Category: Tools & Workshop

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

How To: Use a Plumb Bob

You don't have to be a veteran do-it-yourselfer (or a physics whiz) to use a plumb bob—an essential tool for a number of jobs around the house.

Professional builders use a plumb bob to make sure their walls are vertical. Here’s how. Measure two inches away from the top of your wall, set a nail, and hang the plumb bob. Let gravity draw the string into a vertical reference line. When the plumb bob falls exactly two inches away at the floor, your wall will be plumb.

For more on tools, consider:

Bob Vila Radio: Plumb Bob
7 Essential Tools for Any Measuring Job

Quick Tip: Wood Glues

Consult these general guidelines to choose the best wood glues for your future woodworking projects.

There are three kinds of adhesives that work best on wood. Polyvinyl resin glue, or white glue, works for china, paper, and wood, but it’s not waterproof. Neither is aliphatic resin glue (or carpenter’s glue), which is quick-drying and stronger than white glue. For outside, there’s resorcinol—formaldehyde glue. It’s waterproof and good for doors, windows, and moldings.

For more on tools, consider:

How To: Clamp a Glue Joint
7 Essential Woodworking Glues
Quick Tip: Working with Wood Glue

How To: Make a Story Pole

To assure uniformity, do-it-yourself carpenters often elect to make a story pole, a simple measuring tool that can save you lots of time on the job site.

When marking off several measurements of the same size, it’s best to make yourself a guide. We call this a story pole. When drilling holes for shelf brackets, use an awl to make the pilot holes, then repeat the process by moving the story pole to the opposite edge. This will perfectly align both rows of holes. Now you’re ready to drill all the holes uniformly to receive the brackets.

For more on woodworking, consider:

The Essential Toolbox
Bob Vila Radio: Tape Measure
7 Essential Measuring Tools for Any Job

Quick Tip: Using a Chisel

Learn a few common ways to use a chisel, a simple tool with a large number and wide variety of handy applications.

A chisel is one of the most useful tools in the workshop, but it’s important to know how to use it. For example, after routing out a mortise for a door hinge, use the flat side of the chisel for cutting or neatening the edges of your work. Or use the beveled side for cleaning up or leveling off a surface without taking off too much at a time.

For more on tools, consider:

Sharpening Chisels
Top 5 Tool Buying Tips
Choosing Essential Tools for Woodworking

Quick Tip: Using a Level

It's important to use a level but of all the many types, which is most suitable for your next building or repair project?

Checking your work for level and plumb is crucial. Here’s how to select and use the right tool for the job. I recommend using a fiberglass level. It’ll absorb shock well and won’t bend or get knocked out of calibration. Two-foot levels are the most commonly used but to check for level over a longer distance, move up to a four-footer. Or you can attach a two-by-four with equal spacers to make a straightedge.

For more on tools, consider:

Bob Vila Radio: Levels
Squares, Levels, and Plumbs
7 Essential Measuring Tools for Any Job

How To: Make Cabinet Doors

Even a beginning woodworker can easily make cabinet doors to bring a new look into a tired, old kitchen.

Here’s how to dress up an old kitchen with new cabinet doors. Use a fine-grade plywood, such as birch, for the new doors. Cut them to size on a table saw. Choose a three-eighths-inch panel molding and miter the four corners. Glue and with one-inch brads, nail the trim in place. Leave a one-and-a-half-inch reveal around the edge of the door. Just paint and mount to your old cabinet boxes. It’s an easy way to get a raised-panel look.

For more on kitchen cabinets, consider:

Kitchen Cabinets 101
Cabinet Doors Styles: What’s Yours?
5 Creative Alternatives to Kitchen Cabinetry

How To: Use Wood Plugs

By using wood plugs, you can conceal the fasteners that are holding together your carpentry project.

Give your carpentry work that professional look by concealing nails or screws with wooden plugs. Use a dowel bit to drill out plugs from a scrap of lumber. Dip each plug in carpenter’s glue. Tap the plug into place, then shear it off flush to the surface with a wood chisel. Sand it smooth and apply your finish.

For more on woodworking, consider:

5 Easy Woodworking Projects for Beginners
How To: Match End Grain with Side Grain
5 Ways to Get Perfect, Clean Cuts in Plywood

The Dremel Multi-Max: Who Let the Tool Designers Loose?

My window sash replacement project turned out to be an easy fix, thanks to the variable—and versatile—features of the new Dremel Multi-Max.

