Five Things You May Not Have But Should

on 23 April, 2012

As anyone who has worked on a vehicle knows, having the right tools for the job is essential. For car audio installers, professional and amateur alike, high quality variants of jigsaws, table saws, routers, sanders, common hand tools and pneumatic devices can shave hours off the total work time and help to ensure a desirable outcome to your project. However, quite often I find myself in scenarios where none of the standard instruments in my arsenal work well and forces me to MacGyver my way through using alternative and homemade solutions. Often, these remedies are merely stopgap measures until I purchase the proper utensil; but over the years and hundreds of cars, there have been a list of things that I find myself going back to on a weekly basis, simply because they tend to work superbly for a specific task. Here are five of these off-the-beaten-path tools that I can’t live without in my garage.

Cardboard

Purpose: Making mockup panels

One question I get asked a lot of is how to make trim panels conform perfectly to the stock shapes and curves of a vehicle’s interior or trunk. Having specialty tools such as a multi-scribe or profile transfer kits are big pluses, but for me, the most essential element in the process is cardboard, and a lot of it. The reason is quite simple-- cutting a bunch of templates out of cardboard is infinitely faster and cheaper than using wood. In the corner of my garage, there is always up to a dozen sheets of the stuff resting against the wall, trimmed from shipping containers of various sizes. When building a fake floor for example, smaller sheets can be cut out to line up with individual areas of the trunk and then pieced together using tape to form a single large mockup panel ; this can then be transferred onto wood for a precise fit and finish the first time out. In addition, you can use cardboard to build three dimensional shapes, which can also help you visualize the final outcome of the design, and make the necessary tweaks and adjustments as needed before the blade hits the MDF. Simply put, cardboard is truly the duct-tape of the custom trim panel world, you can utilize it for just about every purpose.

Tip: Higher quality cardboard that is both thin and rigid works best.

Tinner’s Snips (Not to be confused with metal or tin snips)

Purpose: Cutting everything big and small

Back when I first started building cars, I possessed a small army of shears big and small. Seamstress scissors for cutting upholstery materials, metal snips for trimming grille mesh and metallic sheets, and everything in between for cutting dowel rods, plastics, fiberglass and sound dampers. As time went on however, I found myself repeatedly using just one set of shears for virtually everything, and it wasn’t even part of my normal tool set. Instead, it was an old pair of medium sized Wiss tinner’s sheers I kept for landscaping duties.   The original intended purpose of these oversized blades means it will chew through light gauge metal, fiberglass edges, and even thin sheets of hardboard with ease, yet with its traditional scissor-like handle design and cutting motion, you can use it with precision on much thinner elements such as cardboard, upholstery, sound proofing materials and paper. Best of all, tinner’s snips are often cheaper than other more specific-usage cutters, and comes in a wide variety of sizes to suit your preferences.

Tip: Pick the snip best suited for your hand size and strength.

Long-Nose Squeeze Bottles

Purpose: Injecting fiberglass reinforcement into tight spots

Let me start off by stating that sanding body filler is one of my least favorite tasks in all of car audio. To that end, I tend to prefer reinforcing an initial mold from the inside rather than laying glass on top. This helps to achieve a smooth surface onto which relatively little filler have to be laid. On larger objects such as a sub enclosure or door pods, this is as simple as cutting a portion out of the back mold and smothering the interior walls with layers upon layers of fiberglass; but on miniature items such as pillar pods for tweeters, this is simply not an option.   Thankfully, these light duty pieces don’t require the same herculean strengths of their bigger cousins, and over the years, I have found that a mixture of Duraglas and resin, mixed roughly 70/30, will be more than adequate when poured into pods to act as a stiffening agent. The trick then, is how to get the gooey fiberglass milkshake INTO the tiny confines of a pillar mold; this is where long-nosed squeeze bottles, purchased by the dozens, come in handy. Simply mix up a batch of Dura-resin, pour into the bottle, put on the cap, stick it into the cavity and squeeze. Voila! No running droopy mess and a solid coverage throughout the interior!   Just remember to mix only what you need each time, if there is too much excess milkshake left in the bottle, it will render it un-squeezable once the mixture hardens inside.   I have found that a single bottle can be used roughly two to three times before the plastic becomes too brittle from the heat of the curing process, and at less than a dollar per bottle, it is quite a cheap and effective solution indeed.

Tip: Go for bulk packs of the smaller sized bottles.

Bullseye Level

Purpose: Making sure your project is on the level

One of the worst things that can happen when fabricating a custom floor panel is realizing after the fact, that the entire thing is tilted. This kind of imperfection can ruin an otherwise stellar job; and worst of all, fixing it often requires tearing out EVERYTHING and re-leveling the foundational support structure. As someone who prefers fake floor designs above all others, having a good level is vital to my process of avoiding such errors. So it may surprise you to learn that the product I use 90 percent of the time is not that fancy digital tool or the shiny machined aluminum monstrosity sitting pretty in my tool cabinet, instead, it’s a little gadget that is barely larger than a quarter and costs a whopping two bucks at the local hardware store. It is a bullseye level, a simple clear plastic topped tablet with concentric markings and a bubble within. Lay it on any surface and if the bubble is at the center of the bullseye, then you have yourself a level plane. Beyond the obvious cost savings, the advantage of the bullseye over more traditional levels is that it measures all directions simultaneously, and is small enough to sit on virtually any surface. So please go and shell out the chump change and equip yourself with this neat little device.

Tip: Glue one to a perfectly cut MDF cube, you can also measure vertical orientation in tight spots.

Chopsticks

Purpose: Routing wires through door conduits

I am the ultimate hoarder of cheap chopsticks; every time I get Chinese take-out or visit an all you can eat buffet, I invariably end up with a handful of extra packages. Before you start making Chinese jokes, allow me to explain my somewhat odd behavior. Running thicker-gauge speaker cables into doors is a good practice when installing aftermarket speakers powered off an external amplifier, but getting the wires through the stock rubber conduit hose can often be tricky and frustrating. To accomplish this task, people have used chopped up wire coat-hangers, thin screwdrivers, and the wire passing tool which is basically a screwdriver with a hollow tube for a blade that extends through the handle. I myself have tried every one of these remedies but have found a common problem with them all: The sharp metal rods can easily penetrate the delicate rubber hose and sticking out in the middle of the conduit, not to mention the likelihood of slicing a factory wire inside the loom is pretty high. I stumbled upon the perfect solution one day while performing this task having just finished a lunch of Chinese take-out. It suddenly dawned on me that the standard throw-away wooden chopstick is the ideal tool. It is thin and long enough to pass through any conduit, rigid enough to hold its shape when forced through a curved tube, and best of all, dull and fragile enough to not hurt the rubber or wiring. Simply take a single stick, duct tape the wire you want to insert onto it, coat the front with some grease to decrease the friction (I use a little Vaseline rubbed on with a paper towel), insert it into one end of the tube and push it out the other. Grab the exposed tip with a pair of needle-nosed pliers and pull the entire thing through. Often, the pressure of the action will crack the chopstick, rendering it useless, but when it’s free and available by the handful, who cares?

Tip: Throw away chopsticks with their coarse wood have better adhesion surfaces than smooth ones.

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