March 13, 2015

Tools Of the Trade

The best part about Middle School and High School was the shop classes. A room full of power tools, raw materials, and a teacher eager to show you how to put the two together to make stuff. The geeks in the computer room couldn't understand why youdys were getting your hands dirty with the “stupid people”, and the motor-heads in the shop class were wondering what the fuck some nerd from the computer room was doing in the metal shop. Being a modern technological survivalist you ignored them all.

My friend Paul came up from New York City sometime in the seventh grade. I remember our English teacher blowing a fit at the class over some minor issue and seeing him with a bemused look on his face. He was from “The City” and had seen it all before. Compared to the times he had to fight off muggers while walking to and from his old school, a screaming English teacher was entertainment. We were probably the only two in the class who weren't quivering.

Paul was into Ninjitsu. Yea, well it was the 1980s and who wasn't into ninja stuff back in those days with all the movies coming out. Ninja weapons were readily available at flea markets and variety stores of the era, but the cost was prohibitive to our meager budgets and most proprietors weren't going to sell to teenagers lest they invoke the wrath of the law. What was available were our dads' basement workshops where we found you can do a lot with little more than a hacksaw, tin snips, files, and a bench grinder while working from pictures in the books you found in the martial arts section of Waldenbooks at the local shopping mall. We made numchucks and throwing stars that were at least of the same quality as the stuff the flea market at the Baldwin Place Mall sold. Fun times.

Harry, another high school friend and co-conspirator of mine, was into lock picking. Locksmithing tools were available via mail order from places that advertised in Survive and Soldier of Fortune magazines (two must-reads for modern technological survivalists of that era), but thanks to a writer going under the alias “Eddie the Wire” and a publisher called Loompanics you could pick up flat metal stock at the local hobby or hardware store and whip out a functional set of picks for about a tenth of the cost with the same set of tools I used a few years earlier during my ninja weapon phase of my interesting youth. Loompanics now exists only in the memories of technological survivalists old enough to have been there, done that. Fortunately another publisher picked up Eddie's informative work.

Phone phreaking during the mid and late 1980s was hobby that used yet another set of technological skills; this time electronics. Personal computers (and computer hacking) were also coming into vogue at the same time, and basic electronics knowledge was necessary to fix your equipment back then. We all got our ham tickets. Tell someone you're a ham radio operator and you have an automatic excuse for just about any type of weird electronics.

Going over to yet another aspect of modern technological survivalist craft, I had read an article in SWAT magazine (another one old-school types will remember) about a guy who makes his own tactical gear out of materials he finds in the fabric section of Wal-Mart and at fabric stores such as Jo-Anns. With some basic sewing tools and skills you would have picked up at home economics class in middle school (if you went to school the same time I did), he made all sorts of interesting accessories for his Class III weaponry.

After a few classes in leather work, metal shop, and electronics you soon learn that with a good set of tools and the right knowledge you can either modify common off-the-shelf equipment for your specific needs or custom make something for a fraction of what it would normally cost you. This is really the ultimate in survival skills: being able to make your own stuff, and understanding how things work.

The primitive living types are on the right track, but as Wildflower and Jim Teff (two of the most skilled survivalists I've met during my long strange trip here) were fond of saying, “You don't have to make it using stone tools and your bare hands. Use whatever works!” This means any technique from cave-man times right up to the present is valid and should be fully employed whenever feasible. Towards that end, I think the “back to the earth” survivalist types have done serious damage to the movement as a whole. I see the proverbial “forces of evil” using modern technology so if we want to have countermeasures we need to be up to speed as well. End rant.

Probably the closest equivalent to the modern-day technological survivalist would be the Ninja of medieval Japan. In addition to being skilled field operatives, they made a lot of their gear by modifying common items. Tools and raw materials will always be available, and the skill sets required to use both are easily acquired by those willing to put in the effort. Imagine being able to walk into a Wal-Mart, a Radio Shack, and a Home Depot, making a few innocuous purchases, going home, and changing into a real-world version of Batman. Comic book allegories side, it is entirely possible to outfit yourself from common consumer-level off the shelf items.

