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12 Unexpectedly useful tools and supplies you need to keep handy

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12 Unexpectedly useful tools and supplies you need to keep handy
Upgrade your toolkit with these useful supplies with unexpected uses, from repairing jewellery with dental floss to cleaning with compressed air
Tools are the intermediaries between you and your environment. They allow you to turn a nut when your hands don’t have the gripping power; to move a mountain of compost when you don’t have the muscles or stamina to carry that much stuff all at once; and to cut materials that are too tough to break with your hands.
To make many of the fixes in this book, it is important that you have a good set of conventional tools, such as hammers, saws, screwdrivers, and pliers. But we want to draw your attention to some often-overlooked tools and supplies that are versatile, inexpensive, and durable time-savers. We surveyed some of the handiest people we know about the unexpectedly useful tools and other supplies that a person should have on hand to handle the kinds of problems covered in this book. And the results are given below. If you put these items on your shopping list and stock your home, car, and workplace with them, 99 per cent of life’s everyday fix-its will roll aside like, well, water off duct tape.

Duct tape

What’s not to love about duct tape? It’s strong, flexible, and waterproof. You can cut it to any length your task calls for. And when its job is done, chances are the same piece will still be perfectly good. Just wrap it around the outside of the original roll, and you can use it again. Duct tape comes in a variety of colours, the most common being silver.
"What’s not to love about duct tape? It’s strong, flexible, and waterproof"
We know a photographer who improvised a dental cap for himself with duct tape when he broke a molar during an Antarctic expedition. This super-tape seems to hold much of the rest of his life together, too. He uses it to keep the little rubber caps from popping off his tripod, to cover his wrists and ankles when mosquitoes attack, to fix a leaky canoe, and to restore a split paddle. He has even repaired a pair of torn work pants with a half dozen strips of red duct tape.

Dental floss

Dental floss is string on steroids. It’s super strong and comes in a compact case. When you travel, chances are you take some with you in your toiletries kit, so all you need to do is remember that floss can do more than just clean teeth. Travellers swear by it for repairing torn tote bag straps and backpacks. (It helps if you’ve also packed a big sewing needle.) Dental floss is much stronger than thread, and its slippery surface allows it to slide more easily through tough fabrics. You can also use it to tie a package closed or as a clothesline when you’re on the road.
One Peace Corps volunteer we interviewed used floss to repair a broken necklace. She just threaded the loose beads onto a piece of floss and knotted the ends, which sufficed until she got the necklace home for a permanent repair.
Dental floss has culinary uses, too. For instance, you can use it to slice a cake by holding the floss taut across the top of the cake, pushing down, and then sliding it out the side. It can be used to slice cheese as well (unwaxed for soft cheese, waxed for hard).

Sewing kit

Keep a compact sewing kit near at hand. Not only is it handy for stitching up your split pants in a jiffy, but the needles are also useful for extracting thorns, glass, splinters, and the like from your skin. (Remember to sterilise the needle with a match first.)
Sewing kit
At a minimum, include black and white thread in your kit; throw in a few other colours for versatility. Stock the kit with three needles—small, medium, and large (for tough fabrics).

Multitools

Going out and about with a case of tools is impractical. That’s what makes the Swiss Army Knife, the Leatherman, and other multitools so popular. These fold-up, many-tools-in-one gizmos are lightweight and compact. They come in a variety of models, so you can select the array of tools you’ll be most likely to need.
For example, one model of Swiss Army Knife sports two screwdrivers (flat head and Phillips), durable scissors, a bottle and can opener, a corkscrew, a nail file, a magnifying glass (to help you read small print or start a fire with no matches), and two knife blades (one with a ruler on the blade). Other models offer such unexpected items as tweezers, wire strippers, and toothpicks. Some even have clocks, alarms, and mini-flashlights.
Leatherman and its competitors are essentially a pair of pliers with a host of additional tools that swing out of the handles when needed. They tend to be a little more bulky than the Swiss Army Knife and can include heavier-duty tools, such as miniature wire cutters, files, and saws. When you’re contemplating your choice, here are a few things to think about besides the variety of models:
  • Do the sharp tools lock in place, so they won’t close on your hand while you’re using them?
  • Do several tools tend to swing out of the handle when you’re trying to pull out only one of them?
  • Does the frame come in a high-visibility colour? Multitools are easily lost in the woods (one park ranger has collected a bucketful), so picking one in a bright colour is a good idea

