The Herald, Sharon, PA Published Sunday, Feb. 11, 2001
outlook 2001


Itís not your grampaís toolbox

By Joe Zentis
Herald Writer

Tiny red points of light like those projected by laser gun sights dot the scene. Men and women in helmets and bubble-eyed goggles scurrying about, toting weapons that look like assault rifles. Their holster belts support exotic hand weapons.

Wait a minute! Where are we? On the set of a George Lucas film? Or maybe weíre on a construction site in our hometown. Instead of watching sci-fi warriors brandishing weapons of destruction, we might be observing construction workers wielding awesome tools of construction.

Indeed, new power nailers, cordless drills and electric screwdrivers look like the weapons you see in movies such as Star Wars. But while the technology in films is imaginary, the technology in tools is both real and practical.

Technology is affecting virtually every aspect of the construction industry.

For example, you can still use an old-fashioned hammer with a straight wooden handle and steel head. But now you can get a more user-friendly hammer made of titanium. You can still hit your thumb with it, but the arm swinging the hammer wonít be as stressed because of the reduced weight, ergonomic design, and vibration reduction.

If you donít want to swing your arm at all, you can buy a palm-sized compressed air tool that produces more than 10 blows a second. It can drive nails into wood wherever your hand can reach.

Need more power? Step up to really serious nail drivers. The simplest are single-shot rifle-like tools that use .22 or .27 caliber blank cartridges to drive fasteners into wood, concrete or even steel. There are also repeating gunpowder-driven tools with magazines holding as many as 10 shots.

Some nailers are powered by compressed air or electricity. Still others are variations of the internal combustion engine. Flammable gas is injected into the cylinder and ignited by an electrical spark. The expanding gas slams the piston downward, driving the fastener home.

Not only do these power tools enable a person to work much faster and longer than the old biceps/triceps-powered slammers do; they also produce better bonds because of the high-tech fasteners they use.

"Some are coated with resins that melt when they are shot into the wood," says Kevin Suhrie, owner of Suhrie Industrial Supplies and Tool Rental in Mercer and a director of the Mercer County Builders Association. "When the resin cools, it acts as an adhesive to glue the fasteners into the wood."

The most powerful tools can drive fasteners into steel as thick as a quarter of an inch. The heat generated during application actually welds them into place.

Regardless of whether you want to cut, drill, twist in screws, glue, or even insulate, there are constantly more and better power tools to help you do it. Just one manufacturer, Makita, announced more than 50 new power tools during 2000, ranging from rechargeable flashlights to socket drivers, rebar cutters, power shears, slide dual-compound miter saws, routers, rotary hammers, sanders, grinders and more.

Some of the greatest advances have been made in batteries for cordless tools.

"A 9.6 volt tool now is as powerful as an 18-volt was two years ago," said Tim Handerhan, another Mercer County Builders Association director and sales manager of Penn-Ohio Industrial Supply in Greenville. "And now Hilti has a 36-volt hammer drill thatís just incredible. It has a battery pack that mounts on your belt to reduce the weight of the tool."

Before you drill, cut, or nail, you must measure and level -- and new technology will help you do it better. You can buy tape measures that give precise digital readouts in your choice of inches or centimeters, decimals or fractions. Some can calculate the area and volume of a room. And forget about the pencil and paper to write down the numbers. These devices will store them in their electronic memories.

Better yet, there are electronic instruments that you hold against one wall, point at the opposite wall, and read the distance between them. Some can measure distances up to 300 feet.

Lasers devices are also taking over the task of establishing level and grade. Some look like normal bubble levels, but shoot a laser beam from the end so that you can establish a level line all the way across a room. More advanced (and expensive) devices will project a perfectly level laser line all the way around the room. Some are accurate within a sixteenth of an inch at a distance of 150 feet. Try achieving that with a two-by-four and old-fashioned bubble level!

Technology is constantly affecting not only tools but building materials as well. Steel studs are replacing wood in some building construction because itís straighter and longer lasting, and now costs about the same.

Countertops arenít all Formica anymore. Many new solid surface materials have been developed over the past five years.

These changes provide a major challenge for the construction industry. Sam Shilling, business agent of Carpenters Union Local 268 in Sharon and president of the Mercer County Building Trades Council, says that not just apprentices, but also journeymen carpenters must be continually trained to use the new materials properly.

"We have to provide our carpenters with training courses so they can know how to handle them," Shilling says. "Some glues wonít work with certain materials, and some metals -- such as the brass, steel or zinc in screws -- will react chemically with them over time. Theyíre made to last a hundred years, but only if you use the right adhesive and the right screws." Every handymanís fantasy would be to own the carpenterís equivalent of the Star Wars "light saber" -- a hand-held laser saw to effortlessly cut anything in sight. That wonít happen soon, says Ray Caluori, marketing director for BladePoint, a Boston company selling laser guides that can be attached to rotary saws.

"First, itís too dangerous," Caluori says. "You would have to have something that would stop the beam on the other side of the material you are cutting. Second, a laser beam is so hot that it would burn the wood rather than produce a clean cut."

But donít fret: While youíre waiting for someone to produce your lightsaber saw, you will have thousands of new hi-tech tools and materials to work or play with.

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