How to Start a Tool Lending Library

David Lang, something of a reluctant maker, is on a journey, intensively immersing himself in maker culture and learning as many DIY skills as he can, in part through a generous arrangement with our pals at TechShop. He’s regularly chronicling his efforts in this column — what he’s learning, who he’s meeting, and what hurdles he’s clearing (um… or not). –Gareth

Photo Credit: West Seattle Tool Lending Library

Throughout my Zero to Maker journey, I’ve prided myself on how much I’ve been able to accomplish without actually owning many of the tools I’ve needed. As someone with a tight budget and an even smaller studio apartment, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much I can accomplish through collaborative outlets like TechShop and Noisebridge. However, last week, my strategy fell apart.

While working on building a standing desk in my room, the cheap, electric drill I was using totally gave out on me. I was building the desk out of large pieces of reclaimed wood, the drill was a critical part of the equation, and hauling the entire project to TechShop made no sense. If only there was an easy way to borrow a tool. Turns out, there is, but not for me because I live in San Francisco. If I lived across the Bay in Berkeley or Oakland, I could swing by the local Tool Lending Library and get what I needed.

Tool Lending Libraries work just like book lending libraries, except they allow the temporary use of tools instead of books. They allow a community to access the tools they need, without needing to purchase and store the equipment. For many makers, the use of tools at home doesn’t justify the purchase price, and tool lending libraries can help fill the gap.

Aside from the great service of providing makers with tools they might not otherwise have, Tool Lending Libraries can serve as an important nexus for maker communities. In areas that don’t (yet) have makerspaces, starting a Tool Lending Library is a great way to start organizing and catalyzing the makers in your area. A flurry of resources have emerged to make starting a Tool Lending Library easier than ever:

Tool Library Starter Kit – The generous folks at the West Seattle Tool Library have put together an excellent Starter Kit to help other communities get going. It reduces the time necessary in dealing with potentially complicated details by providing documents like Sample Lease Agreements and Sample Delinquency Letters, available for customization.’s “How to Start a Tool Lending Library” – Shareable put together a wonderful blog post on the subject. It includes interviews with a number of experienced operators as well as new entrants. The post adds a lot of firepower to the “why?” question about Lending Libraries.

Guide to Sharing - The Center for a New American Dream. in collaboration with, put out a Guide to Sharing, which includes a 10-Step guide to starting a Tool Lending Libary.

Gene Homicki, Co-Founder of the West Seattle Tool Lending Library, had a few other important considerations and steps that he would have liked to see added to the Guide to Sharing list:

It’s amazing how many inquiries we get every week from all over the country (and the world!) from people wanting to start a tool library.  Once someone hears about “libraries that lend out tools rather than books,” they start to dream of having access to a thousand tools without having to store and maintain them all personally. However, that blissful moment is often rapidly succeed by the thought, “do I really want to take on the liability of lending things to people with which they can accidentally cut off their body parts?”

Insurance & Legal
It is strongly recommended that if you will be loaning out tools, you take some basic precautions to protect yourself. There are insurance companies (including Philidephia) that will provide general liability insurance to tool libraries and workshops for about $600 to $700 per year.  If your library is connected to a parent organization (non-profit, business, etc.) then you can also talk with your existing insurance agency about adding a rider or amendment for your tool library operations.

A number of libraries also have provided their member agreements and liability waivers online, so you have a starting point for creating your own.  While none of us love dealing with the liability and legal issues, it is important to set things up right from the start to protect yourself and the valuable community resource you’re building. There are even legal services that will offer pro-bono services to help look over your documents and make sure you’re protected.

For those people not scared off by the liability issues, the second most common question we receive is “how do we actually manage membership, inventory and run the library?”

