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Tools of the Trade

by Greg Swain

I was 20 when I went logging in northern BC. At that time my mechanical ability regarding big rigs was limited to remounting a bicycle chain on its sprocket and dismantling my Tonka toys. But I was eager to learn and quickly cottoned on to getting my hands dirty while wondering why things work.

What I'm going to do over the course of the next few months is have a look back into my first toolbox, for the benefit of those who haven't started their own collection yet but want to. I'm not a mechanic, but I have been an owner-operator and a driver trainer. We all had to start somewhere.

Any plastic box with a sturdy handle and solid clasps that's big enough to hold your hammer will suffice until you outgrow it. Many of you may already have most of this stuff at home. Put it in an old tackle box and bring it with you.

Use the inside tray of your tool box for the small stuff you accumulate along the way: spare fuses, light bulbs and lenses, salvageable gladhand gaskets you pick up in the yard, air fittings you'll never use again, and orphaned nuts and bolts you will.

In no particular order of importance, this is the stuff to start with:

  • Long-shaft flathead screwdriver
  • Small electrician's flathead screwdriver
  • Multihead screwdriver
  • Side cutters
  • Needle-nose pliers
  • Visegrips
  • 8-inch adjustable crescent wrench
  • 1/4 to 3/4-inch wrench set
  • Tape measure
  • Black electrical tape
  • Duct tape
  • Medium-grade sandpaper
  • Wire brush
  • Hose clamps
  • Five-minute epoxy
  • Pumice hand cleaner
  • And of course, a hammer

The really adventurous might add a few more useful items:

  • 12-volt circuit tester
  • A roll of automotive wire
  • Wire crimper and connections
  • Mini hacksaw
  • A socket set the same size as your wrenches.
  • Flat-blade chisel
  • Steel bastard file

You already have a flashlight, I presume. I use a mini Mag because I can adjust the beam and hold it in my mouth, which leaves both hands free.

The tool rule is this: always buy the best you can afford. It's better to purchase one high-quality item at a time, as you can afford it, than let yourself be seduced by one of those spiffy looking 117-piece deluxe combo sets on sale at some truck stop. Quality feels good in the hand. If you treat your tools with respect they will last your entire career and beyond.

Now that you've decided to increase your mechanical aptitude you have to learn to start thinking like a mechanic. The best way to do that is to spend time with mechanics and see how they think.

Make friends with your favourite company mechanic and follow him around when he's working. Pepper him with questions, even if they have no bearing on the problem at hand. Start by finding out how he'd like you to describe problems on your pretrip or maintenance reports. Learn the difference between an acceptable situation and a CVOR violation.

Fear not your ignorance, because most mechanics respond well to genuine curiosity and an opportunity to share their arcane wisdom. And the more you learn the language of mechanics the better you'll be at communicating problems to them, especially if you're calling on a cell phone from the shoulder of the road or defending yourself at a roadside inspection.

Read the owner's manual for your truck, and its motor, when you're waiting at a loading dock. Write down the stuff you don't understand so you can query your mechanic next time you see him.

Some companies don't want their drivers fraternizing with the shop staff because they think it interferes with productivity. If that's the case, ask your safety guy or fleet manager for permission. The greater your mechanical awareness the better it is for the carrier. No Canadian company wants to pay US dollars for a service call the driver could've handled himself.

Many new drivers share the dream to be an owner operator one day. I can tell you this much: next to business acumen, developing your mechanical aptitude is the single most significant thing you can do to make that dream a successful reality. And the skills you acquire along the way will spill over into the rest of your life in ways you never imagined were possible.

But before we start swinging hammers, next month we're going to have a look at the most important tool of them all: the folding pocket knife. Really.

Greg Swain is a long-time driver, now hauling fuel for Sunoco, as well being a former owner-operator and driver trainer. Having spent a long time in B.C., he's now living in the Toronto area. But don't hold that against him.

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