I’ve always been a man of many hats. In addition to the obvious, I play six musical instruments, build computers, and rebuild bikes. I can name nearly every nut and bolt between the bumpers of a car, and am known to diagnose friends’ car problems from across the WiFi waves. I was a smash hit among my female friends in college for converting my dorm room into a movie theater. I’ve forgotten more useless, random information about an untold number of topics than most people learn in a lifetime. Oh, and the Mrs. says I’m a really good cook. In short, I’ve worked very hard to make myself indispensable. I didn’t have the easiest childhood, and learned to compensate for my lack of traditional popularity with my love of learning new skills and sharing them with those around me. Well, on June 30th, I made the insane decision to buy a house in need of total renovation. Well, when I say total renovation I really mean it should have been condemned, but I went for it against the advice of basically every single person in my life except my wife. In doing so, I learned some of the most useful skills I could ever have hoped to; I learned all those manly-man homeowner skills I always envied my dad for knowing, after doing a significant amount of the work myself. During the course of that work, I invested in hundreds of dollars in tools to make the job easier, as I’ve never believed in doing anything the hard way when there is a simpler way it can be done. I hope you will agree with me therefore that I know a thing or two about which tools are the most valuable to have for the various tasks.
I do have an ulterior motive for this post… A friend who got out of the industry several years ago gifted me his set of studio strobes, and I thought this would be an excellent chance to try them out. So do you have some home repairs to do? Do you know an avid DIYer who has yet to be checked off your Christmas shopping list? Or do you just love the sardonic musings of your favorite visual media contractor? Tag along with me as I discuss the top five power tools of my home renovation experience! If tools bore you, just scroll through the photos and have a look at the very end for my thoughts on the strobes.
**DISCLAIMER** Before anybody asks, yes, these are all from the same brand, they are the serious DIYer brand sold at Home Depot, and the reason I stuck with this family of tools is simple; every tool brand uses proprietary batteries. I came for the attractive pricing and lack of need for professional-grade tools, and stayed for the cost savings in not investing in multiple battery platforms. Ok, onto the show.
Behold my Wall of Glory… Best viewed from my throne, a toilet sitting in the middle of the basement floor immediately behind me.
5- Ryobi “Corner Cat” Finish Sander
The first tool on my countdown is this tiny little guy; a handheld orbital sander with a corner point for tight spaces and velcro paper fastening. I used this thing for basically every application that needed sanding, from buffing down the copious peeling paint throughout my house, smoothing walls between coats of spackle, and touching up hardwood floor sanding after going over it with the big machine. It’s not the most powerful sander, especially compared to my dad’s corded circular orbital sander and corded belt sander, but the only task that really slowed it down was sanding down the awful glue that covered my office walls after removing the wood paneling installed by the exceedingly old people that originally owned the home. The tool retails for only $35 new, and is from a brand of tools not strictly intended for heavy use. That said, I beat the living hell out of this thing, to the point where I had to epoxy the velcro back onto the bottom, as well as disassemble, thoroughly clean, and reassemble the sander after I couldn’t tell what color it originally was. It never gave up on me through all that abuse and my slightly ham-fisted disassembly.
Can’t believe this little dude survived the abuse it got.
4. Ryobi Hybrid LED Floodlight
Story time: When I first bought my house, it had no electricity due to water infiltration into the breaker box. One of the first jobs I tackled was demolition of my massively mold-infested and very dark finished basement. This would have been very difficult and unpleasant without this wonderful little light. The huge LED chip throws out 1700 lumens of light in a wide spread while being very cool to the touch and very gentle to my batteries. In addition to helping me in my dark, electricity-free basement, once we got power back I plugged an extension cord into it instead of a battery and it kept my dad and me sanding floors and working on other tasks long past dark. The feet are designed to grip any 2x board, and it can also be suspended from a hook, both of which offered enormous and sorely-needed flexibility at various points in the project.
