The Democratization of Tools: How Buffalo Helps Communities Help Themselves

tl1*Note: Darren did such an amazing job summarizing the importance of these resources that many of the words in this post are his own. Thanks for making life so easy for both the people of Buffalo and also a gal in Chicago, Darren. All pics are of projects completed using the Tool Library’s resources.

Sometimes people take lemons and make Tool-Aid. Darren Cotton and his roommate were living off campus in the University Heights neighborhood of Buffalo and renting from an absentee landlord who didn’t exactly do much to keep the place up. So, instead of defaulting to complaining or complacency, they began doing a lot of the work around the house themselves, making incremental improvements and deducting material expenses from their rent.

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Check out the TedX Talk to learn more about where this initiative began here. 

Throughout this process, Darren and his roommates found themselves raiding their parents’ garages for things like hedge trimmers, power drills, paint rollers, etc. It quickly became clear that in order for people to create positive change through repairing their homes and improving their communities, they would require centralized access to tools and resources (without spending a fortune). A year later, the tool library was born thanks to Darren’s tenacity and a startup grant from the City of Buffalo.



Photo courtesy of the University Heights Tool Library.

The mission of the University Heights Tool Library is to facilitate self-reliance, civic engagement, and grassroots reinvestment in neighborhoods by empowering residents to affect the positive change they want to see. The first tool library was created in Berkley, California in the 1970’s and there are nearly 40 of these around the country today. These low cost, high impact community resources have helped breathe life back into long neglected neighborhoods through the creation of numerous community gardens, the rehabilitation of a long neglected housing stock, and most importantly, through the empowerment of residents. Shared resources and collective action are a hallmark of tool libraries as is the importance of access over ownership in the new economy (e.g. I don’t need a drill, I need a hole in the wall.) In fact, the average drill is only used for 12 minutes during its lifetime (CRAZY).


Photo courtesy of the University Heights Tool Library.

The University Heights Tool Library operates as an all-volunteer nonprofit organization. Membership is $10 a year and allows members to borrow up to five tools at any one time for up to one week, with an option to renew for an additional week. All membership dues are reinvested back into the tool inventory and are either used to repair current tools or to purchase additional tools based on the demand and number of requests from members.


Photo courtesy of the University Heights Tool Library. 

From a small membership of a dozen or so neighbors and an initial inventory of about 100 tools, today the Tool Library has grown to nearly 550 members and over 1,600 tools, all of which can viewed online using their new inventory management system. When researching the possibility of starting one of these up in Chicago, I can tell you that overwhelmingly, we were told by other successful tool libraries that a solid inventory system and regular tool maintenance were the lynchpins to success.

2013-2014 Tool Library Stats

I’m not even sure what to add here. I mean, LOOK AT THESE STATS.

In addition to loaning out tools to individuals, the Tool Library draws much of its strength from partnering with block clubs and neighborhood organizations on projects that put their tools to work in the community – just a few of these are highlighted in the images above and you can see how they target the kinds of projects that really make a visible difference in a neighborhood. More on that in our follow-up blog when we show off the brand spankin’ new Craftsman tools that will be joining the inventory.


Dream Camp for Handy Adults: Craftsman MAKEcation 2.0


Villain in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

Working in historic preservation and salvage/reuse means having a good grasp of material science and an eye for craftsmanship. One of the biggest hurdles of working in these fields is assuring people who own vintage buildings or who do a lot of building that they can easily repair, restore, and reuse older materials. In fact, these materials usually have several lives left in them. But as much as I hammer home this point (cymbal crash!), even I don’t get nearly enough time to play around with many of the tools out there that can help make restoration and reuse projects even easier, not to mention the time to stoke the coals of my creative side.


This became a room full of excited adults, lathes, and rather a lot of wood shavings a couple of hours after this was taken. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

Enter MAKEcation. This is essentially two days of nonstop building, learning and playing, and when you’re invited as a special guest, it’s rude to say no, right? I was asked to come and teach a workshop last year at the inaugural MAKEcation, and I remember thinking, “Is this a real thing? We just get to build stuff all weekend and in the evenings, we learn about whiskey and grilling and take a boat ride after a private concert?” It’s a thing. When I was asked back, rest assured I immediately rearranged my five jobs to make it work. MAKEcation is like camp for curious and creative adults with some of the best makers in the country. At a really nice hotel.


