Inexpensive Tools


We’re all craftspeople, right? When building airplanes, we work to tolerances of a 64th of an inch, we don’t accept dents or nicks, and scratches are anathema—so naturally, we all like to have workshops that are spotless and tools that are organized—and of the highest quality. Sit around with a bunch of builders and bring the topic around to tools – and names like Snap-On, MAC, and Craftsman will come out… and those who talk in terms of Big-Box store brands are slowly shuffled out of the conversation. Yeah, it’s all about the price of the toys—we get that. But then again—some of my oldest tools came from my father, and he got them from his father—and they have no names on them. Branding wasn’t that important in the beginning of the 20th century.

But let’s talk the other end of the spectrum—the discount stores where you can buy a set of open-end wrenches for ten bucks, and a screwdriver set (complete with jeweler’s screwdrivers!) for twelve. Have they any place in aviation work? I mean, we have all run across wrenches that appear to be neither English or Metric, fitting no bolt well, and all poorly. Those stamped tools you get in the trunk of your car, made to last one emergency tire change… if that. Are these things useful?

Well yes, actually—they can be. For one, it is common in aircraft work to need a wrench with small clearances, or to fit in a hard to reach spot. The last thing you want to do is grind down a precious Snap-On… but you can buy a whole set of cheap wrenches that can be taken to the grinding wheel for single use.

And what about things like hydraulic presses and engine hoists; hydraulic cylinders and work stands? I’m currently working on this very long spar that needs to slide back and forth through a stationary squeezer. Roller stands of a high quality are not cheap – but I was able to buy five of them for about $15 apiece at a local branch of a national chain (and I even had a coupon), and while I’d never claim them to be great, I can say that they work fine for the job.

So yes—cheap tools do have a place in homebuilding, and you shouldn’t need to hide the fact that you occasionally shop for, and use them. Evaluate the cost of a bolt before using an ill-fitting wrench that might slip and round off the edges – but before you take a torch to a Craftsman, see if you might be able to make a cheaper sacrifice to the gods of aviation.

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Paul Dye
Paul Dye, KITPLANES® Editor at Large, retired as a Lead Flight Director for NASA’s Human Space Flight program, with 40 years of aerospace experience on everything from Cubs to the Space Shuttle. An avid homebuilder, he began flying and working on airplanes as a teen and has experience with a wide range of construction techniques and materials. He flies an RV-8 and SubSonex jet that he built, an RV-3 that he built with his pilot wife, as well as a Dream Tundra and an electric Xenos motorglider they completed. Currently, they are building an F1 Rocket. A commercially licensed pilot, he has logged over 6000 hours in many different types of aircraft and is an A&P, FAA DAR, EAA Tech Counselor and Flight Advisor; he was formerly a member of the Homebuilder’s Council. He consults and collaborates in aerospace operations and flight-testing projects across the country.


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