In general, the rookie fencer will need to put together a repair kit for his fencing stuff fairly early on. This blog post is about how to get as much bang for the buck as possible when buying its contents.
First of all, let me state a few assumptions:
- You, as a rookie fencer, do not have unlimited means. If you actually do have that – then by all means buy quality everywhere. But that is not an interesting optimization problem, so I will not deal further with that special case.
- You do not have a lot of useful stuff already bought for other uses. This is an assumption that makes things easier for me to give suggestions below. However, many fencers do in fact have useful tools already in their possession, so disregard my suggestions for that specific tool if you already own it and consider it of sufficient quality.
- The pricing strategy of hardware stores where you shop is similar to that of those shops that I have encountered. My experience is that stuff of medium prices should be avoided – either go for budget or buy the best quality that you can afford. If that pricing strategy is used where you shop, then buying decisions are binary ones. If your shops use a radically different pricing strategy, then much of what follows in inapplicable for you.
- You are only going to repair your own equipment. If you are going to be a club armourer and repair all the stuff owned by a club, including floor reels and fencing boxes, you will need a bigger set of tools than if you are only repairing your own stuff. You will hopefully have a larger budget, and it will become useful to buy high-quality equipment of many more types, since they will be subject to more wear than the equipment owned by a fencer who just repairs his own stuff. Besides, if you are in a position where you might become responsible for all the gear owned by a club, you already know everything that is written in this blog post. Or at least I would hope so!
Your first task as a shopper should be to figure out whether my third assumption applies to you. If it does, you are probably well served by following my recommendations. If it does not hold, only consider my technical comments, and skip the economical ones.
Provided that the third assumption holds, the problem of how to get as much value as possible for a given total budget of repair tools simplifies to this: some things should be bought at the price that responds to the lowest quality that just barely does the job, while other tools should bought at the best quality that you can afford.
So, here are my lists of tools that belong in the two different categories:
WHERE TO GO FOR QUALITY
- Jeweller’s screwdrivers. These are used for screwing in tip screws. Cheap ones are made of inferior steel, and tend to deform and chip. The material is very thin in order to fit in the screw head slot, so there is a lot of mechanical stress there. Also, the cheap ones often come in sets where you buy maybe 5 screwdrivers, most of which are ill-suited for fencing repair. Go for top shelf here, and spare yourself the aggravation of messed-up screw heads.
- Storage boxes. Some fencers use repurposed food boxes, or small cloth bags. Neither of those options make it possible to see what is inside the storage box without opening, and all contents will be rattling around together, forcing you to take out a lot of stuff that you are not going to use before you get to the tool that you need. That wastes time, and increases the risk that one tool will damage another. Instead, buy a real storage box that has a transparent lid. See to it that it has enough subdivisions so that you only have one type of items in each subdivision. Mark the transparent lid with a label printer so that you can easily see if some item is missing from its subdivision.
- Cutting dies. These are used to thread up more of the tang, and to clean up deformed threads on the tang and the tip of the blade. My experience is that cheap cutting dies simply are not worth it.
- Vise. This is used to hold the blade, or weapon in assembly, to make it easier to use other tools on it. Do not skimp here. Cheap vises tend o be rickety, and are a repeating reason for aggravation. If at all possible, get one that can be screwed into your work bench, not one that is clamped onto the bench or table.
- Lamps. Note that I wrote that in plural. You will need plenty of light to see the tip screws. Now that LED lamps that are really bright have become affordable, there is no reason whatsoever to not upgrade the room where you have your work bench so that you have light coming from several directions in the roof, which eliminates shadows.