Making coat hooks with master craftsman Rob North. Photo Courtesy of Craftsman.

The purpose of the event, which lasts 2-1/2 days, is to reward loyal Craftsman Club members for their support and to show active DIY bloggers what Craftsman tools can do. An added bonus of coming two years in a row was seeing many of the ideas that came out of last year manifest through new tool designs and adjustments. Participants were shown all of the upgrades and allowed to try them out. Honestly, I fell in love with several tools I didn’t even know I wanted. My kingdom for more workspace in Chicago because…lathe. Sigh.


LATHE!!! I cannot express how satisfying it is to use the 12″ x 16″ midi lathe. I’d never used this tool before and it was super smooth. It was essentially like meditation that left you with a piece of functional art. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

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I only had time to make two handles, but this bottle and pizza cutter are going to be buried with me.

Day 1.

Arrive in Brooklyn early to explore solo for a few hours.

  • Walk Williamsburg
  • Buy a Rocky Balboa onesie for my niece
  • Have incredible pizza and a lager in the courtyard of Fornino’s
  • Return to hotel for cocktails by the saltwater pool (as one does)
  • Head to Brooklyn Brewery for a private tour and more New York style pizza and beer (Chicagoans have no threshold for pizza consumption)
  • Get the only decent night’s sleep on this trip

Master craftsmen, loyal Craftsman Club members, handy people who write about makers and tools for a living, and a few folks from the Craftsman marketing team who schemed this whole wonderful thing up and worked their tails off for the greater good. Thanks, thanks, thanks. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

Day 2

  • 7am breakfast in the hotel
  • Head over to Villain, a maker space in Brooklyn that includes all the tools and stations we need, as well as a gigantic bar (for AFTER we used the nail guns and miter saws)
  • Make our own belts and leather cuffs under the expert tutelage of Will Lisak from ETWAS
  • Make a coat rack by repurposing hammers with DIY Guru Rob North 
  • Take apart and rebuild carburetors with Max Herman and Sean Brayton from the Oilers Club
  • Get an incredibly detailed mixology lesson from the lovely Lacy Hawkins, an award winning bartender from the Clover Club
  • Return to the hotel for dinner on the rooftop, delicious drinks, and a private concert by country star Eric Paslay, who did my favorite cover of Wicked Game, ever
  • Eventually…five minutes of sleep
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Justin DiPego doing some stellar leatherwork. I got to know Justin at last year’s MAKEcation and highly recommend checking out his DIY videos.


Mixologist Lacy Hawkins and her assistant teach us everything we ever wanted to know about making the perfect Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

Day 3

  • Up early for breakfast in the hotel (ow, but yum, but ow)
  • Head over to World Maker Faire for the morning with blurry eyes that soon widen from creative overdrive
  • Take the shuttle on back to Villain to make pizza cutter and bottle opener handles using a lathe taught by Rob Johnstone and Dan Cary from Woodworker’s Journal (I want one, I want one, I want one. Please. Please. Please.)
  • Make a toolbox with a drawer and a bottle opener with the incredibly talented and kind Karl Champley to lug around some of our spoils when we get home.
  • Oh, then we went to go see a private motorcycle stunt show by ILLConduct. Just for us. Because, why not?
  • Then another dinner by the pool and Coney Island Magician and Performer Adam Realman, who swallows swords and cigarettes and shoves spikes into his face and resembles Tom Waits.

The C3 19.2V Brad Nailer was my other favorite tool on this trip. After messing around with a manual staple gun at home earlier this month, this tool made me realize all those kicked up staples and curse words were completely unnecessary. Peace shall now reign in the Bruni studio. Thanks to the venerable Karl Champley, host on the DIY Network, HGTV, and recent winner of Ellen’s Design Challenge for this toolbox workshop. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.


We expected to be taken back to the hotel to clean ourselves up before dinner, but instead were taken down a side street for a private show by the motorcycle stunt riders at ILLConduct. This is a great capture, but I highly recommend looking at the videos on the media page of their website to understand how incredible these guys are. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.


