Cool Tools- Essentials for the Builder

…and some not too essentials.

Let’s be honest.  Any decent project is really a thinly veiled excuse to buy new, fun tools, right?  If you have your own shop, you may have some basics already, but there are a few tools that I used constantly. In some cases I had them, and used what I had, but in others I replaced old, worn items or had to find a source for some specialized tools.

The first, and probably most frequently used tool was the soldering iron.   I had an old, dirty pencil iron around of unknown power, and just could not solder up a good connection with it.  I tried cleaning the tip with a file, I tried replacing the tip.  Then I gave up and tossed it.

I picked up a basic 40W pencil iron with one of these brass sponge tip cleaners, and it worked great.  I found, especially since I rewired my 12V harness, I used this constantly soldering splices together, then heat shrinking insulation on them.  With a new, clean and sufficiently powerful iron I was able to make fast, solid splices at record speed.

The second tool you need for the splicing is a good heat gun.  You can try using matches, lighters, or some other heat source to heat heat-shrink insulation, but it’s a waste of time.  You need high heat, applied evenly, with control to avoid over-heating.  A decent heat gun is essential.  

Funny- I never got into using a wire stripper or a crimping tool for my smaller wires.  I just use a knife, and crimp the connectors with a pliers that has a little bump on the inside of the jaws, but if you want to do it fast and right, one of those wire connector/crimping kits would be a great thing.

Some notes- on soldering, first.  Remember the importance of “tinning” the iron.  Tinning starts you off with a nice clean coating of liquid solder.  When you have some liquid solder the heat transmits to the work faster, and the work heats more completely.  I’ll often load a little drop of solder on the tip, and let that drop envelop and heat the work, until it simply flows into the splice making a perfect soldered joint.  Second, on those crimp connectors, I cut off the plastic insulation on them and replace it with heat shrink.  I also solder them.  It’s obsessive, probably, but it makes a good, clean, positive connection that looks neat.  I started doing this because of the many times I thought I had a good crimped connection that fell apart in my hands.

On the question of crimping, soldering, and crimping with soldering- in particular your bigger cables.

Wars have been fought over less.  The smaller connections I do solder and crimp.  The bigger ones I just crimp.  A good crimp is a fine connection, and it’s easy to see that it’s positive on a big cable.  Soldering it is a tricky job.  You run the risk of making a bad joint since it’s so big, and you can melt the insulation.  I opted out of the additional work and risks, but a good soldered and crimped joint is at least equal to a good crimped connector.

The crimp tool I used for the big, 4 Gauge cables was this little thing from a supplier on Ebay. I also found this one, from West Marine, which is considerably more expensive, but also works really well.  This shot also shows the heat shrink in position for final assembly after the crimp is made.

One of the common jobs in this kind of project is cutting metal.  If you have a nice metal-bladed bandsaw, that’s certainly the way to go, but there are two hand power tools that work really well.  The first is a small jigsaw- usually under $50, you can fit these with a metal cutting blade, and running them a slow speed with some good, solid force applied they do a fine job, and will fill in admirably for their big band saw brother, especially for cutting curves.  (One thing about cutting metal- using high speed with light pressure will actually work-harden steel.  Whatever you’re doing, whether cutting or drilling, you want to use low speed and high pressure to let the blade cut the steel without heating and hardening it.  Using oil or cutting fluid helps as well.)

The other tool I used, and in particular in the process of taking the old motor out of the frame, was none other than my big old Sawzall.  A Sawzall with a metal blade can cut virtually anything.  A blessing, yes, but also a curse.  With great cutting power comes great responsibility.

As far as my basic shop setup goes, the most important tool there is my drill press, outfitted with a good, solid vise.  I use it constantly, and I even have it outfitted with bores, milling bits and taps.  If you’ve never seen someone use a drill press to tap a hole, you’ve missed one of the great bits of style and grace in the workshop.  You drill the hole.  You switch out the drill with a tap without moving the work.  You spin up the tap, cut the power and feed it into the hole with just enough pressure to start the tap and let it pull itself into the hole.  You get a perfect thread, if you do it right, and it’s fast.

One thing I feel you don’t need is a welder.  Although you may want a welder, (and who doesn’t), welding is a skill that takes years to learn.  Making joints, and understanding if a joint is solid and will stand the vibrations and twisting forces of use and time, is something that only experience can tell you.  Welds in critical applications are tested in ways a home builder can only dream of, and welding anything that is critical to the safety of the bike needs to be done by someone who knows what they’re doing.  Beyond that, a good, state-of-the-art welder is a few thousand dollars, and anything else is, well, “working in the Stone Age” as my (motorcycle frame fabricator) friend Keith Loomer will tell you.  It’s tempting to go pick up a cheap little stick or wire-feed MIG welder, and I think you should.  And use it on your lawn sculpture.  For steel, the best “welder” for you bike is the guy down the street who’s a certified professional.  If your frame is aluminum, I can’t be too emphatic.  Professional welding is your only reasonable choice.

Hand tools- there’s a good reason why electrician’s tools have rubber handles.  When you can, get them with rubber, and with pliers and screwdrivers it’s not a problem.  With wrenches it’s not going to be possible.  The problem is when you have one end of a tool completing a circuit through the other end- the wrench becomes part of the circuit, and you along with it.  It’s certainly a good idea to wrap the handle of the wrench with a rubber or vinyl tape or cover it with a heat-shrink, but I’d go one step further and cover up one whole end of the wrench.  This is going to limit you to one-ended wrenches, but it’s the safest way to go.

The tape you can use for wrapping the tools, as well as general electrical use, should be the 3M Scotch 33+ Professional Grade Vinyl.  There is also liquid rubber-type insulation- dip the handles into the stuff, or paint it on, and you’re good.  Several guys I’ve talked to use rubber work gloves.  I don’t, I just can’t work with them, but it’s certainly the safest possible way to go about it.

Check out part 2: MORE Cool Tools

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2 responses to “Cool Tools- Essentials for the Builder

  1. Pingback: MORE Cool Tools! « The Electric Chronicles·

  2. If you have not tried these http://www.webbikeworld.com/sale/posi-locks-for-sale.htm
    you are possibly missing out. They have got to be the simplest cinnectors I have ever used, picked up from WebBikeWorld ’cause they have great reviews and stuff… (I don’t work there or anything). Other than that- I just stumbled on you blog last week and caught up- Great stuff! You are making me think I should be making my own instead of buying an Empulse…

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