I was shopping at a couple retail chain stores one night, and decided to try an experiment. I wanted to see if it was possible for a modern-day operative to equip his or her self with gear purchased from common nationwide department and home improvement stores in true Poor Man's James Bond1 fashion. These places are known to cater to the lowest common denominator with both their customers and their employees. Their marketing is aimed at the general dumb Amerikan sheeple consumer. I expected this experiment to be a bit of a challenge based on what I know about these places, and I was a bit surprised to find out it wasn't as hard as I originally thought.

Just what can you find at retail establishments? For starters, you can acquire the ingredients to make one of the holy grails of my youth: black powder. You can buy Pyrodex muzzle-loading propellant (aka “synthetic black powder”) right from the sporting goods section of Wal-Mart, but nothing provides a greater sense of accomplishment and satisfaction than rolling your own. Go right over to the garden section of any decent hardware or agricultural supply store. You will find something labeled “Garden Sulfur”. It is 90% pure Sulfur and will work adequately for any home chemistry experiment you wish to conduct. Then look for stump remover. This is Potassium Nitrate, aka Saltpeter, and will also serve your needs adequately. Even in this day of product liability and “terrorism” concerns you can still buy the components for the planet's oldest explosive right off the shelf.

Perhaps there is hope for Amerika yet? You can actually find the components for much more powerful mixtures if you know what to look for, but I will leave it up to you to do the necessary research should you feel it necessary to do so. Home improvement and local hardware stores contain enough neat stuff for a small dedicated band of brothers (and sisters) to take over most third-world countries. I wouldn't be fond of becoming a benevolent (or even malevolent) despot and having to deal with the whining and petulant demands of an entire population of second-handers, but to each their own I guess.

That doesn't mean you'll be able to walk into a Wally-World wearing BDU pants, combat boots, and your "Kill a Commie for Mommy" t-shirt and have a friendly knowledgeable sales clerk assist you with your tradecraft shopping needs. Chances are the only reaction you'll get from the sales clerk would be a call to 911 as the news coverage of all those shopping center shootings hits his atrophied brain like a junkie's hit, and he automatically assumes the tactically-dressed gentlemen walking up to him wants to be the evening's top story on CNN. It's a brave new world out there, and the modern technological survivalist needs a different approach.

It is true that today you can pretty much order anything you want online and get it in a few days. That is all fine and good, but you are missing out on a lot by doing so and also committing a gross personal security violation by linking purchases to you. For the most part, retail purchases done with cash are totally anonymous, especially when you apply a little basic tradecraft and you remain in the sales clerk's eyes one of the faceless anonymous public that he or she deals with day in and day out. Knowing what you can find and where is handy when you need something on short notice.

You must start by knowing that unless you are one of the rare ones who is blessed with a mentor you are truly out on your own, a veritable army of one. There are web sites and books that may help you, but your preparations should truly be kept to yourself and you will have to ultimately rely on your own judgment. This is but one of the first steps on a long journey and if you cannot make the relatively simple decision of what personal equipment to purchase then you won't be of much use in the long run.

You've seen the type before. They read through hundreds of product reviews on the Internet, ask the same questions numerous times on every forum they frequent, and despite having a wealth of information available to them still cannot make a simple yes or no decision. I made a rather humorous observation at a gun show recently. There is this local survivalist whom Vivian christened “Neuro John”, a combination of his psychological condition and first name. This guy used to ask twenty questions about what survival gear to buy, dance around with the fanciest excuses to delay his purchases, and then come up with the same twenty questions again because some Mickey Mouse Rambo Ranger posted up contradictory information on a web site. We saw him at a gun show once walking around like he was on Thorazine displaying absolutely zero situational awareness of anything. While doing this he was missing all the stuff he would continually ask about. Do not be like Neuro John.

