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Spare Parts: The well-appointed garage

By Ernie Copper

Clint Eastwood’s character, Walter Kowalski, explains tools to Thao in Grand Torino as “something a man acquires over a lifetime.” In my lifetime I have acquired a fair collection of tools, but as a mechanic I am a hobbyist. I do OK with what I have, but generally find myself improvising on some important aspect of whatever it is I’m trying to do. My garage is also where I park my car and bikes, as well as housing my paint booth and wood shop. Strange bedfellows—which results in a lot of moving things around depending on the task at hand.

If I’m sandblasting, all the pretty polished and waxed stuff needs to be moved out or covered up. When woodworking, the greasy, grimy stuff needs to be covered. Grease and sawdust don’t really go together. My two-car garage needs to wear several hats and the one it wears least seems to be holding two cars.

There are a few things I think I’ve got right in my garage. A college dorm-sized mini fridge keeps beverages chilled. You just can’t beat the convenience of cold drinks in the garage. A five-foot-long industrial-strength power strip mounted to the workbench ensures enough places to plug things in. And an early-model bike lift ensures that I can lift bikes off the ground for service. The recent addition of a self-retracting air-hose reel that matches my trouble light has proven well worth its $39 Black Friday asking price. I’ve gotten other things right too, such as special shelves for helmets and an old cabinet for extra gear like face shields, goggles and gloves. I’ve also recently upgraded the sound system so it includes an A/B switch for speakers, which allows me to throw the music outside when I’m having a campfire at our nearby fire ring.

Music isn’t much consolation if you’re freezing in the northeast, so heat is essential if you plan to do much in the winter. My heat now comes via the convenience of a propane-fired, wall-hanging unit. Hank Hill would be proud. It’s cheap, works well and has its own thermostat. Insulation helps keep the propane budget at less than $100 per winter, and while all of this isn’t as romantic as the old wood-fired railroad caboose stove that it replaced, it’s much more efficient and a lot safer. The old arrangement once got so hot that it distorted my bike’s windshield until it looked a lot like Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” painting.

There are at least three shortcomings in my garage that I would love to change. My garage is oriented so the overhead door opens to the west. This is great if you want leaves, rain, sleet and snow to blow into your garage, or if you enjoy squinting into the sunset during warm-weather repairs. I don’t plan to rotate my garage anytime soon, so we’ll look at the other two shortcomings.

Every garage needs a workbench and every workbench a bench vise. Mine has both. My problem isn’t with the vise so much as it is with where I have it mounted. It’s nearly on the corner of the bench, but at an angle that is inefficient. It’s actually square with the bench, but when I put it in decades ago it was the first bench vise I ever owned so I was less than educated about how to install a vise. It needs to be turned 90 degrees. Re-indexed, so to speak. Every time I lock something down in it I have to fight the handle banging on the bench top. It’s like a vise with a limp. Spin, thunk, spin, thunk. This limits me to half turns when using the vise and as soon as this column is finished, I’m going to re-orient the vise so I can spin the handle 360 degrees without limitations. I feel better already.

The other problem is electricity. It’s not a matter of where to plug things in, but the availability of electricity once they are all plugged in. Supply is not keeping up with demand. Things have kind of evolved beyond my simple, initial desire to have an electric overhead door 25 years ago. If I want to weld, I need to unplug the mini fridge. It’s a real pain and the ultimate solution will be a separate electrical service for the garage.

Running water would also be nice, but let’s not get carried away. The old garage is showing some age, but is still a comfortable place to work on bikes and anything else that might come along, and it feels like home.


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