Tag: Tools

Make Long, Wide Rip Cuts with Your Circular Saw

Kreg rip fence for circular saw

Let’s say you want to rip-cut some planks and plywood for a chicken coop and you don’t have a table saw. The Kreg Rip-Cut is a stand-alone fence that lets you make long, straight cuts with a circular saw.

Yes, many saws come with a rip fence as an accessory, but these accessories usually don’t extend more than 10 inches from the blade and they tend to be a little wobbly. The Kreg gives you up to 24 inches of cutting width and it’s rock-solid.

You can see the Kreg Rip-Cut in action, and find a link to purchase at Cool Tools.

5 Firefighting Tools that Belong in Your Tool Shed

fire crew photo by FEMA

Northern California fire crew working hot line in San Diego 2007 | Photo by Andrea Booher/FEMA

I worked one summer on a blue card fire crew, one of the best jobs ever. A ten-person crew can clear a trail five feet wide down to mineral soil almost as fast as you can walk it. The tools we used were so useful that I’m surprised at how rarely I see them in people’s sheds. Here is a round up of the tools we used and why they are so great.

Stihl Chain Saw 


A Stihl 76cc chainsaw with a 28 inch bar and a full skip chain handles limbs, trunks and logs up to 50 inches diameter or thereabouts. Michael Smith shares a firefighter’s perspective on chainsaws, noting that Husky is equally popular to the Stihl out on the fireline, but mainly because parts for both brands are likely to be stocked and readily available. Available at Stihl USA

Brush Hook

Hand crew sawyers are followed by two or three workers with brush hooks. The razor sharp curved blade can be used to pull branches and chop them. The curve of the blade makes it less likely to glance to the side or fall short on a stroke than a traditional axe when you’re clearing brush and shrubs. Wranglestar has a Youtube video explaining more about brush axes. Available on Amazon.

Pulaski Axe

A Pulaski is a hybrid axe and digging mattock – and next the chainsaw one of the most dangerous tools on the fire line. The point of the Pulaski is to dig up shallow roots and chop them so that a fire won’t cross the line underground (yes it happens). Check out the US Forest Service instructions for improving your Grubbing Technique. Available at Amazon.

Razorback Shovel

Just about everybody has a shovel of some kind. I always liked the Razorback because the tempered steel blade keeps a sharp edge all day long. The function of the shovel on a fire line is to cut turf and sweep it off the trail. The technique is to grasp the neck or socket of the shovel with your dominant hand, brace that arm against your knee which acts as a fulcrum. You use your other hand to pull back on the shovel’s handle like a lever which moves the blade across the ground with quite a bit of force. Razorback shovels are available on Amazon.


Last but not least is the Mcleod (pronounced “McCloud”) which is a hoe with an attitude. The purpose of the Mcleod is to clear the trail down to mineral soil with no clumps of organic matter in the mix. This is done primarily with the hoe blade but sometimes you come across sticks and debris and you simply turn the tool 180 and you’ve got a heavy duty rake. This thing isn’t for raking leaves but it’s dandy for chopping up a garden patch that’s gone fallow. Available through Amazon.

Gear Filter: How to Avoid Going Broke Buying Adventure Gear

Mark Shipman's Garage via JustGetOut.net

Mark Shipman’s Garage via JustGetOut.net

Our ancestors went camping with little more than a breechcloth and stick. Nowadays you can’t get out without your Osprey Stratos pack and MSR Hubba Hubba.

There’s no upper limit to how much you can spend on adventure gear. The big question is how much do you really need?

The Last Whole Earth Catalog gives us the answer with a handy little “gear filter.”

As Dan Schiller suggested in Popular Photography, the CATALOG will bankrupt you if you can’t distinguish between what you need and what you wish you needed.

Start extravagant, and you’ll never finish. Get the cheap tool first, see if it feeds your life. If it does, then get a better one. Once you use it all the time, get the best. You can only grow into quality. You can’t buy it.

Most of the stuff in the CATALOG can be borrowed free from a library.