Dremel Multi Max Tool Review - Scraper

The Dremel Multi-Max fitted with the flexible scraper was useful when removing dried glazing compound around a broken windowpane. Photo: Joe Provey

Because of the popularity of the Dremel rotary tool, most people perceive the Dremel brand as a bastion of the arts-and-crafts set rather than of home improvement and fix-it-yourself enthusiasts. While their tools were ideal for carving and model making, their utility didn’t extend to bigger jobs. Well, someone let loose some very creative tool designers at the Dremel factory, and the results have added utility and versatility to a whole array of multipurpose tools. These new offerings range from models that resemble mini-circular, scroll, and saber saws to updates to the company’s iconic rotary tool.

Recently, I had an opportunity to put the Dremel MM20 Multi-Max oscillating power tool (available at The Home Depot) through its paces. While it doesn’t quite fit any of the traditional tool categories, it perfectly fits the Dremel brand of tools because it does so many things: it saws, scrapes, sands, slices, and more.

The fact that the tool is corded appeals to me because it keeps the tool weight low and eliminates frequent battery changing and charging for a tool that’s likely to be used continuously for long stretches. (Cordless models are, however, available.)

Dremel Multi Max Tool Review - Removing Paint

The scraper accessory was also able to remove multiple layers of old paint. Photo: Joe Provey

Attaching the accessories is easy too. Just remove the clamping screw with the supplied Allen wrench, position the accessory over the 10 lock pins at the desired angle, replace the clamping screw, and tighten. There is no shake, rattle, or roll with this system.

The on-off switch and speed adjustment are easily accessed, even as you are working. And you can buy an assist handle accessory that makes two-handed operation a little more comfortable.

The Dremel Multi-Max MM20 basic kit comes with several starter accessories, including a scraper, two blades, a triangular sanding pad, and a supply of various grit sanding sheets. Other accessories, such as the grout removal tool for regrouting tile, a knife tool for slicing through old carpeting, and the Multi-Flex attachment for scrolling and coping cuts, must be purchased separately.

My window sash repair project allowed me to try out several accessories. The first thing I learned is that it’s best to use a light touch and to let the OPMs (oscillations per minute) do the work. Most jobs are best done at high settings of 16,000 to 21,000 OPMs. Materials susceptible to chipping, such as laminates, are better cut at lower settings.

Dremel Multi Max Tool Review - Sander

The sanding attachment was able to reach easily into tight spaces and angles. Photo: Joe Provey

For a tool with a powerful 2.3 amp motor, control is exceptionally easy. Oscillating tools perform various functions using the back and forth movement of the accessory, not continuous movement in one direction, as do rotary tools. Unlike a circular saw, for example, there is no torque—nothing to make the tool jump in your hand. Furthermore, the “travel,” or the distance the tools move back and forth, is very limited with the Dremel Multi-Max, further reducing vibration. The blade accessories are unlikely to jam, even in tight quarters, as is common with a reciprocating saw.

The scraper accessory was able to remove multiple layers of old paint. (It also came in handy for removing vinyl tiles and stuck carpet padding.) It was less effective at handling paint that was already blistered; an old-fashioned hand scraper works more quickly. The flexible scraper also made fast work of removing dried glazing compound from around the broken windowpane.

Dremel Multi Max Tool Review - Feathering

The sanding attachment was handy for feathering old layers of paint on this window sash. Photo: Joe Provey

The sanding accessory, while obviously not suited to large areas, was perfect for this project, allowing me to get into rails easily. (I only wish I had owned a Dremel Multi-Max when I recently sanded the wood floor in my hallway. My conventional palm sander couldn’t handle inside corners, around thresholds, or flooring at the base of doorjambs. I had to resort to tedious hand sanding for that.)  The sander was also handy for feathering layers of old paint on the window sash to prep it for refinishing.

The Dremel Multi-Max will not replace any of your portable power saws or even your hand tools. You’ll still want a circular saw, saber saw, and a set of scrapers, chisels, handsaws, etc.  The Multi-Max will, however, add to your problem-solving arsenal. It’s a tool that gives you the ability to handle the finishing touches on big jobs and to get you out of difficult jams on the small ones (among them: cutting back baseboard moldings; cutting drywall for installing electrical boxes and recessed light fixtures; removing caulk, grout, and glazing compounds; cutting copper and plastic piping; and removing carpet). It’s especially effective when making cuts in confined areas where a plunge cut or flush cut is your only option.


This post has been brought to you by The Home Depot. Its facts and opinions are those of

Quick Tip: Staple Guns

On many occasions, you can save time and energy by using a staple gun instead of a hammer and nail.

For a lot of jobs around the house, using a staple can be a lot faster and easier than banging tacks or nails. The most common staple gun is the hand-powered spring-loaded variety. Standard guns accept staples from 1/4 to 9/16 of an inch long. For a real time- and energy-saver, try a hammer stapler: The impact of the head with the surface releases the staple.

For more on tools, consider:

Quick Tip: Steel Wool
How Many Tools Does a Good Multi-Tool Need?
10 Tools for Your Apartment You Never Thought You’d Need