Zip ties

Some people never go anywhere without zip ties, also known as cable ties. These strong nylon bands consist of a head (something like a belt buckle) and a slotted band. Wrap the band around two or more objects, slip the tapered end through the locking head, and tighten. The objects are bound fast.
"These strong nylon bands consist of a head and a slotted band"
Zip ties are great for holding car parts in place, bundling wires, binding newspapers, repairing fences, substituting for shoestrings, securing ponytails, and more. You typically have to snip the tie to release the objects you’ve bound together, although some ties feature a release mechanism. Zip ties are sold in a variety of colours, range in length from 4 inches to 11 inches (10 to 28 centimetres), and are available at home improvement stores.

Galvanised wire

Galvanised wire (also known as baling or bale wire) is a great way to affix one object to another. And unlike duct tape and zip ties (see above), galvanised wire can stand up to extreme heat, which means you can use it to secure a wobbly muffler on your car or a loose carburetor on your lawn mower. This wire, which is1⁄16inch (1.6 millimetres) thick, comes on a roll and can be purchased at hardware and home improvement stores. It can be twisted and snipped with pliers. Among its myriad uses:
  • When you’ve stripped the threads on a screw on an appliance, run some galvanised wire through the screw hole and twist it to hold things together until you can make a permanent fix
  • Galvanised wire can be used to mend fences in a variety of ways; for instance, you can use it to splice broken wires, fasten wire fencing to a post, or reinforce a post that has cracked or broken
  • Use it to hang things up, such as pictures in your house, birdhouses, wind chimes, or seasonal items stored in the garage
  • String some galvanised wire between two trees and throw a blanket over it to make a play tent for the kids

Staple gun

Which would you rather do: spend an hour tapping tacks or brads with a hammer, or accomplish the same task in a few minutes with a spring-loaded staple gun? On this planet, most people would opt for the latter. With the squeeze of a handle, a staple gun will fire a hefty two-pronged staple into wood and other hard but penetrable surfaces. Use it to put up holiday decorations in just moments, to hold speaker wires in place, to secure a broken window screen, or to tack down plastic sheeting before a storm arrives. Some people use their staple guns for creating elegant window treatments, draping and securing fabric, and reupholstering furniture.
staple gun
If you’re going to do a lot of stapling, consider a model that will allow you to adjust the firing strength of the gun, or even consider an electric unit. If the stapling you’re doing is meant to be temporary, wrap a hefty rubber band around the staple gun so that it’s right next to where the staple shoots out. This will act as a “spacer,” leaving the top of the staple protruding so it can be removed easily.

Spray lubricant

Life is full of things that don’t slide and glide as easily as they ought to—hinges, lug nuts, zippers, and pruning shears, just to name a few. For that reason alone, it’s worth keeping cans of spray lubricant in your car, toolshed, office, and kitchen cabinet. You can buy this stuff just about anywhere, including supermarkets, hardware stores, discount stores, auto stores, and home improvement stores. The most famous brand is WD-40, but other brands are available, too.
Aside from straightforward lubrication, there are scores of other inventive uses for spray lubricant, including these:
  • Coat garden tools with it to prevent rust
  • Spray it on your snow shovel to keep slush from sticking to it
  • For crayon marks on hard surfaces such as tile, counters, wood furniture, and painted walls, just spray the lubricant on and wipe the marks away
  • Spray it on building ledges and eaves to repel pigeons

