The Right Tool For The Job

by Peter Egan
Road & Track
April, 1996

(this is the original which has been copied, altered, shortened, lengthened, and subjected to many other indignities, and versions thus altered have circulated for years on the internet, usually entitled “Tool Definitions,” and without a lick of credit to Peter Egan's original. Even the version on Swapmeet Dave's site omits the five paragraph intro, which I believe is integral to the composition. Rod Peterson)

Had a strange dream the other night: I was out in my workshop, making sandwiches, for some reason, and I had about a dozen slices of bread laid out on the workbench. (Sanitation is meaningless in dreams, unless the dream lasts long enough for you to become seriously ill.) Oddly, I was spreading mayonnaise on the bread with a tiny Craftsman screwdriver of the size normally used to fix alarm clocks or busted Smiths tachometers. Naturally, it was taking forever, and I was quite frustrated with the whole process.

Before we put too heavy a Freudian spin on this dream (inadequate tools, etc.), I should mention that I had some Wild Turkey on the rocks after a dinner of chorizo enchiladas with Negra Modelo, which is asking for trouble if you include the espresso we had while watching Bullitt again. When I went to bed, my neurons were firing like a string of cheap Chinese firecrackers.

Anyway, dedicated mechanics will recognize immediately the source of frustration in this dream: I was using the wrong tool for the job.

Anyone with an ounce of mechanical experience will tell you that a better tool for spreading mayonnaise on bread would have been, say, a broad-tipped Snap-on gasket scraper or an old hacksaw blade with some spring to it. The only legitimate use of a small, thin-tipped Craftsman screwdriver, of course, is to mix epoxy resin and hardener to a consistent dark gray color on the torn-off lid of a Fram oil filter box.

There's a lot of this kind of tool-use confusion in garages today, so I thought it might be helpful (leaning on my years of experience, as usual) to reveal to the novice mechanic the rightful roles of the tools found in that 2000-piece tool set your family got you for Christmas ($4000 cheaper than if they'd bought each tool separately!). Let's start with the main stuff.

  • Hammers: Probably the Original Tool, if you exempt (as I always do) a straw stuck down a termite nest in search of food, as used by lower primates and some of the guys who were in my high school shop class. Originally employed as a weapon of war, the hammer is nowadays used as a kind of divining rod to locate expensive car parts not far from the object we are trying to hit. For those with a more accurate sense of aim, the hammer is useful for tapping on oilpans, water pumps and other brittle pot-metal castings to see if we've forgotten to remove one of the bolts, which we have.

  • Electric hand drill: Normally used for spinning steel Pop rivets in their holes until you die of old age, but it also works great for drilling rollbar mounting holes in the floor of a sports car just above the brake line that goes to the rear axle.

  • Pliers: Used to round off bolt heads.

  • Hacksaw: One of a family of cutting tools built on the Ouija board principle. It transforms human energy into a crooked, unpredictable motion, and the more you attempt to influence its course, the more dismal your future becomes.

  • Vise-Grips: Used to round off bolt heads. If nothing else is available, they can also be used to transfer intense welding heat to the palm of your hand.

  • Oxyacetylene torch: Used almost entirely for lighting those stale garage cigarettes you keep hidden in the back of the Whitworth socket drawer (what wife would think to look in there?) because you can never remember to buy lighter fluid for the Zippo lighter you got from the PX at Fort Campbell.

  • Zippo lighter: See Oxyacetylene torch.

  • Whitworth sockets: Once used for working on older British cars and motorcycles, they are now used mainly for hiding 6-month-old Salems from the sort of person who would throw them away for no good reason.

  • Drill press: A tall upright machine useful for suddenly snatching flat metal bar stock out of your hands so that it smacks you in the chest and flings your beer across the room, splattering against the Rolling Stones poster over the bench-grinder.

  • Wire wheel: Cleans rust off old bolts and then throws them somewhere under the workbench with the speed of light. Also removes finger-print whorls and hard-earned guitar callouses in about the time it takes you to say, "Django Reinhardt."

  • Hydraulic floor jack: Used for lowering a Mustang to the ground after you have installed a set of Ford Motorsports lowered road springs, trapping the jack handle firmly under the front air dam.

