Tools of the Trade: Innovation In Masonry Tools

Words: Some say it had to be a hungry person who ate the first lobster, and a very clever one who lashed the first rock to a stick for a mallet or hammer. From the Stone Age and Bronze Age to the Iron Age down through all the ages, hand tools have been essential in crafting and building almost everything. The Taj Mahal and Great Wall of China are premier examples of enduring masonry structures, along with our own Lincoln Memorial. While the masons, along with their stellar skills, are instrumental in constructing big and little projects, skyscrapers, museums, houses and retaining walls. Having premier hand tools is paramount to success. Tool vendors and companies have been around for a very long time. MARSHALLTOWN Company began in 1890, the same year the Territory of Oklahoma was created and Wyoming became the 44th state, when a customer asked their little machine shop to customize some plastering tools. In 1905, they incorporated as Marshalltown Trowel Company, with more than 5,000 products, they are just MARSHALLTOWN now. The firm sent 18,000 trowels overseas in 1918 to U.S. soldiers working on European job sites. Two tool companies closing in on a whole century in business are DEWALT (founded in 1922) and Milwaukee Tools (founded in 1924). DEWALT's has a focus on the durability of their products, and to that end, their tools undergo high drop tests, intensive on-site use and evaluation, as well as ongoing material development for more durable, more rugged products. The firm has also partnered with the Wounded Warrior Project and other worthy causes. Milwaukee Tools’ mission is to provide innovative, trade-specific solutions to real working tool challenges. Its Leadership Development Program is unrivaled for nurturing today and tomorrow's engineers, tool designers and sales professionals. The newer kid on the block, yet with more than half a century under its tool belt, is Bon Tool, which was founded as a masonry specialty company. To reflect expanding to service other trades, the name was changed in the late '70s to what we know today, Bon Tool. Bon is French for "good", though it most likely is named for its founder, Carl P. Bongiovanni, and his grandson, John Bongiovanni, now runs it. Always innovating, Bon Tools is especially excited this year for launching the Bamboo Mason's Levels. Bamboo, the largest member of the grass family and fastest growing plant on earth, is also one of the most durable, natural materials with a tensile strength close to steel and compressive strength higher than wood or concrete. While mahogany levels will still be offered, there's a sustainability advantage with bamboo's rapid growth rate, some three to five or more feet per year, compared with a mature mahogany tree which might grow 50 feet in 25 years. "We have found that utilizing bamboo in the laminated construction of the levels creates an extremely durable product," states John Bongiovanni. DEWALT has cleverly developed its 20V MAX Tough Rotary Lasers with both red and green lines. "Human comfort is a factor, but green is actually easier to see than red for a farther distance and on more kinds of backgrounds," explains Charles Thierfeld, Product Manager of Electronic Tools. "Each one comes with a complimentary target card which is easier to use against the wall; just shoot the dot to the card for accuracy." Clint DeBoer, Executive Director of the Pro Tool Innovation Awards, believes: "These are one of the tools that should be in every tradesman's toolbox. They can save time and money and make the job easier." More than a decade ago, Milwaukee Tool was the first to introduce lithium-ion technology to professional power tools. "Since then, we have been the leader in cordless power tool technology. Our vision of a jobsite free of cords has led to innovative solutions that have made a significant impact on the way contractors leverage their tools for productivity and the execution of their craft on job sites every day," says Kevin Gee, product manager. Among the most common Milwaukee Tools on construction projects are:
  • Rotary hammers and hammer drills
  • Tape measures and long tapes
  • Saws
  • Grinders
  • Chalk reels
  • Laser distance meters for mapping
  • And more.
MARSHALLTOWN recently released its new Leather Handled Brick Trowels. It sports twice as much leather as others and is not lacquered, resulting in a more comfortable handle with a better grip. Lacquered handles can be slippery when wet. The leather handles also incorporate the finger guard and indestructible bumper from MARSHALLTOWN’s popular DuraSoft® handle. Cost, Quality and Longevity A common question among professional tradesmen, as much as throughout the advanced DIY crowd, is how to justify buying expensive tools, and the answer goes beyond "you get what you pay for." As a professional, your tools are your ticket to success on every job site in terms of time, quality and workmanship. "One of the biggest hand tool buying faux pas that we see is contractors substituting a tool for a task that it is not intended for," relates Bongiovanni. "Too often we hear of handmade modifications, which often result in a sub-standard project or job site injuries. I understand that a mason can’t own every tool made, and some get pretty pricey, but some of the mistakes, re-works or additional labor I’ve seen end up more costly than the initial investment in the right tools." Gee concurs: "More often it’s users choosing the wrong tool for the job at hand. In the concrete world, many times it’s choosing the wrong rotary hammer. The 'one-size fits all' mantra is a design template of the past." Just as a doctor does not purchase any off-brand stethoscope or cheesy EKG machine for the office, neither should professional masons cut corners with their wallets when purchasing tools. It's akin to buying tires and boots, buy the best you can afford or even up a notch or two. Replacing cheap tools comes out about the same dollar-wise down the road. But the cost in lost productivity, time, injury risk and even setting back a entire construction project is immeasurable, not to mention the potential negative impact on your personal reputation. A masonry professional’s hand tools are designed and manufactured to last. "The most common abuse or breakage comes from not maintaining them properly, dropping from extreme heights, running over them with trucks, heat buildup and using the wrong tool for the job atx hand," speculates Gee of Milwaukee Tool. "There is a thermal protection built into our electronics to protect the tool. If it reaches thermal shutdown, the tool will stop operating