If you're like me, fascinated by home improvement and tools, you really want your kids to be as interested as you are and benefit from the many life lessons working with tools can impart. Or maybe you're nothing like me & you don't care much about tools or carpentry beyond just thinking that making a treehouse would be wicked cool. No matter your orientation to home improvement, you want your kids to learn how to use tools. But what tools should you get for them? Which ones are safe?
Of course, it depends on the kid, parent, skill level yadda yadda. At the same time, as someone who has spent his life building and making things from mega-backyard playsets to little benches so my kids could reach the edge of the sink to spit toothpaste, I believe there are a few things everyone should have on hand. Here are 10 tools to help you get started.
The obligatory words of caution: There's no published criteria on when a child can or can't use certain tools. That's 100 per cent up to the parents. Being able to use a tool shouldn't be based so much on the kid's age, but rather on his or her maturity and training, and your own comfort level. Follow the manufacturers' safety instructions. And use common sense to operate tools safely.
There's a Facebook meme floating around that goes something like, "Yup, another day passed and I have not used any algebra at all." That's true for most of us, one place I like to sneak maths into my kids' actual lives is with a tape measure. It has everything from basic counting, to conceptualizing and quantifying real distance (not "If Maggie rides her bike to school and has three apples...how far is it to the post office?" distance). Kids can learn fraction reduction ("the little line past the third big line" is 13/16-inch; inches are broken up into 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16). And all the math is embedded in solving practical problems, like measuring a room for new flooring or paint.
The ability to dig a hole is an essential life skill. No, really. The lowly shovel is viewed as a tool of laborious, sweat-soaked work - and it is. But used properly, a shovel is also the gateway to beautiful gardens and a fence that blocks the view to the neighbour's recycling bin or dingy grill. Or a new mailbox to replace the one the snowplow mangled three winters ago. Some shovels are better than others, to be sure, and a kid-sized shovel can certainly get your kid out there scooping up soil, mulch, or snow. A simple short-handled shovel or spade might be the right size for some bigger kids, while a kiddie shovel could work for the littler ones.
Many people think little hands = little hammer. Sure, but why not buy an awesome hammer for you that little kids can bang around with and older kids can learn to drive, like a car? (One does not hammer a nail; one drives a nail). You can help guide them by pre-drilling some holes.
Folding Work Table
As a professional carpenter, I use the Worx Pegasus folding work table all the time. I think it's great for working with kids, too. The reasons: It's small so a kid can work at it. It folds open and closed so it's easy adults to open, close, hang on the wall when not in use. It also has two integrated clamps to hold a kid's "work" - say, a piece of wood that a child has twisted screws into. For an older kid learning to use a jigsaw, it'd be great for the same reason - the saw moves, while wood stays still.
The garden is a great place to connect with kids. There is something simple and accessible about gardening. Whether it's with big ol' sun-loving King Humboldt lilies, or smaller-but-star-bright coreopsis, gardening involves nurturing and care that you can share with your kids. Grab your shears and just a spend a few minutes every now and then giving your plants a nip here and there. Personally, I like "anvil shears" - I think they cut better and are easier for small hands to manoeuvre.
It'd be cute to buy my kid a leather nail apron like I rock for weekend work, but I like to start simple in this category. If kids don't want to wear something, they won't wear it. So I go in under the radar with cloth nail aprons. Made of unimposing fabric, just like their regular clothes, they have got pockets ample enough to hold screws or nails and a hammer loop.
One of my most cherished memories from childhood is going down into my grandfather's basement where wood scraps were inexplicably - and yet wonderfully - heaped under his ancient workbench. My own father had no such treasure trove to explore in our basement, and every time I went down to my grandfather's "cellah" (we're from Massachusetts), I was drawn to the earthy smell, to the handsaw and bench vise made of such heavy steel that it felt immortal.
In the vise, I could clamp wood stock-still and cut long pieces into shorter pieces. For no reason other than the cutting. Yet, little did I know, lessons were osmotically seeping into my DIY being. The vise clamped securely due to the power of the incline plane (Hi, is this you Archimedes?). The saw worked better if I pushed it rather than pulled (saw teeth are sometimes directional and only cut on a pull or push stroke). And if I went too fast or too slow, I got a bad cut. I learned the importance of balance and technique, which pretty much applies to everything in life.
I'm going to leave the saw category open to interpretation. The saw I'd introduce to my 8-year old - a clamping miter saw - might not be the saw you introduce to your 16-year old (and probably shouldn't be). I think the point is to learn the tool yourself so you can teach it to your youngster in a calm, no pressure environment. Read the directions. Practice alone. Don't ever disable safety stuff. That way you can feel what he or she feels ahead of time: How the saw's teeth cut the wood, how muscles flex to resist the force of a motor or wood fibre or both, and the parts of the brain that fire to learn the push-pull of a hand saw.
There are lots and lots of very small and plenty powerful 12-volt cordless drills on the market. And, of course, they're great for small hands. But they're also an extra purchase if you need - or plan to need - a more robust tool. So whenever anyone asks me what's the best cordless drill, I don't suggest a brand, I suggest a type: A cordless drill/hammer drill. Too big for an 8-year old? Sure. But a 12-year old can get a grip on it and help build the doghouse or put in a sheet of drywall. And you, as the adult, can use the hammerdrill function for drilling small holes in masonry or concrete for anything from shelves to a new hose bib on a stucco house.
Here are some more safety tips for any tool user:
- Keep work areas clean and well-lit. Debris on the floor - as opposed to a trash can for example - can be a trip hazard.
- Don't wear loose or baggy clothes that might get caught on something.
- Flip-flops? Puh-lease.
- Always support the work using clamps, a vise or with a suitable work table.
- Let the tool do the work. Don't force a tool to do something faster or harder.
- Never leave a power tool running.
- Always start a motion with a power tool "off the work." In other words, don't put a blade on a piece of wood then pull the trigger. Back it away a little so a blade can spin up before entering the work to make a cut.
Mark Clement is a carpenter, father, and together with his wife Theresa is one half of MyFixitUpLife. Watch their videos on YouTube.