Compressed air

For some cleaning tasks, you need a blast of wind—and nothing more. Cleaning fluids will wreck some delicate items (such as dried flowers). And you might think that just puffing up your cheeks and blowing onto that electronic game cartridge will do fine for dislodging dust, but you’d be running a risk: Your breath carries tiny water droplets, which can damage electronic parts. The solution is compressed air. Pick up several cans at a computer store or photo shop and station them in your toolbox, office, kitchen, entertainment centre, and garage.
Person cleaning computer with compressed air
Here’s just a sampling of other things you can clean with compressed air: cable ports on computers, cameras, CD and DVD players, computer screens, electric shavers, keyboards, power tools, sewing machines, slides and negatives, smoke alarms, and typewriters. Cans of compressed air also are handy for cleaning in hard-to-reach places—the blades of a tabletop fan, for instance. Many brands of compressed air come with a little extender tube that can get the blast of air closer to hard-to-reach spots.
When you’re using cans of compressed air, hold the can upright. Otherwise, you might get some of the propellant mixed in with the air, dampening something you didn’t want to get wet. Also remember that the air is rushing out with considerable force and could damage delicate objects. You can reduce the force, of course, by moving the can farther away from the object being cleaned. And make sure your compressed air doesn’t drive dust into the housing of your electronic equipment—say, through the vents on the side of your computer monitor. For that kind of cleaning, a handheld vacuum would be a better choice.

Baking soda

Sodium bicarbonate, also known as good old baking soda, is the multitool of the chemical world. You can use this nontoxic, mild alkali for scores of chores around the house, including cleaning, scouring, polishing, and removing stains. But aside from cooking uses, baking soda is probably most famous for deodorising refrigerators. Open a box and stash it in the back of the fridge, and it will absorb odours, keeping your milk from tasting like your leftover Chinese food. Here’s just a sampling of its other uses:
  • Sprinkle some baking soda on a damp sponge and use it as a gentle scouring powder
  • Smother a grease fire with it on the stovetop
  • Brush your teeth with it
  • To remove a musty smell from carpeting, sprinkle the carpet with baking soda, let it sit for three or four hours, and vacuum it up
  • Mix 2 tablespoons in 1 quart (1 litre) of warm water and use it to clean hard surfaces, such as tile, counters, and stainless steel

White vinegar

White vinegar is another inexpensive and versatile household substance. Buy this mild acid by the jug at your supermarket or wholesale club. Mix 1⁄4 cup in 1 quart (1 litre) of water for cleaning hard surfaces, including windows. Vinegar kills germs and mould. It also removes stains, grease, and wax buildup and does a super job of breaking down mineral deposits on faucets and shower-heads. 
"White vinegar removes stains, grease, and wax buildup"
Vinegar can even be used to remove soil from the hems of pants. Use a cloth to dab the vinegar on until the mark is wet, let it dry, and brush off the loosened soil.
More jobs for white vinegar:
  • Use white vinegar as a hair rinse to neutralise alkaline residue left by shampoos
  • If glassware comes out of the dishwasher looking filmy, bathe each glass for a minute or two in vinegar, wipe with a scrubber sponge, and rinse
  • To clean your coffeemaker, fill the tank with a half-and-half mixture of water and vinegar, put a new filter in the basket to catch loosened debris, and turn the machine on. Let the coffeemaker run through its entire cycle, then run it through two more cycles with fresh water

Rubbing alcohol

Rubbing alcohol is a top-notch cleaner, stain remover, and disinfectant. It’s inexpensive and versatile. It also dries quickly, so it makes a great streak-free window cleaner and is good for removing dirt from electronic gear that could be damaged by water, such as calculators, remote controls, and keyboards.
  • To make your own glass cleaner, mix 1⁄2 cup of rubbing alcohol, 2 squirts of dishwashing liquid, and a gallon of warm water
  • To kill germs on your child’s toys and furniture, moisten a cleaning cloth with rubbing alcohol and wipe
  • To remove a lipstick stain from fabric, pretreat it by blotting on rubbing alcohol. Then launder as usual
  • To remove an ink stain from fabric, pour some rubbing alcohol on a cleaning cloth and blot (don’t rub) at the stain. Let the moistened stain sit for half an hour, then blot at the stain with a fresh cloth, adding more alcohol as needed. Keep moving to new sections of the cleaning cloth, drawing out more ink as you go. Rinse the stain with 1⁄4 cup of white vinegar mixed with 1 quart (1 litre) of water, and rinse again with straight water
  • To remove hair spray buildup on your bathroom mirror, pour some rubbing alcohol on a cleaning cloth and wipe
Some warnings: Don’t get rubbing alcohol confused with drinkable alcohol. Rubbing alcohol is poisonous and is also highly flammable. Keep it away from kids.
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