Tool School: A Quicker Way to Cut Steel

Learn how to weild a plasma cutter like a pro and you can slice through steel like butter

Building things from metal can seem intimidating—metal just feels so much more permanent than, say, wood, and with the all the sparks and pressurized cylinders, it seems like just a matter of time before you blow up your shop. But once you know your way around a few key tools, you'll be amazed at how simple metalwork can be. Case in point: the plasma cutter. This small, relatively inexpensive machine has one dial, no cumbersome gas tanks, and can zip through any conductive material faster than a jigsaw through pine. It's also basically a sci-fi machine made real (c'mon, it slices through steel with hafnium and air!). And since they're for sale in most big-box home stores, you can even put one on your X-mas list. Master this, and your metal creations can take on just about any shape you want.

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Tool School: More Precise Measuring

A micrometer helps you measure more stuff down to 1/10,000 of an inch

In my post about vernier calipers, I highlighted one rugged option for making highly accurate measurements. When building projects that involve things like sliding fits, interference fits, shafts and bearings, rotating parts, measuring sheet metal thickness (and the list goes on, and on), accurate and repeatable measurements in the range of 1/1000 of an inch become very important. In this Tool School, I look at another option: the micrometer. A standard micrometer is capable of the same 1/1000-inch accuracy as the vernier calipers, and micrometers that incorporate a vernier scale are capable of measurements an order of magnitude more accurate: 1/10,000 of an inch. In addition, the variety of forms micrometers take allow measurement of a far larger variety of things than would be possible with calipers. Here's how to use one.

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Mesmerizing Tube Bender Looks Like It's Pooping Steel

Nissin Precision's automated tubing bender is like an articulated pasta maker ... for steel.

Bent tubing is key. Roll cages need it. Tube frame chassis need it. Even the storage arrangement for my welding clamps needed it. There are a number of ways to go about bending tubing. Rotary draw benders like the Hossfeld Universal bender make a tight bend at one point. Three-roll benders create more gradual curves. But none of them compare to this automated CNC tube bender that just spits out steel in any shape you want. I could watch it all day.

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Old-Timer Trick: Cutting Holes with a Torch

From my local scrapyard guru, a handy way to cut accurate holes with an oxy-acetylene torch

Whenever you run into a snag on a project, it's a pretty safe bet that somewhere there is a grizzled old man who's solved it many years before you and will be happy to tell you it. That's why I never miss the chance to chat up the old guys working at or just hanging around lumber yards, machine shops and scrapyards. I always walk away smarter.

One recent example: While helping PopSci's John Carnett with his Green Dream house, we had to make a number of bolt holes in thick structural steel. (I would have preferred that the beams had come from the steel yard properly cut and drilled, but sometimes things don't work out as we'd like.) The drill just wasn't cutting it, so I turned to the oxy-acetylene cutting torch. It would easily pierce the thick steel, but I wasn't sure it'd cut clean holes. Then I remembered a great trick for burning accurate holes that I learned from an old-timer at the structural steel yard.

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Tool School: How to Get the Most Precise Measurements

Master the vernier calipers and you can get you dimensions down to the thousandth of an inch

At some point, every builder progresses beyond the "eyeball it" method of measurement, and as you build more complex projects, the tape measure is often not precise enough. If you're assembling an engine or machining parts, for instance, you often need to be accurate to within a few thousandths of an inch or parts fail and bad things happen. Unfortunately, most of the tools that can provide this kind of precision don't survive well in a gritty, messy, all-purpose shop. Except the vernier caliper, a device that looks intimidating (especially to those who spy it in your shirt pocket) until you crack its basic code. Here's how to be as exacting as an engineer in anything you build.

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How to Give Your Car Its Very Own $300 Google Street View Photo Rig

Google is reported to have spent millions of dollars on its Street View project. Roy Ragsdale, a student at West Point, has done a pretty nice job of putting together a portable panorama camera setup that includes GPS and Google Earth file output for under $300, using exclusively open source tools.

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Best Tool for the Job: Cutting Rebar

The best tools for trimming one of the most versatile and affordable materials you can get

I love rebar. It's most often used in concrete as a reinforcement, but it has a ton of uses. I've made a fence, a shed, and my future dome home armatures all from rebar. And since it's often made locally from old cars, it's relatively planet-friendly, too, and not very expensive. A 20-foot-long, 3/8-inch thick stick normally costs me about $4. I've purchased more than three tons of the stuff from a metal plant near the El Paso border, about 100 miles from my home.