Your first task is a simple one. You are to proceed to a nearby retail chain and observe your fellow shoppers. Look at how they dress. Look at how they act. When making your acquisitions you will want to dress and act exactly like them. By doing this you will become invisible. One fashion trend that has become useful for the operative is the indoor wearing of baseball caps. Observe what your fellow shoppers wear and acquire one of the same. Local favorite professional (and college) sports teams and NASCAR are generally the most popular. Wear your baseball cap with the brim forward as they were intended to be worn. Generally speaking, the wearing of baseball caps backwards or sideways is only acceptable among certain urban youth known to have a penchant for criminal activity. This is not a group that you want to be misidentified as. Wearing the brim forward also serves a specific security and OPSEC function. With your head titled slightly downward indicative of a weakened posture that is common these days, much if not all of your face will be concealed from the ceiling-mounted surveillance cameras commonly encountered in retail establishments. Remember these four simple rules that will help you out immensely in your quest to get you kit and workshop together. Memorize and heed them well:

  • Look normal.

  • Act discrete.

  • Know the mundane purpose of your purchases.

  • Pay cash.

Adapting or “kit-bashing” your trade craft equipment will require you to receive a working education in a wide variety of fields: electronics, computers, chemistry, basic industrial shop, arts and crafts are all very useful. You will also want to acquire a working collection of tools as well. For all this you will need a place where you can meditate and work on projects unmolested. It is essential to have a space specifically set aside for working on projects. You don't want to constantly disassemble and put away a work in progress because it's dinner time and your family needs the kitchen table. The most important aspects of a workshop involve isolation and sacred space. You are setting aside a location for the specific purpose of working on projects and general contemplation. The act of going into a sacred space enables the individual to achieve a certain state of mind conducive to one's work, and be free of distractions while working. In essence one is putting aside the mundane for a period of time and entering a different state of being and a different reality.

Many artist-types and modern-day dropouts in urban areas have found inexpensive loft (or is that l0pht ) space in old factories that have been subdivided into multiple rental units. These spaces offer an inexpensive place where they can work and sometimes live. I prefer more compartmentalization and would rather keep my sleeping space and work space in separate locations. Rent the least expensive small apartment or a room where you basically keep a bed and clothes, and have the rest of your stuff at a commercial location where you can work on projects. The best cover business would be that of a consultant or artist/artisan-type. Pick something that is vague-sounding, a good explanation for having all sorts of odd stuff around, and requires no licensing from the local regime.

Those of you who already have mortgages and possibly families will probably have to settle for setting up in a basement, attic space, or backyard shed. Thanks to magazines such as Make2, the DIY handyman thing is coming back into vogue, so as long as you keep up the appearance of a simple tinkerer and keep the noise level down (No testing of home brew Acetone Peroxide and audio shock wave generators in the back yard!)3, you shouldn't attract negative attention from the neighbors. Should your workshop be at your residence, you would preferably want it in some out of the way place where a casual visitor wouldn't notice it.

Books can get to be expensive and take up a lot of space, especially when it comes to technical books. Enter used bookstores. You should put together a list of all the used bookstores within reasonable driving distance in your area and frequent them regularly. You will also find certain mail-order sources such as Lindsay Publications4 to be extremely useful. The Internet is also another source of material, and an entire library can be stuffed in PDF format on a CD-ROM or USB stick. Digging through all of the fluff on the Net to find the good stuff takes time and superb search engine skills. For those of you who are fortunate enough to find copies, the Doomsday Disks put out by Wildflower LTD contain some of the best technological survival information gleaned from the Internet.

The two essential technical books that belong on every bookshelf are the ARRL Handbook for Radio Communications and the Machinery's Handbook. One covers electronics, and the other covers machining. Both of these new will cost you about $150. Look for a used copy of an earlier edition at your local second-hand bookstore. I find used recent editions of the ARRL handbook all the time at hamfests, and towards the end of the year ham radio stores always have a clearance sale on the previous year's edition, typically offering them for 50% off regular price. The Machinery's Handbook is a little harder to come by as their users tend to hold on to them. I've seen some rather well-used 10 year-old copies still being regularly consulted in machine shops.

