Jack Ganssle, Editor of The Embedded Muse Jack Ganssle's Blog
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Millennials and Tools

June 19, 2019

When we were kids, my siblings and I would challenge each other's physical strength. The goal: to be able to pick up dad's toolbox.

In retrospect, that homemade green wooden tote probably weighed 10 kg. It contained just the basics, as he always had a shop that was loaded with both hand and power tools. He never hired help around the house; he even completely rewired and replumbed at least one of the homes we lived in. Till just five years ago he said he'd never leave their single-family house, as he couldn't move away from his tools. Ultimately, the unhappy realities of aging prevailed.

Around 1980 I was visiting an uncle in Boston and he asked me to fix something. I was astounded to discover that he didn't own a screwdriver!

According to NPR two-thirds of millennial dads don't own a screwdriver or hammer. Other sites suggest that number is high, but admit that many millennial dads are not DIY competent and own few tools.

I'm puzzled that millennial moms were left out.

A little googling suggests that many in that generation lack manual skills. It seems many have never changed a light bulb, let alone shingle a roof.

Some claim that modern goodies are just so complex that DIY skills are no longer adequate. There is some truth to that. I've rebuilt countless engines but have no idea what I'm looking at when raising the hood of my Prius. Yet most house repairs are the same as ever. Drywall has changed little; wiring is still a readily-gained skill. Plumbing is possibly easier than ever with snap fittings like the Shark Bite (though the number of types of fittings is mind-boggling). 2x4s are still 1.5x3.5s, and nail guns eliminate bashed fingers.

I still have the hammer I bought at age 8. The claw is broken and the handle has been replaced several times, but not a week goes by it doesn't get some use. Most of my other tools were lost, first in a 1978 shipwreck and then again in a similar event in 1992, but all have been replaced.

My philosophy is to buy the best tools can afford, and to get any that will ease a job. Cheap versions always disappoint, and the dollars spent on expensive ones are quickly forgotten. Our garage is my shop, and it's fairly bursting with tools and materials. Some lie idle for years; others are in constant use.

One of my frustrations with the modern world is that so many people seem to be victims of technology. They have no idea how anything works. The TV, the circuit breaker box, even the radio are all effectively magical devices. Some technical shaman waved incense and chanted incantations ("the local oscillator is mixed with the IF, the signal goes to the detector and is then amplified") and these devices somehow spring to life. It's true that some of these things are complex. It's hard to understand that those mysteries don't intrigue most of us.

I suspect most people reading this are engineers, so I'm preaching to the choir.

Basic repair skills are important. Replace that switch. Patch the drywall. Fix the leaky faucet. None of this is hard. With YouTube and a zillion web sites the information needed has never been more available. Home Depot has every tool needed, at a price far cheaper than hiring a contractor.

I want to be master of my universe, to understand how things work, and to fix things when they don't. Sometimes pros are needed. Our well failed last year which required heavy equipment to dig deep. We had to hire concrete people to build our new barn's foundation. Specialized skills and equipment will always be needed.

But I find it sad that so many are unwilling, or even worse, unable, to tackle their own projects.

Feel free to email me with comments.

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