Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Surprisingly Useful Things The Shed Could Not Do Without

The profound usefulness of things like chainsaws, rainwater tanks, canned chili and electricity are not in question.  Nobody doubts the utility of these things nor is anyone very surprised by it.  Here are some things however that are amazingly, surprisingly useful that you may not have considered.

Bricks.  You can never have too many bricks laying around.  They're like perfectly squared-off rocks, just waiting to be stacked up for holding some things up off the ground, set down to keep other things ON the ground, spread out for walking on or lined up for shouting at.

What, you don't yell at inanimate objects?  Well, maybe you should try it.

I'm just saying.

No, don't look at me like that!  It's a perfectly cromulent hobby.  Look it up. They say it's good for you.

So, if anyone ever offers you free bricks, especially the solid kind used as "pavers," accept as many as your car, truck or bicycle will carry.  That would be about two, in the latter case.  I guarantee nobody has never said, "Gee, I'm sure glad there aren't any bricks around here."

Neodymium Magnets.  Rare-earth or "super" magnets can hold an enormous amount of weight.  With practice, a couple of these can become like a second pair of hands for you.  But if you're careless, they can take off one of your fingers, or far worse, erase your hard drive.  While building The Shed, I used two of these to stick a sheet of steel siding onto the steel frame.  They held it firmly in place while at the same time permitting me to adjust its position, alignment and height.  Then I could let go of it entirely to reach for my cordless drill and some self-drilling screws.  I've never run out of uses for these gems, but you have to be careful and store them where their strong fields will do no harm.  Keep them well away from computers, watches, clocks, cameras with motorized lens systems, and CRT displays (old style TVs).  NEVER put them in your pocket.

Swiss Army Knife.  Some people think it's a gimmick, a mere toy, or a parody of being prepared for anything.  Such people are obviously just jealous.  Feast upon the magnificence!  This one knife has 31 awe-inspiring tools.  Why?  Because you can never predict what life or The Shed is going to throw at you.  I have repaired an entire laptop computer using only a soldering iron and a Swiss Army Knife.  And I would have needed just the knife if I had owned the more advanced model (with soldering iron).

I currently own four Swiss Army knives that I know of.  I have found as many as I have lost in my life.  But the loss of one particular knife was most upsetting to me, since I bought it in actual Switzerland for 30 Swiss Francs back in 1985.  June 11th, it was.  A Tuesday.  It was partly cloudy in Luzern that day as I entered a shop in der Bernstrasse....

Forget anniversaries and birthdays:  men get sentimental about hardware.

Q: Can I substitute a Leatherman for a Swiss Army knife? 

Hmmm, well, I suppose you can improvise and make do, if you really have no alternative.  Genuine Leatherman brand multi-tools are also very pricy.  Look at it this way:  imagine telling someone you "fixed it using my multi-tool."  Now try it again with "Swiss Army knife."   See the difference?

Desk Lamps.  Now, I know that sounds a little pedestrian, a bit boring really, but it's the kind of thing you could easily overlook and not realize the hours of grief it would have saved you.  Just get one, OK?  They're cheap.  Go buy one now.  Keep it sitting around with a good bright bulb in, ready to go.  Then one day you might find yourself staring at 439 microscopic watch parts that are all the exact same shade of color as your table top.  NOW how does that extra desk lamp sound?  Pretty good, huh?

Clothes Pins (aka Laundry Pegs).  The kind with little springs.  Wooden, not plastic.  These are like miniature carpenters' clamps.  I use them everywhere.  Curtain falling down?  Clothes Pins.  Want to keep the ants out of the cereal?  Clothes pins. Parts of a model need to be held together while the glue is drying?  Clothes pins.  Working in an awkward position, upside-down from a ladder with only one hand free?  Clothes pins.  They can keep small tools or parts within reach until you need them.  Soldering wires together with your Swiss Army soldering knife?  Clothes pins can hold wires in place so you no longer have to burn your fingers.  Cord dangling in front of the web cam while filming another low-budget science video?  Clothes pins to the rescue again.  They are so cheap you can keep a large supply on hand and never worry if you lose one, break one, step on one or accidentally drop one in boiling acid.

