Everybody ends up working alone at some point, whether by choice or by circumstance. For me, it's a choice. I like working solo and to my standards, and using the right mix of tools makes me even more efficient and capable when jobs get tough. While none of the tools below is brand new, each makes working alone a quicker, more accurate, and more profitable proposition.
I use the RoboToolz Torpedo 3 (formerly the RT-3610-3) dot laser for more than shooting level and square–I use it to replace helpers. Foundation and framing layout is typically a two-person job, but with the Torpedo 3, I can work alone, which gives me the control to lay out projects to my tolerances at my pace. Further, I don't have to jump through the hoops of lining up, managing, and paying someone.
I max out the laser's level function for foundations, either shooting grade (if I'm building the foundation myself) or leveling the sill plate if it's been poured and I'm framing the structure. Its squaring function is also a time and hassle saver for me because it precludes a helper. The function is ideal for squaring freestanding foundations for garages and outbuildings where there is nothing to measure from for reference points. I can square a foundation in about 15 minutes for a detached garage or outbuilding. Wrestling with my tape and pulling diagonals is long gone. So too is wrestling with helpers when they don't get it.
RoboToolz. Torpedo 3 (formerly RT-3610-3): $89. 800-984-0404. www.robotoolz.com.
One of the first lessons I learned as a young carpenter's helper was that wood is rarely straight. The traditional way to handle this problem requires two people: One person muscles the piece into place while a second fastens it. This grunt-and-strain method works great when you're young and working with a crew, but when you're middle-aged and working alone, it's a different story.
My favorite remedy for this is the BoWrench from Cepco Tool. The tool has two 5/8-by-2-inch prongs that wedge tightly on the sides of a joist or stud when pressure is applied. These hold the tool in place while you rotate the handle to push the material forward. Once rotated past the halfway point, the tool locks in place so you can let go and fasten the work. The BoWrench was designed primarily to force curved deck boards to straighten up and lie right, but it's also excellent for persuading T&G boards into place. In fact, I use mine mainly for installing T&G floor sheathing solo.
The basic BoWrench sells for $59. An optional nylon cam that accepts the tongue on T&G plywood, boards, or decking material to protect the tongue from damage during installation goes for about $19.
Cepco Tool Co. BoWrench: $59. 800-466-9626. www.cepcotool.com.
I admit it, I like clamps. While I have about a hundred of them, they all share common characteristics: They don't charge by the hour, they don't complain when they have to hold things in place–even for days–and, unlike a screw or a nail, they don't leave a hole. Though bar clamps are often the handiest for solo building and remodeling, run-of-the-mill bar clamps can be difficult to adjust and tighten with one hand, which makes for some seriously frustrating moments. The heavy-duty Bessey PowerGrip clamps (the 12-inch PG4.012 and the 24-inch PG4.024) don't have that problem.
After quickly advancing the jaw with the hand lever until the clamp is snug on the material, you can use the screw and apply some serious pressure. I like how the lever works: It can be squeezed toward the screw handle or toward the bar to advance the jaw–very handy.
I use the PowerGrips everywhere I need to hold material precisely level or plumb, like setting up batter boards, wall braces, and story poles. They're also great for attaching brackets and materials to vertical and overhead surfaces like when building decks, framing eaves and rakes, and building the soffit above cabinets. There are cheaper one-handed bar clamps on the market, but I've found them too light-duty for my work. The PowerGrip is comparatively expensive, but worth every extra penny.
Bessey Tools North America. PowerGrip bar clamps: $60–$65. 800-828-1004. www.besseyclamps.com.
The T-JAK from Patterson Avenue Tool Co. replaces cleats, site-built stands, and the typical lift-and-strain techniques required for muscling cabinets and drywall into place. It sits on a wide, stable base that enables me to raise or lower material along the overall height of the jack in a controlled and precise manner. The adjustment knob slides easily up or down the rod, allowing for quick adjustments. My T-JAK TJ104 Cabinet Tool paid for itself with the first kitchen I installed by myself. It shines anywhere you need a temporary stand or press. I even used it to install the range hood.
T-JAKs comes in three inexpensive configurations–any one of which is a Great Gadget on its own: The T-JAK TJ104 Cabinet Tool, which extends from 53 inches to 84 inches; the TJ104D Cabinet and Drywall Tool (which is the basic cabinet tool plus a 2-foot extension) that extends from 53 inches to 108 inches and is great for holding wallboard tight to ceiling joists or other materials close to the ceiling; and the Mini-Brute MB101, which extends from 15 inches to 23 inches. It's great in tight spots, like supporting a concrete form inside a fireplace, but was designed for carpenters who prefer to install wall cabinets after base cabinets.
Patterson Avenue Tool Co. T-JAK: $60–$75. 800-873-2239. www.tjak.com.
–John Carroll is a builder in Durham, N.C., and author of Working Alone.