Inventory & Operations
If you were starting your tool library 20 years ago, or even three years ago, your options to manage memberships, inventory and loans were not ideal.  They included “home grown” systems (paper ledger, spreadsheets, etc.), clunky “book library” software, or rental management software. In West Seattle, we’ve developed a slightly larger than average tool library with about 700 members, over 1,000 tools, and as many as 150 tools out on loan at any given time.  If we tried to manage this volume with inappropriate tools, it would put tremendous stress on our part time staff and volunteers, as well as, make management of the library nearly impossible with our relatively limited resources.

Luckily, today there are actually two solutions designed specifically for managing tool and lending libraries: Local Tools and Tool Librarian. While they differ in specific features and goals, both of these systems allow you to manage members, inventory, loans, etc. and they embed “best practices” right into the systems.  These type of systems take the drudgery out of the process by handling everything from automatically emailing loan reminders, to displaying inventory online and tracking late fees. If you are thinking about starting a tool or lending library, I strongly recommend you check out (pun intended) both of these options.

While there can be risks to starting a tool library, and work in running it, the reward of building a community where everyone has affordable access to the tools and skills to fix, maintain and make things is incredibly rewarding.

Thanks to people like Mr. Homicki, starting and operating a Tool Lending Library is easier than ever. If you’re looking for a way to catalyze the maker community in your area, this is a great strategy.

Follow David’s Zero to Maker journey

On Amateurism: Interview With Jack Hitt, Part 1

Earlier this month, we announced the publication of This American Life contributing editor Jack Hitt’s newest book, Bunch of Amateurs, published by The Crown Publishing Group. Now we’re following up that announcement with the first of my two-part interview with Jack, discussing the history of the word amateur, influential makers, and the institutional versus entrepreneurial approaches to American amateurism. Read on!

MAKE: If a “Glossary of the American Character” existed, certain words come to mind that reference actors in your book: rascal, outsider, homebrew, to pioneer, even rebel. Likewise, certain terms like “home movies,” referencing an era of Betamax and VHS to America’s Funniest Home Videos and now YouTube, seem to suggest an “only in America” phenomenon. Meaning “lover” or “lover of,” what made you settle upon the word amateur?

Jack Hilt: The word itself is a beautiful thing. It comes from Latin — amo, amas, amat — because the base meaning of amateur is one who does it, not for pay, but for love, obsession, because there’s no way they cannot do it. But the word in Europe still suggests, simply, a non-professional. Once it crossed the pond, the word became a wonderful muddle of contradictions. It runs the gamut from novice (amateur painter) to incompetent (rank amateur) to near connoisseur (amateur art collector). This tangle is American, too, reflecting that deep truth of an immigrant nation (starting from scratch) and our anxiety about it.

MAKE: The amateurs you researched, from birders and archaeologists to star-gazers and homebrew geneticists, are fairly diverse in their disciplines (and technological resources). Did you intentionally plan to dabble in all these different groups – from guides in the woods to DNA bashers in the lab – or did they sort of spontaneously present themselves along the way, like a random encounter on the street?

Jack: Amateurs gather where some discipline is in distress and where innovation is waiting. So, I went looking for those places. Consider my own world of journalism. In the last few decades, the stately media have become high-born press agents, carefully reciting reports handed to them by a semi-permanent bureaucracy in Washington, DC. Then, along came bloggers, swarming the fortress of official journalism, painfully reminding the inhabitants what afflicting the comfortable actually means.

MAKE: And what allured you to the notion of amateurism in the first place?

Jack: I spent a while hanging out with the Kansas City Space Pirates, a team of amateurs competing in a NASA competition involving power beaming. The goal, ultimately, is to build a space elevator — a 60,000 mile long ribbon built of carbon nanotubes, a slightly-but-not-entirely cracked idea that would permit us to easily escape the gravity of earth and more handily domesticate space. After some time with the Pirates, it struck me that the world of backyard tinkerers was not a halcyon time that has passed but one that has come cycling back around.

