests—worked to preserve the wood, leaving it strong and in virtually pristine condition. And as a result of the wood’s prolonged exposure to water, many logs developed truly unique, seldom-seen, non-duplicable hues and patinas.

Maine Heritage Timber - Flooring

Photo: maineheritagetimber.com

Maine Heritage Timber employs heavy machinery to excavate, then sends the wood to shore on a barge, where it’s kiln-dried. Only then does the company know what can be made of the haul. But everything pulled from the lake is somehow put to use. The best and most suitable wood becomes board lumber for the company’s consumer products, including flooring and wainscoting. Meanwhile, the unusable wood gets ground into pulp (sold to mills) or biomass (sold to the energy industry). The shavings are sold for animal bedding, and even the rocks that are uncovered are washed clean and sold to local landscaping outfits.

Maine Heritage Timber - Accessories

Photo: maineheritagetimber.com

Though Maine Heritage Timber expects to continue work here for at least another 20 years, no one knows exactly how much wood lies at the bottom of Quakish Lake. Amid the uncertainty, one thing is abundantly clear: The company’s customers get wood that boasts, not only rare beauty, but a fascinating history as well.

For more information, visit Maine Heritage Timber.


Bob Vila Radio: Is MDF Better Than Plywood?

For many carpentry projects, medium-density fiberboard is the most affordable and user-friendly among affordable yet high-performing wood products.

Medium-density fiberboard, MDF for short, can be a cheaper, more stable alternative to plywood, if used in the right way.

Medium Density Fiberboard

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Listen to BOB VILA ON MEDIUM-DENSITY FIBERBOARD or read the text below:

MDF is made from wood scraps that are broken down into fine fibers, mixed with a binder such as glue, then formed into sheets. Most home centers carry four-by-eight-foot sheets, usually one-half or three-quarters of an inch thick.

MDF offers many benefits. First, it’s a bit less expensive than plywood. Second, it holds its shape, so you can use it for shelving, cabinets, trim and moulding. But since it doesn’t like moisture, it’s best used in indoor projects.

One important caveat: MDF contains formaldehyde, a suspected carcinogen. Wear a respirator when cutting it. And be aware that until it’s properly sealed with paint or urethane, the material continues to off-gas.

That being said, if you take proper precautions when working with it, MDF can save you money and reward you with good results.

Bob Vila Radio is a 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day carried on more than 186 stations in 75 markets around the country. Click here to subscribe, so you can automatically receive each new episode as it arrives—absolutely free.