Most hand tools are inexpensive, which is a good thing when they need to be replaced. However, it also means they often get tossed long before their useful life is over. Most of these tools rarely break, but some do get dull. Others, like those with jaws, can get so dirty they can’t grip anything tightly.
Performing regular maintenance on the most common tools in your belt takes only a few minutes a week and makes the tools safer to use and allows them to work better. You can also save the money that slips away when you replace them too early.
Basic Maintenance Toolkit
Keeping on top of your tool maintenance requires a few things. First is an inexpensive 6-or 7-inch long metal file with teeth cut on both surfaces and edges (or a triangular or a round file, depending on any specific needs). Next is a simple wire brush, some light oil or penetrating oil, a small can of paint remover, and a roll of paper towels or an old rag.
Shaping Up Common Electrical Tools
Needle-nose pliers can suffer from two ailments: clogged jaw teeth and dull cutting edges at the back of the jaws. Try to clean the teeth with the wire brush, but if this doesn’t get everything, just apply some paint remover, wait a couple of minutes, and wipe away the mess. Touch up the beveled wire-cutting edges at the back of the jaws with the edge of the file, duplicating the angle ground by the manufacturer. Finish by filing the back side of the cut area flat with the surrounding surface and squirting a little oil where the jaws meet.
Lineman’s pliers are tuned up the same way as needle-nose pliers. This is also a good time to remove any rust with a little oil and some steel wool. (Even though the steel wool isn’t in the basic maintenance toolbox shown above, it’s a simple upgrade that will help with rust and tougher stains. You might also consider getting some WD-40 to help with cleaning and lubricating the joint where the jaws come together.)
Wire strippers, especially the inexpensive adjustable type, usually just need general cleaning. If the cutting jaws get dull, file them a new edge.
Slip-joint pliers come in a wide variety of sizes. But for general purpose electrical work, a 9-inch pair is a good default choice. Because the jaw teeth are widely spaced, they can trap all sorts of stubborn (and sticky) materials that make gripping things harder. Use paint remover to clean the teeth. If any of the teeth are distorted, straighten them with the edge of the file. As always, file in one direction only, not back and forth.
Multi-tip screwdrivers aren’t very complicated devices. The biggest problem they cause is when you open up the handle and find most (or all) of the alternate tips missing. Who knows where they go? Unfortunately, the tips that are usually missing are the ones that were in good shape. The worn tips (helpfully) are usually still in the handle. Flat blades and Phillips-head tips can be tuned up with just a few passes with a metal file. Do this job with the tip installed in the end of the screwdriver for the best control.
Spade bits are a great alternative to twist drill bits, especially for drilling holes in wood that are one of an electrician’s most time-consuming chores. These inexpensive tools are easy to use, cut very quickly, and (unlike twist drill bits) are very easy to sharpen. Just hold the spade bit against a board so the cutting edges extend over the end of the board. Then file each cutting edge to match the angle that the manufacturer used. Don’t over-file these edges. Make three firm passes on each edge, then test for sharpness. If more filing is required, continue in three-pass installments until the bit is sharp.
Wood chisels are usually in an electrician’s tool belt to clean out rough holes, cut cable notches, and chip away dried decking adhesive that carpenters leave behind as a calling card for all the trades that follow them. When the cutting edge is dull on any chisel, a file can bring it back to life, unless it is chipped.
To use a file, hold the tool over a board, as explained in the spade bits above. Make sure the beveled edge is facing up. Then carefully file the bevel to match the angle the manufacturer used. Keep in mind the file may need only a few passes to clean things up. Don’t rock the file up and down on the edge. Once it seems sharper to the touch, turn the chisel over and file the back side of the cutting edge flush with the surrounding surface. Don’t put an angle on this (back) side. Test the edge and if it’s sharp, stop filing. It’s easy to do more harm than good when filing a chisel edge.
Another approach is to use a piece of 120-grit sandpaper (again, not part of the basic maintenance toolbox but commonly found on a jobsite). Just staple the sandpaper to a board, then hold the chisel edge against the paper so that the bevel is completely in touch with the paper and drag the tool back and forth without rocking it up or down. Once the bevel is sharp, turn the chisel over and flatten the back of the cutting edge by running it over the paper. This whole process takes just a couple of minutes per chisel and can yield very impressive results.
Make time at the end of each week to assess your toolkit and clean, repair, or replace any tools that aren’t working properly. Taking proper care of your electrical tools allows you to do your job more efficiently.
About the Author
Before becoming the home improvement editor for Popular Mechanics magazine for 22 years, Steve Willson owned a carpentry contracting business in Rochester, New York. He has written extensively about home improvement and tools for both pros and consumers. He also writes for The Home Depot. To see their selection of electrical tools, please click here.
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