Cool Tools


Swiss Army knife in a credit-card shape


This small, flat, semi-translucent plastic card contains a sharp blade, an even sharper pair of scissors, a file, a tweezers, a toothpick, and a pen. They all slide into the card, and come free of it for independent use. The whole kit is the size of a credit card, and about three times as thick. It lays flat in my pocket and weighs very little. I use it daily. It prompts a smile most every time I do, and it’s a good conversation piece. Highly recommended and undeservedly under-popular. -- Gru

Victorinox SwissCard ($25)

Golden Mean Calipers

calipers

I absolutely love these things and have used them for a couple of years. I enjoy wandering around with my kids and having them put it up to just about everything. (“Dad! this has a golden mean in it as well!” — I’ll never get tired hearing that). You can also use them to bring some simple relational beauty and balance into anything physical that you make.

You can go to this website for some very well made ones (and a little pricey) or just download some plans for a few bucks and make your own. -- Eric Warner

Golden Mean Calipers ($35)

Inkssentials Craft Sheet


From online discussions and reviews, it seems that nearly everyone who buys one of these non-stick, heat-resistant worksheets has the same initial reaction: “I paid $14 for THIS?” Quickly, that skepticism turns to appreciation, if not outright tool evangelism. I am one such skeptic. For too long, I’ve taken the “self-healing” billing of my cutting mat far too literally, subjecting it to paints, glues, epoxies, clay, heat — all sorts of indignities from which it never heals. Besides cutting, every other crafting/hobby activity should happen on some other surface, and for me, I now don’t want to use anything but one of these heavy duty (5 mil) PTFE (Teflon) sheets.

The Craft Sheet first seems rather fragile and insubstantial, but it’s virtually indestructible. Almost nothing sticks to it. And besides it acting as a protective surface, you can also use it for techniques like low-brow paper marbling (mix some paints on the sheet and swirl paper through it). To clean the sheet, you just wipe with a rag – good as new. You can buy direct from sealersupply.com for cheaper (and larger sizes), but you’ll have to pay for shipping. -- Gareth Branwyn

Ranger 15-Inch-by-18-Inch Inkssentials Craft Sheet: $14

Vacuum stainless-steel coffee press


For French press coffee geeks who also happen to be klutzes like me, no more broken carafes with this bad boy. I’ve had mine for years and it is still like brand new. Also for whatever reason, the plunger mesh is MUCH tougher than on the Bodum products and does not shred nearly as easily. Next time you smash your carafe on your Bodum just buy one of these. -- A.T. Salzman

Thermos 34-Ounce Vacuum Insulated Stainless-Steel Gourmet Coffee Press: $40

The highest quality garden watering nozzle

I can’t count how many cheap watering implements we’ve gone through since we bought this house fifteen years ago. Big box store watering widgets seem to last just a few weeks before heading to the landfill.

I think I’ve found a solution. During the Garden Blogger’s Fling I attended back in June there was a demo by a Dramm Company representative. What impressed me most at the demo was Dramm’s simplest products, the Heavy-Duty Aluminum Water Breaker Nozzle combined with their Aluminum Shut-Off Valve.

The breaker nozzle provides a gentle shower, much like a Haws Watering Can and would be appropriate to use on seedlings and vegetables. The shut-off valve is extremely durable. Neither item has plastic parts. They are sold separately.

While a lot more expensive than those plastic watering wands at the big box store, I have a feeling that these two high quality Dramm components will last a lot longer. -- Eric Knutzen

Dramm 82342 400AL Heavy-Duty Aluminum Water Breaker Nozzle: $16

Dramm 22373 Aluminum Shut-Off Valve: $17

Plastic dice in bulk

I carry 3 red dice in my back pocket so that I can play a game called Cee-lo with people that I meet. Like most betting games, Cee-lo has a rough reputation. But played among friends, not betting for money, it can be rather wholesome.