Absolutely indispensable… Plus that huge LED chip is very sexy.
3. Ryobi “JobPlus” Oscillating Saw
When I was researching tools to invest in shortly before closing on the house, this one kept popping up as a top suggestion. Everybody that owned one had similar things to say; “you don’t know how badly you need one until you REALLY need one”. With that testimonial, I decided to drop the cash and take a chance. After using it extensively, I can 100% agree with the testimonial of the other owners. There were so many instances in which simply no other tool would have come close to being able to do the job. The sheer number of different blades and attachments meant that there was nearly nothing I couldn’t at least consider cutting with this saw. Tasks of special note including cutting tiny finish nails on wood paneling that I couldn’t get my pry bar around, shaving drywall to increase clearance on innumerable surfaces, using the sanding attachment for places my palm sander wouldn’t fit, and making short work of trimming the ends off of shims after hanging doors.
The one caveat I should mention with this tool is that, like many of the tools I bought, I bought this one factory refurbished. Very shortly into using it, the power button died. I sent it back to the company which was very good about sending me a new one. The new one has worked like a champ ever since. The other thing I don’t like about it is that it requires the use of an allen wrench to change blades which is very clumsy in practice. DeWalt’s version has a heavy spring-loaded trigger lever that opens up the collar to insert a new blade which is the way they should all be, but you get what you pay for.
Look at all that drywall dust… The head used to be black!
2. Ryobi Impact Driver
This one was a big toss-up between second and first place. I originally considered not buying an impact gun and just sticking to a standard drill for my screwdriving needs, but I was absolutely sold after using my friend’s Milwaukee. The sheer number of things I had to unscrew and re-screw, plus the zillion screws I had to use for putting up drywall and especially cement board would have made using a regular drill tedious beyond belief. Not only does an impact gun blast screws in at speeds way faster than a drill, it does so without the risk of over-torquing and stripping out the screw head. The mechanism at work is part electric motor, and part spring-loaded hammers that turn in the same direction as the screw and smack the screw into the material. While it’s hard to describe exactly how it works or how different it feels from a regular drill, suffice it to say that if you are planning to do any excessive amount of screwdriving, one of these bad boys is absolutely essential. I would highly recommend hearing protection if you’re working indoors however; while it is exceptionally powerful and fast, it makes a noise that wakes the dead when the hammers kick in.
Pictured with the second phillips head bit in the set I got… After shattering the first one building that workbench. Fair to say I got my money’s worth out of it.
1. Ryobi Reciprocating Saw
I can’t say enough good things about my recip saw. The amount of demolition I had to do made one of these absolutely critical, as it is the quintessential tool for things that need to be quickly and brutally destroyed. The premise of a recip saw, or ‘Sawzall” as it was named by its inventing company Milwaukee, is it’s basically a hand saw with a motor that moves EXTREMELY fast. True to its name, it can eat through absolutely anything with the right blade. It made instant work out of the wood paneling in my basement when I couldn’t get a pry bar behind certain spots, instant work of old cabinets that needed to be broken down to take up less space in the dumpster, and instant work out of bushes and branches in my yard in the hands of my slightly trigger-happy sister-in-law.
What really blew me away with this saw, this inexpensive, light duty, home-gamer version of a truly legendary tool, was that with a little persuading, it ate through an ENTIRE cast iron bathtub. The blade went from sharp and straight to an S shaped and dull as a bad church sermon, and got so hot that it boiled water that had leaked into the saw when cutting the bathtub drain away from the rest of the plumbing. After recharging the batteries and cooling down though, it still worked like a champ. It even survived a fall from about seven feet when my plumber knocked it off the rack with nothing more than a bent shoe, which doesn’t affect normal operation. I highly HIGHLY recommend pairing any recip saw with Diablo Carbide blades, available at Home Depot. They’re so good I converted my plumber to using them!
An absolute feat of engineering. Another tool that should’ve been killed from the abuse I put it through.
