Hand tools are a vital component within the fabrication shop, and proper maintenance is a key to their longevity.

Q: As a fabricator, what is your preferred hand tool that sells for under $500, and what do you do with it? Also, how much maintenance do your hand tools need?

Scott McGourley, Kasco Stone, Tampa, FL: My favorite hand tool for under $500 is the Alpha AWS-125 Circular Saw. This machine accepts a 5-inch curved blade and allows the user to very quickly and safely make accurate curved cuts on granite. It has a handle on the front left that makes it very easy and safe to control the machine. It also has a water attachment and built in GFCI. It is really a must for any size shop. We make cuts with it on the saw table as well as drop vanity bowls in five minutes. It also works quite well for straight cutting.

Dustin Braudway, SFA, Cape Fear Marble and Tile, Inc., Wilmington, NC: My favorite hand tool changes all the time. New technology comes in and out every day. We learn new tricks all the time to help us in the shop and the field. Right now I would have to say that my favorite hand tool for under $500 would be a Makita 7-inch grinder Model Number 9227C with a 5-inch, snail-lock backer and a set of Toro polishing wheels.

I have been playing around with cleaning and restoring marble remnants and some granites as well. This will allow us to resell scrap pieces for small vanities and whatnot. We were looking for a way to do this since we do not own a Radial Arm Polisher.

The Makita has lasted a long time. Maintenance is easy, and if you ever need to repair it, there are a lot of tool repair guys out there who work with Makita.

Antonio Almonte, SFA, River City Stone Inc., Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada: Our favorite hand tool for under $500 in our shop is the Alpha Air-658 polisher, hands down. Like a lot of other shops, we started with the electric polishers but quickly got tired of the weight and downtime - with the continual maintenance and breakdowns. When we went to air tools, we bought the Alphas and haven’t looked back.

Maintenance on the Alpha is very simple. A drop or two of oil at the end of the day and you are done. My production manager is very adept with tools, and he fixes the Alphas when needed. We are still using the original Alphas we bought three years ago.

We have not had problems with employees abusing the tools. (Mind you, we have a small shop compared to others.) They follow the daily maintenance procedures religiously. If they don’t, they go back to the electric tools until they learn to respect the tools.

William White, Counter Solutions, Jackson, TN: I agree on Makita grinders. We use the 9566CV. By using 6-inch blades to cut on 3-cm material, you get to use all the diamond on a blade right down to the core. On a 5-inch blade, you always left some on the blade. The clutch-in helps new people learn to cut without getting hurt.

Kent Potter, TK Custom Stone, Inc., St. Marys, GA: We also like the Makita. It is easy to rebuild, and the 5/8-11 thread handles all the tooling you want to throw at it. Even when feeding water to it to keep the dust down, it plugs right along. We have 23 of them at last count, with at least half of them rebuilt - a few several times. We change out the brushes in about 10 minutes, and they are ready to go again.

Mark Meriaux, The Granite Shop, Smyrna, GA: In the shop, my favorite is the Barranca BD-2321WR pneumatic polisher. These hold up better than any we have used and have a longer (one-year) warranty. The Alpha AWS-125 and AWS-110 electric hand-held saws are great. I also agree with others above on the Makita 9565CV variable-speed grinder/polisher. It can be used for cutting/grinding and even top polishing both in the shop and during installations.

As far as install tools, slightly over the $500 limit (approximately $650 + shipping) is the Gorilla Grip seam leveling clamps from Monument Toolworks. Another must-have for our shop are the Carry Clamps from Stone Pro Equipment. These are ideal for handling/carrying large pieces.

As for maintenance, there are many small electric and air tool repair shops (and the manufacturers, of course). I’ve been sending my electric and pneumatic tools to Rick White at Tool Tech Inc. in Maryland for refurbishing. He has a quick turnaround time (about a week) and he lets me know if a tool is past its useful life (not economical to repair).

Matt Lansing, Stone Innovations, Inc., Plover, WI: One great thing, in my opinion, is the vacuum-brazed cup wheel. I am especially fond of the 4-inch Cyclone. It runs smooth enough that it won’t chip when putting radius corners on Santa Cecelia, aggressive enough to shape full bullnose profiles on Absolute Black from scratch on the small sides that you don’t want to or can’t run through your polishing machines, and then the abrasive on the edge allows you to cut beautiful notches and reliefs in stone without the worry of the stone chipping.

Steven Hauser, CIRCA, Inc., Greenville, SC: I like air polishers. Most can be had for under $500 and all are multifunctional tools. We have the most experience with the Alpha polishers. Jeff Leun and I were discussing the fact that, at 16 CFM, running multiples of this tool puts a real bind on most compressors. Figure about 3 CFM per HP on your compressor. The advent of the lower CFM air polishers like GranQuartz’s 8 CFM and the 6 CFM that was recently introduced helps with the polishing process, but will not perform well in grinding or coring holes. Someone needs to develop a 12 CFM product.

Maintenance for the air tools is dependent on the type of compressor. As Mark said, a reputable person repairing them is a diamond in the rough.

Vadim Izoita, 5 Star Stone, Clearwater, FL: My favorite tool for under $500 would be the laser for the bridge saw. It is seconds of setup time compared to minutes without. Our laser was down for a few weeks, and it was ridiculous how much longer it took to cut slabs manually setting up the table.

Mark Lauzon, Stoneworks, Hubbard, OR: For top polishing and hand work, our guys really like the Metabo Quick 125. It is a variable-speed electric polisher. It is very comfortable in the hand, runs smooth and is great for top polishing and other tasks where you have to hold the tool for a long time.