Good advice. Start with a Jansport pack and pair of comfy sneakers and try a six mile hike on for size. If you start doing this every weekend move up from there. And don’t be afraid to beg, borrow or even rent gear for your next adventure.


Come Home Alive – There’s an App for That

Search and rescue team attends to injured caver

Christopher Van Tilburg talks on Outside Blog about a search and rescue operation that went far better than usual because the stranded hikers had a smartphone. Rescuers were able to get detailed coordinates and guide the hikers to a safe pickup location. Maybe smartphones should be basic equipment?

If you are an adventuresome smartphone user, by all means check out survival apps such as the one from Mammut, a free survival app geared to skiers and snowboarders. BuddyGuard is another offering, one that automatically phones home if you become incapacitated. However, with a price of $120 you’re edging into personal beacon territory.

One thing to consider is how often you will be traveling outside of cellular range. If you’re out of bars, your smartphone might seem a little stupid. WoodsMonkey has some tips on how to use a smartphone as a survival tool even when you’re out of range.

If you want the Search and Rescue to find you when you’re really out in the wild you’ll need something more like the Spot Personal Tracker. This device actually sends your coordinates to a satellite which then communicates to a server and sends an email to prearranged parties. These beacons require a subscription service and they are limited in their ability to send messages. But you can work out a prearranged deal with friends or family to start a search in your last marked location if you fail to check-in.

None of these devices replace good old fashioned common sense but they do promise to shave hours off your own personal 127 Hours ordeal.

Hone Your Knife Skills

Rules for a Knife Fight

There are no rules in a knife fight

Recently I tried cutting a crusty baguette with a sharp, serrated bread knife. Instead of placing the bread on a cutting board like a reasonable person, I simply held the loaf in one hand and the knife in the other while thinking “this is a bad idea.” Which it was. Ouch.

Make: Online has a great set of tips for using and maintaining knives in your kitchen, including tips for using a sharpening steel, that metal rod that you so often see coyotes and wolves using as they prepare a helpless bunny for dinner.

You Will Be a Newbie Forever – Mastering Technology

I’ve reached a place in my life where I don’t want to learn one more stoopidly designed interface. Take the Shoretel phone system…please. (Although it’s a big improvement over Rolm phones).

Former Wired editor and technology guru Kevin Kelly explains that the technology we need most is not necessarily the technology that’s available today. Instead, we need to become expert at adapting to the speed and revolution of new technologies as they arise.

The life skill you need most is not the mastery of specific technologies, but mastery of the technium as a whole — how technology in general works. I like to think of this ability to deal with any type of new technology as techno-literacy. To be at ease with the flux of technology in modern-day life you’ll need to speak the language of the technium.

Kelly’s insight yields some surprising fruit. For instance, today’s technology is already obsolete, so don’t buy a gadget until you absolutely need it. Limit your options to avoid overload. Get by with the least amount of technology that works for you.

The Technium – Techno Life Skills

Micoach the App – a Better Way to Run

The problem I have with running is that my brain still belongs to a high school athlete but my body is ancient. Consequently I wind up pushing myself too hard. After three weeks it’s simply too painful to continue.

This changed when I started using the free Adidas Micoach app (pronounced My Coach). The core concept of this app is to give you interval training using four “zones,” Blue, Green, Yellow and Red. The zones are based on pace or heart rate, your choice depending on your equipment.

Micoach starts with an assessment workout that calculates the pace for each of your zones. You choose a workout plan and then work your way through a schedule of 30-some workouts.

I started with “Be Fit,” a beginner’s workout. Micoach would start me in the Blue Zone (15 minute mile) and then coach me when to pick up the pace to the Green Zone (13 minute mile). The user interface is clear, easy to read on the run and easy to use.

So far I’ve kept up with running three times a week for two months now. A personal best. One of the reasons Micoach works for me so far is because the workouts are so easy. No matter how rotten I feel in the morning I get a sense of “OK, I can do that” when I check in with Micoach.

