Retrotechtacular: How Not To Use Hand Tools

Whatever you’re doing with your hand tools, by the US Army’s lights, you’re probably doing it wrong. That seems to be the “Green Machine’s” attitude on pliers and screwdrivers, at least, the main stars of this 1943 War Department training film on the horrors of tool abuse.

As kitschy as the film might be, they weren’t wrong. That’s especially true about the dreaded slip-joint pliers, which seem to find their way onto everyone’s list of unloved tools and are shown being used for their true purpose — turning nuts and bolt heads from hexagons into circles. Once that gore is wrapped up, we’re treated to the proper uses of pliers, including the fascinating Bernard-style parallel jaw pliers. We can recall these beauties kicking around the bottom of Dad’s tool kit and being entranced by the mechanism used to keep the jaws parallel and amplify the force applied. Sadly, those pliers are long gone now; Tubalcain did a great review of these pliers a few years back if you need a refresher.

A selection of screwdrivers gets the same treatment, complete with dire warnings against using them as prybars and chisels. Also against the Army Way is using the wrong size screwdriver for the job, lest you strip the head of the screw or break the tool itself. It has to be said that the Plomb Tool Company of Los Angeles, which produced the film, made some fantastic-looking screwdrivers back in the day. The square shanks on some of those straight screwdrivers are enormous, and the wooden handles look so much more comfortable than the greebled-up plastic nonsense manufacturers seem to favor these days. Also interesting is the reference to the new-fangled Phillips screw, not to mention the appearance of a Yankee-style spiral ratcheting screwdriver, another of Dad’s prized acquisitions that thankfully is still around to this day.

What strikes us about these military training films is how many of them were produced. No subject seemed too mundane to get a training film made about it, and so many were made that one is left wondering how there was any time left for soldiering after watching all these films. But really, it’s not much different today, when we routinely pull up a random YouTube video to get a quick visual demo of how to do something we’ve never tried before. The medium may have changed, but visual learning is still a thing.

48 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: How Not To Use Hand Tools

  1. I figure there could be lots of tools “any idiot can use” that seem to be self-explanatory, for which there may actually be a “best practice” way to use them that isn’t self-evident.

    1. I could count the number of people I’ve met in real life who know that there’s a wrong way to turn a box wrench on one hand. I could count them if I had three of my fingers missing

      1. Same for adjustable wrenches too. The point of the nut should contact the bottom of the movable jaw, not the top, or you risk learning why the nicknames for these tools exist….

        Some rare nut lathes/bugger nuts/adjustable wrenches even had the direction noted on the handle, but they seem somewhat rare.

        1. Yeah, I’m wondering the same thing. I know there’s a right way to turn an open end wrench on a typical combination wrench, because of the asymmetrical shape. I’m a little surprised that I may have been using the box end wrong all this time.

    1. Old 16mm film looks great if scanned properly in at least 1080p and encoded with sufficient bit rate (film grain + low bit rate compression = bad loss of detail), no AI or filtering needed. This is just a bad scan and a highly compressed file.

      1. Devil is in the details.
        Film print grain size is not fixed.
        You want to be able to visualize the grains or not see them at all. About one grain per pixel is worst. If ur in that position, best to scan slightly defocused.

  2. Growing up was in a Coca-Cola Frosty Root Beer Canada Dry Ginger Ale Craftsman househould [sic]. Blue and red plastic handled screwdrivers, was there an earlier generation with yellow wooden handles?

    1. What I have left of my grandfather’s shop tools have flat oval tangs with wooden scales riveted on like a heavy knife handle. He owned his own service station and he did not skimp on his tools.

  3. I got a pair of Bernard Pliers from an elderly man’s yard sale a few years back. They are indeed amazing. Mine has a small groove in it which makes bending wire or spinning fasteners from head on easier.

    Although I must say I do have a terrible habit of using every wrench or pliers as a hammer, and it really isn’t good for them.

          1. Well, written on it is the text “Not to be used as a pry bar”, which is nonsense of course. Works perfectly, and actually that’s what gave me the idea.

      1. The hammer-thru / drive-thru screwdrivers can be surprisingly useful to free stuck screws off, I bought a very cheap kamasa set reduced and they are my go-to sacrificial bladed/pointy thing to beat on with rusty fasteners.

        Even old / bad screwdrivers have a use.

