TOOLS: It's the Little Things That Count

Copyright © 2007 by Davis Multimedia, Int'l. All Rights Reserved.
As Printed in June 2007, Volume 33, No. 12 of The Engravers Journal
Screwholding screwdrivers come in handy when you need to drive tiny, non-magnetic screws used on plaques and other awards.   A de-burring tool is designed to remove burrs from sheared plate edges

     Starting or running a business involves using a great many skills, talents and in our business, tools and equipment. Among them is something as simple as hand tools. No, I’m not talking about hammers and such, but specialty tools that make the building of plaques, trophies and the like easier. Some cost as little as a few dollars to buy but are worth a fortune when you really need them.
     Through the years, I’ve come across some things that I wouldn’t do without. These are not meant as commercials for products, but just simple information. However, sources will be included since knowing about a neat product doesn’t do much good if you don’t know where to buy it.
     1. Screw-holding Screwdrivers: Unfortunately, most of the screws we use in the awards business are tiny and nonmagnetic, so finding a way to hang on to these little screws is a must. This is especially true if you have large hands or your fingers don’t have the dexterity they once did.
     Of course, the tiny #2 brass screws we use to mount plaque plates come in two configurations, slotted and Phillips head. The best method for handling these, I’ve found, is with a screw-holding screwdriver. Finding the screwdrivers, however, isn’t so easy.
     A number of companies sell screw holding screwdrivers they claim will hold #2 screws, but finding one that will hold the small-headed #2 screws we use, is a challenge.
     Slotted-type screwdrivers can be found at Sears. The stock number is 41123, but it isn’t as simple as walking into the tool department and grabbing up the first one you see. You need to actually take a screw with you when you select your screwdriver since some drivers work better than others, and since these are probably not made with #2 screws in mind, some won’t work at all. When selecting your slotted driver, check to make sure the blade is thin enough to fit into the slot in the screw head and then check to see if the “gripper fingers” that hold the screw will hold it fairly straight. The cost for these drivers is generally under $7.
     The Phillips-head driver is a bit more difficult to find. Although Sears has one that looks like it should work, it doesn’t. Initially, I found a couple of drivers that worked accidentally, but when I went back to replace them, I learned how difficult it is to actually find them. The best I’ve come across is made by a company called Upson. They are owned by Channellock (most do-it-yourselfers are familiar with Channellock pliers), but the screwdrivers are sold under the Upson brand and aren’t very easy to find—even on the Internet. My last efforts to find the illusive Upson PR-4 resulted in the words, “Order Cancelled—Product Discontinued.” This took me back to the Sears counter and their screw-holding Phillips driver model 41362 which sells for about $7. I found that if I took some needlenosed pliers and bent the screw holding “fingers” forward about 1/4", they would grasp a #2 brass screw.

A magnetic nut driver can pick a nut off a workbench and hold it in place to make assembling trophies easier.   Plaque screw holes are easily drilled using a miniature drill because it is low voltage and can accept drill bits as small as 3/64".

     These are just inexpensive little screwdrivers, but believe me, when you have to mount hundreds of engraving plates on a perpetual plaque, you’ll count your lucky stars if you have one of these little devices.
     To use the driver most effectively, always drill a screw hole first. Then, grip the screws as shown and twist the screw down to within about 1/8" of the engraving plate before disengaging the spring ears that hold the screw. Once released, the same screwdriver can be used to completely tighten the screw.
     2. Deburring tool: Stop by most hardware stores and ask for a deburring tool and it’s anybody’s guess what they will come up with. You might be wondering what a deburring tool is and why you need one. A deburring tool is a small, handheld blade that was designed to take the sharp edges off metal after it’s been cut or drilled. There are any number of designs on the market and the business end of most look like the one pictured above. The hardened steel blade is sharpened on both sides so it can be used in either direction or in either hand. The offset allows it to easily clean out burrs in holes, but it also helps control the tool when smoothing the edges of engraving metal after it’s been sheared or saw-cut.
     In my shop, I can only shear plates up to 12" wide. This means that to cut anything larger I have to use a safety saw, and that leaves a very nasty edge on the metal. Without a deburring tool, it would be impossible to make plaques using sheet stock if the plate were larger than 12" x 12". Although the deburring tool doesn’t make as nice an edge as a shear, it does make it acceptable and most important of all, it makes it safe by removing all the little shards or “burrs” from the edge of the metal.
     Although fairly common in some industries, the only company offering these in our industry is Quality One Engravers. In a recent trip to Sears, I saw they had begun to carry a similar tool under their “Empire” brand model 27783. The cost is $11.99.
     3. Miniature Drill: Using a conventional drill, even a small cordless drill, to drill screw holes for a plaque is like using a sledgehammer to fix a transistor radio. Dremel tools seem like a logical alternative, but the collet makes working with the super small drill bits difficult. Even so, most Dremel tools are fairly large and clumsy. The MiniCraft drill, however, is a very small, low-voltage drill that can accept drill bits as small as 3/64” and does it using a conventional keyless chuck rather than collets. This means you can quickly and easily change bits or bit sizes as needed.