Going through the science/technical and computer sections of any bookstore will net you any number of books that resonate with you. When I was younger, a significant portion of my funds went towards book purchases. That was long before the Internet. A lot of techie knowledge is now available online for free download, if your Google-Fu is up to the task of finding it. This is a good thing because gives you more money for buying tools and hardware. However, if you find a book that really resonates with you, one that you know is a must-have, then support the author's efforts and buy it, even if there is an online version available or the information is available online.

There are a few books that I've found to be particularly good, and therefore worth adding to the library in physical form. The Evil Genius series of books published by McGraw Hill contain a lot of useful projects and information. Many of the titles in the series have material of direct interest. The MAKE: Projects series published by O'Reilly are another library staple. Two titles in that series that stand out are Making Things Talk and Small Form-Factor PCs.

If you live near any small to medium sized city, there is probably a plethora of local sources to check out. Back in the days before the Internet, I sat down with a copy of the local Yellow Pages to compile a list. I lived at the extreme north of the LATA, and missed some neat places in the LATA north of me before acquiring its phone books. I also learned of many cool places via word of mouth from fellow modern technological survivalists.

Yellow page-type searches are now a lot easier with the Internet, and getting a list of every Army/Navy store (or other place) within fifty miles is now a trivial task. The hard part is finding which places are good. You may find some reviews on the information superhighway, but for the most part you will have to resort to the real-world blacktop highway. So go hit the bricks and have an adventure in non-virtual reality. When compiling a local source list for future investigation, you want to look for the following in your area:

  • Army/Navy stores

  • Ag stores (ie. Agway)

  • Bookstores, especially used bookstores

  • Department stores such as Wal-Mart and Target

  • Dollar stores

  • Electronic and computer stores

  • Goodwill and Salvation Army Stores

  • Ham/CB shops

  • Hardware stores

  • Hobby/Craft stores

  • Home improvement stores (Home Depot, etc.)

  • Industrial/Electronic surplus

  • Odd lot/Job lot stores

You will also want to keep track of the following transient sources:

  • Book sales

  • Gun shows

  • Tag sales and flea markts

  • Dumpster diving

Dumpster diving is a topic that always generates some interesting discussions among technofreaks and survivalist types. Back in my younger phone phreak and survivalist days, dumpster diving was considered the way to get interesting telco documents, find interesting technology, and extend your limited budget by re-purposing a whole spectrum of cast-off items. While some people do have better “luck” with dumpster diving than others, the two major factors towards dumpster diving success are location and items of interest. Dumpster diving has better results in urban and industrial areas. Suburban areas with curbside pickup can also yield good finds. Unless you're looking in an industrial park, you are more likely to find consumer electronics and low-tech items than you would high-tech and industrial electronics. Keep your eyes open during trash day, and do research on local industrial and office parks to see if stuff you're interested in might get thrown out there.

My best sources of material have always army/navy stores, hamfests and second-hand stores such as Goodwill. I have found all sorts electronics: high-tech from hamfests, mostly low-tech from Goodwill, and occasionally some really interesting items from the army/navy stores. Rugged outdoor military surplus clothing is a staple of any army/navy store, and is not uncommon at Goodwill. Hamfests are often a good source of various tools, although when I'm in need of something specific and need it right away the local hardware and home improvement stores are very handy. Sometimes you can find surplus milsurp (and therefore mil-spec) tools at the local army/navy store. Usually it's limited to knives and multi-tools.

You will need a good set of hand tools. I recommend a country of manufacture other than China. My preference is Klein. They are still made in the USA, and can handle serious abuse. Older American-made tools found at second-hand stores are also a good option. Unless totally abused previously, they will still have many years of life left in them. Some Crescent and Craftsman tools are still made in the USA. You will have to check carefully. Kobalt is another American-made tool brand, and is available at reasonable prices. Other countries known for quality tools are Germany, Switzerland, and Japan. Taiwan might be an option as well, as often the steel is Japanese in origin.