I really like being able to play a simple dice game with people for a few reasons:

- it’s a really fun game!
- I’ve successfully played it with kindergartners and every age group above,
- I’ve gotten mixed age groups to have a GREAT time playing,
- It never runs out of batteries or needs to be upgraded,
- it’s very portable,
- it gets people to talk in real time,
- I don’t have to hand an expensive device to other people or count on them having one, or having one compatible to mine.

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Hand crank extension cord winder

I use several corded power tools around the yard and garden such as a chain saw, leaf vacuum, hedge trimmer, etc. Many’s the time I would put off a chore using them because I would have to uncoil the 100′ of power cord and probably have to untangle/unkink it before using it. After the job was done, it would take another few minutes to coil up the power cord and try not to tangle it in the process.

A couple of types of cord reels I tried didn’t work particularly well. So I bought this weird looking cord winder a few years ago. After installing the wall mount near the power outlet in my garage and winding my cord into the basket, I was quite surprised to discover I could pull out the 100′ of power cord, tangle/kink free in about a minute to the end of my driveway. I would do my chore (usually the leaf vacuum for lawn clippings and leaves) and, in another minute or two I could wind up the cord, detach the cord winder from the wall mount and put it on the shelf. Those chores now get done when needed instead of being put off since the cord unwinding/re-winding takes so little time. -- Jim Service

Wonder Winder Hand Crank Extension Cord Winder: $20

Rugged Rukus portable solar wireless sound system

I have owned this rugged, splash-proof speaker for about six months. I purchased it for week-long bicycle tours and camping. It is a combination of solar charger, battery and speakers in one unit. I charge my phone and i-pod when off the grid. The speaker has blue-tooth and auxiliary (wired) input and indicator lights for battery status, etc. I use the two loops to strap the speaker to my bike bag for listening on the road. It sounds great for its size. It even fits in a large pocket of cargo pants. -- Bob Lewis

Eton Rugged Rukus All-Terrain Portable Solar Wireless Sound System $64

Presto Power Pop Microwave Corn Popper

I do love popcorn, but usually don’t like to pop commercial microwave bags in the office. Although their contents are delicious when popped, commercial microwave bags release a cloud of buttery esters into the local environment for all to smell. They have a TON of added fat and salt, and one has no control over the contents.

There’s also a great deal of debate over the safety and stability of polyunsaturated fats in high-heat cooking, and corn popping is a very high-heat process.

Hot-air poppers aren’t suitable for an office environment, and anyway I haven’t found one that doesn’t eventually make the popped corn taste like it came out of a hair dryer.

I have used the Presto Power Pop corn popper ($16) for at least a decade, and found it to be an excellent solution to light snacking in the office. It doesn’t smell strongly of anything but the corn, and that can be controlled by keeping the lid on until I’m back at my cube. I can control the amount of salt or oil I use, if any. It acts as a serving bowl for the popcorn, and is easy to keep clean once emptied. It does an excellent job of popping most of the corn, even in lower-power microwaves. It typically will pop a batch in under two minutes, not three to four like commercial bags. (Which makes one wonder how much of the mass inside commercial bags is popcorn, and how much is just colored fat.)

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Best collapsible umbrella: Totes Compact

When I got back from a trip to Europe, the one thing I felt I needed more than anything, was a good sturdy umbrella. After much research I found this small Totes umbrella. In my past experience, most small collapsible umbrellas were utter garbage. This is simply not the case here. I have had this thing for about 2 years now. I bring it with me any time there is rain in the forecast.

It’s slightly larger than most collapsible umbrellas (about 14 inches long when collapsed). The handle feels strong and sturdy in hand. It’s comfortable to hold for long periods of time. The auto open and close button works brilliantly and opens with strong force. When open, it is a full “golf size” umbrella, able to easily fit two people underneath. In the wind, there is a magical springiness to it that keeps it from being unwieldy. I’ve had absolutely no issues in heavy wind. -- Sam Rosenblum

Totes Golf-Size Auto Open Auto Close Compact Umbrella $27

Long-lasting portable illumination: 4AA Pack-Away Lantern

During a recent 27-hour-long power outage, we rushed out to find emergency lighting. While most people grabbed the biggest lanterns they could find, we centered on these handy Pack-Away Lanterns. They touted long run-times on 4 x AA batteries (20 hours on low and 8 hours on high), and they delivered!

