Like many men, I like tools. I spent 23 years in the military, and when you move a lot, weight becomes an issue. It makes you think about the tools you own, and the things that you want to carry around with you. Just like a traveling businessman, you tend to pack light and only take what you will use. Now that I have retired and settled down, my tool collection has grown, but still remains relatively small. Just so you know I live in the suburbs, not a country retreat.
I mention this background, to make a point about the tools you may own, and contrast them with the tools that you actually use. A person should acquire tools that are useful, not just own every tool known to man. I will borrow a tool if I need it, but if I need to borrow a tool more than once or twice, I should probably own it.
To me, this is a form of self-reliance. A person should own the things they need. I am all about community and working together, but self-reliance is important for a community. If a neighbor needs a ride to the store, I am happy to help them out. If a neighbor needs a ride to the store every day for a month, they are obviously not self-reliant, they are dependent. A community with a majority of self-reliant people is much stronger than a community with a majority of dependent people. We all have a responsibility to keep from being overly dependent.
It is my strong opinion that knowing how to use hand tools is vital. This is especially important in the event of a long term societal disruption. I leave it up to you to decide what this may be, based on your own situation and environment. From the standpoint of the information presented here, I will assume this to be a grid down, no outside assistance event where shelter, food stores, and water are available.
With this situation in mind, I am discounting the use of power tools. I like power tools as much as the next guy, but they are not reasonable in a situation like this. Battery powered tools are also not viable in my opinion. Their long term use is limited and the power to recharge them (solar) could be better used elsewhere. I like power tools, but I also have, and know how to use hand tools. If I can work, hand tools will work.
The main focus for The End of the World as We Know It (TEOTWAWKI) tools is to have tools on hand that cannot be readily made. For the purpose of brevity, I will cover some basic essential tools mainly dealing with wood. I do this for the simple reason that wood will be readily available in almost any TEOTWAWKI situation. Wood can be gathered from fences, trees in your yard or park, or even demolished or abandoned buildings. (Don’t loot. Get permission to scrounge, or barter.) Wood is not only available, but also versatile, durable and reasonably easy to work with.
The first tool I recommend is a single man crosscut saw. I am not talking the kind you find in a hardware store for cutting a two by four. I am talking an early to mid-1900s saw from 30” to 48” inches in length with large teeth from ½” to 1” long. They have a traditional “C” handle on one end, with another upright handle that can be moved to the opposite end if desired. They can be used by either 1 or 2 people and can cut logs up to about 2 feet in diameter.
You may ask, “Why do I need that?” The reason is that your chainsaw will only work as long as you have gasoline. Chainsaws are loud and tell everyone you have gasoline (probably not very much for very long). What happens when your gas runs out? Gathering twigs and breaking wood to build a fire will only work for so long. Sooner or later you will need larger amounts of wood to cook, purify water, and keep warm.
Another invaluable tool is an axe. An axe is useful for splitting wood, kindling, and limbing trees. I use it with non-metallic felling wedges to split small diameter wood for creating long tool handles. It can also be used as a weapon in a desperate situation. I prefer a single bit axe with a hickory handle. The wood handle is easier to replace than fiberglass or other material.
The next tool I recommend is a good set of files. Be sure to have round, half round, and bastard files of various sizes. With files you can keep your saw and axe sharp. They are also extremely useful for creating other tools from metal. If you do not have any files, it will be extremely difficult (nearly impossible) to make them yourself.
Every household needs to have a shovel, rake and hoe. These are the basic essential tools for gardening. There is not much to explain here. A shovel is useful for sanitation purposes. There will be no garbage man and your toilet will eventually stop working even if you are able to collect water to flush it manually. You can also make a fire pit, for those without a fireplace.
An often overlooked item is a bucket. Actually you should have several EMPTY buckets. You don’t want to dump out your wheat so you can go collect some water. The 5 gallon plastic ones are durable and nest together for easy storage. Make sure they have the handles and get lids for several of them. If you have to haul water, put the lid on. There is no sense spilling water on the trip back from a pond. Buckets are good for transporting items you forage, hauling dirt, rocks, fertilizer or whatever. They make a good collector for scraps to add to your compost pile.
My next recommendation is a drawknife. A drawknife is very useful in shaping wood. I use mine a lot when making handles for tools. It is efficient, and with a little practice wood shaping goes very quickly. You can shape wood with a knife, but it takes a lot more time with poorer results. Drawknife shavings make excellent tinder.
Another uncommon tool these days is a brace drill with bits. This is also a tool that will be nearly impossible to make. It is important to have the square shank bits designed for the low speed application of a brace drill. The modern round bits will slip in the brace drill. Being able to drill holes in wood will be important for any wood based construction once the nails run out. Drill a hole. Carve a peg. Join some wood.