My friend Wildflower has a different opinion on tools. He buys inexpensive tools in quantity from odd-lot/job-lot stores. While the quality may not be at the same level as Klein, it is still adequate for most purposes and price allows one to purchase extras for back-up purposes, secondary tool kits, and caching. He is also a fan of small multi-purpose tools that can fit on a key ring or in a small pouch-type kit. Besides the usual Leatherman, Gerber, SOG, et. al. multi-tools, there are numerous “no name” styles that you find at hardware, automotive and odd-lot/job-lot stores. One of the best online sources I've found for unique hand tools for small kits is County Comm5, who is the distributor of the excellent Maratac Extreme brand of tactical nylon gear.

Once you start getting together a collection of tools, you will need tool chests and tool bags to put them in. The adage that you can never have too many tools also applies to tool chests and tool bags. What you decide to use is up to you, preferably based on the practicalities of your work environment. Most beginners pick up an inexpensive tool-box on sale from Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Lowes, or the ever popular odd-lot/job-lot stores and start with that. When my quantity of work tools became too big to just have them loose in a backpack, I visited my local Army/Navy store and bought a milsurp canvas tool bag to put them in. Shortly thereafter the collection moved up to a larger heavy-duty plastic toolbox.

If you have very limited space at home, or do your work at a nearby hackerspace then a portable toolbox might be good for you. I recently saw a Stanley brand 46 compartment Tool Organizer XL on sale at one of the usual retail sources. It's about the size of one of those old-school catalog cases, and contains enough room for a respectable set of hand tools, spare electronics parts, and smaller works-in-progress. It would be perfect to work out of at a local hackerspace or communal workshop environment. Another neat idea for portable tool storage and transport is the Paktek Tool-Pak backpack-style tool bag. The Tool-Pak is made out of heavy duty Cordura nylon and costs as much as any other high-end backpack or tool box, but the amount of storage capacity it has is incredible. Going down in price, but not in quality, many technological enthusiasts with an adventurer slant have been extremely satisfied using the various models of utility bags made by Maratac Extreme and sold by County Comm.

Your home workshop is going to be a different story. Unless you are really limited with space, you will want your most-used tools within immediate and easy reach of your work area, and the rest conveniently stored nearby. Many techies mount a pegboard on the back of their workbench and use either j-hooks or magnetic bars to hang their commonly-used tools for easy access. The remainder of their tools are stored in nearby tool chests. Frequently-consulted technical books are also on a shelf nearby. Your workbench should be as big as your space allows. While workbenches can be purchased from the usual retail sources, they are expensive and can be built from scrounged items for much less. The easiest way is to use an old solid-core door on top of two filing cabinets of equal height. For a smaller space, old student desks or even a small kitchen table will also work well.

Going beyond a good set of hand tools, I would recommend getting a quality cordless drill, bench grinder, and Dremel Tool with every bit you could conceivably have a need for. Dremel Tools are the Swiss Army Knife of small power tools. If you are working on any electronics stuff, a good multimeter and 25-30 watt soldering iron will also be essential. Small table-top lathes have come down in price to where they are affordable to a techie on a budget, and are useful for fabricating many types of small parts. At a slightly higher cost are the combination lathe/milling machines which are even more versatile.


  1. I like it, a lot.
    As a matter of fact, I would really like to see you stretch this out and expand on it.
    There is some excellent info here.
    You will get a chuckle out of this, apparently I wasn't the only one failing miserably at the GoogleFu trying to find the Doomsday Disks, the very first return was for someone else looking for them quoting your article directly.

    I struck out there.

    Some of the other stuff I can find easily enough but your knowledge of how it fits together makes it worth expanding on in my opinion.

    Thanks for writing it!


  2. Channellock is made in PA. Knipex is my favorite brand though, made in Germany.