This is Adam Realman. He eats cigarette, bends wrenches, swallows swords, and he let me pull a giant nail out of his nose and called me lovely. No regrets. Photo courtesy of Craftsman.

Day 4

  • Thank the Gods that your flight is late enough that you don’t need to leave the hotel until 11:30am, intend to explore in the morning but instead sleep until 10am, watch HBO in a fog for another hour, pack frantically, and unceremoniously run out the door to meet your driver.
  • Smile as you collapse into your window seat, sleep until drooling.

So, this was a dream trip. Assuming this happens a third year, sign up to be a member of the Craftsman Club if you haven’t already (it’s free), and enter to win as many times as you’re able. Remember: camp for adults with great food and liquor and a nice hotel and bizarre and ridiculously entertaining side trips and performances. Oh, and they ship everything you make back to you and every single thing on the trip is paid for. Yes. I’ll see you next year.

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Nerd sidebar: Hanging out with Vincent Lai of the Brooklyn-based Fixers Collective, a group that helped me and a friend launch Community Glue Workshop several years ago (which we’re proud to note is the first repair clinic in the state of Illinois). I read that his crew had a booth at the World Maker Faire and we finally got to hug in earnest (and then he gave me a free iFixit tool kit!).


I can’t wait to give this to my niece. Thanks, Brooklyn street vendor.

More than a leg to stand on: Hands-on fields that combine art, science, and even a little fiction

A leg up.

A leg up! Plaster molds are created from patient casts. The positive is then used as the model to mold and fit an orthotic device.

I recently completed a 10-day road trip around the South that included Illinois, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. This little adventure, which has become an annual event that restores my sanity, generally involves many cemetery stops, crumbling shacks worth pulling off the road to gaze at, amazing little restaurants and bars (oh, cheesy grits and Sazeracs, you have obliterated me with your love), some kayaking in the bayou, and lord knows a million other delightful events. I’m excited to report that for the first time ever, this particular trip also included an interview with some orthotics and prosthetics makers in New Orleans who just happened to be one of the winners of ToolMade’s Sears-Craftsman Tool Giveaway.

Clare shows a custom solid ankle-foot orthoses she fabricated using a vacuum form technique at the clinic.

Clare shows a custom solid ankle-foot orthoses she fabricated at the clinic.

After a plaster cast is made for a client, a plastic sheet is vacuum formed for an exact fit. Because plastics are now used, a heat gun can make tiny adjustments when needed. Yes, that's a bag. No, that's not what Clare usually uses.

After a plaster cast is specially made for a client, a plastic sheet is vacuum formed for an exact fit. Because plastics are now used, a heat gun can make tiny adjustments when needed as well. Yes, that’s a bag. No, that’s not what Clare usually uses.

Prostheses are damned fascinating to me and I’m telling you, they should be to you as well. In my early 20s, I had some unexpected health issues that almost made me lose one of my precious gams, so when things were scary, I made a point of researching some heroes with prosthetic limbs to try and keep a positive attitude–it’s crazy what people can do despite their perceived handicaps. I get that this is a specific experience that initially lead to my interest, but you don’t have to dig far to find something that will blow your mind–I mean, some of the earliest and also most recent innovations read like science fiction. Designers from a wide range of backgrounds are getting better and better at creating limb stabilization and replacement devices due to new technologies, tools, and materials, and that’s excellent news considering that there are nearly 2 million people with artificial limbs in the U.S. (about 185,000 amputations in the U.S. alone each year, and that number is climbing).

I'm not sure how well this picture illustrates this, but if you look closely, you can even see the grooves of the skin on the foot. The accuracy matters not only to the fit but to how realistic a device can be made to look for the client.

I’m not sure how well this picture illustrates this, but if you look closely, you can even see the grooves of the skin on the foot.

Prostheses! It is imparitive that these fit exactly, and sometimes multiple devices will have to be created just for the fitting process. The plastic is thermoset plastic, which starts as a liquid and is impregnated with fabric. The inside is made of carbon fiber for added strength.