Clothes pins are the perfect assistant.  They are around when you need them, they don't ask silly questions, mention their personal problems or complain about severed fingers etc., and they disappear when you're done with a job.

I wouldn't use them for hanging laundry outside, however.  There is a type of Australian bird that likes to steal them.  Why?  I dunno - evolution I guess.  Perhaps he find them really handy around the nest.

Kerosene.  Before I had electricity in The Shed, I used a kerosene lantern for light.  Obviously I didn't do a lot of watch repair or science videos in those dark days and even darker nights.  It's still occasionally useful to light the old lantern if all my flashlights turn up dead.  But what's really useful about Kerosene is its qualities as a fire starting solution. 

When it's cold and dark and you have important things to be getting on with,  you COULD start a fire in the stove using either the "teepee" or "log-cabin" methods you learned in scouts, but frankly, why spend so much time on it?  Just throw a bucket full of twigs and sticks in there with an accelerant and let 'er rip, following it up shortly with some larger stuff.  

I keep my used engine oil in old juice bottles to use as a fuel supplement. You'd be amazed how long a wadded up page of newsprint soaked in engine oil can actually burn.  But it just doesn't light very well and is an inadequate accelerant especially when cold.

Gasoline is plentiful but also inadequate.  It volatilized too quickly.  If you splash some on the pile of kindling in the fireplace, by the time you put the lid back on (VERY IMPORTANT - ALWAYS put the lid back on the gasoline before doing another single thing, such as striking a match, seriously, I'm not kidding), enough gasoline will have evaporated in that short time to cause a fairly entertaining fireball when you light it.  Sure, the fire will start amazingly well, but you won't have any eyebrows for the next few weeks. 

Kerosene is the answer.  It has just the right qualities to light easily and get the fire going without going "FOOM!" and making the entire shed smell like burnt hair.

BONUS: the kerosene I get has citronella oil in it, the smell of which drives flies and mosquitoes away. 

Fire Extinguisher.  I was looking around the Shed one day, looking at all the firewood stacked up, all the combustible building materials in this corner, all the used engine oil over there, the gasoline, the kerosene, the soldering iron, the power tools and various other sources of ignition not to mention the open flame of the gas camp stove, the odd candle or lantern, and indeed the wood-burning fireplace itself, and I thought to myself, "You know, John, there's something missing here. What IS it? I seem to recall that there is something else that belongs in a place that has all of these various elements together.  What can it possibly be?  

Six months later the light finally went on and I purchased one of these.

First Aid.  Commercially available first aid kits such as the useless and expensive name-brand one I was guilted into purchasing when I had a small child are really stupid.  They contain such medical essentials as coronary stints and emergency titanium hip replacements, but nothing I can actually use when something like this happens.  I therefore keep just a few basic things on hand such as sterile bandages, medic tape, pure alcohol for disinfecting wounds, antimicrobial ointment (e.g. neosporin), super-glue, and some aspirin or generic pain reliever.  There are few situations these simple items alone won't deal with.

Once on a camping trip with my son, some sort of Australian creature bit my son on the leg.  Probably a large ant, possibly a spider.  He screamed for 15 solid minutes as I drove him at high speed to the nearest outpost of civilization (such as it was), a country pub.  The woman in charge heard my explanation of the situation, she checked the color of the bite area, and calmly reached for a packet of Panadol, Australia's answer to Tylenol (except it's paracetamol rather than acetaminophen, but that might even be the same thing - who knows).  She crushed half a tablet between two spoons, added a drop of water to make a paste, and applied it directly to the bite.  Instantly the boy stopped screaming and had no further complaints.  About the bite, anyway.  He found plenty of other things to complain about, rest assured.

Had this been in America, he would've been air-evac'd to an emergency room, undergone a battery of expensive tests (including that machine that goes BEEEEEP!), kept overnight for "observation," and given an expensive course of antibiotics.  $100,000 later, he'd be freaked out, possibly succumbing to a hospital-borne infection, and likely missing several of the more optional organs that most kids come with. 

In Australia, you get half of a 20 cent Panadol and a stern lecture about being more careful by a woman in her 60's with tattoos.  Now THAT's Health Care!

It's astonishing what can be accomplished with very little material but just a bit of know-how.  This is what makes Australia and Australians unique and endlessly interesting.

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