The Adidas branded app keeps track of distance, pace, routes and calories burned. It also has a shoe log that I don’t use, seeing that I run barefoot-ish (Vibram Five Fingers). The interface for the Explore options looks very amateurish, as if it was tacked on as an afterthought which is too bad in such otherwise nice package.

Hold the Phone (Running)

This is just a quickie review of the Adidas Micoach armband for the iPhone 4. This item is generally loathed in reviews but I rather like it compared to a few others I’ve seen or tried.

1. Most people complain that the armband is too small. Yes it’s too small to wear on your bicep. But I find it easier to view on my forearm in any case. The Velcro is extremely grippy.

2. The plastic D-ring is terrible. It recently broke so I replaced it using a beefy plastic ring from an old iPod armband, stitched in place with a sewing awl.

3. The Micoach fabric itself is tough, completely waterproof and encloses the phone entirely. I have no concerns at all about sweat penetration. compare this to the Belkin iPhone 3 case that has open ports for the iPhone speakers. That said, I wouldn’t take the Micoach armband out in a drizzle. The stitching would likely allow water to intrude with constant exposure.

4. The Micoach armband keeps the iPhone 4 snug and secure. I have a Belkin clear GripVue case on my iPhone and it fits perfectly in the Micoach sports band. A thicker iPhone case would no doubt have problems.

5. The Adidas armband covers the light sensor on the iPhone and this makes the display unreadable in broad daylight. I find that if I uncover the sensor and then slide the phone back in the case it resets the sensor and I can view the display easily.

All in all I’d like to find a better sportsband for the iPhone than the Micoach, but it’s a much better armband than the others that are available at your local stores.

How to Explore the Suburban Frontier: Start with a Calendar

Let’s say that you want to become a Suburban Frontiersman…like Yours Truly. Where would you start? Perhaps you think you might need some gear, a pair of sturdy boots, a handy knife, a trustworthy haversack. But you’d be wrong.

What you need is time.

The Suburban Frontiersman’s life is chopped up until it’s a pizza pie of work, appointments, soccer matches, church, chores and errands. If you want to have any hope of having an adventure in the coming year you’re going to need to put it on the schedule.

What works best for me is to have a rolling schedule with one weekend blocked off for work around the Homestead and the next scheduled for adventure. You can’t be too rigid about this: sometimes you have to flip weekends to attend Cousin Maggie’s wedding and sometimes a group hike will come up on a Homestead Weekend.

Your calendar, whether it’s on your phone, wall or a Google Calendar (which you can share with your family) will help you navigate the wilds of time commitments, golf dates and youngster’s birthday parties to ensure that you have a chance to whet your taste for adventure.

BONUS GEEK LINK – If your idea of frontier is on the world wild web, check out the HTML 5 Adventure Calendar.

What’s in Your (Survival) Backpack?

Fire starting tool



Jaymi Heimbuch puts together an industrial-strength survival pack, the sort you might need to survive a Haiti-style disaster. There are plenty of good resource links here, plus lots of chatter in the comments. Heimbuch’s main complaint? This first aid, survival kit tips the scales at 30 lbs. (Hint, go with LED flashlights and lose the D cell batteries.)

If you want to travel lighter, or in be prepared in case you get separated from your backpack, search and rescue specialist Michael Neiger lists the essential survival tools you should carry in your pocket.

Photo by Ken Bruker

Bathtub Snake

When snaking a tub use the overflow plate

When snaking a tub use the overflow plate

Today’s frontier adventure involved snaking out the bathtub drain. First we tried using a Zip-It flexible strip. These plastic drain cleaners are a gross, yet effective way to de-gunk most drains. Problem is that a bathtub drain takes a left turn at Albuquerque, leaving you without much room to move the strip. Liquid Plumber failed us and so did the natural method to unclog a drain with vinegar and baking soda.

Fortunately Google knows all, and I learned that the key to unclogging a bathtub drain is to remove the overflow plate and stopper mechanism, and feed the snake down the overflow drain. I was able to quickly remove the offending clog this way and we’re back to normal drainage.