Category: Tools & Workshop

Quick Tip: Pliers

Pliers are essential in any project that requires you to grip, position, tighten, loosen or cut certain metal elements.

Pliers are a relatively modern invention, and it’s hard to imagine what people did without them. There are a dozen or more kinds of pliers, and your toolbox should contain at least the big three: slip-joint pliers, lock-joint pliers, and diagonal pliers. Also handy are rib-joint, water-pumped, needle-nose, long-nose, locking and lineman’s pliers.

For more on tools, consider:

Unfastening Tools
The Essential Toolbox
Bob Vila Radio: Tool Tip—Pliers

Quick Tip: Jigsaws

Jigsaws, or saber saws, pack numerous functions into one easy-to-use tool, making it a perennial favorite among beginning do-it-yourselfers.

For a saw that can handle the curves, look for a good saber saw. Sometimes called a jigsaw, it has a small blade that cuts with an up-and-down motion. Look for a good-quality saber saw with a long stroke and about 3,000 strokes per minute. You can change blades to cut leather, linoleum, plaster, wall board, metal and hardwood up to an inch thick.

For more on power tools, consider:

Chain Saws 101
How To: Choose the Right Saw for the Job
The $20 Japanese Pull Saw: A DIYer’s Best Bang for the Buck

Quick Tip: Tin Snips

With the right pair of razor-sharp tin snips, you can easily make straight or curved cuts in sheet metal.

Don’t wreck a good pair of scissors trying to cut metal. You need a good pair of tin snips. Tin snips look and work a lot like scissors. For cutting circles and curves, use hawks-bill tin snips. Duck-bill snips have narrow blades that easily cut straight lines, gentle curves, as well as screen and wire. Aviation snips have a spring hinge for leverage and easy handling.

For more on tools, consider:

Chain Saws 101
The Essential Toolbox

Plywood 101

It's used in everything from floors to furniture, but how much do you really know about plywood?

Plywood Sizes, Types


A manmade material prized for its great versatility, plywood appears in elements of the home as various as flooring, walls, doors, and furniture. Strong and lightweight—the product of several compressed, glued-together layers—plywood costs considerably less than solid wood, and in at least a couple of important ways, it offers superior performance. For one thing, its special composition makes it less vulnerable to the presence of moisture; for another thing, plywood resists the temperature fluctuations and changes in humidity that sometimes stress natural wood to the point of splitting, cracking, or otherwise degrading.

Different types of plywood contain different numbers of layers, or plies, with three being the minimum. Typically, one side of the panel—its face—may be left unfinished. The back side is less pleasing to the eye. Of all the many types available, veneer-core plywood is best for holding screws, hinges, and other forms of hardware. Note that some types of plywood actually have a foam rubber core, which enables them to function as insulation against both weather and sound.

Plywood Sizes, Types - Closeup


When contractors and do-it-yourselfers mention plywood grades, they are referencing two separate measures—one for the face of the panel, another for its back side. Plywood faces are graded on a scale from A to D. Plywood backs are graded on a scale from 1 to 4. Thus, A1 plywood boasts top quality on both sides. A4, on the other hand, features a quality face but is likely to show defects or discoloration on its back. You can expect plywood grades to be stamped visibly on the sheets you are considering.

Plywood usually sells in four-by-eight-foot sheets, but that’s not always the case. Two- or five-foot widths are available, as are lengths between four and 12 feet. Pay special attention to plywood thickness: There is often a 1/32-inch discrepancy between the stated measurement and the actual one.

When selecting plywood at your local lumberyard or home improvement center, keep in mind these basic considerations:

• Good-quality veneer provides a nice symmetrical pattern.

• Seek out a flat sheet with core layers that feel even and free of warping.

• On the edges, there shouldn’t be too many knots or voids.

For the most visually satisfying results, you may choose to paint your plywood project. It’s easy to do—simply follow these guidelines. First, clean the plywood surface thoroughly. Next, sand the plywood to a smooth finish before applying a base coat of primer. Proceed to paint only once the primer has completely dried. Initially coat on a thin layer of paint, then follow up with additional coats as needed. Between each coat, remember to wait for the paint to dry fully. Using an oil-based paint is recommended.

