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Like a good neighbor, tool libraries are there … cutting waste and costs

Home Improvement
A red sign on a weathered-wood wall. The sign has white lettering that says Chicago Tool Library, and there is a black and white screwdriver jutting out from it on a blue comic-like, jagged edge background.
A sign points the way to the Chicago Tool Library, which opened in 2019. Courtesy of Shelby Rodeffer

Tools are expensive, and most of them spend way more time collecting dust in our homes than in use. Enter the tool library, a lending hub that allows people to take home tools and appliances, usually for a week, then return them.

Some tool libraries across the country are free, and some charge a nominal annual fee, but all of them cut down on waste and overbuying while helping out neighbors. They’re similar to book libraries, but the items are often donated, and rather than novels, they’re stocked with power tools, saws, and ice cream makers.

“I can’t even begin to calculate how much I’ve saved since joining,” said René Nuñez, who became a member of the Chicago Tool Library last year for $20.

Like many Americans who have tackled gardening and home improvement projects during the pandemic, Nuñez decided it didn’t make sense to buy another tool that he’d use maybe once or twice a year at his Chicago home.

He borrowed a tree pruner to cut branches encroaching on a power line near his home, then he returned it and checked out a waffle maker and an OBD2 scanner — a device to diagnose problems when a car’s check engine light comes on.

With the first item he borrowed, he more than made his money back, he said.

“I’ve been able to accomplish projects I’ve put off in the past for lack of adequate tools,” said Nuñez, 44, who works in property management and as a ride-share driver.

Across the country, there are more than 50 similar tool-lending libraries in cities such as Washington, Baltimore, Seattle, Atlanta, and Denver. One of the first collections opened in Berkeley, Calif., in 1979.

Wire and wood shelving holds several tools, from floor sanders and lawn mowers to saws and motorized tools.
Inside the Chicago Tool Library on the city’s South Side. —Courtesy of Will Gosner

In Washington, the Green Neighbors DC tool-lending library is closed during the winter, but in early March, residents can sign up online to borrow gardening tools of all kinds, from composters to weed whackers. There is also a small collection of camping equipment and power tools. The library is a collaboration with the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation’s Garden Tool Share Program.

It has 177 types of tools, a collection of cookbooks and gardening manuals — and there is a cider press that people can use on-site, said Annette Olson, a Green Neighbors DC volunteer

“We’ve received shop vacs, some hand tools, a table, and more through donations, and we’re seeking more select donations to found things out,’’ said Olson. “People are asking to join [the library] with exclamation points in their e-mails, they’re so excited about it.’’

Many other tool libraries are open year-round. In Chicago, customers can reserve items online or drop by the library to browse the shelves. There’s a diverse inventory, from sewing machines and tripods to snow shovels and camping tents. About a dozen volunteers take turns staffing the library and answering questions four days a week, and members are allowed to borrow whatever they like for seven days at a time.

“Our most popular items are nail guns and upholstery and carpet cleaners, but we also have some unusual stuff here,” said Chicago tool library co-founder Tessa Vierk. Her customers have donated beekeeping equipment, tortilla steamers, a mushroom spore inoculating syringe used by home gardeners, and more.

Vierk and Jim Benton opened the Chicago Tool Library in August 2019, about six months before the city was hit by the coronavirus pandemic. With people stuck at home and wanting to do remodeling projects, their library shelves were stocked with donated items just in time, said Vierk, 31. “Tool libraries are an invitation to experience collective wealth instead of individual wealth.’’

For Vierk, who now advises other communities how to start their own lending libraries, the Chicago Tool Library has also helped her to nurture a few talents of her own.

“I recently borrowed a KitchenAid mixer to make some Christmas cookies and a tamale steamer to make some homemade tamales,’’ she said. “I was really glad to take them back. They take up a lot of space.’’

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