Ask Hackaday: What’s Your “Tactical Tool” Threshold?
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Ask Hackaday: What’s Your “Tactical Tool” Threshold?

Jul 13, 2023

With few exceptions, every field has a pretty modest set of tools that would be considered the minimum for getting most jobs done. A carpenter can make do with tools that would fit in a smallish bag, while a mechanic can handle quite a few repairs with a simple set of socket wrenches and other tools. Even in electronics, a lot of repairs and projects can be tackled with little more than a couple of pairs of pliers, some cutters, and a cheap soldering iron.

But while the basic kit of tools for any job may be enough, there will always be those jobs that need more tools. Oh sure, sometimes you can — and should — make do with what you’ve got; I can’t count the number of times I’ve used an elastic band wrapped around the handles of a pair of needlenose pliers as an impromptu circuit board vise. But eventually, you’re going to come upon a situation where only the “real” tool will do, and substitutes need not apply.

As I look around my shop and my garage, I realize that I may have a problem with these “tactical tool” purchases. I’ve bought so many tools that I’ve used far fewer times than I thought I would, or perhaps even never used, that I’m beginning to wonder if I tackle projects just as an excuse to buy tools. Then again, some of my tactical purchases have ended up being far more useful than I ever intended, which has only reinforced my tendency toward tool collecting. So I thought I’d share a few of my experiences with tactical tools, and see how the community justifies tactical tool acquisitions.

Back in the day, avoiding the tactical tool purchase was a much easier prospect than it is today. Before the days of big box retailers, if you needed a tool to finish a job, your choices were pretty limited. The local hardware store was usually your best bet, but it was hit-or-miss — you weren’t likely to find any specialized tools there. Trade suppliers, like plumbing or electrical supply houses, would have been a good place if you were looking for a tool particular to that trade, but they tended to keep hours that made it hard for the home gamer to patronize them, and the atmosphere in those places can be unwelcoming to the do-it-yourselfer, to say the least.

One place that was always a great source of tactical tools for me was the local rental house. While most people associate tool rental with once-a-year needs like a lawn aerator or a pressure washer, most rental houses have a nice selection of specialty tools available on the cheap, and importantly for the DIY set, they’re usually open at least some of the weekend. I’ve lost track of the number of gear pullers I’ve had to rent over the years, usually on a Saturday afternoon when all other options have been exhausted.

But my visits to rental houses have become much rarer over the years, primarily because there are so many more places to buy tools for not much more than you can rent them. Home Depot was the first big box that managed to enable my tactical tool problem, with that great big “tool crib” stocked full of just about anything you might need on short notice, and critically on weekends. Lowe’s followed, with completely different brands of tools but functionally the same offerings.

The real problem for me, though, was when Harbor Freight started expanding aggressively. The discount tool retailer has been around for decades, but it’s only relatively recently that I’ve had the mixed blessing of having one of their stores close enough that it made sense to take a quick trip to get a tool that would make the job at hand either possible to complete, or more likely, make it marginally easier. And now that I have a Harbor Freight store a mere five-minute drive away, there’s very little that’s stopping me from dropping everything right in the middle of a job and heading off to get just the right tool.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Harbor Freight is just full of cheaply made tools that are as likely to fall apart on first use as they are to actually help you get a job done. That’s certainly true of a lot of tools they sell, and I’ve been bitten by this a time or two myself. But I do have to say that Harbor Freight’s quality has really gone up lately, especially for their power tools. That monster right-angle drill in the picture above, which I bought to drill a hole in a well casing in a confined space about 4 feet underground, is a remarkably powerful machine. It performed admirably, and while I might not want to rely on it for daily use, for one-off jobs and other occasional uses, it was perfectly fine. And as a bonus, it cost less than I would have spent getting someone to do the job for me.

For me, I guess that’s the driver for my tactical tool obsession. I like being the guy who not only knows how to get the job done, but just happens to have the right tool for it. It may be a long time before I need a drill capable of twisting your arm off if you’re not careful, but when I do, I can just get the job done without much further fanfare. I find this to be especially true with automotive tools, because car problems stand the very real problem of rapid escalation into the territory of financial ruin. This almost happened to me a couple of weeks ago, when my usually rock-solid 2003 Toyota Tundra started hesitating and bucking just as I was starting a trip. I nearly broke down in the center of a one-lane bridge, which would have resulted in a towing charge and whatever the garage I ended up at decided to charge for the diagnosis and repair. Instead I managed to nurse the truck home; the fuel pressure gauge seen in the picture above will be used to diagnose what I strongly suspect is a fuel flow problem. Fifty bucks for tools plus maybe a fuel pump or filter sure beats the $1,000 or so that I would have been looking at otherwise.

Look, I admit it — I’ve got a tactical tool problem. But the tendency to over-tool my life hasn’t really caused me any problems, at least none that I’ll admit to. My family thinks it’s pretty cool that I’m likely to have the exact tool needed to tackle any job, even if they poke a little fun at my collecting habits from time to time. And at the end of the day, when nobody has to pay a plumber to make an emergency call for a leaking water heater, and oil changes and brake jobs are done gratis in my driveway, everyone wins.

But what about you? What’s your feeling on tactical tool purchases? I suspect there may be a better balance between buying one-time-use tools and the alternatives, like paying a pro or making do with what I have. I’m willing to admit that maybe I need to change my approach a bit, but only if it makes sense overall. Have you found the proper balance in your tool purchases? We’d also love to hear about any tactical tool purchases that have turned out to be widely useful. Sound off in the comments below.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to check out that fuel problem in the Tundra.