A new wave of hand tools has arrived

For years, hand tools improved gradually, evolving yearly.

Today’s hand tools are decidedly different—the new changes are revolutionary, rather than evolutionary. Take Stout Tools’ X-Band Heavy-Duty Cordless bandsaw, for instance.

Thirty seconds after removing the saw from its fluorescent green carrying case, I had bisected a 1 1/2-inch section of PVC by simply pressing a button and applying the blade. Another 30 seconds later, the saw was back in the box and ready for transport.

Stout Tools’ new saw exemplifies a trend among tool manufacturers who are placing greater design emphasis on the issues of portability, speed, weight and ergonomics. It was the ergonomic issue, in fact, that stimulated development of the new saw.

After spending years as a journeyman, Stout Tools’ Scott McIntosh was diagnosed as having carpal tunnel syndrome, a byproduct of thousands of cuts made with old-fashioned hacksaws, pipe cutters and reciprocating saws.

“At that point, I realized I needed to change my habits or I was going to be unemployed.” During a six-month period spent working on a hospital job site, he observed 40 electricians using the same tools as those that caused his problem.

“I asked myself, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’” he said. Visited one evening by the Mother of Invention, he headed for his garage, and got to work.

Eight prototypes and three years later, he introduced what he claims is the “world’s first truly portable band saw,” an 8-pound Tasmanian Devil that can cut 100 sections of 1/2-inch conduit on a single charge of its 18V NiCad battery. The battery drives a Johnson electric motor at 21,000 rpm, making cuts with a Starrett 24 tpi blade running on Boca bearings at 475 feet per minute.

“Users will make more cuts per minute using the new saw, and be less fatigued at the end of the day,” McIntosh said. The first of the bright green units were shipped in early 2004.

Meanwhile, Milwaukee Electric Tool Corp. has introduced a cut-off machine “designed for use when trimming conduit and black pipe,” brand manager Richard Peterson said.

The 6190-20 14-inch Dry Cut-Off machine is powered by a 15A, 4.8 hp motor the company calls “the most durable and largest capacity dry cutter on the market today.”

The saw employs dry cutting technology that will cut three times faster than an abrasive machine, Peterson said, and be “one and one-half times less expensive to operate.” This is achieved by using a 14-inch, 72-tooth carbide-tipped blade designed to last 30 times longer than conventional blades. Efficiency is increased by reducing down time attributed to blade changes. The blades also produce burr-free edges.

All of this horsepower requires a strong base, so the company is constructing them of cast aluminum, rather than sheet steel, the industry standard. Reinforcing the base is a quarter-inch steel plate. Additionally, the unit is offered with a vise and fence constructed of 3/8-inch material and an ergonomically designed horizontal D-handle.

Part of the American lexicon is the anecdote about the ongoing search for a better mousetrap. At Ideal Industries, product manager Jon Howell is faced with a similar task, the challenge of improving the basic screwdriver and pliers.

“With the average age of an electrician at 46 years, the shift to ergonomics is pointed at reducing hand fatigue created by muscle and stress tension,” he said. “Newer tools are measurably easier to operate so their handles are softer, though more durable.”

An example is the 7-in-1 Twist-a-Nut screwdriver/nutdriver. In 2002, the company began researching the design for a tool end that would be universally workable with wingnuts, Twister, B-cap and wirenut connectors.

With the solution in hand, literally, Ideal added a Santoprene grip that resists perspiration, oil and chemicals, and ribs in the handle that create a better grip. The product was introduced in 2004 and costs less than $10.

Ideal has offered tools with insulated grips for several years. However, in 2004, designers introduced a new grip, and added a safety barrier in the process. The result is screwdrivers, nutdrivers, pliers and cutters that Ideal claims are the “world’s first and only insulated tools to be UL-tested and listed to 1,000V.” The new handles have double insulation over the tool frame and a non-slip finger guard that further protects the user. Ideal also claims that the cushioned grips on drivers provide 40 percent more torque than conventional handles.

Klein Tools has added eight magnetic-tip, hollow-shaft nut drivers to its line of professional hand tools. Each new nut driver features a powerful rare-earth magnetic tip for added convenience on the job. For those of us who struggled with chemistry, Alan Sipe of Klein describes the material as being “various oxides of rare-earth elements,” which roughly translated means they are very strong. Though hollow tips are a staple in the industry, the combination of rare earth and the tip produces tools “that allow the user to avoid changing tools, while fastening nuts or bolts with just one hand.” Designed especially for driving nuts on long bolts, studs and screws, the hollow shaft tool may be the ticket when working on electrical panels or stacked circuit boards

Other standard features are cushioned handles that produce greater torque, color-coded handle ends, chrome-plated shafts, and internal flanges. The nut drivers are available in 1/4- and 5/16-inch hex sizes, as well as shaft lengths from 11/2 inches to 18 inches. The nut drivers meet or exceed all applicable ASME/ANSI specifications.