      2. i got the crappy set of craftsman screwdrivers and i use the largest flat blade as a chisel all the time and i finally bent it in a bad way that arguably affects its value as a screwdriver

        what was i doing when i bent it??? I WAS TURNING A SCREW. so i don’t feel bad for chiseling with it :)

  4. Even though it was long ago…..watching the movie was faster and more effective than listening to a bored, impatient staff Sargeant teach you this for 8 hours.

  5. Parallel jaw pliers are still very much available and not expensive either, you can also buy parallel action cutters.

    You might struggle to find them branded Barnard though.

      1. Sadly last year they moved production to China. My 2019 Knipex pliers are indeed super-tough but ones bought in 2024 became dented when trying to undo 8.8 M10 screw 🤡 It seems they are now made of chromium-chinesium alloy.

          1. The reputation is what the Chinese company was buying.

            The classic example is MTD mowers. They buy a new brand every 10 years or so and run it into the ground. AMC is no better.

            Also Marxists. They try to rebrand themselves about once per generation. To fool the young and stupid. In 10 years 90%+ of commies get over it, but the very dumbest commie on for life.

  6. As a kid I learnt from my father the main rules about tools :
    – use the right tool
    – use only quality tools
    – learn how to use them properly and safely

    I also learned with my first motorbike that the screws that look sneakily like Philips screws are in fact Japanese JIS screws (this is pure evil). I ruined them all up using Philips screwdrivers and then replaced them with allen screws.

    On the other side I must confess that – as many other – I used flat screwdrivers on torx screws.
    But since I’m ashamed, it’s a less serious offense !

    1. I mangled plenty of JIS screws on bicycle parts (Shimano) before realising they weren’t Phillips. They tend to have a combination JIS and slot drive, so now I just use a flat-bladed screwdriver and an abundance of caution.

      If you’re lucky JIS screwheads are sometimes marked with a dimple in one quadrant for identification.

      1. JIS are _better_ than Phillips.

        Snapon sells JIS screwwdrivers. Back when I got my set they were some snapon marketing label that meant JIS, but weren’t clearly marked. A quick search reveals they are now clearly marked as JIS.

        If you frequently run into them, it’s worth getting the right tool. Even if it’s the cheap ebay set.
        I needed them for OS engines.

        1. hahah yeah that’s a no-brainer…the problem is when you *infrequently* run into them and that’s when you wind up using a vice grip, flat blade, or drill just to get it done

  7. I watched a travel vlog of a guy from the Northeastern USA who bought his first motorcycle and decided to ride it all the way to Panama with very little experience. A little crazy, but what was most shocking and wince inducing was when he had a puncture somewhere in a remote part of one of the Central American countries along the way. Not only had he never changed a tire before, it was quickly apparent he hadn’t used tools much in his life when he used channel lock pliers to remove the rear wheel nuts. Made me suck my teeth! I’ve done a lot of dumb and crazy things in my life so I won’t judge the dude too much and his accomplishment took guts, so I respect that. The dude was learning on the fly, we just there on the other side of the screen shaking our heads powerless to say “Dude, stop!”

    1. this drives me crazy when i read people’s diaries of super long bicycle trips as well. they’re spending 15 hours a day on this contraption and they get into the middle of a desert and then it’s a voyage of discovery the first time they got their chain tangled…what??

      but that just shows everyone has different strengths. i’ve never biked more than 8 hours in one go and they’ve never used any of the tools in my tool pouch. say la vee

      1. Modern times – people often aim high when do something new. I remember times when doing marathon was a great achievement – today it became first goal of people who just started jogging. Similar things happen with hiking, camping ect. People just don’t realize what may happen because they lack experience – may of them run away with that and some just don’t.

  8. When I used to manage an academic lab, I would send the foreign students a link to download the PDF for using tools from the Navy or some other US military document. Some had never really used a wrench, screwdriver, file and other tools, so this was a great and easy to read guide to pass along.

    I even learned a couple things flipping through it even though I grew up using tools for various things on a small farm and household.

  9. I’ll just add that no matter which tool you are (ab)using, consider what happens when that tool slips off or breaks. Like, don’t be shoving your full weight onto a screwdriver trying to get a screw to back out with your other hand right next to it. Or put your full weight on an adjustable wrench and if it slips off, you are gonna punch full fury into the edge of the sheetmetal body work. Stuff like that.

  10. I never liked slotted screws much but now I finally found what I’ve been doing wrong!
    All this time I used screwdrivers that were less than a yard/meter long..
    Thanks for declassifying that secret information.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.