  • Eight-foot-long Douglas fir 2x4: Used for levering the car upward off the hydraulic floor jack, perhaps.

  • Tweezers: A tool for removing wood slivers.

  • Phone: Tool for calling your neighbor Chris to see if he has another hydraulic floor jack.

  • Snap-on gasket scraper: Theoretically useful as a sandwich tool for spreading mayonnaise; used mainly for getting dog-doo off your boot.

  • E-Z Out bolt and stud extractor: A tool that snaps off in bolt holes and is ten times harder than any known drill bit.

  • Timing light: A stroboscopic instrument for illuminating grease buildup on crankshaft pulleys.

  • Sanyo boombox: An electomechanical device that miraculously allows the lovely Cecilia Bartoli to sing Rossini arias in a garage full of choking paint fumes, which is something she would not normally be inclined to do.

  • Two-ton hydraulic engine hoist: A handy tool for testing the tensile strength of ground straps and hydraulic clutch lines you may have forgotten to disconnect.

  • Shop manual: A kind of mirror whose smudges and grease stains reflect the true soul of the clean and apparently innocent car standing nearby; the automotive equivalent of a police blotter.

  • Shop rags: Composed almost entirely of pink lint, shop rags are essentially a washable version of the shop manual; when laundered at home they add a nice fresh scent to the washer and dryer.

  • Craftsman ½ x 16-in. screwdriver: A large motor mount prying tool that inexplicably has an accurately machined screwdriver tip on the end without the handle.

  • Compression gauge: Used during buyer's inspections by overly cautious consumers who do not own a 2-ton hydraulic engine hoist or a Craftsman ½ x 16-in. screwdriver.

  • Outside micrometer: A device for periodically reviewing the meaning of all those little incremental marks on the barrel and trying to remember whether they translate into thousandths or hundred thousandths of an inch and exactly how many decimal places to the right of the period that is, anyway.

  • Battery electrolyte tester: A handy tool for transferring sulfuric acid from a car battery to the inside of your toolbox after determining that your battery is dead as a doornail, just as you thought.

  • Metric wrenches: Used on cars from countries whose citizens believe that an acute misunderstanding of the earth's circumference (updated to a unit equal to 1,650,763.3 wavelengths of the orange-red radiation of an isotope of krypton) is a more legitimate and easier–to–visualize form of measurement than the instep of a dead king (as in, “Ludwig, let us pace off those wavelengths again!” Or, “Zut alors! I need to measure the curtains and I have forgotten my isotope of krypton!”). On American and British cars, metric tools are used primarily to round off bolt heads.

  • Aviation metal snips: See hacksaw.

  • Trouble light: The mechanic's own tanning booth. Sometimes called a drop light, it is a good source of vitamin D, "the sunshine vitamin," which is not otherwise found under cars at night. Health benefits aside, its main purpose is to consume 40-watt light bulbs at about the same rate 105-mm howitzer shells might be used during, say, the first few hours of the Battle of the Bulge. More often dark than light, its name is somewhat misleading.

  • Phillips screwdriver: Normally used to stab the lids of old-style paper-and-tin oil cans and splash oil on your shirt; can also be used, as the name implies, to round off Phillips screw heads.

  • Air compressor: A machine that takes energy produced in a coal-burning powerplant 200 miles away and transforms it into compressed air that travels by hose to a Chicago Pneumatic impact wrench that grips rusty suspension bolts last tightened 40 years ago by someone in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, and rounds them off.

  • Grease gun: A messy tool for checking to see if your zirk fittings are still plugged with rust.

  • Deep-well sockets: Normally used as piston-pin and wheel-bearing drifts, deep-well sockets are also good for drawing circles when a coffee-can lid would be way too big.

  • Toshiba miniature refrigerator: A trouble-free appliance, manufactured to metric standards; used primarily to chill Lotus piston pins down to an easy press-fit while storing up to 12 bottles of Guinness stout, proving once again that Science is really at its best in the service of Art.

Well, that's enough for now. I've got lots of unmentioned tools left in the old box, but I should probably save them for another day when I run out of column ideas, much as I did earlier this morning.

Last updated: 27 January 2009

Valid HTML 4.01 Transitional Valid CSS!