I’ve used every single one of the over a dozen tools I bought at some point during the course of this incredible and humbling journey. It would be unfair of me to therefore not include a few honorable mentions.
36V miter saw powered by 2 18V batteries in parallel. Definitely didn’t make the list, but the reason why would take a whole other post and several stiff drinks to tell.
Honorable Mention 3. Ryobi 15-Gauge Finish Nailer
Apart from looking incredibly badass, this bad boy made hanging my interior doors very easy, especially when I was forced to hold the door up in a very particular position with one hand and nail it with the other. Aside from the speed of not having to hand nail or screw the doors in place, I can’t manage to bang a nail in straight to save my life. Be warned though, it has a pretty beefy kickback and it’s also a good candidate for hearing protection. The battery powered motor spins to move a piston in the chamber, which compresses air against a powerfully magnetized driving tip. When the piston reaches the top of the stroke, the force of the magnet is overcome by the air pressure and it shoots the driver into the nail. You know that loud sound semi trucks make when they slow down? Same principle boiled WAY down. So yes, it’ll definitely set your ears ringing if you shoot it too close to your face. Ask me how I know.
Not sure if this bad boy was powered by air or secretly by gunpowder…
Honorable Mention 2. Ryobi Hammer Drill
Ah the drill; the most standard of the weekend warrior’s weapons of choice. Not just any drill for me though, no sir. I actually traded up from a standard drill to this hammer drill. The mechanism is even more difficult to explain than that on the impact driver, but instead of applying force along the axis of rotation to drive screws, a hammer drill applies its impacts on the Z-axis, that is to say through the drill bit and into what is being drilled into. For use only with specialized bits and only in applications of stone, concrete, brick, or other masonry-type surfaces, I was abundantly glad to have made the decision to prepare for unknown future events when I had to drill through my bathroom tile to hang my vanity and towel rack. It also made almost instant work of drilling through cement board. I firmly believe in spending the money for features you don’t immediately need with the thought that you’ll be sorry the one time you really need that feature you cheaped out on.
If you’re doing any type of serious renovation, don’t you dare buy a drill without hammer function. Loved the function so much I bought my dad a $200 DeWalt hammer drill for Christmas.
1. Ryobi Hybrid Fan
A battery-powered fan. Simple, I know. But when you’re painting your upstairs and have no A/C or power to run a corded fan and the temperature inside is in excess of 100 degrees, it’s an absolute lifesaver. It also plugs into an extension cord like the floodlight for unlimited runtime.
Got the A/C installed in the house just a few days after buying this, but gosh was it glorious for those few days…
Special thanks to my ever-suffering contractor Kevin for his help, advice, patience, and especially his hard work on the items of the home that the bank required him to do. In addition to doing great work at my place, I’ve photographed his work on larger-scale projects and he does a truly top-notch job. If you are in the Lehigh Valley, make sure to look up Kevin Good and put him on your bid list for your next home improvement project or new construction.
Now… Onto the strobes.
I was bequeathed this set of Impact strobes, stands, softboxes, and umbrellas by a friend who was a pro photographer in the latter part of the 20th century, but has since moved on to bigger and much more profitable endeavors. To be honest, I was a little daunted by them at first; my career up to this point had revolved around using and manipulating the light already present to achieve my shots. I must say however, setup was easy, the controls were fairly straightforward, and they fired with absolutely no issue when slaved to my hot-shoe flash. The one thing that let me down badly was the lack of space. I shot these on my basement workbench, which is in an area surrounded by support beams, plumbing, and a variety of other things that severely limited the amount of room I had to set up and adjust the strobes. I also decided to go with a telephoto lens to limit depth of field (as I would in a proper portrait shoot), which further restricted my ability to move and change angle. All told, I look forward to using these units on proper assignments in which I will be able to fully control the space and light as I need to. Stay tuned for another update soon… They will be featured on one of the biggest shoots of my career later this month!
Break a lens,