Common hand tools – such as socket sets, wrenches,
screwdrivers, etc. – are still necessary to complete the collision
technician’s toolbox. But there’s little doubt that if you repair
modern automobiles with age-old hand tools, you aren’t going to
take home much of a paycheck.
While some of us look back on the "good
old days" with fondness, the reality is that many tasks performed
by hand 20, 10, even five years ago, must now be performed with
power tools. It’s an economic and technological reality that your
shop must accept to keep up to speed.
When you think of power tools, there are three
basic groups to choose from: air, electric and cordless. Each
tool group has specific advantages and certain limitations. In
the collision repair shop, air tools have always had an edge over
electric tools – there’s a ready supply of air, they’re typically
smaller and weigh less, and you don’t have to worry about changing
brushes and overhauling armatures, etc. Though electric tools
are getting smaller, lighter and easier to service, they still
have a tendency to get hot during extended use. Even with the
improvements to electric tools, air power still reigns supreme
in the collision repair shop.
In recent years, the decision of what to buy
or add to your shop’s tool arsenal has been further complicated
by the growing number of cordless tools. In the beginning, cordless
tools were somewhat limited in power, charging time was excessive
and cost was sometimes prohibitive. All of these drawbacks have,
to some degree, been resolved. One of the biggest benefits of
cordless tools is their convenience – who wouldn’t like to get
rid of that cord or air hose drug around all day and tediously
rolled up at the end of the workday?
In the Tool Box
Air tools have long been the standard for
collision repair shops, so let’s think about what air tools the
typical technician might have in his tool box.
A starter set of air tools would consist of:
- a 6-inch, dual-action sander;
- an 8-inch, dual-action sander;
- a 3/8-inch-drive air ratchet;
- a 1/4-inch-drive air ratchet;
- a 1/2-inch impact wrench;
- a 3/8-inch air drill;
- a heavy-duty, high-speed sander/grinder;
- a straight-line sander;
- an air chisel;
- a cut-off tool; and
- a nibbler or shear.
A technician who does a lot of structural repairs might also want
to include a reciprocating saw, a special air tool for removing
spot welds and, perhaps, a close-quarters drill that permits access
to spots a conventional drill doesn’t.
As we take a closer look at some of the tools listed above, think
about those your techs are currently using. Recent improvements
and new technology may spur you to invest in some new equipment.
Air drills: It’s difficult to imagine a toolbox without
that 3/8-inch air drill. It’s an extremely versatile tool, and
with it you can drill holes, sand a hard-to-access weld by installing
a 3-inch abrasive disk or chuck up a wire or abrasive brush and
clean away. Remember that drills are rated by capacity of the
chuck and by their free speed in rpm.
Beyond the basics, what do you need from a drill? You need a drill
that doesn’t stall out; one with a fine feel on the throttle trigger;
one that vibrates less and has lower noise levels, yet retains
the power of older drills; and you may need a reversible drill
for removing fasteners. Today’s drills offer these features and
many others, including the capability to direct exhaust away from
the work, that weren’t available just a few years ago.
Sanders: Dual-action sanders and/or random-orbital sanders
are operating smoother and quieter than ever. The smoother operation
reduces wear and tear on the operator and allows for more control
on today’s light-gauge panels. The tools are available in 6-inch
and 8-inch models – the larger-size model being the heavy-duty,
slow-speed sander. Some models are available with a "T"
handle for two-handed operation, which means more stability and
smoother sanding. Some have ergonomically designed covers made
from special composites for operator comfort.
Today’s vehicles – designed with lighter-gauge metal and smaller
panels – have brought about several other interesting innovations.
The 2 3/4-inch-by-17 1/2-inch straight-line sander has a smaller
cousin. This smaller version not only weighs less but features
a 2 3/4-inch-by-11-inch paper surface that works better on smaller
panels and tight spots.
The 3-inch palm sander is still hard to beat for one-handed operation
and access to tight spots typically left for hand sanding. And
don’t forget about dust collection: Many of the modern sanders
are designed to convert to dustless operation.
Reciprocating saws: The reciprocating saw is a tool gradually
finding its way into collision repair shops. A long-time favorite
of contractors and plumbers, the reciprocating saw is an excellent
tool for sectioning procedures on rockers, and A and B pillars.
