Q: I just moved into my very own place — a 700-square-foot palace atop four flights of very steep stairs — and it needs a bit of TLC. Well, more than a bit. Some folks would understandably find measuring, hammering, drilling, sanding, nailing, etc. a bit annoying but me, I think I have a bit of Bob Vila in my blood. I also watch entirely too many "Home Improvement" reruns.


In a perfect world, I’d love to have an arsenal of home improvement tools at my disposal, but due to space constraints, it’s a bit of a stretch. I keep on hearing about how tool rental programs are quite popular — particularly with those minding their environmental footprints — but I don’t know much about them. How do they work? And how exactly are they eco-friendly?


Trying not to be an eco-tool,

— Sid, Cambridge, Mass.


A: Congrats on the new place and kudos on your mad tool-using DIY skills. I know the difference between a Phillips head screwdriver and a flat-blade screwdriver and that’s about as advanced as I get. I should also point out that it takes me about 20 minutes to properly close my beginner’s toolkit case; everything has to precisely fit into place so that it snaps shut all the way. It’s like a giant jigsaw puzzle from hell.

Anyway, tool rental centers are indeed becoming more numerous, particularly in urban areas. Tool renting, however, mostly applies to expensive, big-ticket power tool items — not toolbox basics like hammers, wrenches and whatnot. Big-box home improvement stores like Home Depot and many mom-and-pop hardware stores will rent you tile saws, nail guns, chainsaws, pressure washers and more by the hour, day, week or even month. And no, there’s no hidden mystery behind tool renting. eHow.com has a useful list of things to consider pre-renting if you think that would come in handy.

There are also a handful of so-called tool libraries out there — local, nonprofit lending centers where you can snag the tool of your choice (basic hand tools and more heavy duty pieces) for free as long as you’re a member. They’re generally staffed by volunteers and survive through donations, grants and late fees.

The tool library concept started in Berkeley, Calif., and Columbus, Ohio, in the late 1970s and although the trend hasn’t caught on like wildfire over the past few decades, there are now about 25 tool-lending libraries across the country (check out a list here) with a large cluster of them, not surprisingly, in the Bay Area. Portland, Ore., just got its third tool library making it the only city in the U.S. to have three. The beauty of a tool-lending library is, of course, that they are completely free. I have my own tool library, my downstairs neighbor Francis, for whenever I need a power drill, but I do wish I had an alternative that didn’t involve me banging on my neighbor’s door.

The eco-boons of renting/borrowing tools instead of buying them aren’t exactly blatant since it’s difficult to really pinpoint the environmental woes associated with buying new tools. As far as I know, there are no studies on how much CO2 the manufacture of a new table saw or buff sander produces. Essentially, you’re avoiding the resource-intensive manufacture and packaging of a brand new product. And you’re sharing something rather than keeping something for yourself ... that’s certainly a Mother Nature-approved action if there ever was one. Plus, given that renting/borrowing is the more frugal choice, you can redirect the money you’re saving from not buying new tools toward other green home improvement projects.

Hope this gives you a bit of direction, Sid, and that your lust for tools and your concern for the environment can meet at a happy place. Rent and borrow whenever possible (unless you think you’re going to be using a demolition hammer on a weekly basis) and when you do need to buy, try a garage or estate sale before you buy new. Let me know how this new drill goes.

— Matt

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Photo: Talaj/iStockphoto

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Can I rent tools instead of buying to make a bigger eco-difference?
Rental programs usually only lend out heavy-hitting tools, but there are tool-lending libraries in some cities that can help.