A type gauge is used to match existing print or to determine type size best suited for a project.

     Originally, this drill sold under the Black & Decker brand, but this model was always made overseas. I love the supersmall size and light weight of the tool. It’s perfect for drilling hundreds of screw holes in a perpetual plaque or even for use with traditional Dremel accessories when only a small amount of torque is needed. There are two model numbers to choose from, so be sure to select the right one. The one I use for drilling screw holes for #2 screws is the MB150. The two models look the same in the Internet pictures, but the MB150 is much smaller than the other. To find a source for the MiniCraft drill, do a Google search on “MiniCraft” or go directly to There are also a few hobby shops that carry the MiniCraft brand. Dremel accessories will work in either model.
     4. Type Gauge: There are many styles and designs of these on the market and you can probably pick one up at your local office supply store if you know what to look for. Since most people really have very little understanding of the “point” system used in printing with type, these handy little plastic gauges take a lot of the confusion out of matching existing print or determining the size best suited for a project. They are also helpful in showing customers what various type sizes look like.
     A type gauge combines a ruler with cut slots that allows you to easily measure printed type plus shows examples of the most common type sizes. These cost about $2. The reverse side includes a scale for measuring the width of lines (called “rules”).
     A “Pica Rule” was commonplace in the printing industry in the days of linotype machines and handset type. This particular ruler is for measuring 12 pt. (Pica) type. A typesetter would have one of these for each size type he worked with. With the advent of computer typesetting, the point system has lost much of its usefulness and is slowly giving way to type measured in inches or feet rather than points. CorelDRAW X3, the newest version from Corel, actually shows type size in inches on the main menu bar.
     Curious as to where this point system came from? It dates back to the earliest printing presses. As the story goes, two printers were trying to communicate what size line (called a “rule”) they wanted to use. At that point in time, there was no way to measure either type or rules and it was very confusing. One printer picked up six sheets of paper, pressed it between his fingers and announced that was One Point. Double that was Two Points, etc. It still wasn’t very precise and it has no meaning for us today since our paper is much different, but that was the beginning. In today’s print world, many people refer to a “Computer Point Scale” where 100 points is 1" tall, but printers and those associated with the print world continue to use the old point system and will for many years to come. When measuring type, remember, type is always measured from the top of the highest ascender to the bottom of the lowest decender.

Rotary paper cutters can also be used to cut Rowmark Lights and Mates, magnetic sheeting and self-adhesive films.

