(Bit of an update in 2020 – lots of changes! Since writing this a decade ago, I have built a mobile lab that really needs to be an eBook one of these days, and moved from the Amazon 44 sailboat named Nomadness to a 50-foot floating lab named Datawake… with its own machine shop aboard. This page is a bit creaky, though I have done a few updates.)
Maintaining an effective shop aboard a boat is profoundly different than doing so on land. For one thing, assuming the boat is of normal cruising scale and not a ship, we can start by forgetting the luxuries. A big rolling stainless toolbox, nice contractor-grade table saw, drill press attached to the concrete floor, rack of power tools, vast library of bits and blades, big honkin’ Wilton vise bolted to a heavy bench… all those go away. Instead we have to make do with tools that can be stowed in small places; even with a dedicated workbench area, space is tight. That’s the first problem. I tried keeping everything in roll-ups in a tool drawer aboard Nomadness, though that orderly look did not last long.
But it gets worse. Due to space (and weight) constraints, there’s little room for redundancy and things need to be multi-functional whenever possible. The corrosive air will make short work of expensive bits, requiring ongoing maintenance. Fixturing is a problem. Yet this miniature shop has to be even better organized than the one at home; when you need to deal with a problem right now, certain tools have to be findable in a dark pitching boat (possibly while you’re scared, injured, or queasy).
This is not an article about how to do all this; that is a function of huge variables including type of boat, geekiness, attention to maintenance, budget, passions, skills, and the amount of allowable overlap into general accommodations. Everyone’s needs are different, and some sailors can get by with a tool bag and Leatherman while others really do need a dedicated shop cabin, complete with arc-welder.
The topic here is simply a sampling of tools I have found that really work… ones that hold up to the harsh environment, solve problems neatly, feel good in the hand, or are so well made that they will probably outlast me. It is certainly not an exhaustive catalog of what you should carry, and I’m not going to waste time talking about the poor choices. This is a story about the good stuff.
I should preface this by saying that developing a suite of tools is an ongoing process, and is of course highly subjective. It is based on recommendations from experts, online research, and my own experience. I welcome comments and suggestions; these are some of the tools that I most appreciate on board Nomadness, but I am sure that some of the more pedestrian items not mentioned here are just waiting to be replaced by gems I have yet to discover.
So… in no particular order, here are some of the boat tools I have come to appreciate the most.
Brady ID Pal
I went a little overboard when I bought this, stocking up on ten label cartridges of various flavors to accommodate cabling, controls, stowage, and even deck features. Mostly I use it for cabling and attaching ID numbers to devices that are keyed to my ship-systems database… and I couldn’t be more delighted.
These are so useful that I have one for the boat and another for the lab. The user interface is slightly arcane at first, but it’s quick to generate a label, the adhesive is strong, and the graphics are crisp. Anytime I identify a cable or hose, I slap a label on it, and it is already making life a little easier (the ones to use for wiring are 3/4″ cloth, part number PAL-750-499). 2017 update: That model is discontinued, and I now have this one that is much better.
Megapro Stainless Screwdriver
It doesn’t seem like a big deal; I mean, we all have lots of screwdrivers, right? But this is the one I always reach for… bit-changing action is smooth and crisp, they stay locked snugly in place, and it comes with square-drive (4 sizes) in addition to the normal phillips/flat/spline stuff! Since my boat is Canadian, this is a life-saver (and I find myself choosing Robertson heads for new hardware more and more). The thing is just plain well-thought-out, and feels good in the hand to boot… can’t beat that. Highly recommended.
Stainless Steel Wrenches
One could argue that ya gotta draw the line somewhere… that fancy expensive wrenches sink just as fast as cheap ones, so what’s the point in breaking the bank with top-of-the-line stuff? Of course, you can minimize the sinking issue by using tethers when up the mast or hanging over the side, and besides, most uses are not in such precarious places but in more pedestrian zones like under the sink and in the engine room.
But corrosion, now that’ll get ya. Rust never sleeps, and when it comes to tools it is a slow death. Here is a photo of a hammer someone left in a bilge for too long, just to make fellow tool-lovers cringe…
Stainless is not perfect… it comes in many flavors, some better than others, and it’s not as hard as some other kinds of steel. You certainly would not want to use it for drill bits. But for some things, it’s perfect… which brings me to the Nautitool line.
These are insanely expensive, and I was fortunate to get mine over a decade ago when my girlfriend of the epoch had an employee discount at West Marine… back when they carried such things. I have the 7″ adjustable wrench (model #10227) and the 8″ curved-jaw locking pliers (#10029). Both are superb, and I wouldn’t mind having more from this company (though at hundreds of dollars each, it could get to be a very expensive habit… they sell to companies with process equipment in clean rooms, where money is no object). I don’t know of any discount sources, but there is an online store at Steritool.
Speaking of corrosion-resistant wrenches, though, a much more modest investment that will pay off in short order is the gold-plated set of Bondhus ball-end drivers (English and Metric from Amazon). This is not as gratuitous as it sounds… my original ones are getting rusty; these are still as shiny as they were when I took them aboard.
By the way, if you’re stocking an on-board tool chest, you might want to pick up some Corrosion-X.
Cordless Drill Set
Ah, now we come to one of my favorites. When I started working on the boat, I hauled my almost-new 18V Hitachi Ni-MH cordless drill back and forth, endlessly annoyed at the almost nonexistent battery life and general wimpiness. It finally got bad enough that I spent a few hours researching, and took a chance on the latest LXT series from Makita (I had used one of their old 9.6-volt drills for years and came to trust the name).
I’m stunned. This is an order of magnitude better than anything else I’ve used… the Li-Ion batteries have astonishing life, especially given their weight. The motors are muscular, the chucks tight and responsive, the usability design excellent. One friend says the drill and driver are redundant, but I don’t find that to be the case; they are both highly optimized. The reciprocating saw is a lifesaver when needed, but is finding most use in shore forays for fuel to feed the ship’s Little Cod wood stove. The flashlight, well, I’m sure it will be handy at some point, but I haven’t used it yet, favoring instead my amazing Fenix TK45 triple-head LED unit. There are lots of Makita Combos on Amazon that include circular saws, bandsaws, angle grinders, and other good stuff – pictured below is the relatively modest LXT407 that I selected (though I already want a matching jigsaw and a few other things):
The immediate question, of course, was what drill bits to get. My haphazard collection from the lab, stressed and scrambled by decades of projects and other people, was just not a good source for a reliable set on a boat with lots of projects. I finally accepted the inevitable and picked up the highly rated Milwaukee 29-piece cobalt set… and they are the best I’ve ever used (link killed as not currently on Amazon). Coupled with the Starrett 18B automatic center punch and a nice set of driver bits, I’m ready to deal with wood, aluminum, and steel…. and the Milwaukee right-angle drive is absolutely essential.
More to Come
I’ve barely scratched the surface here, and I’ll be updating this page at random intervals as other tools earn my trust (or if I change my mind about anything above). I hope at least some of my recommendations help a few folks with the selection process… you live with these things very intimately for years and really come to depend on them; what seems like a huge price difference up front can amortize out to almost zero over time. I edited this ancient page in 2017, and it is quite out of date.
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