MAKE:The word amateur to me is quite positive, but I can see where others might disagree, thinking the word undermines their character (I would take the time to discuss, and attempt to convince them otherwise!). Did you encounter anyone who took offense to the word, or the notion of “rank amateurism,” and what was their feedback?

Jack: Actually, I was the one who was the most troubled. Amateur is one of those complex words with so many meanings that it’s easy to offend. In the bird chapter, I slyly refer to David Sibley as a kind of amateur. Sure, he’s a Cornell dropout — so it’s technically true — but I felt almost idiotic referring to the greatest bird painter of our time as an amateur. He knows more about any single bird — its feathers, coloration, movements, songs — than any credentialed ornithologist alive. It’s just that his knowledge is autodidactic; he taught himself, by spending a lifetime out of doors, looking. That’s a different, older kind of knowledge — born of a passionate intensity — than the focused know-how, positively re-inforced by elder approval, learned in a school. Still, it felt pretty weird, almost offensive.

MAKE: To me, the chapter about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker – IBWO – revolves around this notion of enthusiasm. Lots and lots of people being really enthusiastic about what is essentially a “mythic” bird. At what point does one’s enthusiasm bubble up and become a type of amateurism?

Jack: Well, “enthusiast” is just another, older word for amateur, right? (from the Greek, “divinely inspired”). But the bird chapter is a cautionary tale for both amateurs and professionals — a long (very long, I admit) parable about how enthusiasm can be its own delusion. The most credentialed birders in the world, the Ph.D.’s of Cornell, found themselves caught up in a bubble of pure excitement, and as a result, managed to see, hear, and even videotape a bird that we now know was never there.

That concludes the first of a two-part interview with Jack Hitt. And now for the prize giveaway! Up for grabs is another piece of Orion hardware, this time, their UltraView 10×50 Wide Angle binoculars, complete with soft carrying case and neck strap. Portable and light, these binoculars are great for stargazing, bird-watching, or field sports, and offer 10-power viewing through 50mm lenses, with a rubber finish that is easy to handle.

To enter to win: All you have to do is leave a comment below! Comments left before May 31st at 11:59pm PST will be eligible to win this prize. Be sure to leave a valid email so we can contact you if you win. Feel free to tell a story about your own amateur pursuits, although it’s not necessary for a chance to win. For complete rules, click here.

Be sure to check back on June 12th to read the rest of my interview with Jack Hitt, and for our final giveaway. And congratulations to MAKE blog reader Landisb who won the first prize giveaway!

These prizes are provided by The Crown Publishing Group, publishers of Bunch of Amateurs.

Tool Review: NEMA 23 Stepper Motor Covers


Over the last year I have been finishing a project to convert my X2 manual mini mill into a fully enclosed 3-axis CNC milling machine. Once I had the stepper motors mounted and running, I worried that the wire connection at the base of the motors might be a potential weak point in the design. Eventually I want to use mist coolant when machining parts but I do not want to run the risk of shorting out the wiring due to spotty connections. At first I though of a few ways to fix this issue and sketched out a few ideas on paper, but the designs were large and bulky and looked like over-engineered boxes. I wanted a simple and practical solution that would securely anchor the wires to the motor while preventing liquid damage from mist coolant.

While searching the online CNC forums for ideas, I stumbled across these professional looking NEMA 23 Stepper motor covers. These plastics covers incorporate a threaded panel mount pin connector to secure the motor wires to the side of the motor case and only cost $13.50 each. Intrigued, I printed out the motor sizing guide to see if my Probotix stepper motors would be compatible, and emailed Jeff Birt at to inquire about the different options. In no time, Jeff responded with the following:

“A NEMA 23 [motor] frame has a 57mm square profile. There are some 60mm motors out there which get labeled as NEMA 23 as the mounting boss and hole pattern is the same, but the regular NEMA 23 covers will not fit.