How To: Make a Biscuit Joint

Ideal for light-duty woodworking projects, biscuit joints are easy to accomplish quickly, even for beginners.

Here’s a way to join two pieces of wood without visible hardware or nails by using oval wooden biscuits. With a biscuit cutter, plow out a recess in each surface to be joined that will receive the biscuit. Generously apply a water-based glue to the biscuit so that it swells to fill the recess. Now, join both pieces of wood together and clamp until dry.

For more on woodworking, consider:

How To: Make a Mortise-and-Tenon Joint
Bob Vila Radio: Woodworking Tips
7 Essential Woodworking Tools

Quick Tip: Propane Torches

Most often used in plumbing projects and metalworking, propane torches are anything but toys. On the contrary, these tools demand the utmost attention and care.

A propane torch is portable, inexpensive, and just about indispensable for many household chores. A valve controls the intensity of the flame, and you can add attachments to the nozzle either to focus it tightly for precision soldering or to spread it out for stripping paint. Be sure to handle it with care, though. Turn it off immediately after you’re done and store it away from heat.

For more on tools, consider:

Pneumatic Nailers for Homeowners
Why Every DIYer Needs a Thickness Planer
The $20 Japanese Pull Saw: A DIYer’s Best Bang for the Buck

How To: Use a Phillips-Head Screwdriver

A few simple tips can help the average do-it-yourselfer to use a Phillips-head screwdriver more effectively.

When you’re using a Phillips-head screwdriver, make sure that you’re not doing it the hard way. Here’s how. Be sure you’re using the right size screwdriver. The tip should fit snugly into the screw head. If it’s too small, it could mangle the head and make the screw impossible to drive. Never use slotted-head drivers for Phillips-head screws. You’ll damage the screw and the driver.

For more on tools, consider:

Top 5 Tool Buying Tips
Bob Vila Radio: Screwdrivers
10 Tools for Your Apartment You Never Thought You’d Need

Quick Tip: Workshop Dollies

Build your own moving dollies to make life in the woodworking shop much more convenient—and much less sweaty.

Here’s how to save your aching back next time you have to move something heavy in the workshop. A workshop dolly is really just a platform on casters. You don’t need extra craftsmanship, just simple two-by-fours, wood screws, and four heavy-duty casters. For a dolly that’s good and strong, use lap joints at the corners, with the casters right below. That will help lighten your load.

For more on workshops, consider:

How To: Build a Sawhorse
Planning Your Woodworking Shop
DIY Workbenches: 5 You Can Build in a Weekend


Happy holidays from Bob and the office elves—Gretchen, Larry, John, Kristina, Marisa, Caitlin and Sheila—at!

Season's Greetings from


After serving up nearly 25 days of great tips, creative ideas, and how-to projects to make your holidays merry and bright, our Countdown to Christmas is almost complete.

Time to wrap the presents, finish the tree-trimming, and get ready for guests, neighbors, and family members to arrive. Remember to light the candles, bake the cookies, and chill the wine. The time has finally come to relish in the special joys this season has to offer.

Since you have become an important part of our family, we want to wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Bob Vila Signature


P.S. If you’re looking for a little more holiday eye-candy, consider:

Frosty Feats: 12 Incredible Snow Sculptures
Christmas Houses Gone Wild! 11 Outrageously Decorated Front Yards
Wrap it Up! 10 DIY Ways to Bedeck Your Holiday Gifts
25 Insanely Easy-to-Make Holiday Ornaments

Quick Tip: Ball-Peen Hammers

Ball-peen hammers have a wide variety of uses beyond metalworking, the specific application for which they were designed.

For jobs that require a hammer with a little more heft than a claw hammer, try a ball-peen hammer, sometimes called an engineer’s hammer or a machinist’s hammer. It’s the best hammer to use for metal. Use it to drive cold chisels, setting rivets, and shaping metal. The steel head of a ball-peen hammer is harder than the head of a claw hammer, so it’s less likely to chip on contact.

For more on tools, consider:

Types of Hammers
The Essential Toolbox
How To: Use a Hammer