for a brief period of time and flash the LED as a signal to the user. This protects the electronics and other internal components. Once cooled down, the user can pick up the tool and continue to work. Some competitive units do not have this protection built in which will limit the overall life of the tool." "Our tools meet or exceed standards," Thierfeld of DEWALT points out. "… our testing takes out all the variables," adds Amy Gifford, Senior Product Manager, Power Tools Accessories with DEWALT. "On the masonry side, we have a pretty robust program of field testing prior to the final design." "With proper maintenance, our tools are built to provide longevity on the job site. In the event that there is a problem, all of our power tools and chargers have a five-year warranty. Our batteries have a two or three-year warranty, depending on the type. Hand tools have limited lifetime warranties," explains (Milwaukee). Proper maintenance is key to keeping tools in tiptop operating condition for decades per the owner's manual. "All tools require a little bit of different care," adds Bongiovanni (Bon Tool). "Usually just cleaning off mortar with soap and water while it is still wet is all that is needed. Sometimes though, tools require a little additional attention. Our carbide tipped masonry chisels require periodic grinding and laminated wood levels need occasional conditioning oil. My experience has shown that the better the tools are cared for, the longer they last." "Jobsite conditions can be rough," he continues, "and we hear of tools being dropped or run over all the time. Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems on the job site is stolen tools." That advances the case for lock boxes on every truck and taking extreme caution with where you place your tools when not in use or in your tool belt strapped on your body. When you buy the best or a little better than you can afford, you keep those under as watchful an eye as your wallet and keys. "The number one faux pas that we see when purchasing tools is buying cheap," says Jared Jeffery, Product Manager of MARSHALLTOWN. "We hear stories from contractors on a regular basis about how they purchased an inexpensive, low-quality tool because they were trying to save a little money, the tool broke, and then they turned around and bought a high-quality tool and couldn’t be happier." Innovation and R&D Companies are constantly improving product design, incorporating ergonomic attributes and testing new materials for tools. In the 1967 movie, "The Graduate", some of several famous lines were these: "I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Plastics." And it was the era of significant development in plastics. "There are many good tools made of plastic. Many masons prefer the plastic line blocks over the wood. Disposable grout bags are plastic, plastic trowels leave a nice finish on stucco, plastic line levels and torpedo levels provide a lower cost option over aluminum without compromising quality," explains Bongiovanni. "Bon Tool was the first to experiment in any significant way with stainless steel in many of its products. We are the only one to offer a professional Stainless Steel Brick Trowel, and hold a patent for some of our cast stainless steel tools." MARSHALLTOWN offers plastic margin and pointing trowels, as well as plastic notched spreaders which are inexpensive yet serve their purpose very well. Less than two years ago, DEWALT released the first phase of “connected” products, with Tool Connect Bluetooth enabled batteries, speakers and radio adaptor. "The company's blowers, vac kits and dust extractors come in a wide variety of sizes and power options and meet OSHA Table 1 compliance with HEPA filters and cleaning mechanism for filters along with our robust offerings of shrouds and accessories," says Gifford. "What sets DEWALT apart is our having concrete solutions to job site challenges across all masonry needs and tools." "The Milwaukee M18 cordless system created a revolution in cordless power tools, leveraging proprietary battery, electronics and motor technology to deliver a platform of cordless tool solutions designed from the ground up to exceed the demands of the professional contractor," Gee proudly points out. "Additionally, the in-line design of the M18 FUEL™ D-Handle Rotary Hammer provides a much more ergonomic experience for users who frequently drill overhead or downward. The M18 FUEL™ SDS Max Rotary Hammer is the first cordless solution of its kind to deliver the performance package needed for concrete and masonry contractors. This new rotary hammer is able to tackle the most demanding concrete-drilling applications that were previously only possible with a corded unit, such as dry coring and medium-duty chipping in concrete. One of the catalysts to making that performance possible has been the introduction of the new M18™ HIGH DEMAND 9.0 battery pack." MARSHALLTOWN is always in touch with their customers and looking for input for new and innovative tools. "Being a mason is a demanding job," Jeffery relates. "We are constantly looking for any tool that could make the process easier." MARSHALLTOWN brick trowels, for example, are manufactured using the highest quality of steel and carefully forged and heat treated to produce a finished product that ideally meets the unique requirements of a brick trowel. MARSHALLTOWN holds extremely tight tolerances on blade thickness and handle rise, which ensures that every trowel has the same flexibility, strength and balance. Each brick trowel also has the option of four different handle styles which allows masons to find a trowel that fits them best. "We have a team of engineers dedicated to conceptualizing new designs, production methods and processes to ensure the best products reach the end user," Bongiovanni conveys. "In 2016, we launched a new patented comfort grip handle on some of our concrete tools and will be furthering that reach with a new version of that handle in wood as well. We utilize a number of software programs for creating our drawings and renderings." The future bodes well for masons and their tools with an abundance of rugged, high quality tools in the marketplace, many of them sold through specialty small tool shops, and on-going, sophisticated R&D efforts in every tool category and company.
Words: Joanne M. Anderson Photos: Masonry Magazine, MARSHALLTOWN, Milwaukee Tool, DEWALT, Bon Tool
Joanne M. Anderson is a freelance writer and magazine editor with more than 1,000 articles and blogs in print. She especially enjoys home improvement and building topics.
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