Friday, January 20, 2012

The Techie's Toolbag

What's in your toolbag?

Sounds like something a viking in a credit card commercial should be asking, but when were talking about tech theater, this is legitimate question. If you are working backstage - during a production, in the shop or the loft spaces, in the booth, or anywhere - you'll be working with tools. And here at Wash, we're pretty lucky: we have a decent tool budget that provides us pretty well. 

There are times, though, that you'll want your own tools, and there is no reason to argue against a personal set of tools as they will work just fine outside of the theater, too. The trick is have a set that won't weigh or slow you down. Portability is important. The flip side of this issue is that you don't want to chintz out on quality, so you have to find the happy medium. 

So, for the stylin' techie, here is a guide to what every techie should own and be packing. Remember - these are the tools that you would carry around with you all the time, not every tool you will ever need.

1. A decent mini flashlight. The gold standard for many years has been the Mini-Maglight - a rugged, bright light that requires two AA batteries, and stores a replacement lamp in the tail cap. For years it used a small quartz lamp, but in recent years, the LED flashlight has made it's influence known. Today you can get a lot of life out of either quartz or LED flashlights on a set of batteries, so there's not much difference. Just know that if the LED's crap out on you, you'll likely need to purchase an new flashlight, with the quartz replacements are still available. Aside from Maglight, other quality brands are Fenix, Nu Flare, Lifegear, and Joby. They will cost more, but I still have my Mini-Maglight from twelve years ago. Store brand gear will work, but don't expect a long and happy life with it. Expect to pay anywhere between $10 and $20.

2. A multi-tool. I'm still of the opinion that a tool that can do a hundred things is probably not going to do any of them very well; the multi-tool manages to keep its head about itself, however. A lightweight pliers is the heart of any good multi-tool, and with it a wire cutters. After that, the brands and models differ greatly. All will have a decent straight blade and likely a serrated blade. Some will have files, openers, screwdrivers, scissors, awls, etc. The more tools, the higher the price. Here the brands Letherman, Gerber, and Victorinox stand apart from the rest. Again, there will be some discount brands, but do your homework. You'll find that the three brands that I've suggested usually are highly reviewed on retail sites. The extra money will be worth the quality you get. Most will come with some sort of belt carrier or sheath - I like mine a lot, but just remember that the tool doesn't go back into its holster automatically. Prices run anywhere from $20 to over $100; again, do your homework and see which model will be right for you.

NOTE: I have been reminded that this kind of tool is considered a sharp cutting tool could have the potential of weapon classification. Each school has it's own policy regarding knives in school, so it's best to know ahead of time what they are. Don't play the ignorance card - it won't help you in this situation. It is important to remember that if you are using this sort of tool, bring it only when it is clearly OK working in the theater spaces. Don't bring it to your classes, and for cryin' out loud, don't be stupid and reenact a scene from West Side Story, please?

3. A tape measure. This one is a no brainer. Get a decent 25 footer with either a 3/4" or 1" wide rule. There will be many to choose from, so consider a few things:
  • Do you have issues with knowing what all those little lines are? There are tapes that have the fractions printed over those lines. 
  • Are you going to use this tape alone a lot? If yes, go with the wider blade tape - they will "stand out" further before they do that crumpling thing that is so annoying. 
  • Are you prone to dropping tools? (Just be honest and say "yes.") Find one that has a soft or rubber jacket around the case.
  • Do you plan to use this outside? Consider finding one that has a "weather resistant" coating on the tape (but just make sure you don't leave it outside in the snow or rain because that will ruin the mechanism inside.)
So, decide what you need, and go from there. Stanley still probably makes the best tape measures, but they are more expensive - they do good work. Go online and compare. Spend $10 to $25.

4. An eight inch adjustable wrench. Yes, there are many kids of wrenches out there, but I have yet to see any one of them best an adjustable wrench for general purposes. While there is temptation to go small, the eight inch (and that's the handle length, BTW) variety will tackle the most common size nuts and bolts in the shop, and will comfortably handle every size bolt on any lighting instrument.  Crescent, Craftsman, Stanley, and Snap-On are the top of the pick, but none of them should break your bank. The cheapest no-names tend to have wobbly adjustable knobs and poorly machined groves, so buyer beware. I have two by Stanley and one by Craftsman in my shop that were purchased at least three presidential administrations ago and they have yet to fail me. When you go to by, handle it, try the mechanism - if it moves smoothly but isn't loose, then you should be good. $5 - $15.

5. A six-way or flip screw driver. You will find that a lot of electrical plugs are equipped with both phillips and standard screws. I'm sure it's someone's version of a joke, but it stinks nonetheless. Having one screwdriver that will handle both screws is helpful. A six-way screw driver is just the ticket. It has two sizes of phillips heads, two sizes of standard heads, and the sockets that each one fits into are actually two different sized nut drives - usually 5/16" and 1/4". The important thing is that it have a #2 phillips drive and a #2 standard drive - so even if you find a varient that has just those two tips, you're in business because they are good all-purpose sizes. One word of warning: keep track of the tips. They can be misplaced easily, and there's not one that I've seen that offers you a replacement tip. I also recommend staying away from the ones that have a dozen different tips that get stored in the handle - they are just a pain to keep around, and ninety-five percent of the time you won't need them. Prepare to shell out  between $5 and $10 for a quality version.

I know there are some that will say "but if you have a multi-tool, why would you need a screwdriver and an adjustable wrench?" Because the multi tool has a pliers, not a wrench, and the pliers won't work on lighting instrument nearly as well as an adjustable wrench. The screwdrivers in the handle of the multitool is usually not up to the rigor of what you need it for most often. Besides, we're talking five tools here - it's not like you're adding a hundred pounds to your personage.

Which of course begs another question: will they all fit into my pocket? Maybe ... but not likely. So look for something that will fit your work paradigm. Like putting tools in your back pocket? Check out the "Rear Guard" by Bucket Boss. Like to sling your tools over your shoulder? You might find an old canvas brief case lying around the house that can be repurposed. Like to wear your tools? You'll be stylin' with this Builder's Tool Vest by Occidental. (But it's crazy expensive, so, you know, be smart about this.)

Once again, I'll remind folks that this is a bare bones tool collection that will travel with you in any theater space. In the next post, I'll talk about some of those other tools that you might like to have in your personal tool collection. 

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