Tools for the green toolbox

Tackle DIY projects with hand tools, power tools and elbow grease

Green building is usually defined by the materials we use: reclaimed lumber, formaldehyde-free plywood, low-VOC paints, etc. Yet two pieces of wood don't simply slam together to make a wall. Home improvement projects require all sorts of nailing, screw-driving, cutting, torquing, sanding, brushing and, in some cases, swearing. So the question is whether there’s an eco-friendly way to go about putting the pieces together. What are green tools and how can I get them into my toolbox?

Powerless Tools Have the Green Power

The greenest tools don’t use grid power or fuels like gasoline to operate. These are almost certainly already in your toolbox. Need to drive a nail? Use a hammer, as opposed to an air compressor and pneumatic nail gun. Screwdrivers, handsaws, hacksaws, tin snips, planers are others. If a power tool was invented to perform a particular task, then there's a powerless tool that was doing it first, sans electricity, sans environmental impact, requiring only all-natural kinetic energy.

So, everybody drop your nail gun, drop your circular saw, pick up your hammer and chisel and let's go to work (a can of spinach and a sailor's forearms wouldn't hurt either). OK, so that's not going to happen. If I had only hand tools to use, as green as they inherently are, I'd have succeeded in building maybe 10 percent of all the homes I've ever hammered a nail into. Power tools revolutionized the building industry in the 20th century, and are unlikely to go anywhere in the 21st.

Still, trying to cut back on power tools for those green tools in our toolboxes is a worthwhile effort. There's always the novel and nostalgic homage of attempting the art of classic woodworking. Harkening back to the days of the wood smith or millwright. This is great for projects like furniture-building and other artisanal activities. More typical home projects could do without power as well. You decide the level of blood, sweat and/or tears you're willing to endure.

Please (Don't) Fill it Up

Among those wonderfully convenient tools that require power to operate, there is a greener way to go: no fuel. In fact, given that landscaping is the most frequent of home maintenance projects, and that gasoline powers most conventional yard tools, switching to "fuel-less" tools will have a major impact on most home maintenance regimens.

Electric lawnmowers, hedge trimmers, weed-eaters, leaf blowers, snow blowers and even chainsaws are available. Some are corded, some use batteries. While electric tools still suck power—typically coal-fired power—they run much more efficiently than gas-powered tools. They also don't emit toxic fumes or gases and don't contribute chemicals to the soil and water supply.

Digital Tools: The New Green

An entirely new toolbox has been invented for the new millennium: The Digital Toolbox. Inside you won't find a hammer and nails but will find plans, guidelines, tutorials and other tools for building or living in a sustainable manner. There are tools to evaluate your remodel for its eco-friendliness, calculate your potential for renewable energy systems such as solar power, digital plans for advanced DIY projects (such as building your own solar panel) and sustainable design concepts. While not as tangible as swinging a framing hammer to build a wall, digital tools have revolutionized the modern toolbox and are quickly helping to change lifestyles and living spaces for the greener.

Solarize Your Toolbox

Speaking of solar power systems, they can be very helpful in greening your existing toolbox and workshop. It's fairly easy these days to build a small solar generator powerful enough to charge batteries for cordless power tools and for the truly ambitious, to provide electricity for corded drills, saws and other equipment (Habitat for Humanity now runs some job sites using mobile solar power stations).

Of course, installing a home solar power system on your rooftop will turn your entire home into a green toolbox. Even if that's not possible right now, there's nothing wrong with keeping a little wishful thinking in your toolbox. In fact, the prevalence of green-anything wouldn't exist without it.


Dan Harding is a well-versed veteran of solar critique, commentary and reporting. He has published well over 1,000 articles on a wide variety of solar industry topics, ranging from cutting-edge technology and gadgetry to political satire and powerful editorials. CalFinder is proud to tout Dan as our resident solar expert. He holds a B.A. in English from Michigan State University, and enjoys reading, writing and home construction.