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The World's Toughest Workwear

Who'd have guessed? The Swedes make the manliest gear around

Before I encountered the Blaklader shorts I had been wearing jumpsuits made by Dickies or jeans from Carhartt. Both had a limited amount of pocket space, which meants I had to wear a tool belt, which became a nuisance to take off whenever I sat down to drive a vehicle. Plus, the materials constantly failed me: Neither the jumpsuit or jeans fared well against my homemade biodiesel or splashes of sulfuric acid from the battery bank.

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Welding, Part One: Gear Selection

My welding hobby started shortly after I got a bid for a steel staircase. As with everything, the money always causes me to do the Carnett calculation:

  • How much is the equipment?
  • How much is the material?
  • How much did that guy say he wanted?
  • How much can I save?

Then I run off to buy the gear.

This of course leaves out the skill to do any of these things -- but the Carnett calculation includes the discovery phase, where I make all my mistakes, ask just about anyone for help, and somehow come out on the other side a more skilled operator. And 50 percent of the time, I really do save money.

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Five Tools To Survive the Apocalypse

Swine flu, nuclear tests, global warming—signs of impending doom abound. Should the unthinkable happen, the smart survivalist has two options: flee the planet or, for those of us who aren’t Richard Branson, stock up on gear that will meet your basic needs during Armageddon. If the world doesn’t end, you can always take your new gadgets camping.

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Ultra-Bright Synchrotron Promises World's Highest-Resolution Images of Atoms

PopSci pays a visit to the home of the brightest beam of radiation in the world

The National Synchrotron Light Source was commissioned in 1982, and it remains one of the world's leading experimental light sources. But with so much of today's science happening on the nano-scale, the '80s technology doesn't quite have the resolution to keep up. The $912 million NSLS-II, which is slated to go live in 2015 -- if funding comes through -- will have the most concentrated, brightest radiation beam in the world: 10,000 times brighter than its predecessor -- not to mention 10 billion times brighter than the sun.

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A Look Inside NASA's Custom Hubble Repair Toolkit

Fixing the most advanced telescope in space requires more than a trip to Home Depot

Earlier today, astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis released the Hubble Space Telescope back into orbit after a successful mission to repair and upgrade NASA's famous orbiting observatory.

The mission was intensive, especially considering almost all of the repairs that were performed during a series of TK spacewalks were on parts that were never intended to be serviced by astronauts in space. Equally intense (and beautiful) are the 180 tools NASA employed for the job--with 116 of them created specifically for this mission.

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What Did Early Americans Eat?

Old tools provide new evidence

Doug Bamforth had taken calls like this one before. He studies early American plains dwellers, and his employer, the University of Colorado at Boulder, regularly sends him locals who think they've found something. He's often skeptical. Besides, it was also the middle of May. The semester was over, and he was about to leave town. But the caller, a bio-tech mogul named Patrick Mahaffy, kept insisting, and the next day Bamforth took a ten-minute walk from his office to the site. What he saw astonished him: right there, in urban Boulder, no fewer than eighty-three stone tools were spread out on a patio table.

The initial discovery, dozens of ancient tools buried in someone's yard, was surprising enough, but other surprises would follow. The tools first offered a look at when and where their owners had lived, and then, a few months later, unprecedented evidence of what they had eaten.

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Turn Your iPhone Into a Tool

Five ways to put that iPhone to some serious work

The next time you catch crap from your tool buddies for carrying such a gadget-geeky cell, tell them to kiss your iPhone-carrying ass. Then point them here to see how handy Apple’s finest can be in the hands of a Toolmonger. I’ve found dozens of shop-friendly uses for my phone. Launch the gallery here to see five.

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Sand Still

A shake-free sander goes easy on your hands

It’s hard to tell if you've sanded a board smooth when you can't feel your fingers. That’s the dilemma with random-orbit sanders, which work the wood's surface using a round pad that not only spins but also slides from side to side randomly in all directions—in effect orbiting the center of the device. That shaking motion is great for removing material without gouging the wood. Unfortunately, it also rattles your hands, causing numbness and even lasting nerve and circulatory damage.

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