Prostheses! Different heights and body types sometimes require multiple devices to be created just for the fitting process. The plastic is thermoset plastic, which starts as a liquid and is impregnated with fabric. The inside is made of carbon fiber for added strength.

When I had an opportunity to interview Clare Wiegand and Paul Beaudette at the Bayou Orthotics and Prosthetics Center in Metarie, Louisiana, I jumped at the chance. Yeah sure, you can run with that pun. First, some definitions to distinguish these devices/fields:

Orthosis (orthotic device): “An externally applied device used to modify the structural and functional characteristics of the neuromuscular and skeletal system,” or basically, something bracing what is already there.

Prosthesis (prosthetic device): “An artificial device that replaces a missing body part lost through trauma, disease, or congenital conditions.”

An orthotist fabricates and fits custom-designed external orthopedic braces, and a prosthetist creates, designs, and custom-fits artificial limbs. Both require a lot of time evaluating and following-up with patients as well.

A brief history of legs past.

A brief history of legs past.

As one might guess, splints and braces were the first orthotic devices (also called orthoses). With the Civil War came a desperate need for massive quantities of prosthetic limbs (prostheses) and those experimenting with the creation and attachment of limb replacements became recognized as legitimate health professionals at that time–before this period, people had to fashion them from pieces of wood by themselves. These fields have grown and become increasingly sophisticated with every major war, and more recently have boomed due to lifestyle and health changes, including an ever-increasing aging population and a dramatic increase in diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.

J.E. Hangar Company, artificial leg production workshop, post Civil War. The company survives today! (National Photo Company Collection)

J.E. Hangar Company, artificial leg production workshop, post Civil War. This was serious technology at the time. Prostheses were made of whittled barrel staves and metal. The company survives today! (National Photo Company Collection)

Paul, who has been making prostheses for decades, shows off a wooden leg that he keeps in the office as a reminder of days past.

Paul, who has been making prostheses for decades, shows off a wooden leg that he keeps in the office as a reminder of days past.

Clare, who has been making both orthoses and prostheses since 2007, was my contact at the clinic, so I asked her what tools would be useful. They use lots of drills, drill bits, heat guns, belt sanders, pliers and torque and allen wrenches. I picked her up a variety of Craftsman tools within the contest budget, consisting of:

  • (2) 4 piece Pliers Sets (diagonal, slip joint, arc joint, long reach long nose, wide jaw, duckbill, linesman, and regular long nose)
  • 21 Piece Titanium Coated Drill Bit Set
  • 17 Piece Screwdriver Set
  • 19.2-Volt C# Cordless Drill/Driver
Drills are used often and need bits that can drill through carbon fiber. Step bits are often used to create wider openings.

Drills are used often and need a wide range of bits, including step bits for wider sockets.

Adjustments are crucial. There are wrenches and pliers galore around this place.

Adjustments are crucial. There are wrenches and pliers galore around this place.

I was toured through the different stations for an overview of how knee, ankle and foot devices were created, and given a look at what some of the older models looked like. The tool stock used for making these devices has changed quite a bit in recent decades—Paul, who has been making prostheses for over 40 years, explained how wooden prostheses used to be made entirely out of hand tools—sharp chisels which would be pulled upward to shape a leg are now replaced by routers, for example. The materials are also very different and consist of things like carbon fiber and plastics, making them much easier to adjust for a precise fit for each patient. Of course, the patients have also changed over time due to both an increase in illnesses as described above, but also due to fewer industrial accidents—at least some people seem to be paying attention to OSHA?

USA's paralympic swimmer Jessica Long. (Press Association via AP)

USA’s paralympic swimmer Jessica Long. (Press Association via AP)

If you’re not sure what to do with your time on this planet and this topic is at all interesting to you, seriously consider looking into these fields, which are described good career options for those who want to be an artist/bio-mechanist/engineer/medical practitioner. Why limit yourself, right? I would also add that folks who care about others and are interested in hands-on work and tools could certainly find a niche here. There is a projected 25% increase in the number of people needing orthopedic braces due to paralysis, deformity or orthopedic impairments by 2020. And if you’re more interested in creating prostheses than orthoses, that need is expected to grow 47% in the same timeframe. Wow. Yeah, I’m really selling it. Because it’s so damned important.