The covers come in two basic flavors, with or without a sealing O-ring (IP40 or IP65). Unless you have an IP65 rated (sealed) stepper motor than there are still ways that liquid can get inside the motor. The O-ring will help to prevent the cover from filling up with coolant. To really seal the motor you have to buy a sealed motor, use the O-ring style cover, and use a water tight gland nut or connector.

In reality you are better off to fashion sheet metal covers that will cover the area over the stepper coupler and the stepper motor. This will keep out the majority of the mess. The other trick is to face the connector hole downward.”

After a few emails back and forth to verify that my motors would fit, Jeff recommended the standard IP40 covers (since my stepper motors were not sealed) and offered to send me three covers to test and review. Before I could begin the install I had to source my own eight pin connectors for wiring up the unipolar stepper drivers to the motors. If you are using bipolar stepper motor drivers, then you can purchase the optional 4 pin connectors when ordering the motor covers from Soigeneris. Since my motor drivers from Probotix are unipolar, I had to use eight pin connectors. (awesome quick MicroChip video on Unipolar vs Bipolar). You can find these connectors online or at a local surplus electronics store. Getting all eight wires in the connector is a challenge, but with some patience and a fine-tipped solder iron it is possible.

Designed by DY Engineering in Israel, these covers were originally made to meet the functional and aesthetic demands of the inventor and DIY CNC hobbyist Daniel Yosefi:

The idea came after I fitted stepper motors to my first machine and at first I soldered the wires and used isolation tape on top. It looked awful, not safe and not professional and I hated it. I started looking on the web and forums for some solution. I believed there ought to be some solution that people were using since there are literally thousands of DIY CNC machines being built, but I was so disappointed to find that there was no neat ready solution. I decided I wanted something more professional and safe so I gave it some thought… lot’s of actually, (I scraped several alternatives till I got to this one) and came up with this solution.

I machined them out of Delrin and mounted on my motors. I was very satisfied with the look of the machine, but I had no plans of making it a commercial product at that time. Some time later when a few friends saw the photos of the motors with the covers mounted and told me this was a great idea, I realized that I was not the only one putting attention to detail when building a machine and others may also benefit the idea.

The first commercial ones were still being CNC machined and after I was confident the demand could justify an injection mold’s cost, it was made and now they are injection molded.

Besides wiring the pin connectors, the installation is extremely simple and the instructions are well documented and available for download. The covers mount to the rear of the motor using the threaded screw holes in the end of the motor case and come predrilled with center marks for drilling out the mounting holes. During installation you may need to shorten the machine screws that secure the motor case together. This is easily done by removing each stepper motor screw one at a time and grinding off a few millimeters at the end to allow adequate clearance for the shorter motor cover screws that are included with the cover.

These covers are also compatible with stepper motors that have a rear shaft. The design incorporates an internal sleeve for protecting the rear shaft of the motor from interfering with the wiring during operation. After following the instructions and soldering all the wires to the pin connector, simply wrap the motor wires inside the cover and use the four machine screws to secure the cover to the back of the motor. An overhanging lip completely covers the gland where the wires exit the stepper motor.
Even without the O-rings installed, these covers protect the stepper motor wiring from flying chips while the overhanging lip provides protection from oil and lubricant spraying inside the wire connections. With the addition of the panel mounted pin connectors, the motor’s wiring harness is securely fastened to the side of the motor covers and ensures a strong connection during operation. These NEMA 23 stepper motor covers are the perfect finishing touch to any CNC project.

MAKE Asks: Your Go-To Tools

Make: Asks is a new weekly column where we ask you, our readers, for responses to maker-related questions. We hope the column will spark interesting conversation and that we’ll get to know more about each other.

Whether it’s to use them as an adjustable wrench in a pinch, or to break free a stripped bolt or screw, my Vise Grips are always close at hand. It’s a versatile and durable tool that has a special place in my toolbox.

This week’s question: What is your go-to tool when working on a project, whether it be for fabrication, electrical work, crafting, or anything else?

Post your responses in the comments section.