     5. Bounty Paper Towels: We all use paper towels, but why should you use the Bounty brand? Because this is the only brand of towel I’ve found that doesn’t scratch black brass or acrylic. You still must use an appropriate cleaner and should never “dry wipe” acrylic or engraving stock. Someone told me one time the reason this towel wouldn’t scratch was because it contained no wood fiber. I can’t verify that, but it sounds plausible.
     6. Fingernail Brush: This may sound silly, but a simple fingernail brush has countless uses in an awards shop. I have one for cleaning up the rubber stamps I make with my laser and another for cleaning up engraved plastic signs and name badges.
     7. Magnetic Nut Driver: Assembling trophies is a pain—especially if you have to do a lot of them. Here’s a tool that makes this task a little easier. It’s a traditional nut driver with a magnet built into it so it actually picks up and holds a nut. No more fumbling to get a nut into a driver or started onto a rod. Just scatter some nuts out on the workbench and pick them up with the driver as you need them. The cost for a driver is about $10 and can probably be ordered from several suppliers, including a number of companies listed in EJ’s R&I Directory in the December issue. I buy mine from Southeastern Trophy Supply. There are lots of nut drivers on the market and they all look alike. Make sure the one you buy is magnetized. These nut drivers not only hold a nut in place, but can also pick one up off a workbench.
     8. Rotary Paper Cutters: Having a paper cutter around to trim sublimation transfers and the like is nice, but you can do a great deal more with them than just cut paper! For instance, they are great for cutting Rowmark Lights and Mates materials. Because most cutters have no magnetic parts (other than the cutting wheel), they’re great for cutting magnetic sheeting. But don’t stop there—you can also score plastics with them. They work especially well with Rowmark FlexiBrass and other 1/32" engraving materials. For those using self-adhesive films for laser or sublimation, these are a must!
     Rotary cutters come in a variety of sizes and in two basic designs. The traditional paper cutter style and the handheld model. The paper cutters range in price from about $20 to $150 and can be purchased at most office supply stores while the handheld model costs from $5 to $20 and come from sewing centers like JoAnn Fabrics or even Wal-Mart.

A single stroke of a brown or black magic marker can cover up an imperfection on a plaque.   USB "flash" drives are digital memory devices that work on any computer with a USB port and can be used to share files between computers.

     9. Brown and Black Magic Markers: I once told a class about this and no one knew what a Magic Marker was. When I was growing up, any broad tip marker that you bought at any office supply store was considered a Magic Marker. Whatever you call them, they play a special role in dressing up plaques. Personally, I prefer permanent markers.
     I use them to dress up imitation plaque boards. I use the brown for walnut, cherry and oak. Depending on how closely they match, other colors could also be used to dress up blue, green, red or a host of other color boards. Finding a match for these is just trial and error, but the method is the same.
     Anyone familiar with imitation plaque boards knows the foil used to cover the MDF board doesn’t always match up at the corners, leaving a tiny, light-colored line at some of the corners. These are usually not terribly obtrusive, but it would be better if they weren’t there—especially on plaques with black edges. To cover these, use a single stroke of a marker of the appropriate color and immediately wipe any excess off with a wet finger. (Most people use a little saliva, but for those with an aversion to such things, tap water or rubbing alcohol works just as well.) The secret is to wipe off the excess and to do it immediately. Otherwise, you’ll be able to see where the marker left ink on the foil itself, which makes the flaw look worse than it did in the beginning.
     10. Old English Scratch Cover: Ever pick up a walnut plaque only to find a small scratch or two making the plaque unsaleable? Scratches come easily, especially on real wood and they’re usually hard to cover up. Here is an old remedy people have been using for nearly 100 years and it works amazingly well.
     Old English furniture polish comes in three colors; dark, light and red. The dark works on walnut and dark cherry while the light works on oak and alder, leaving the red for mahogany and stained cherry. Just put a little on a paper towel and wipe it over the scratch. After a minute or two, buff off any excess and you’re done. It won’t cover every ding, but it has sure saved me a pile of money over the years! Old English is available at most hardware stores and super markets.
     11. USB Flash Drives (sometimes called jump drives): Where have these little babies been all my life? Have you ever wanted to take some work home with you, but didn’t want to take the time to burn a CD or dig up a disk (assuming the disk will hold the file in the first place and that you have matching drives at home and work)? These little memory devices work in any computer with a USB port. They’re great for sharing work between computers within the shop without the need for a network or just to carry with you for whatever purpose. Depending on the size of the memory, these can be purchased for as little as $20, but most people opt for the $40 variety. They fit in your pocket or purse and weigh almost nothing. Rebates and sales are common with these and I’ve never found one brand better than another. Hallelujah, a computer something that just works!

Old English Scratch Cover is available in dark, light and red and is an old remedy for wood scratches.