The follow up to the brace drill is a hand drill. These come in various sizes, but I typically only use the smaller ones for smaller precision holes. They can be held steadier, and thus not break the smaller drill bits. This is good for starting a pilot hole in the ends of boards to prevent splitting when driving a peg, nail or screw. Sometimes you just need a small hole for a rawhide loop in a handle. It may take time, but you could also drill a hole in metal using modern drill bits designed for metal.
Next is a set of bar clamps. Working with wood can be a challenge if it is moving all over the place. With a decent set of 3 or 4 clamps, (I like the quick clamps, but any bar type clamp will do), you can clamp your work to any table, bench, chair, or even a tree. This will help to keep it stable as you saw, drill or use the drawknife. Clamps reduce the manpower needed for a task, freeing someone to perform other vital tasks in a survival situation.
The final four tools on the list are not absolutely needed. They start the trip down the unending path of “nice to have” tools. It is almost certain that every person who reads this can and will expand on the list. We all have tools we feel are indispensable. By all means include those tools in your kit or preposition them so you can travel light to your bug out location.
A coping saw and extra blades is the first addition. This may seem like a luxury, and it may be in most situations, but what happens if the handle on the crosscut saw breaks? You could possibly carve a crude handle, but chances are it would not be very effective. A coping saw will allow you to cut shapes in minutes that would take hours to carve. If you take into account how small and lightweight the saw is, and the value that small package brings, I believe it is worth it.
Next is a hammer/mallet and chisels. I like a mallet, but a hammer would do just as well. You could substitute a hatchet for more multipurpose functionality, but it is unwieldy to use with chisels. Chisels can make certain work much easier. They are mostly used in more precise furniture making, but they have other applications. It would be much easier to fashion a wooden bowl with a chisel than with any tool previously mentioned.
My next tool is a sawbuck. If you are not familiar, a sawbuck is essentially two or three large X’s joined together with some cross braces. It is used to hold small to moderate logs enabling a person to work at waist level or higher. Just look up “sawbuck” on Wikipedia if you still do not understand. I use mine a lot. I clamp wood in it while using the drawknife or to drill, and I saw wood in it constantly. It will save your back, even with a chainsaw.
The final tool I like to have is a standard hand saw. A hand saw is easier to use than the crosscut saw, and virtually anyone can utilize it. They cut clean and reasonably straight and they are much better to use with lumber. You can cut small branches with them if you need to.
Four of these tools will not usually be found at your local hardware store. The crosscut saw, the drawknife, the brace drill and bits, and the hand drill. If they are at a typical hardware store, be wary before buying them. You will not be happy with the “Made in China” quality any modern look alike will typically bring you. Search your local flea markets and low end antique stores. Estate sales and Craigslist are also good places to look. Do not buy without physically looking at and inspecting these items.
I was able to purchase a drawknife at a low end antique shop for $30. It was a model from the early 1900’s and had a slight rust patina, but the edge was sharp. The cutting edge is the most important aspect. Look for no nicks or signs of improper or excessive sharpening. I cleaned mine with some 800 grit emery cloth and WD-40. You can find these new at some reputable woodworking stores, but they can be very expensive ($100 and up).
I picked up my crosscut saw through craigslist for $25 paired with a couple of other saws. It was rusty, had one broken handle and the other handle was a crude replacement, but it had all the hardware. I made new handles and restored the blade by sanding with 150 grit sandpaper, then 220 grit emery cloth with WD-40. Surface rust is okay, but saws with large flaking rust spots or excessive pitting should be avoided. The blade could break under stress. A fully restored saw could cost upwards of $100 or more. Do a little research and be picky.
I purchased a brace drill and hand drill for $2 each at an estate sale. Make sure they rotate freely without excessive noise. Be sure the chuck loosens and tightens freely (many don’t). The drill bits can be hard to come by used. Most have some surface rust which is okay, but they should only have surface rust (no deep pitting) and be reasonably sharp. In my area bits can range from $.50 to $5 each depending on length, size and condition. You can find bits new with reasonable quality on the Internet. [JWR Adds: They are best purchased in sets, to get a good price.]
Once you acquire your tools, start using them. Start with a couple of easy projects. One of the first projects I completed was a mallet. I used a piece of oak firewood for the head and a walnut branch for the handle. I shaped them with the drawknife, until I was reasonably pleased with the result. The first thing I learned was that it was a lot harder to do than I thought it would be. I also learned how to use the drawknife more efficiently. It is very cool to use a tool you make by hand. I really liked the price also, free. Linseed oil is great for a finish and preservation.
In selecting the tools listed above, I examined the needs of early settlers. What did they need to survive? What did they need to carve out an existence without electricity? I did not include farming, blacksmithing, mechanic or other specialty tools. Those tools certainly have a place in a self-sufficient household, but start with the basics. The tools I selected reflect the needs of an early homestead. The tools you pick could decide your fate. Always acquire quality tools. Cheap tools will fail, and if that happens, then so do you.