Copy Carving a Rotary Dial Telephone

Matthias Wandel of wrote in to share his Copy Carver project, with which he carved a telephone:

So far I had just copied a wrench with my copy carver, so I was looking for a more complex object to try. I had recently acquired a rotary dial phone, just for nostalgia’s sake at a yard sale. I figured this would be a neat shape to try.

I wasn’t sure if it was practical to do a good job of it, so I made a test carving of just part of the dial. That worked out well enough, so I went ahead.

Engineer Guy vs. Aluminum and Titanium Anodizing

As much as I love Engineer Guy videos, I am especially partial to Series #4, because it is themed around the chemical elements—each installment features a different element and a remarkable bit of engineering based upon it. And this week my two personal favorite elements are in the spotlight. Though it is utterly common, today, metallic aluminum was once among the most precious metals in existence. Books can and have been written about aluminum’s wonderful history and properties, and as for titanium…well, who doesn’t love titanium?

Here, then, is the third installment of Engineer Guy Series #4, in which Bill Hammack (and his behind-the-scenes teammates Patrick Ryan and Nick Ziech) take us through the constructive use of corrosion to create durable, colorful surface finishes on, for example, Apple’s laptops and iPods. Great, as always. [Thanks, Bill!]

3D Printed Mintronics: Menta Case on Thingiverse

TodBot of ThingM wasn’t content with keeping his Mintronics: Menta (available in the Maker Shed) in the included tin so he 3D printed his own Menta enclosure.

[The Menta] is a great little Arduino clone that fits in a mint tin yet still has Arduino-standard header sockets for shields. I found the mint tin limiting though if you’re adding wires & parts to your circuit, plus I have always felt a little iffy about putting prototypes in metal enclosures. So here’s a printable case for mint tin-sized circuits like the Menta. It has openings for the DC power jack and the FTDI cable.

TodBot has both 25mm and 35mm versions up on Thingiverse but you could easily stretch the case enclose almost any circuit or shield you need.


HeinyBot Delivers the Beer

Daniel of Valencia, Spain, built this clever waiter bot to dispense (warm?) beer:

This time, I show the operation of HeinyBot Waiter in static mode. In this mode, once activated the robot, it enters a loop oscillating movements, gestures and audio messages which only comes when we approach from the side or front to less than 80 cm. If we do one way or another he will turn to us to serve beer. First we have to pay, then keep the coin in his “pocket” and serve beer. To get it, we put your hand under the can and once we detected with the sensor of the clamp, release the can.

[Translated by Google!]

Revisited: Cord Curling – Part 2, Reversing the Coil

The cord curled in my original project, before reversing. Note right-hand helicity, 19 turns.

Same cord, after reversing the coil. Note left-hand helicity, 21 turns.

One of the first projects I ever wrote for MAKE was about setting a coil in a factory-straight electrical cable or cord using a heat gun and a metal form. A recent comment on that project hipped me to this short video segment from the Science Channel’s awesome show How It’s Made:

In it, a technician in a factory that makes coiled retractable cables demonstrates a second step in the process that I didn’t know about when I wrote my original guide: after the initial “perm,” the coil is reversed by a machine that grabs both ends and twists it in the direction opposite the thermoformed helix. The industrial machine is apparently a bit of a trade secret, but the trick can be performed on a one-off basis using a bench vise and a hand drill.

Besides being a lot of fun to watch, I can now report that this process is a lot of fun to do. And works essentially as advertised on home-curled cords. The “inside out” cord, which started as a regular straight instrument patch cable, is now considerably tighter than before.

Thanks to Bart Patrzalek for the tip, and Brian Adams for linking to the instructive video segment.

Make: Projects — Cord Curling Part 2 – Reversing the Coil

Charming Maker Faire Bay Area Video

I love this silent Maker Faire video with a very twinkly, ethereal soundtrack. Really captures some of the wonder of the event.

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