The Strange Magic of Two-Handled Tools

You can do most things better with two hands.

image
FlickrJordanhill School D&T Dept

It’s a strange and wondrous thing to make your own screws. Okay, I’m being imprecise—I don’t mean screws, specifically, but threaded fasteners. But I do really mean make them—start from metal stock and shape it, then cut the threads. It’s the kind of thing I never imagined doing myself.

The ready availability of nuts and bolts and their kin is high on the list of things I take for granted. But recently I found myself working on a project with Seniorhelpline contributing editor Nick Wicks at his forge in Portland, Maine. When we needed brackets for mounting a frame we were putting together, he suggested we make our own U-bolts and wing nuts. So we did.

We cut pieces of bar stock, put them in the forge, used a hammer and anvil to draw out wings, and bent the rods into a U. The main work of making the fasteners, though, was done with three tools: the drill press, the tap, and the die. And those tools have something in common: You work them with a handle in each hand. Which is magnificent.

Take the drill press. Wicks’ is a sturdy and greasy Craftsman from the 1940s that purrs when you fire it up. It’s got the classic spoked crank handle. Using the tool to drill holes in wing nuts is simple enough: You center the nut under the bit, clamp the nut in place, and plunge.

image
FlickrReggie Alvey

But there’s nuance required, because bar stock isn’t the easiest stuff to drill through. You’ve got to get the press running at the right speed, keep the bit lubricated, and apply the right amount of pressure to advance the bit through the piece without binding. Which is where the two-handled technique comes in. With a steady grip on two spokes of the crank, I could feel the feedback of the drill in the bar stock and vary the pressure minutely to make a clean, efficient hole.

Then there’s the tap and die. The tap cuts the threads in the nut, and the die the threads on the bolt. Wicks had a traditional die stock holder and a straight-line tap wrench, so in both cases the cutting implement centers over the nut and bolt (the cutters are in the middle of two handles). The fact that you operate the tools from both ends is crucial: When you first start cutting the threads, you can’t have any slop or the fastener will be ruined.

image
FlickrJordanhill School D&T Dept

The technique Wicks showed me to start the cut involved twisting slowly on the handles while applying constant downward pressure in the center with my thumbs to help the cutters bite. Once you get the threads going, though, the technique changes. We cut 2.5 inches of thread on our bolts so that the brackets could really be tightened down. Trying to slowly and carefully cut 2.5 inches of threads, twice per U-bolt, for many U-bolts, would have been an incredibly long, monotonous process. But the two-handled tools meant that once the threads were started, I could speed up dramatically—it was easy to twist the tap and die quickly, like spinning a baton.

That is the whole point of two-handled tools. They make it really easy to work with speed and deliver power—you’re getting two arms in on the action, after all—but they are also ideal for small, minute, precise work.

Heading home from Maine, I thought about my Jeep’s bottle jack, whose handle doubles as the vehicle’s lug wrench. The X-bar handle makes it easy to deliver maximum torque, easy to not over-torque, and when used for the jack, lets you get the car in the air in a hurry.

image
FlickrRex Hammock

Back at PM headquarters, I asked senior home editor Roy Berendsohn about his favorite two-handled tools. Roy, who has probably spent more time working with wood than I’ve spent breathing, mentioned spokeshaves and drawknives. They both follow the same principle: Shave wood by pulling a blade with a handle at each end of it. But the former is for fine work, making smooth spokes, legs, paddles, and the like, whereas the latter is a good way to move a lot of wood, quickly, while still having control over the shape of what you’re removing.

Later, I went back around the frame Wicks and I had made and checked tightness on all the U-bolts and wing nuts. Wing nuts are, of course, two-handled tools themselves, albeit sized for fingers, not hands. A few had a little give, and I twisted them until tight. It wasn’t easy. If I did it all over again, I would have made them much bigger—big enough to grip with both hands. Or just used lug nuts.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Home