Most people who know me know that I'm a tool nut. I've got tools I use, tools I just like to look at, and even tools I use to make other tools. My workbenches are covered with hand tools and power tools and tools for working with wood, leather, metal, plastic, and composites—everything you can think of. You never know when you will need a particular tool, so you have to be prepared.
I was speaking with a friend recently who wants to start his own fabrication lab, and he asked what tools I thought he would need. From that conversation, I started thinking about all the tools I couldn't live without, figuratively speaking. Most of my favorite tools are pricey, not the sort of stuff you need right away as you start a lab. But some of my favorite tools are surprisingly inexpensive, and with that in mind, I compiled a list of five inexpensive tools that I think are essential for any fabrication lab.
The first of these tools is a Cleco fastening system (Figure 1). Originally developed by Cleveland Pneumatic Tool, Ohio, to help assemble the aluminum skin of airplanes, the fastening system consists of temporary rivets and a set of pliers to install and remove the rivets. If you have to attach any two parts of a device together, Cleco has a rivet that can do the job. I use them for temporarily assembling metal orthoses, attaching metal uprights to plastic orthoses, and even preassembling composite orthoses. To use the system, drill a hole in whatever you want to assemble, grab a rivet with the pliers, and insert the rivet. The springloaded rivet holds the two pieces together; the spring in the rivet mimics the tension of a permanent rivet or a screw.
The second on my list is one of my favorite "old school" tools, a nut-insertion tool (Figure 2). Originally (as far as I know) they were made by United States Manufacturing Company (USMC), Glendale, California, which made the early Klenzak joints after purchasing Pope Brace Company. Back then, repairing or maintaining metal AFO joints was something technicians did a dozen times a day. Even now, if you do repair work, the nut-insertion tool is indispensable. It is simple, but like most good tools, there is nothing that does the job better. If you have a Klenzak joint or a double-action joint that is already loaded with a ball and spring, reinstalling the stirrup is difficult. This is because you have to install the nut while collapsing the spring. With a nut-insertion tool, you just slide the pointed end of the tool into the axis hole of the joint and the stirrup, and that aligns the two parts. Then you unscrew the tip and replace it with the axis nut and just pull it into position. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find a current manufacturer of this tool, so we have to make them ourselves.
We bend a lot of metal, and it's something I love to do, but it is a surprisingly tool-intensive job. This is where tool number three on my list comes in—the ford wrench (Figure 3). If you have the right tools for bending metal, it's relatively easy; but if you don't, it's not likely to be a task you enjoy. I use a bending iron for most jobs, but it is not right for all projects. For big jobs, like grabbing a joint head, or even small things, like bending Gaffney joints, you are going to need a better tool—that's where the ford wrench comes in handy. The ford wrench, commonly called a monkey wrench, is a simple, square-jaw wrench that opens and closes with a screw mechanism. The smoothjaw ford wrench should not be confused with a plumber's or pipe wrench, which has a serrated jaw that could damage the metal you are bending. Also, unlike the slip-jaw plumber's wrench, which will close slightly at the opening when pressure is applied, the ford wrench allows you to set the gap with the screw mechanism, and it stays fixed at that opening. There are modern versions available, but I prefer the antique variety. I find them pretty regularly at flea markets or antique stores that sell tools. They rarely cost more than $25, and they can make your metal bending jobs a lot more fun.
I had to live without this next tool, the right-angle drill, for most of my adult life, and I don't know how I did it (Figure 4). This tool is so simple and effective that it will quickly pay for itself. You just chuck the vertical end of the right-angle drill in a standard drill press, and a small gear changes the direction of rotation 90 degrees. The head of the drill is small enough to get into tight spaces because it doesn't use a keyed chuck. Instead, each drill bit is threaded onto the trailing end so it just screws into the drill. Of course, this means you have to use special drill bits, but they seem to be well made and last a long time. You can buy the bits in a wide variety of sizes and lengths, so if you need to drill the attachment holes for an NYU stirrup from the inside, you can use a short bit; and if you are drilling the mounting hole for a metal upright that is under the plastic cuff, you can use a longer one. Compact right-angle drills are available from a variety of hardware stores and online.
The last tool on my list is one I rely on for just about any job—a caliper, either a dial or digital version (Figure 5). I know: Most of what we do as O&P technicians does not require accuracy to 0.0001 inch, but some of the stuff we do does require that sort of precision. If you don't have an accurate way to measure components and materials, you may be overlooking some basic information. We routinely check specifications on component parts, especially when they don't work, and a caliper is the easiest way to do that. Some people prefer the dial caliper because it doesn't require batteries and is generally reliable. I prefer a digital caliper because it is faster to read; a quality one will run for a year or more on a single hearing aid battery. Digital calipers run the gamut in price; you can find inexpensive models or spend as much as $100 on a higher-end model. However, I've found that the less expensive versions do seem to fall apart easily, so it's worth it to spend as much as you can afford.
So, there are just a few of my personal favorite tools every fabrication lab should have. Each one is easily accessible, relatively inexpensive, and can save the day when the right problem comes along.
Tony Wickman, CTPO, is the CEO of Freedom Fabrication, Havana, Florida. He can be reached at