We clipped three to our dining room light to provide plenty of light for card games. Then, we used one of the lanterns to provide overnight light for our cat that is scared of the dark (a true fraidy-cat!).

The lanterns are small, and the top pushes down for packing and storage. I throw one in my backpack any time I head to an event.

There’s a wire loop/handle at the top that folds flat, and a small clip that can attached to the handle. The clip could be used for attaching the light almost anywhere, like the inside of a car hood, a beltloop, or chandelier. -- Steve Simpson

Coleman 4AA Packaway Mini LED Lantern: $20

Scotch Tear-by-Hand packaging tape

My family ships a lot of boxes during the holidays, and we go through a few rolls of packaging tape. Large pistol-grip tape dispensers don’t work well on smaller boxes — I have never been able to get the hang of using the serrated blade to cut off the tape.

I was happy to find out about Scotch’s Tear-by-Hand packaging tape. I (and more importantly, my wife) can easily tear off strips with our hands. It’s easy to get the length you desire, and the tear is perfectly perpendicular. Also, it’s easy to find the end of the tape on the roll by running your fingernail along it. This stuff is like magic. I never want to use any other kind of packaging tape. -- Mark Frauenfelder

Scotch Tear-by-Hand Tape, 1.88 Inches x 50 Yards $20

Post It Labeling Tape: Post-It paper by the roll

I found this product over a year ago. It comes in yellow, green, pink, and white, on a dispenser similar to scotch tape. The paper feels like the same paper used for the original Post It notes, and works well with a Sharpie pen for labeling. The back of the paper is fully-covered by the adhesive (unlike Post-It notes, which have a strip of adhesive only along the top).

I can label anything, remove the label and reuse it. I do this frequently with food storage as I shift things around from one container to another. The labels don’t roll up at the edges or fall off after a few months. I first used the tape when I was moving, because I was using a lot of plastic storage boxes, which I couldn’t write on, and the tape (I bought neon green) was so much easier to use than masking tape.

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Superb robust tweezers for general purposes

Today I used an old reliable tweezer and realized that most people probably had little idea of what a good tweezer can be. Nor where to find such a thing.

Of the several I’ve acquired, my favorite is the Excelta 00-SA-ET. It’s stainless, it’s got a special, formed-on foam padding (makes it not only comfortable, but very easy to maneuver), and it’s sturdy enough to get things done at a small scale.

Most good fine tweezers can be easily distorted and, once out of whack, almost impossible to align properly again. Once you start checking into good tweezers, you’ll see there are lots & lots of them, most specific to their task. Many are very delicate.

If you’d like a superb set that’s robust enough for almost anything normal people would use them for, try the Excelta 00-SA-ET. Or check Excelta’s whole line at their website. -- Wayne Ruffner

Excelta 00-SA-PI-ET $20

Woolzies- Wool Dryer Balls

Woolzies are felt wool drier balls the size of a tennis ball. I have been using them for several months – after purchasing them on Amazon, and trying for the first time, I just keep them in the drier all the time now.

They save quite a bit of energy as the drying time is reduced by 30-40% or so. Woolzies also work better than plastic drier balls: I have noticed a marked difference in the quality and softness of the dried garments.

This product is efficient and environmentally friendly through and through: they’re made of pure wool so no plastic or other chemicals are used to make them. They drastically reduce the time required to dry clothing, they are gentler on the dried fabric, which also comes out softer and almost wrinkle-free. -- Denis Zaff

Woolzies- Wool Dryer Balls $34 / 6-pack