What my prosthetic limb would look like (painted by Tim Beck).

What my prosthetic limb would look like (painted by Tim Beck).

For more info on innovations in the field and ways people are advancing mobility, check out some great links here:

Targeted muscle reinnervation (TMR):  Your brain controls the muscles in your limbs by sending electrical commands down the spinal cord and then through peripheral nerves to the muscles.

Photos of the latest in prosthetic limb technology:

Stand-up Mobilization Device (this is a bit of an offshoot, but a mind opener):

More about careers in these fields (includes a list of programs throughout the country towards the end of the brochure):

Make it art:

In case there was any doubt about whether prostheses could be sexy. Jo-Jo Cranfield wearing the snake arm created by Sophie de Oliveira. Please check out the Alternative Limb Project when you have a few minutes.

…and just in case there was any doubt about whether prostheses could be sexy. Jo-Jo Cranfield wearing the snake arm created by Sophie de Oliveira. Please check out the Alternative Limb Project when you have a few minutes.

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The Giveaway: Want Free Tools? Submit!

hmp5583bWhile innovation and creative problem solving is a wonderful thing, there comes a time when sawing pipes with an old steak knife has caused enough repetitive motion damage to your hands that your fingers resemble challah bread. Of course, sometimes one must make a choice whether to buy groceries or to buy a [insert semi-expensive tool of choice here].

And then there are other times when you get to eat and have tools! How can this be, you ask?

Three people/groups/organizations doing work that requires tools (and some heart—it matters), will each receive $200 worth of whatever tools or tool accessories you can find via Sears. Honestly, it’s kind of surprising how much bang you can get for your buck with that amount of money, especially during the holiday season. So here’s the deal:

The Giveaway

This is a write-in contest where 3 groups or individuals will be featured on the blog talking about what they do and how the tool(s) will help them with their work. Anything goes—hand tools, power tools, work gloves, whatever, but it has to be Craftsman brand.

Let’s keep this pretty flexible, but here’s some basic info you’ll want to include:

1. What do you do?

2. Why do you do it?

3. A couple of pictures of whatever you think best features who you are and/or the work you do.

4. What tool(s) you need and how it would help you/your organization out.

Submission deadline is December 15th, 2013. Email me at and please put “Sears Tool Giveaway” in the subject line so it doesn’t get lost in the tide.



Where you live/Who is eligible: I don’t have a travel budget, so unless you live relatively near to the Chicago area or happen to be somewhere I’m already headed (New Orleans for New Years and Springfield, IL in February is all that is on the agenda for now), I’m not sure I can make it out to you for this project. BUT, if you have a really, truly extraordinary project, please write in anyway. If we can’t figure anything out now, maybe we will be able to later, and I can at least feature you on the blog and get you some publicity through Sears and other online outlets.

Who is judging this? Well, the idea of having to choose between some people I may know and so many great submissions by myself is mildly torturous. So there will be three judges, who, granted, I will take the liberty of selecting, helping with this process. If you aren’t selected, you can take out your wrath on them.

When do you get the tools? This project will span over the next 6 or so months, so I may not be able to visit some of you until Spring. If it is especially urgent for someone selected to receive tools sooner rather than later for a specific project, I’ll definitely try my best to accommodate that.


An example of someone who will not be receiving free tools.

So, that’s it. Submit! Submit!

Tool Porn: You Know What’s Hot? Fixing What’s Broken.

Ladder Maker, Salento, Italy (Photographer: Ron Nicolaysen)

Ladder Maker (Photographer: Ron Nicolaysen)

For the past 7 years, the majority of my work has revolved around saving historic buildings. At the same time, one of the most popular photographic subjects has been ruin porn—taking pictures of buildings that are dying and have basically no hope of survival. When you are trying to save buildings, you find yourself inside a lot of abandoned places, but you’re researching these buildings and loving them and hoping to save them. To be honest, I find a lot of ruin porn a little skeezy and lazy. Sure, the bruised blue colors and filthy, peeling layers get our imaginations running with romantic apocalyptic daydreams, but to me, it also feels unsavory in an “I’m taking a picture of your dead grandma’s body at a wake, even though I never really even knew her” kind of way. And then I’m posting it on the internet. I’m also not super keen on the snuff angle.

