(Bit of an update in early 2014 – lots of changes! Since writing this, I have built a mobile lab that really needs to be an eBook one of these days, and am now working on the transition from my sailboat to a big mothership.)

Maintaining an effective shop aboard a boat is profoundly different than doing so on land.  For one thing, assuming the boat is of normal cruising scale and not a ship, we can start by forgetting the luxuries.  A big rolling stainless toolbox, nice contractor-grade table saw, drill press attached to the concrete floor, rack of power tools, vast library of bits and blades, big honkin’ Wilton vise bolted to a heavy bench… all those go away.  Instead we have to make do with tools that can be stowed in small places; even with a dedicated workbench area, space is tight.  That’s the first problem.  I tried keeping everything in roll-ups in a tool drawer aboard Nomadness, though that orderly look did not last long:

Nomadness tool drawer

But it gets worse.  Due to space (and weight) constraints, there’s little room for redundancy and things need to be multi-functional whenever possible.  The corrosive air will make short work of expensive bits, requiring ongoing maintenance.  Fixturing is a problem.  Yet this miniature shop has to be even better organized than the one at home; when you need to deal with a problem right now, certain tools have to be findable in a dark pitching boat (possibly while you’re scared, injured, or queasy).

This is not an article about how to do all this; that is a function of huge variables including type of boat, geekiness, attention to maintenance, budget, passions, skills, and the amount of allowable overlap into general accommodations. Everyone’s needs are different, and some sailors can get by with a tool bag and Leatherman while others really do need a dedicated shop cabin, complete with arc-welder.

The topic here is simply a sampling of tools I have found that really work… ones that hold up to the harsh environment, solve problems neatly, feel good in the hand, or are so well made that they will probably outlast me.  It is certainly not an exhaustive catalog of what you should carry, and I’m not going to waste time talking about the poor choices.  This is a story about the good stuff.

I should preface this by saying that developing a suite of tools is an ongoing process, and is of course highly subjective.  It is based on recommendations from experts, online research, and my own experience.  I welcome comments and suggestions; these are some of the tools that I most appreciate on board Nomadness, but I am sure that some of the more pedestrian items not mentioned here are just waiting to be replaced by gems I have yet to discover.

So… in no particular order, here are some of the boat tools I have come to appreciate the most.

Brady ID Pal

I went a little overboard when I bought this, stocking up on ten label cartridges of various flavors to accommodate cabling, controls, stowage, and even deck features.  Mostly I use it for cabling and attaching ID numbers to devices that are keyed to my ship-systems database… and I couldn’t be more delighted.

These are so useful that I have one for the boat and another for the lab.  The user interface is slightly arcane at first, but it’s quick to generate a label, the adhesive is strong, and the graphics are crisp.  Anytime I identify a cable or hose, I slap a label on it, and it is already making life a little easier (the ones to use for wiring are 3/4″ cloth, part number PAL-750-499).  2011 update: Apparently this model is no longer being made, but there are lots of newer products from this and other companies (Brother and Dymo come to mind).

NMEA2000 Labeling

Megapro Stainless Screwdriver

It doesn’t seem like a big deal; I mean, we all have lots of screwdrivers, right?  But this is the one I always reach for… bit-changing action is smooth and crisp, they stay locked snugly in place, and it comes with square-drive (4 sizes) in addition to the normal phillips/flat/spline stuff!  Since my boat is Canadian, this is a life-saver (and I find myself choosing Robertson heads for new hardware more and more).  The thing is just plain well-thought-out, and feels good in the hand to boot… can’t beat that.  Highly recommended.

They are available on Amazon or direct from the manufacturer.

Stainless Steel Wrenches

One could argue that ya gotta draw the line somewhere… that fancy expensive wrenches sink just as fast as cheap ones, so what’s the point in breaking the bank with top-of-the-line stuff?  Of course, you can minimize the sinking issue by using tethers when up the mast or hanging over the side, and besides, most uses are not in such precarious places but in more pedestrian zones like under the sink and in the engine room.

But corrosion, now that’ll get ya. Rust never sleeps, and when it comes to tools it is a slow death.  Here’s a hammer someone left in a bilge for too long, just to make tool-lovers cringe:

Bilge Hammer

Stainless is not perfect… it comes in many flavors, some better than others, and it’s not as hard as some other kinds of steel.  You certainly would not want to use it for drill bits.  But for some things, it’s perfect… which brings me to the Nautitool line.

These are insanely expensive, and I was fortunate to get mine over a decade ago when my girlfriend of the epoch had an employee discount at West Marine… back when they carried such things.  I have the 7″ adjustable wrench (model #10227) and the 8″ curved-jaw locking pliers (#10029).  Both are superb, and I wouldn’t mind having more from this company (though at hundreds of dollars each, it could get to be a very expensive habit… they sell to companies with process equipment in clean rooms, where money is no object).   I don’t know of any discount sources, but there is an online store at Steritool.

Speaking of corrosion-resistant wrenches, though, a much more modest investment that will pay off in short order is the gold-plated set of Bondhus ball-end drivers (English and Metric from Amazon). This is not as gratuitous as it sounds… my original ones are getting rusty; these are still as shiny as they were when I took them aboard.

By the way, if you’re stocking an on-board tool chest, you might want to pick up some Corrosion-X.

Link Tools Locking Sockets

Here’s another thing that looks like a bit of an extravagance… a $180 socket set.  Yah, I know.  But I have asked a few people who work in precarious places, like swinging on a bosun’s chair or straddling a hot diesel, if they have ever had a socket pop off the end of a wrench.  The answer is always a wince and a chuckle.

