Frugal Tools

Published: May 12, 2021 - by Dan Holohan

Categories: The Business of Heating

frugal tools

Who doesn’t like to talk about tools? I asked a bunch of my friends about the tools that live on in sweet memory as frugal tools — tools that were worth the investment. Tools that lasted.

Johnny said, “How about honesty, pride and integrity?”

I thought about that for a long moment. Smiled, nodded and then asked the others about tools you could hold in your hands.

Steve said, “I miss the old steel tool boxes. That’s a tool that holds your best tools.” We all nodded. “Steel boxes are still out there, but they’re harder to find these days. I look for old Craftsmen steel boxes at garage sales and flea markets. Once you have one of those, you pretty much have it for life. That’s frugal for sure.”

It’s good to have things that last a long time and give us great return on investment. Besides, those heavy boxes also kept us in better shape, not that anyone working in this trade needs Planet Fitness. And who doesn’t like a good garage sale? You can meet some pretty interesting people at those.

Bob mentioned that when he started in the business, he had this hole-shooter that he renamed the Wrist-Breaker. “On that job we had a well-used Milwaukee that I saw take out more than one wrist,” he said. “I learned a long time ago to use a broomstick with any drill that had a D handle on it. I saw too many folks get spun around when the bit got stuck. Mucho torque on those things. It got the job done, but you had to pet it first.”

Chris added, “A Milwaukee hole-shooter will rip your hand off and make you respect it if you aren’t careful. My dad had one that weighed a ton, and we’d sometimes both have to be on it when we were using a large bit. It’s basically the 1950s version of the Hole Hawg. It had low rpm and a ton or torque. I have a chip in my tooth from getting smacked by it. The bit sure knew how to bite. And the handle hit my jaw with a left hook and knocked me off the ladder. It taught me how to pay attention to what I was doing. Paying attention saves money on doctor bills. That’s frugal, right?”

To which Stephen added, “I’m laughing because it did the same thing to me. Wasn’t very funny at the time, though.”

“All of this makes me happy,” I said. “I chose to write about these activities rather than actually do them. No keyboard has ever knocked me off my swivel chair. You tool guys are tough.”

“We are,” Bob said, “And I’m still using an all-metal, right-angle drill. That thing will take your arm off if you’re not paying attention.”

I’m sensing a pay-attention theme here.

Speaking of which, here’s Chris again: “I have a 1930s Canedy-Otto 16-inch (1/2-inch chuck) drill press that will do some damage. My boss gave it to me because OSHA would no longer allow it on jobs because it doesn’t have a belt guard.”

So when the government says no, the boss says, “Here you go, Chris.”

As I said, these are tough guys.

K.C. shared some photos of the old pipe dies his grandpa had given him. “I’m not sure what vintage they are, other than old,” he said. “I’ve actually worked with these, and fully understand why Grandpa was so strong and in such great shape. I used the one-inch die to make a custom-length nipple for one of my small radiators. Wow! I don’t want to do that too often, at least not on black-steel pipe. I also couldn’t help but notice that this was the biggest size he had.”

Grandpa was a smart man. And tough.

There’s a pretty town in upstate New York called Hudson. Ed Bratton, who is older than I am, had a heating business in that town. Years ago, I wrote a book called, The Lost Art of Steam Heating, and in it, I told Ed’s story because, at the time, I believed he was the last man in America to still be installing steam heat from scratch. Since then, others have done the same, and they’ve told me about it. Most mentioned Ed, and said that they wanted to rise to his challenge. Guys in this business are like that.

Anyway, I was with Ed in a basement of a small house where he was putting in a one-pipe steam system from scratch. I asked him why he was doing this and he said, “The people aren’t here all the time, and this system won’t freeze during our long winters because there’s no water in the pipes.”

That’s something few consider.

Ed had bought used, cast-iron radiators for this job and he was running pipe up through the building that day. He was cutting and threading every piece of pipe by hand. Ed looks like he’s made of concrete and used auto parts. He grunts and scowls as he works and never stops talking. He has opinions about everything.

“You know,” I said. “You can get a pipe-threading machine with a motor these days.”

Ed paused, looked at me, wiped the sweat off his brow, and said, “Motors are for sissies.”

And then he went back to threading his pipes.

I will remember that moment all the days of my life.

Plimpton & Hills started in business in Hartford, Connecticut in 1902. They began as a plumbing-, gas-, water-, and steam pipe-and-fitting-supplier to the trade. They’re still in business, and with multiple branches.

I found their 1924, hard-cover, 483-page catalog in a used-book store. I paid 10 bucks for it. I learned from this catalog that for another 10 bucks I could have bought a genuine four-foot-long Stilson wrench in 1924. That was back in the day, when beer cost a nickel, and 20 dollars was a half-week’s wages.

This catalog is a walk down a mechanical memory lane for me. It ripples with muscle. On page 452, there’s a Toledo Power Drive offered for sale. The price is $600, the equivalent of 14-weeks wages back then. It weighs 260 pounds and can thread pipe from 2-1/2" to 12". It’s a tool that snarls.

Oh, and they also sold the 12" screwed fittings to go with those pipes you were threading. How do you catch a thread on one of those? How does your back feel just thinking about that?

Ouch, right?

These are my favorite quotes from talking to my tool buddies that day:

“People think they are ‘green’ these days,” Bob said. “But I think we all need to get back to some of the old ways. I think we were much less wasteful in the old days. Maybe the old ‘frugal’ should be the new ‘green’.”

“I have a cellar and a garage full of frugal,” Mike said. “What I don’t have is the ability to find what I’m looking for.”

K.C. laughed and added, “My wife stays out of the garage and out of my workshop. If she didn’t, all of my frugal would wind up out in the garbage.”

Let’s hear it for frugal.