January 18, 2010 in City

Tool libraries ratchet up interest

Portland plans to open third borrowing location
Scott Learn The Oregonian
Associated Press photos photo

Steve Fancler, left, speaks with Robert Bowles of the Northeast Portland Tool Library in Portand on Dec. 19. Associated Press photos
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

PORTLAND – If you need a table saw, a 10-foot pipe clamp or a 20-foot pruner, you’ve normally got three choices: Buy it, rent it or borrow it from a neighbor.

Portland is fast becoming a leader in a fourth way: checking it out for free at a tool lending library.

The city’s first nonprofit tool library, founded in 2004 in North Portland, is up to 2,300 members. Its second, in Northeast, has already drawn 800 members in 16 months and just expanded to a far bigger space. A third, in Southeast Portland, is scheduled to open this spring, which would make Portland the only U.S. city with a trio.

The volunteer-run tool libraries offer low-cost home and garden lessons as well as tools. They help people save money and connect to their community.

About 900 of the more than 1,100 tools at the Northeast Portland Tool Library were donated, helping give the library a hardware store’s worth of inventory.

“The whole idea is everybody doesn’t have to own a power drill or a post-hole digger,” says Tom Thompson, a 58-year-old remodeling contractor who serves as volunteer toolmaster for the northeast tool library. “We wanted to be able to help out the environment and help out people, especially with the economy the way it is today.”

The first modern tool libraries started in the 1970s, with Berkeley, Calif., and Columbus, Ohio, among the pioneers. Informal Web lists put the latest U.S. total at about 25, including five in California and one in Seattle.

The Northeast Portland library just moved from a garage and storage pod into the 700-square-foot room in a church basement. That’s enough room to double the tools lent each day and boost membership into North Portland’s range and above, the library’s leaders figure.

Membership is free – borrowers need to live in the neighborhood, and they need ID and proof of address.

The library is open on Saturday, with two volunteers on duty, and allows borrowers to check out up to seven tools for a week, bringing them back the next Saturday. That’s a real upgrade from tool rental centers that charge by the half-day.

Charles Rose, 56, rented kneepads for laying tile flooring on a recent Saturday. He’s also rented a reciprocating saw, a shop vacuum and a post-hole digger for various jobs.

“You’re talking about hundreds of dollars I would have spent (renting or buying),” Rose said.

Tools range from the simple, including screwdrivers, hoes, hand saws and wheelbarrows, to the complex, including table saws, chop saws, air compressors and nail guns. Each tool has a four-digit ID number so the library can track borrowing on a volunteer-built computer program.

The inventory isn’t particularly high-tech: There’s not a laser-guided tool in sight. But power tools are plentiful, and the volunteers screen the tools to make sure they’re in good working order. Gregg Lavender, one of the library’s most frequent borrowers, was able to tear down a living room to the studs and rebuild it using only library tools.

The library survives on donations that help it buy new and refurbished tools, small grants, tool sales, late fees – and the good will of members: Since the library opened in August 2008, it has lent about 5,000 tools, with only a dozen not returned, Thompson said.

It lends from 75 to 125 tools each Saturday in winter and up to 200 a day in summertime. It also helps nearby schools and nonprofits with bigger jobs.

There are more women than men among the borrowers, Thompson said. Linda Martin, 35, returned a drill and a faucet wrench that she used to replace a faucet in her 1925 house, and said she’s been using the library to gradually upgrade her do-it-yourself skills.

“I only really need these tools for one job, so why buy it,” Martin said, “especially when everything in here is available for free.”

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