WHERE TO SAVE
- Multimeter. These are used to test if wires are broken or crossed, or if lamé parts are still withing specifications. Multimeters come in a wide price range, depending on durability, quality, measured ranges, and precision. The cheapest cost maybe 20 dollars, and you can find some that cost many hundreds of dollars, if not more. However, you do not need the bells and whistles here. Unless you are going to be repairing fencing boxes, you really only need to measure resistances. Furthermore, you do not need any significant precision. Either you will need to confirm that a resistance is very low, a few Ohms or less, or you will have to confirm that two parts are electrically insulated from each other, and in that case the measured resistance will be higher than the maximum limit of the highest setting. In neither case will you need more than at most two significant figures when you measure the resistance. Also, you will not need a lot of durability – you will be using the multimeter in your workroom, and nowhere else. If you find yourself needing it at competitions, the problem is not with the multimeter but with your sloppy repair habits. I have a multimeter that cost me 70 Swedish crowns, and it has served me well.
- Wrenches. These are used to tighten the barrel onto the male threading on the blade, and to tighten a nut on the tang when you are using a French grip. Here, the most important suggestion is regarding type, not quality. Simply put: avoid adjustable wrenches. You will only need at most four sizes, and only two if you tighten the threadings with the blade in a vise. Adjustable wrenches need to be re-adjusted, and unless they are of good quality and thus fairly costly, then tend to jiggle loose while in use. If you instead buy open-end wrenches, or combination wrenches, you simply bypass that problem. Those wrenches are manufactured in one piece, and there is nothing that can come out of adjustment. Also, when you only are going to use a few sizes, having one adjustable wrench instead of a few combination wrenches will not save any weight. As long as you avoid the cheapest stuff – dollar store stuff – you can get by with the lowest price point of those wrenches sold in a real hardware store.
- Diagonal pliers. These are used to cut excess wire once it has been wrapped around the screws in the socket. The wire is made of soft copper, and is considerably less than a millimeter in diameter. Even the very cheapest diagonal pliers are up to this job.
- Big screwdriver. This is used to tighten the socket screws into the socket. Here, the loads are small, and the head of the screwdriver is comparatively large. Any screwdriver that fits the slot will be sufficient.
- Allen key. This is used to tighten the inside hex nut onto the tang inside the pistol grip. Choose a key where the long end is long enough, so that the short end can be easily rotated past the end of the pistol grip in the beginning of the tightening. Then, during the last few turns when more torque is needed, the short end is used in the hex nut, and the long end gives sufficient leverage. I have used a few really cheap ones, and they have worked just OK. However, if you are going to do a lot of repair work, then this is probably one of the first tools that you should upgrade, for ergonomic reasons.
- Needle files. These are used to increase the size of the notch in the pistol grip where it meets the inside of the bell, so that there is less risk of the wires being caught and ripped off. Those needle files are going to be used on aluminum, they are only going to take away a small amount of material, and they are only going to be used once on any given pistol grip. Considering all that, there is no need for buying industrial-grade quality that is intended for more demanding use.
- Feeler gauges. These are used to test whether a tip assembly is within specifications. They generally come in sets, all hinged on a common axle. You will not be needing any accuracy in excess of 0.05 mm, so those available at a general-purpose hardware store are good enough. It simplifies matters if you color-code the 0.5 mm feeler gauge with tape, so that you can instantly find it among all the others.
- Cigarette lighter. This is used to burn off insulation from the blade wires so that there will be electrical connection with the socket screws. They do not need to look good, and any flame is as good as another here. Any lighter from a dollar store is plenty sufficient.
A few final notes:
- Have three sets of tools. One for fencing repairs at home at your work bench, one small one for quick fix-up jobs at competitions or during training, and one for all non-fencing uses. Do not try to economize by moving a tool from one set to another. Sooner or later, you will find yourself in a bind because the tool that you need right now is somewhere else, most recently being used for another usage.
- Mark your tools with something that sets them apart, and does not easily come off. That makes it so much easier to identify, and it becomes easier to check that no tool is missing. In addition, they become less attractive to people with an underdeveloped sense of what is theirs and what belongs to someone else.
- Be generous in loaning tools at competitions to beginners and young fencers. We all have to start somewhere. Also, it is not good for you to get a reputation of being a Scrooge – you might find yourself without something some day.