On the safety side of the matter, we are digging that little tool called the “wedgie.” It is used to separate slabs in a bundle, and it makes the task a little safer. I also like the Stone Pro slab Carry Clamps. They are heavy duty and simply work as advertised.

We are also really fond of the Fien Shop Vac. It is small, sucks like mad, and it is almost silent compared to other models. It also has a huge amount of cool accessories that make doing certain tasks much easier.

I am loving the vacuum-brazed cup wheels, stainless steel tape measures, Gorilla Grips and some of the other items mentioned by the rest of the crew. Thanks to the guys who keep inventing new stuff to make our jobs a little easier.

(Question submitted by a www.StoneAdvice.com user): Since learning to top polish, I have been playing around with “wet to dry” on the edges also and seeing better results. Is this really working or am I just seeing things? Sometimes it works better than others - especially on dark stones.

Jason Ellis, JnS Marble & Granite, Southaven, MS: We polish a lot of 2-cm Absolute Black for bank jobs, and it is always flat polished. We have found that the finish looks best when we polish up with water all the way through the 3000 grit. After that, turn the water off, and polish with a black buff pad until the stone is dry. We use Metaflex pads from Helix.

Scott McGourley, Kasco Stone, Tampa, FL: We do not polish wet to dry on edges. Of course, we usually use turbos now, and you cannot do this; nor do we need to. However, with resins, you can easily burn an edge on some material, and I have personally found that using water all the way gives a brilliant shine. Remember, up to 500 grit is just shaping; not polishing. The polishing starts at 800, so going wet to dry at 500 or below would be a waste of time in my book. The only time I would use this technique is if I had a little haze somewhere after buff. Then I would probably take some tin oxide, sprinkle it with water until it is creamy, then wipe it on the entire edge and buff until dry. This will usually eliminate problems as far back as the 1500 grit, saving you a few steps. Sometimes it is necessary to go back.

Polish as normal up to the 400 grit using light pressure and even strokes. Then turn off the water and polish with the 400 grit until dry. This will allow you to see any missed scratches or inconsistent areas that need more attention. Get them out dry. Then put on the 800-buff using hard pressure and lots of water. You will get a blinging edge most of the time, sometimes a little touchup with little waves (light pressure on lower grits).

Wet to dry is necessary on the top, as you cannot get enough pressure on the stone when top polishing. On edges, that is not the case, as only a small portion of the pad is in contact with the stone at any given time. Therefore wet to dry is not necessary.

Chris Freeman, SFA, Freeman Granite: Willows, CA: We use a little water on the final grits here too. Just remember to slow down on the corners, or you can get burns. Although using less water really makes no difference in the final result (i.e. edge machine), I think it helps the person polishing see the result and get better coverage.

Curtis Marburger, SFA, Corner-stone Granite, Elizabethtown, PA: Like Scott said, we polish all wet. We did the wet to dry and found we would burn stone.

Scott McGourley, Kasco Stone, Tampa, FL: I found that too little water on edges can make them very mildly hazy. When you walk into one of the kitchens that we have done, the edges are gleaming. You will see points gleaming at you from several areas; a really clean look.

Eric Caplinger, SFA, Custom Stone Fabrications, Champaign, IL: We use Vipers most of the time, and they say to run all of them wet except for the last pad, which is run wet to dry. The buffing compound seems to come out from time to time and get in the fissures of the stone, making lighter streaks in the edge. I have recently started using the Alpha pads. I run all three vitrifieds then the regular pads and run the black buff wet to dry, and it works a lot better. I can’t seem to get the polish/pop that I would like running the buff wet only.

Scott McGourley, Kasco Stone, Tampa, FL: Here is my rule of thumb: If you are getting a pretty consistent haze - very light, but no inconsistent areas - your problem lies above the 400 grit. The edge needs to be flat though. You cannot have pits, grooves or anything in the haze. You can go back to the 800 or 1500 grit or just go buff wet to dry. I usually go back to the 1500 grit in this case and finish all wet.

If you have areas that are whitish and are inconsistent with the rest of the edges, or you can see fissure lines, pits or grooves, then your problem lies below the 400 grit. You probably have to go back to the 100 or 200 grit, as you didn’t get out the “trash” (crushed stone from the saw, pits that were left from the saw, fissure lines, etc).

We turn off the water at the 400 grit and check to make sure the edge is consistent and does not have pits or grooves in it. Any area that is missed usually shows up white with dust and it makes it easy to eliminate, usually with a dry 400 grit. Then cruise on with the upper pads for a perfect polish.

This is most pronounced on flat polishing, as it is hard to get enough pressure in the center of the splash. Switch to Velcro turbos, and all of your flat polishing becomes a piece of cake. Make three passes with each grit, and you can get a perfect polish on even tan brown.

Vadim Izoita, 5 Star Stone, Clearwater, FL: I usually polish the buff wet to dry. It will dry the stone to expose any thing that is imperfect. The only thing is that sometimes the black buff will lodge into microfissures, so you have to be careful. I like “glass-like” edges, and this method achieves that.

Matt Lansing, Stone Innovations, Inc., Lansing, WI: The polishing of an edge wet to dry will depend on what polishing pads you are running. If you use a softer bond pad, running wet to dry will actually make the edge worse, not better. Pads like the Metaflex from Helix is an example.

If you are using a harder bond pad like the Alpha or GranQuartz pads, your edge polish will benefit from going wet to dry on the higher grits. You just have to experiment to see what works for you.