     12. Silicone Adhesive: How can you live without a tube of silicone adhesive around? I use it for everything from a sealant to a glue for mounting objects to plaques to huge mountings of bronze plaques to brick walls! Although it takes longer to set up than hot glue, it’s usually much stronger, waterproof and not sensitive to heat. Don’t confuse common caulking with adhesive, they’re not the same thing although silicone makes an excellent caulking material. Small tubes, as well as tubes for caulking guns, can be purchased at any hardware store for a few dollars. I prefer GE Silicone II when I can find it. Silicone sets up to the touch in about half an hour and cures in 24 hours. Heavy or thick applications may take longer. Once cured, it remains somewhat flexible so it can expand and contract with weather and daily stress. A major U.S. sign maker once told me that if silicone adhesive were to suddenly fail, every sign in his city would fall down!
     13. Cleaner/Polish for Black Brass: People clean engraving metal with all kinds of things, like alcohol, water, mineral spirits and even floor wax to restrict tarnishing. A couple of companies have introduced actual cleaners for engraving metal and there’s one I’m especially fond of. Awards Bright Cleanser comes from Awards, Etc. and has been around for a long, long time. I have no idea what’s really in it, but it works. Just spray it on and wipe it off with a clean cloth or a Bounty paper towel. It helps reduce tarnish, removes dirt, oil and fingerprints. There’s no excessive rubbing needed, no residue to deal with and no mess similar to what’s left by liquid waxes. The cost is about $6 per bottle. If you do rotary engraving on gold brass or aluminum, the same company also has an excellent blackening agent for each.
     14. Rub ’n Buff: For those who work with glass, smooth marble or stone, this is a must. Rub ’n Buff is made for the framing industry and intended for use on wood frames to make them look old and distressed. It comes in 18 colors although the golds, bronzes and silvers work best. The metallic material can be rubbed onto engraved surfaces such as glass or marble to fill the engraved area for greater contrast. Instructions say to apply lightly, wait for it to dry and buff it off. For our applications, it should be applied and immediately buffed off. Be careful using it on surfaces that aren’t perfectly smooth, since the material finds its way into every pore and crevice and won’t come out. Some award suppliers such as Tropar offer the material, but it’s also sold in the larger craft stores such as Michaels and A.C. Moore. Its cost is about $4 per tube and a tube goes a long way.

Rub 'n Buff is a must for those who work with glass, smooth marble or stone.   Metallic ink pens are used to create metallic gold or silver lettering on plastic name badges.

     15. Metallic Ink Pens & the Yellow Pages: Many customers would prefer to have metallic gold or silver lettering in their plastic name badges. Although there’s some plastic available with a gold core, it generally falls far short of the flashy gold my customers really want. Of course, you can always paint fill the badges, but what a chore…or is it?
     Using the gold or silver marking pens available at any craft store or office supply store makes the task fast, easy and inexpensive. After engraving the badge, “paint” the engraved area with the gold or silver pen. Don’t worry about getting ink on the surface of the badge.
     Next, take a few pages from the Yellow Pages phone book and pour a little mineral spirits (paint thinner) on one of the pages. Be fairly liberal with it so it can soak through several pages. Now, holding the badge face down between two fingers, drag the badge across the moistened area of the phone book. Note that most of the ink is removed. Turn the page and repeat the process. This may have to be repeated several times to remove all of the ink, but three or four passes should be plenty. Allow time for the badge to dry, and if there’s any residue remaining, a quick touch up with a paper towel and some mineral spirits should do the trick. In all, it should take about a minute to paint fill and clean a badge. Here’s the best part—you can charge extra for this!
     Using extra care, multiple colored inks can be used with this method—it just takes a little planning so you don’t drag one color ink over another.
     With over 15 years experience I have found that these little things have become second nature to me. I hardly think about it when I grab up my MiniCraft drill to drill screw holes until I watch someone else struggle with a full-size drill that takes three times as long to do the same job. Likewise, I can insert a hundred brass screws without dropping a single one while, without the aid of the $10 screwdriver and using only my not-too-nimble fingers, I would probably drop every one of them, increasing the time to build a perpetual plaque by many times over.
     Someone once told me, “It’s knowing the tricks that separate the amateur from the professional.” I’m not sure I really believe that, but it sure makes the work go a lot easier when you can find a few shortcuts. These are some I’ve found through the years. As the months go by, I’ll try to share some more with you, but what would really be cool is if you would do the same with me. If you have some “can’t live without them tools,” or some shortcuts you have found through the school of hard knocks, why not drop me a line so we can all gain from your experience? I would love to hear from you and if you include your name and company, we will include that information if we publish your trick. Come on, help us all out and share some of the wealth you have learned through the years!