And seriously, if it’s broken, pick up a hammer and fix it. What the hell.

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Cobbler (Photographer: Ron Nicolaysen)

So why feature images of “dying” trades? Well hey, there’s another reason to share photos of things that are dying—to celebrate them and potentially bring awareness to them by pulling back the curtain and exposing their process and functional beauty. I came upon these photos and sighed and smiled and immediately wrote the photographer to see if he minded my posting these. He did not. In fact, he wrote me back within 24 hours from across the world (currently photographing the Philippines/Thailand/Bali) telling me to post away, by all means. He had been photographing these trades for a while now.

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Blacksmith (Photographer: Ron Nicolaysen)

These photos are all overseas, but jobs in traditional trades are plummeting all over the world and especially in the U.S. More and more jobs are shipped away or simply disappearing and replaced with cheap, sub-par substitutions made with machines and inferior materials.

These images do the opposite of glorify the end of something. The idea of going to these work spaces with one’s own tools and schedule and ability to make whatever is in your head manifest in whatever manner you please seems like a relief and a joy and something to shoot for. Would you rather go to your cubical all frazzled from train delays only to answer fifty emails that serve as fodder for your worsening TMJ, or would you rather go to these places? I mean, that’s not even a serious question in my mind. The work in these photos seems like the most normal, human way to spend one’s time and makes you question how we have gotten so far from where we were and so far from doing work that is Real. Look at their faces. These are people who have pride in what they do and do not mind going to work. The best advertisements for hope I’ve seen in a long while.

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Figurine Makers (Photographer: Ron Nicolaysen)

For more of Ron’s work:

For some straight up tool porn:

Get your hands dirty.

Get your hands dirty.

Changing brake pads.

Tools are what separate us. They allow us to create beyond the limitations of our bodies in terms of scope, detail, and pace. Whatever you are lounging on, writing on, drinking out of or toasting your Pop-Tarts in right now was not born after a romantic evening between two objects at the local Target, but made with the help of shaped iron or alloy steel, plastics, woods, or other durable material created for a particular function that couldn’t be done by hand alone. These things may seem obvious, but we are so removed from the process of manufacturing nowadays it’s hard to have any sense of how things are made and where on earth they came from.

But, this is not really a blog about tools. The ToolMade project is focused on exploring the relationship between people and tools—hands-on projects and trades that involve expression and skill and time and brains and creative problem solving. Tools allow us to manifest our ideas and understand the world we live in.

This project is the result of several things: hands-on restoration work via a career in historic preservation, a local repair clinic a friend and I co-founded last year, and Sears, which has afforded the opportunity to buy a heck of a lot of tools and write about them. Most of those tools will be given away to people already doing interesting and important things with them, or to people who want to teach others to use them. In a nutshell, here are the goals of ToolMade:

1. Shine a light on people and organizations doing hands-on projects that are education and/or community focused.

2. Help revive dying trades that deserve a renaissance and dig into their history and why they are so damned awesome.

3. Demystify tools so that people who might accidentally create a Texas Chainsaw Massacre scene with a power saw can become more comfortable with tools in general, understand how they work and how they can make their lives a whole lot easier (and more fun).

4.  Encourage everyone to step away from the virtual and spend some time in the physical. There are a crazy number of physical, psychological, sociological, and environmental benefits to getting your hands dirty.

Over the next year, I’ll be visiting the homes and workspaces of folks to hear about what they are doing, why they like hands-on work, and to ultimately explore the broader context of how the American style of work has impacted us as a society. And yes, I’ll be giving free tools to these crews whenever possible. So this is a call to mechanics, electricians, masons, pre-post-apocalyptic survivalist movement enthusiasts, and all you folks in the Preservation, Building, Maker, Hacker, and Fixer movements—I’d really like to feature what you do. This is also a blog for those who don’t know what a Phillip’s screwdriver is and would really, really like to build a coffee table or make that extra bedroom not look like an extension of Buffalo Bill’s basement. Basically, screw automated machinery and flimsy $20 replacement fixes from big box stores—let’s get our hands dirty.