Levels haven’t changed much over the years, but Lenox has introduced a new Torpedo level. The new model features a patented integrated drainage slope detection feature, cast aluminum construction, rare-earth magnets, plumb view mirror, and built-in B tank valve key.

“Electricians need their levels to be tough and accurate and have strong magnets to hold them in place. Users of this level won’t be held back by weak construction or imprecise measurement,” said Emily Furnal, Lenox assistant product manager.

The level’s patented drainage Slope Detect feature measures with precision drainage slope gradients at 1/8 inch per foot for larger pipe and 1/4 inch per foot for 3-inch and smaller diameter pipe. A plumb view mirror enables the user to view the plumb vial while using the powerful magnets without turning the level on its side.

“It will withstand being dropped from as high as 10 feet without breaking,” Furnal added. Only 9 inches long, the level may be stored in a tool belt or back pocket.

Similarly, Greenlee recently introduced changes in crimping tools, bastions of the industry for a century, to upgrade a vanilla product.

“The challenge is to produce something that is simpler and easier to use, and faster, and then convince an electrician to change his buying habits when there’s nothing wrong with the product he’s using,” said product manager Jim Eisele.

Greenlee’s new 1981 Indentor Crimping Tool, “is the only tool of its type that makes UL-classified crimps and splices on copper and dual-rated aluminum lugs and splices using seven brands of connectors without requiring die changes.”

Eisele said, “The product will allow users to purchase crimpers without regard for the type of connectors specified. As the market ages and the fatigue factor becomes important, these newer tools will extend the life of a journeyman, and increase productivity.”

In the same vein, Matt Luger, senior product manager for Brady, is known as “the label guy” in a company that specializes in manufacturing portable, handheld printers.

“We have offered a small, affordable labeler that retails for $140 since 1988. In 1998, we introduced the Robust TLS2200 labeler with 400 die cuts and features that include the ability to download labeling programs from a computer. The problem was that it was priced at $800,” he said.

“Our sales representatives told us that the guys in the field wanted something that bridged the gap between the two,” he said, so Brady recently introduced the IDXpert, “a tweener priced at $399.”

Designed to meet the identification needs of both electrical and voice/data professions, “it offers over 100 ways to wrap, flag, sleeve and laminate labels, as well as having a large-facility program for use when outdoor- grade products are required. It will print characters up to 1.25 inches on 1.5-inch-wide labels, or produce tiny, seven-point text. The new label turns every square inch of a label into a communication piece. When the projects are completed, they look nice, which results in callbacks for the installer,” Luger said.

In some cases, it’s not the product, but the wrapper, that strikes a new chord.

Chuck Newcombe, product planner at Fluke Corporation, describes the remake of the Series III Digital multimeter. To the untrained eye, “the new 80 Series V’s physical characteristics are essentially unchanged from previous models,” Newcombe says. “What has changed is the size of the display digits, which are about 30 percent larger than the original.”

However, from a functional standpoint, it is the tool’s holster that adds to user friendliness.

The new holster design couples the ability to use magnetic and strap hangers that allow the meter to be placed in an easily readable position, freeing the user’s hands for positioning test leads.

Also jumping into the fray with new products in 2004 is Harris Corp. with the Jack Rapid 8-Wire Punchdown tool, a handheld unit designed to reduce fatigue and increase productivity of contractors installing Category 5e jacks.

When contractors “need to individually seat and terminate each wire in a jack using a standard punchdown tool, the process opens the door for inconsistency and troubles with the termination. Using the Jack Rapid tool means one punch instead of eight, so the tool saves approximately two minutes of termination time per jack and significantly reduces hand fatigue for the installers. Since one squeeze of the handle terminates the jack, the quality of the termination is improved,” according to Joan Hartzell, marketing communications manager. “The design easily accommodates close-to-wall installations.”

What’s next? The tones of the voices and barely concealed level of excitement among these product gurus are hints of newer, better products on the drawing board that may be both evolutionary and revolutionary. These are exciting times. Stay tuned. EC

LAWRENCE is a freelance writer and photographer based in Bozeman, Mont. He can be reached at hrscrk@mcn.net.