I’m a bit of a fanatic when it comes to tools. The right tools let me do things that most tradespeople shy away from. Part of my “luck” in knowing about the right tools is that I enjoy looking into the past. Our forefathers came up with some wonderful tools, but we seem now to have forgotten about them, or never learned.
Interestingly, a similar thing applies when it comes to materials. We have so many materials to play with now that it’s fun to imagine what Leonardo DaVinci would come up with, if given the full range of things we have to build with. His helicopter might actually fly if built with the right lightweight modern materials, and with stronger motors!
One goal is simply to understand the properties of all common materials. The other goal is to see how things can be used effectively for something other than their intended use. With these understandings, it becomes possible to use things “wrong” and get away with it! In building my house, I used coat-hooks instead of standard knobs on the cabinets. Why? To start, they are easy to use with only one finger. Over the years, I’ve seen how the finish around cabinet knobs has deteriorated from the oils on our hands. Using a coat-hook prevents touching the wood finish, so the cabinets will need to be refinished less often. Mine show no signs of damage after about fifteen years. Coat hooks cost less than knobs. And lastly, I can hang things on them!
Understanding that you’re not (usually) breaking any laws by using things in a way they were not designed to be used, teamed up with an understanding of materials can really open up the choices you have for problem solving and designing things. I used roofing materials on the exterior walls of my house. There is no code saying you cannot use more durable materials than is normal. I understand why gold plumbing is rare, but in the right circumstances, roofing material can be less expensive, more durable and fire resistant than conventional siding. Done well, it’s also far less upkeep. One final example of using things wrong is that I was looking for a way of getting heat into my house, radiantly, through the walls. I thought about the finned copper tubes that you see in solar collectors. They collect heat from the sun and put it into the water. Why can’t this process be reversed? I use warm water flowing through the tubes to put heat into the copper fins and into the house. Just because it was designed to have heat flow one way, doesn’t mean it can’t flow backwards. Understanding material properties lets you re-envision how things can be used, successfully!
A bit more about misusing tools… Those old tools our predecessors made are generally made of better steel than what you can buy now. That means you can work them harder. I’ve collected lots of old pipe wrenches and many were designed to encourage you to put a “cheater” on them. A cheater is usually just a length of pipe that fits over the handle of the wrench. If you do that with some modern tools, you’ll break the jaw at the head of the wrench. How do you think I know this 😉? Old tools can withstand much greater force without damage. Old tools came in a variety of patterns not seen today and this allowed you to easily get the tools into places a modern wrench wouldn’t fit. A good example would be tight quarters where the normal wide jaws of a modern wrench simply don’t fit, like in between screwed fittings. You get around this problem using a smaller old pipe wrench and a cheater. The higher quality steel in the old wrench lets it take the force needed and the cheater lets you exert the force without undue strain on your body. Knowing the properties of materials lets you do this successfully.
I really enjoy ideas. Ideas can come from the past. They can come from different fields of experience; like how plumbing helps inform medicine and visa-versa. Ideas come from using different perspectives than is normal. An example of this is building your home for what energy will cost towards the end of the home’s life. Energy seldom gets cheaper, so what will it cost fifty or one hundred years from now when your home is in middle or old age? Thinking about these things will likely encourage you to install much more insulation than you would have done just to meet code. Insulation is cheap, yet people find excuses to use as little of it as they can get away with. This makes places more expensive to heat and less comfortable to live in. It also tips the scales towards needing to rehab the place sooner than later.
Ideas are surprisingly easy to collect, sift through and put to use in ways that can make life nicer in all sorts of ways. Misusing tools and materials in creative and effective ways is just one way of putting some unusual ideas to work. It only requires understanding the material properties and getting into the habit of asking “What if …”.
Looking back over my working life of 50+ years, it seems clear that self sufficiency has always been the best way for me to be useful. Now, mix in a strong interest in water in its many forms and the wide world of animals and you'll know what's important to me.