(written in October, 1996)
by Jim Heaphy
On a day-to-day basis, I earn my living by going into a consumer's kitchen, and solving a problem with a solid surface countertop. In most cases, I am in and out of a customer's home in one day. Occasionally but rarely, I will be there for two or three days. I drive a minivan, and in that vehicle, I need to carry a full complement of tools and supplies needed to solve any problem I might reasonably encounter.
As an independent small businessman, I'm quite cost conscious. All right, I admit it. I'm a cheapskate. I look for tools that give me solid, reliable performance day in and day out at a reasonable price. When I find a tool that meets my needs and meets them well, I develop a truly affectionate relationship with that tool. Allow me to tell you about some of them:
Perhaps the most important type of tool for solid surface fabricators and installers is the router. I carry four in my van. My oldest router is a Makita 3612 BR, which is about six years old. This plunge router has proven to be a reliable work horse, and its never given me a problem. These days, I use it mostly for surface leveling. I keep a custom-made ski base on it, and keep a 1" rabbeting bit in the collet. In this configuration, I use it to remove excess joint adhesive from seams and repairs.
The router I use most is a De Walt DW625 Electronic Plunge Cut Router, which I bought about three years ago. This was sort of an impulse purchase. I was on my way to a job, and had left my Makita router behind. I stopped at a home center, and left with the De Walt about ten minutes later. This proved to be a wise purchase, because this router has performed like a champion on about 750 jobs since then. I love the electronic variable speed control. It doesn't torque up to full speed in half a second. Instead, it builds to full speed in a few seconds, so it doesn't twist out of control in your hands.
Every couple of months, I disassemble my plunge routers, clean out all the dust, and lubricate them, including the plunge mechanisms. The day after I've completed this procedure, I feel like I've just bought new routers without having spent any money.
My third router just proves what a cheapskate I am. It's a Black & Decker 7604 1 HP router, a shoddy little unit of the sort used by do-it-yourselfers. I don't remember what I paid for it, but I think that it was less than $30.00. However, this router works well for the light duty work I give it. I keep a 1/16" roundover bit in it, which I use to radius the edges of cooktop cutouts. It works great for this frequent but undemanding task.
I also carry a Bosch 1608 laminate trimmer kit, with three different bases. Nice tool, but a bit light weight for solid surface work. I use it mostly for work very close to the backsplash.
Sanders are also critical tools in my operations. I carry three. The one that gets the heaviest use is my Bosch 1370 DEVS 6" random orbit sander. This is a truly wonderful tool. I use it to sand the coarsest surfaces, starting with 36 grit disks, all the way up to semi-gloss finishes, using 3M's 15 micron disks. I attach a vacuum hose, and I estimate that I can pick up well over 95% of the dust that I produce. This is wonderful for customer relations. The quality of finish sanded surfaces is excellent. The sanding disks fasten with hook-and-loop connections. In my opinion, this is far superior to peel-and-stick adhesive sanding disks. The disks can be re-used many times, but peel-and-stick adhesives are soon fouled by dust, and tend to be discarded before they are truly worn out.
My only complaint about the Bosch 1370 DEVS is that the drive wheel gear and sanding pad wear out from time to time. My usage averages about one hour a day, and I replace them about every six to eight months at a cost of about $50.00.
I also love my little Makita 9030 belt sander. This versatile tool uses a narrow 1-1/4" belt, with a little 1" diameter wheel at the front end. This tool can fit easily into tight quarters, earning the nickname, the "baby belt sander."
My third sander is the venerable Porter-Cable 505 orbital sander. This solid, reliable unit, on the market for decades, readily earns the name "work horse". Mine has functioned without maintenance for six or seven years now.
I also use three power saws. The most versatile is the Bosch 1581 VS jig saw. This saw is great for cutting away superfluous plywood supports, and for utility cuts in solid surface materials. Just be aware that jig saw or saber saw cuts in solid surface materials must be cleaned up by a pass with a router or extensive sanding. Raw jig saw cuts are too jagged, and are an invitation for a crack to start.
When I need a table saw on the jobsite, I rely on the light-weight but solid Makita 2708 portable table saw with the optional folding porta-table accessory. This saw produces surprisingly accurate cuts, and is very easy to carry.
My other saw is a real cheapskate model - a Craftsman 315-109040 portable circular saw that my mother gave me as a gift about ten years ago. I keep a good quality carbide blade in this saw, but I'll have to admit that I don't use it all that often. When I need it, though, it works just fine. Come to think of it, I used it just this morning.
My cordless drill is a Makita 6012 HD, which is a decade old. Actually, it belongs to my wife. She worked as a cabinetmaker about ten years ago, and loaned it to me when I went into business for myself. The loan is still outstanding. Thanks, sweetie, it's a great tool. You can use it whenever you want to.
Rounding out my selection of power tools are a Dremel tool and a hot melt glue gun.
I wheel my most frequently used power tools into the customer's home in a Porta-Nizer Tool Kaddie. This plastic cart is exceptionally convenient. As a bonus, it checks in as standard airline baggage.
For dust control, I rely on the Porter-Cable 7810 tool-triggered wet-dry vacuum. This unit is marketed to sheet rock finishers, but it picks up the fine dust from solid surface fabrication very well. Power tools plug into the vacuum. When you turn on the tool, the vacuum also starts. It's very convenient. Just remember to clean the filters every day. I use a large-diameter hose rigged up with a funnel for collecting the debris from router cuts. For random orbit sanding and general cleanup, I use the small diameter hose and the cleaning tools that come with the machine. The brush attachment must be replaced every few months.
I keep two common tool boxes in my van. An orange plastic box, which won't damage countertops, holds the tools I use most frequently - clamps, utility knives, router bits, screw drivers, chisels, small wrenches, files, squares and so on. A second heavy metal box contains less frequently used and heavier tools - plumbing tools like pipe wrenches, a basin wrench, large channel locks, hammers, crow bars and so on. I'm always sure to have plumber's putty and pipe joint compound on hand. I don't lift this tool box out of my van unless I need to.
I keep my joint adhesive kits in an ice chest, to avoid extremes of temperature. My brother Tom, a talented solid surface fabricator, suggested this idea. I also use portable plastic caddies from Wal-Mart to carry abrasives, solvents, tapes, furniture polish and other consumable supplies in an organized fashion. I save paper grocery bags. With an inch or two of the top edge folded down, they serve as useful disposable waste baskets on each job site.
My favorite small tool is the Tube Wringer, made by Gill Mechanical Co. of Eugene, Oregon. Like a miniature version of an old-fashioned washing machine wringer, this little tool enables you to squeeze out every last drop of a joint adhesive kit. If you don't have one, get one today. You, too, can be as much of a cheapskate as me.