Tool tips for Tico Handymen
This article originally appeared in the Costa Rica Star so please stop by and take a look.
So, I’ve been trying to learn about video using my digital camera. Fun. Interesting. Challenging. My gear wish list just tripled. Turns out my existing tools will do the job, but it would be a lot better if I had the right tools. I’ve been through this before, not with photography, but when I moved to Costa Rica several years ago.
I had family here and I had been visiting over the years and I thought I was prepared (as prepared as anyone can be for that sort of thing). I packed up my house, car and dog and moved down. Several months later I was in a house and falling back into the rhythm of home ownership and maintenance.
Thanks to my father and grandfather’s influence and help I have a pretty decent collection of basic tools (and a few rarities), virtually none of which are terribly useful in Costa Rica. Houses in the States are made of nice soft easy to deal with wood, carpet and drywall. Get them wet and and you’ve got trouble though. Here it’s backwards. Concrete walls, tile and tin roofs which scoff at being soaked. I hadn’t planned for that or I would have gone tool shopping before I left.
I’ve had to add to my tools over time and I’m hoping to pass along a few of the critical ones you will want if you make the decision to move here (or keep a home here). These tools apply to typical cement homes as there are very few wood homes.
1-Drills, bits and anchors. I have two drills. Neither has a hammer function. That means I spend a lot more time and effort leaning into the wall. If you don’t have a drill with a hammer function get one before you come down (tools are very expensive here). Load up on high quality masonry bits, because those walls will just giggle the first time you try to drill into them with regular wood/metal bits. Keep an assortment of screws and wall anchors handy because you will need them for just about any mounting project. Also maybe it’s just my lack of skill but I have a really hard time getting anything perfectly level or plumb when I have to drill into the concrete walls. The first couple of seconds of drilling always sees my bit drift a couple of millimeters and ruin my careful measuring.
2- Saws. If you have hand saws they probably aren’t going to see much action, nor are your circular saws unless you get into furniture making. Keep them, but also keep them covered in WD-40 so they don’t rust in storage. (Oil them well if you are shipping items by sea). These will come in handy if you have to repair ceiling damage or more often for making cement forms. If you have a chop saw or reciprocating saw hang on to it may be invaluable for metal work projects like gates and grates, but don´t run out to buy one if you don´t have one. Lots of locals use grinders as make-shift saws for tile and metal work. They are a pretty efficient alternative to bulkier saws so having one around is pretty nice. I’ve got one on my wish-list.
3-Cement & tile tools. You can get these here easily and most aren’t terribly expensive but are worth having. A masonry trowel, grout float, an inexpensive tile cutter are great to have even if you aren’t going to do the tile work yourself. Since tools are so expensive lots of guys have tools that are on their last legs so if you give them a better tool to work with you may get better results. A masonry chisel and hammer will help you at some point either in prep or demolition projects.
Don’t forget to have eye-protection on hand. I keep clear and tinted (sunglass type) safety goggles for these projects. Ticos almost never have them but may appreciate them if you offer (or insist).
4-Metal tools. Any you have may be useful. Tin snips can be life savers for roof repairs. If you own a welder hold on to it, but it´s usually easier to hire someone with a welder than it is to give up the space in your house. I don´t have much in the way of metal specific tools as it´s a world I will usually hire out.
5—Plumbing. Learn to deal with plumbing yourself, as it’s pretty simple, plus a little leak usually doesn’t do much damage on that tile floor if you didn’t get it quite right the first time. There are a number of items you can keep on hand to help save you from yet another trip to the ferreteria or on you on a holiday when everything is closed. Having a length of pvc piping for hot water another for cold, along with cement and a few different fittings can save you a bigger headache if something breaks. Don’t forget the Teflon tape and the hacksaw blade. A crescent wrench and perhaps pliers is generally all you will need. One handy tool is what locals call a llave cangrejo which is a spring loaded articulated wrench that is especially useful for faucets or other tights space. They’re not expensive so definitely have one.
6-Odds & Ends. These bits are good every day and uh-oh-it’s-broken items. Poxilina: Two-part fast drying epoxy putty that you can mix with your hands, plus you can sand it, drill it and paint it. Works for all kinds of stuff. Cinta tapagoteras: Aluminum backed tar (?) tape, it stops leaks fast and can even be used from inside the roof in a pinch; you can usually buy it by the meter. Machete: The yard taming wonder tool for when your weed-eater won’t start, the plants have taken over, or you just need to feel like you’re carrying a sword without getting arrested. Rubber boots. High fashion, hardly. Hugely practical and cheap, yes. Just don’t forget to check for critters in the toes before pulling them on (I use mine while making beer). 5 Gallon Bucket: Like in the States there are few things more versatile, but I’ve found they are harder to find than you think. No place I’ve found so far sells new ones so your best bet is to wash and keep any from your paint projects or ask a painter if he will sell you one.
7-Patience. This is one that you will value greatly in Costa Rica. It may be easier to find for some than others but it’s invaluable because no matter how much you will it, wish it or yell at it, nothing will make a bureaucrat or a line of traffic move any faster.