Cutting Tool Engineering
August 2011 / Volume 63 / Issue 8

Managing your personal toolcrib

By Tom Lipton

When I asked my old teacher Doug what tools I should bring to work, he said, “Bring everything and you can take the stuff you’re not using home.” Doug worked out of a small sheet metal toolbox. His tools were a collection of new and old.

Doug generously allowed me to borrow any tool as long as I continued to purchase tools myself. This is a great way to foster tool appreciation. You can judge a person’s commitment to his trade by the investment he makes in his tools.

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All images courtesy of T. Lipton

Calibrate your tape measure with a high-quality ruler.

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If you know a ruler’s thickness, you can use it as a feeler gage.

If you borrow a tool, be sure to return it promptly. It is a major shop infraction and disrespectful to be late in returning borrowed tools. Also, don’t make a mistake and create an enemy by not returning a tool enthusiastically. Apparently, this is not the case in all professions. I have found engineers and scientists tend to view hand tools as objects instead of treasured personal possessions.

I advocate buying the highest-quality tools you can afford. If you’re planning to make a living with them, the initial painful cost is amortized over a lifetime. Besides, you are directly supporting somebody else who thinks enough of fine tools to actually make them.

Part of the fun of metalworking is using the tools. It’s not much fun, however, if you pick up a commonly used tool and regret buying it. There is a deep satisfaction attached to working with your hands. Fine tools go along with that feeling. Some people argue that less expensive tools provide identical performance, but if that was true, high-quality toolmakers would be out of business. When a metalworking professional’s skill level rises, the differences in tools become more evident. Some of the differences are subtle, but the higher cost of top-quality tools is justified in most cases.

Just like carpenters and their tool belts, efficient metalworkers must have a few crucial tools on them almost all the time. The class of work the shop does determines which tools are necessary.

It would be great if you were never more than one step from your toolbox and everything else you need anywhere in the shop. Countless hours of hunting and using the wrong tool for the job would be eliminated. Over the years, I have tried different combinations and finally condensed it to a bare minimum of tools I keep on my person. Having these tools at my fingertips at all times saves an incredible amount of time.

A 10' tape measure. A simple way to avoid mistakes and increase efficiency is to carry a tape measure and measure often. If you can’t measure at a moment’s notice, you will not measure enough and will make more mistakes as a result. You can remove the belt clip to carry it in a pocket. Calibrate your tape measure frequently. Check it against high-quality rulers or combination square blades. Bend the hook to adjust the zero.

A 6" ruler. You can use it to stir your coffee and double check a zillion things. Skip the really fine division rulers. There are more accurate tools for closer measurements. Know the thickness of your favorite 6" ruler. It comes in handy as a field-expedient feeler gage.

A retractable point scriber. A carbide tip, which won’t poke a hole in your pocket, is a must for any stainless steel work.

A Sharpie marker. Use a black or blue one for light-colored materials, silver metallic for dark materials and red for junk parts and corrections. I have these markers all over the shop and bet that I don’t have to walk more than three paces to find one.

A small, flat-blade screwdriver with a magnet. This tool is your pry bar and pick, as well as a handy screwdriver. I use one to align sheet metal edges prior to welding and for loosening the lock screw that holds the punch and die in my Whitney hand punch. Don’t be afraid to abuse this tool. Think of it as a consumable. It will keep you from using your good tools for bad jobs.

A mechanical pencil. Success requires effective written communication. I like mechanical pencils because they never need to be sharpened. I recommend the thicker 0.9mm lead. Unlike a ballpoint pen, you can write on vertical and overhead surfaces with a pencil. The thin, extendable tip of a mechanical pencil reaches into small template holes and otherwise goes where a wood pencil cannot. CTE

TomLipton.tif About the Author: Tom Lipton is a career metalworker who has worked at various job shops that produce parts for the consumer product development, laboratory equipment, medical services and custom machinery design industries. He has received six U.S. patents and lives in Alamo, Calif. Lipton’s column is adapted from information in his book “Metalworking Sink or Swim: Tips and Tricks for Machinists, Welders, and Fabricators,” published by Industrial Press Inc., New York. The publisher can be reached by calling (888) 528-7852 or visiting By indicating the code CTE-2011 when ordering, CTE readers will receive a 20 percent discount off the book’s list price of $44.95.

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