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Home Improvement: Tools of the Trade 

A third-generation handyman shares his top-30 picks of the gadgets every homeowner needs.

Now 54, Fowler can fix an ice maker and tune a carburetor. He’s taking an electrician’s course to build know-how. And in his spare time, he tinkers with British sports cars and keeps up his Murfreesboro, N.C., home, which was built in 1812.

Fowler is a third-generation jack-of-all-trades. He has worked 34 years with International Paper Co. His father and grandfathers also worked at the Franklin mill formerly known as Union Camp Corp.

With spring projects in the air, here’s a page from Fowler’s hands-on, time-tested expertise: the top 30 tools every homeowner needs.

1. Ergonomic screwdriver (about $60). This ratcheting screwdriver will loosen stubborn screws with little effort and without stripping the screw heads as a power drill might. Fowler likes this tool best because it takes the stress off his hands, which ache with arthritis at times.

2. Safety glasses (about $7). Caution never seemed so cool. Wrap-around, hawk-wing or science-guy styles can be found online and in home-improvement stores in colors from clear to blue to gray to gold mirror. Fowler uses a bifocal style. “There’s no excuse for people not to use safety glasses anymore,” he says.

3. Miter saw and box (about $7). The carpet guy just installed new wall-to-wall carpeting in your home. But the room looks bare without floor molding. So you go to a hardware store and buy trim. With a miter saw and box, you can cut 45-degree angles in the wood and fit the pieces at right angles in the corners of the walls. Fowler recommends the simple version for small jobs. “Friends of mine go out and buy a $400 powered miter saw for one job in their house and never use it again,” he says.

4. 20-inch hand saw (about $9). Hang this tool from a hook; it won’t fit in a tool box. It can cut wide boards and trim trees in the yard.

5. Hand drill (about $14). Here’s a clever throwback to your father’s tool box. Back in the day, auger- and crank-style drills did yeoman’s work. Not any more, it seems. You might hear it’s an antique. But Fowler favors this small drill because it’s safe, easy to use and fits comfortably in his palm.

“You don’t need a power drill for everything you do,” Fowler says. Made by Fiskars, the drill is equipped with four bits.

6. Cordless power drill with rechargeable, 12-volt battery (about $50). Admit it. Half the fun of running this drill is feeling its kick. It’s also handy for putting in screws when you’re hanging blinds or removing screws if you’re taking down older storm windows.

7. Paint stirrer (about $3). Voila! Another reason to use the cordless drill. A word to the wise: Keep stirring until the streaks go away.

8. Paint roller with half-inch nap (about $4) and 9-inch roller frame ($6 to $8).

9. 3-inch paint brush (from $10). Spend a few extra bucks and get a quality brush when painting interiors, Fowler advises. “The bristles don’t pull out,” he says. “You don’t leave trash in the paint.”

Fowler selected a china bristle for oil-based paint. Brushes dipped in oil paint must be cleaned immediately after use with paint thinner or mineral spirits. Brushes also are available for water-based paint. They can be wrapped in aluminum foil and put it in the refrigerator until they’re used the next day.

10. Stainless-steel wire brush (about $2). It won’t rust or mark the paint. Apply vigorously with elbow grease to knock off loose, old paint.

11. Sander and polisher ($30 to $40). Every year, Fowler gives the porch on his 192-year-old home a fresh coat of gray paint. But first he roughs up the paint with a mouse-shaped sander. “This gets all in the little crevices and fits in your hand good,” he says. The sandpaper peels off and sticks on easily.

12. Heavy-duty knee pads. (about $10). Beats borrowing the kids’ skate-boarding gear.

13. Trim hammer ($5). Ever heard of the analogy about the guy who used a bazooka when all he needed was a peashooter? Same applies here. You probably won’t knock a hole in the wall with this 7-ounce hammer when you’re trying to hang a picture.

14. Regular hammer (about $7). This is the bazooka. Mind your thumbs and walls. It weighs 16 ounces.

15. Nail set (about $3). Some nails apparently have attitude. Sink them back into the woodwork with this simple gadget. The nail set also is a deft tool around trim and may spare you the agony of denting the molding with a hammer.

16. Screw-holding screwdriver (about $6). Every toolbox needs a curio, a conversation piece. This may be it. Show your father-in-law how you can maneuver a flat-head screw into a hard-to-reach recess without dropping the screw, cussing and carrying on. Push up the sleeve near the handle and the prongs widen and grip the screw. Now you’re ready to turn.

17. 10-in-1 screwdriver (about $10). Would you like to carry a passel of screwdrivers around the house in saggy pants pockets or one versatile tool? The tips pop into place and are held by a magnet.

18. Retractable razor knife (from $2). From carpet to Christmas packages, this knife can cut to the quick. “It’s dangerous,” Fowler says. The blade on a spring-loaded razor knife will retract when pressure on the point is released.

19. 6-foot folding ruler (about $7). They didn’t put rectangular pockets on carpenter’s pants for cell phones years ago. They were for folding rulers. Fowler keeps his late father’s ruler, but doesn’t use it for fear it might get damaged. Fowler prefers to use a folding ruler when cutting several boards. Unlike the retractable tape, it will hold firm and not need to be re-extended with each measurement. When marking heights on a wall, say for a curtain rod, he says, this ruler stays upright.

20. 16-foot retractable tape measure (about $15 ). OK, so a tape measure is necessary at times. What size trap is under the sink? What length or width shower curtain do you need? This tape provides inch and decimal measures.

21. Volt detector (about $23). Definitely a gee-whiz gadget. You walk into a room and the light doesn’t work. You put in a new bulb, but the bulb doesn’t work. You can traipse to the electrical panel at the other end of the house and reset the circuit breaker, or you can pop this tool into the socket and check if it’s working. Fowler prefers the gadget. “It’s a real safe way to find out if you have power,” he says.

22. Channel-lock pliers (from $7). Plumbing problems may rank as the bane of fix-ups for homeowners. “It’s the aggravatingest thing for me,” Fowler says. Yet many sink traps, for instance, are made of plastic and are easy to work with. These pliers will help.

23. Adjustable wrench (from $10). So versatile, so simple, it could win the vote for tool most-likely-to-be-abandoned-in-the-driveway-by-children-trying-to-fix-bikes-and-other-things. Got water lines that leak? “Snug ’em up” and tighten the connection with this wrench, Fowler says.

24. Pipe wrench (from $8).

25. Paint scraper with 1-inch blade (about $15) “I like this for windows and just small areas,” Fowler says. “It fits right in your pocket.”

26. 5-inch scraper, aka putty knife (about $8). Maybe your son threw a baseball at the wall, or your husband punched it after seeing the credit-card bill. Apply spackling compound and smooth over the dents with this scraper. Fowler’s father carved the wooden handle for his scraper.

27. Hand file (from $6). Fowler sharpens his pocket knives, kitchen knives and lawnmower blades with files.

28. Multitool (from $8). Take off your socks to count the features. Among them: needle-nose pliers, wire cutter, can opener, knives, file, ruler, flat screwdriver, bottle opener, leather punch, Phillips-head screwdriver and fish scaler. Fowler finds them bulky. But, he says, “They’ll get you out of a jam.”

29. Framing square (from $3.50). Use it as a straight edge or for cutting a board at a 90-degree angle.

30. Level (from $3). Fowler’s father used a long, wood-and-brass level to hang doors properly. Fowler keeps it in top condition.

That’s how traditions endure. And Fowler has many to pass on.

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