Apparently, so the lore goes, this happened in a military tank with somewhat disastrous results, and the Army requested bids for sockets that wouldn’t fall off. That led to this product line, which I have to admit is pretty slick.  It’s not just a one-trick pony, either; they feel solid and work extremely well.  The manufacturer is Link Tools and they have an online store (you can buy the handles and use your existing sockets if you want; I just happened to need the 41-piece 3/8″ drive set for the boat anyway since my left-overs were such a hodge-podge of random quality, with many missing). The box adds way too much packaging overhead, but I’ll make a fabric pouch when I have a moment.

The Vise

Ya just can’t live without a vise, and in my home lab I have six of them… plus various other fixturing widgets.  No such luck on the boat; I don’t even have room to keep one permanently attached to a work surface! This is a problem.

I would generally suggest finding the biggest and best one that fits, even if it has to be stowed.  That’s what’s needed for the big stuff like pipe and sheet-metal hacking, wailing on stuck fittings, impromptu carpentry, flaring tubing, and so on.  I haven’t chosen one of that scale yet, but am already feeling the need.

One little one that I do have and love, though, is the Stanley MaxSteel Multi-Angle Vise.   It’s a bit of a lightweight and certainly won’t stand up to heavy hammering, but it can be set to any angle, has removable soft jaws, and clamps nicely in the companionway or on the salon table.  I trot it out whenever I need to hacksaw, drill, or otherwise have my way with things that don’t call for the macho stuff.

Stanley multi-angle vise

Cordless Drill Set

Ah, now we come to one of my favorites. When I started working on the boat, I hauled my almost-new 18V Hitachi Ni-MH cordless drill back and forth, endlessly annoyed at the almost nonexistent battery life and general wimpiness.  It finally got bad enough that I spent a few hours researching, and took a chance on the latest LXT series from Makita (I had used one of their old 9.6-volt drills for years and came to trust the name).

I’m stunned.  This is an order of magnitude better than anything else I’ve used… the Li-Ion batteries have astonishing life, especially given their weight.  The motors are muscular, the chucks tight and responsive, the usability design excellent.  One friend says the drill and driver are redundant, but I don’t find that to be the case; they are both highly optimized.  The reciprocating saw is a lifesaver when needed, but is finding most use in shore forays for fuel to feed the ship’s Little Cod wood stove. The flashlight, well, I’m sure it will be handy at some point, but I haven’t used it yet, favoring instead my amazing Fenix TK45 triple-head LED unit. There are lots of  Makita Combos on Amazon that include circular saws, bandsaws, angle grinders, and other good stuff – pictured below is the relatively modest LXT407 that I selected (though I already want a matching jigsaw and a few other things):


Makita LXT407

The immediate question, of course, was what drill bits to get.  My haphazard collection from the lab, stressed and scrambled by decades of projects and other people, was just not a good source for a reliable set on a boat with lots of projects.  I finally accepted the inevitable and picked up the highly rated Milwaukee 29-piece cobalt set… and they are the best I’ve ever used.  Coupled with the Starrett 18B automatic center punch and a nice set of driver bits, I’m ready to deal with wood, aluminum, and steel…. and the Milwaukee right-angle drive is absolutely essential.

Milwaukee Cobalt Bits Starrett Automatic Centerpunch

More to Come

I’ve barely scratched the surface here, and I’ll be updating this page at random intervals as other tools earn my trust (or if I change my mind about anything above).  I hope at least some of my recommendations help a few folks with the selection process… you live with these things very intimately for years and really come to depend on them; what seems like a huge price difference up front can amortize out to almost zero over time.

Electronics Tool Kits

Finally, if you are setting up a lab aboard (or at home, for that matter), I have a couple of nice kits for sale, put together by the fine folks at Sparkfun.

Cheers from Nomadness!


7 thoughts on “Tools”

  1. Website badly neglected! Using MS Frontpage to hosted site, but considering Blogger or some other free service. I don’t know the product that you are using. I’d appreciate any advice that you care to give.

    You didn’t mention in your tools list an angle grinder. I don’t use mine a lot, but with flapper disks, etc it sure helps keeping the (ever-present) rust at bay. It also came in handy when we were dismasted and had to cut it away. Fired up the inverter and cut through those stays like hot knife through butter. Another tool that I’ve used more times than I can remember is Mr Dremmel (he deserves respect) with small grinding stones, cut-off wheels, small drills …

    It sure can be an expensive exercise tooling up, particularly for one-offs that you just gotta have. In that case, say 24″ stilsons, I’ll go with the cheap Chinese jobs. It’s usually is a case of ‘you get what you pay for’ and in the long run its cheaper and less frustrating.

    “Meridian of Sydney”
    Miri Marina, Borneo

    1. Ah, indeed. I’m not quite as much of a WD-40 fan as most folks, mostly because it is so often misused as a universal lubricant, but properly applied it is indeed handy stuff. Your comment reminds me that I should do a similar piece on “favorite goo” as well as “favorite emergency fixturing items.” Cheers!

    1. Thanks for catching it! Yes, I wish obsolete product pages could just be redirected to a more welcoming page… wouldn’t be that hard to do with CMS tools.

      1. Agreed!

        BTW, I bought a magapro stainless screwdriver which arrived a couple of days ago. I noticed that it has a nut like piece at the top of the shaft which I’d assume is there so you can attach a spanner and gain leverage, but on mine it rotates so no leverage possible. Is yours like that?


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