It’s more accurate than oxy-fuel or plasma cutting for cutting
through complex sheet-metal components without destroying corrosion
protection and without the need for further finishing prior to
welding. It’s also safer – no potential fires – and is useful
on body-over-frame vehicles box-type frames. One thing to keep
in mind: You must be able to access the piece to be cut with the
The reciprocating saw can be powered by air or electricity, and
one manufacturer has even marketed a cordless model. The electric
version is typically available in several different models with
variable speed, from zero to the maximum strokes per minute. Some
have two speed ranges, which increase the tool’s versatility.
Another feature to look for is the ability to reverse the blade
for flush cutting. Though the electric versions are heavier than
the air-powered versions, they have a greater cut-depth capacity.
The air-powered reciprocating saw is relatively small and, therefore,
somewhat limited in application and metal thickness. Its size
does, however, improve access to some hard-to-access areas of
a vehicle. Features include lower noise, less vibration, an adjustable
guard/guide for depth of cut, a lock-off throttle to prevent accidental
startups and, possibly, lower air-pressure and consumption requirements.
Grinders: Electric tools – with the exception of an electric
grinder for heavy-duty work – have never been very popular with
collision technicians. The problem has always revolved around
size and weight. Today’s 4 1/2-inch electric grinder/sanders have
found a solution. They have plenty of power, and they’re very
versatile. You can grind, sand or attach a cupped wire brush for
heavy cleaning. Several manufacturers have included built-in spindle
lock mechanisms, which means no more hunting for a wrench.
Compared to several years ago, the number of different tools available
in cordless models is incredible.
Drills: Drills are available in 12-volt models, which have
plenty of power; close-quarters models; and bigger, heavier models.
In fact, there seems to be a cordless drill to fill just about
any need. If you’re tired of tightening and loosening the chuck
with that aggravating chuck wrench, forget about it. Many cordless
drills are now available with a keyless chuck. Variable speed,
reverse capabilities and an adjustable clutch are other features
of the new cordless drills. The new breed of cordless drills also
will typically charge faster than the older models.
Screwdrivers: Battery-powered screwdrivers are indispensable
tools for collision repair. Without them, removing and installing
all of those fasteners would not only be tedious, but hard on
the wrist. Features of these tools include forward and reversible
action, an adjustable clutch, adjustable positions and adjustable
rpm, from low to high.
Reciprocating saws: The cordless reciprocating saw is a
recent addition to at least one manufacturer’s line of cordless
tools. It features a powerful 18-volt battery that charges in
just 40 minutes. The manufacturer claims that the saw will cut
nine 12-inch-by-4-inch heating ducts on one charge, so it should
have plenty of power to cut rockers or an "A" pillar
for sectioning. Another innovative feature is the quick-change
blade clamp – no tools required. Look for other manufacturers
to follow with their own cordless saws.
Most tools that use an abrasive disk or saw blade have a special
safety-trigger mechanism. This feature can be found on many of
the new air and electric tools. While some say it’s inconvenient,
its purpose is to prevent accidental startups.
Also, some of the new 4 1/2-inch electric grinders now have an
adjustable guard. Most grinding guards are in the proper position
for grinding in a vise or on a flat table; however, when you turn
the grinder sideways to grind a weld, the guard no longer offers
much protection. To adjust for the change, the guards can be turned
to the right configuration in a few seconds without the use of
The Power of Tools
Modern power tools are lighter, require less air consumption,
produce less vibration and noise, are ergonomic and perform better
Can you repair a modern automobile without these modern power
tools? Sure, but would your techs want to? Today’s power tools
allow for quicker, easier repairs and are one key to a profitable,
The trade off is the monetary investment you must make to purchase
"How many tools do I really need?," you ask. "Do
I need every new tool that comes along?"
Some would argue yes to both questions. Some would argue no. Middle
ground is probably best. When new tools come along that offer
more safety features, easier use or improved productivity, you
should at least investigate them. Sometimes, you can get along
just fine without the newest tools on the market; other times,
they could be powerful investments.
Writer Fred Kjeld is a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.
What does the future hold for power tools? Some techs envision
the day when a modular tool design might feature a cordless power
supply and motor with different attachments to perform all of
the various tasks – need a sander, install the sander attachment;
need a reciprocating saw, install the attachment; need a drill,
install the drill chuck; etc. A microprocessor could change the
power supply from strokes per minute for a saw to rpm for the
drill attachment. It would have a digital display and a touch
keypad to change the configuration of the tool. This new modular
tool would be made from space-age materials so it would be lighter,
last forever and, of course, come at a reasonable price.