Articles:The Electrician's Toolkit

Ruby Rubenstahl

Doing any job requires the proper set of tools, otherwise the work will be inefficient at best and can become downright dangerous. Being a theatrical electrician is no different. I have come up with a list of tools that every electrician worth his or her weight should own. Some of them are not absolutely neccesary, but they are all tremendously useful in getting the job done. Initially building up your toolkit can take a good bite out of your wallet but the majority of these tools need only be bought once. It'll only hurt for a little while. So, without any further adieu, here is the list.
Diagonal Cutters Also known as dikes, this tool comes in extremely handy when your are cutting wire or trimming small objects. They easily cut through staples & small nails.
Gloves A pair of gloves is essential for an electrician. You learn quickly the first time you focus that lights get hot, and fast. There are a wide range of options from cheap two dollar gloves from Wal-Mart to 50 or 60 dollar purpose made gloves from setwear. I personally used the 2 dollar gloves for nearly 3 years, the major advantage of the specialty gloves is that they are built to give you as much control as possible while protecting your hands whereas the cheap gloves tend to be clunky. Make sure that whatever you do, do not get gloves made out of material such as polyester, which can melt to your skin.
Multimeter A must-have for troubleshooting, knowing how to use one of these tools lets you isolate most problems in a few seconds. They come in a wide price range, but the lower end models work just fine. One feature that is worth paying a little extra for is a buzzer that goes off when continuity is detected, this feature will keep you from having to find a way to actually see the indicator when working in low-light troubleshooting situations.
Wire stripper There are two basic types of wire strippers out there: manual and automatic strippers. Manual strippers tend to be more versatile because they are smaller and you can use them to cut smaller lengths of wire, especially splayed 12/3SO cable which tends to be tough to get to with auto-strippers. Auto-strippers also tend to be quite a bit more exspensive (about 4-5 times the price of manual strippers). If you do choose to go with auto strippers, pay the extra little bit for quality.
Soldering Iron & Solder These are important mainly when it comes to wiring practicals. Adjustible temperature soldering irons are nice, but you'll pay for it both in terms of price and size. Make sure you have a good variety of iron tips for different situations.
Leatherman (or Gerber) multitool This is something that not only electricians, but everyone on this planet should own. There is a huge range of options when it comes to multitools, and this is definitly one of those things where you get what you pay for. You can get $5-$10 no-name brands, but I would really reccomend going with eather Leatherman or Gerber. You're going to pay somewhere between $35 and $60 depending on what model you get. There are many different tools that they can come with as well as a variety of sizes to fit just about anyone's hand. Many people like Gerber because of it's rectractable pliers that are made to be easily accessible with one hand. I prefer Leatherman because they seem to be much more durable and rugged, and with a little practice you can open a leatherman with one hand with a simple flick of the wrist. Make sure that whatever type of multitool you decide to go with, that the knives and such lock into place to keep it from collapsing onto you fingers (trust me, that's bad).
Knife If you have a multitool, a separate knife isn't really essential but it can come in very handy. Knives on multitools tend to be a little tough to get to with one hand, and you also occasionaly need to use a knife while holding something with the pliers on your multitool. Again, make sure the knife locks into place so you don't cut your fingers off.
Wrench on a rope If you carry nothing else with you to a work call, carry your crescent wrench, without your wrench you are nothing. Again, there is a range of options but in general one wrench is as good as the next. For most people an 8" wrench is the best size for most jobs, it's big enough to fit on all of the bolts you need to hang/focus a light yet fits comfortably in your pocket (and doesn't have too much torqe, people tend to break off set screws with the 10" wrenches). I prefer to have a wrench with a rubber grip because it's more comfortable and it only costs an extra dollar or two. It is essential that you have your wrench on a lanyard (and have that lanyard attacted to you at all times) because carpenters don't appreciate chunks of metal falling on their head. You can either tie it directly to your belt loop, or you can get a climbing hook so that you can quickly clip/unclip it.
Altman Wrench This is not an essential tool, but can be very handy when you have a stuck T-handel or a light you need to crank down for some reason. It has holes drilled to fit all bolts on an Altman instrument, but I find the design to be rather clunky and akward when using it for anything other than T-handles. It is by no means a replacement for your crescent wrench, but can be a very handy timesaver at times.
Calculator Unless you're a math wiz, it's a good idea to carry a calculator in your toolkit in case you have a question about the load you need to put on a circuit or calculate weight distribution, or if you need to figure out how much your fellow crew members owe you for lunch. A simple four function or scientific calculator should suffice for 90% of the calculations you'll come across.
Backstage Handbook This is something every techie should have. If you don't know what it is, it's basically a book of data sheets for a huge array of things that are used commonly in theatre, from weight limits for different types of ropes to American Wire Gauge charts. It contains many different forumulas used for electrical calculations. It is an indespensible resource that can save huge amounts of time.
Swatchbooks Yes, these are more of a designers tool, but can be of use to electricians, especially when you come across unmarked gel (of course you aren't the one who cut it and didnt mark it) and need to find out what you have.
Mini-Mag This goes along with the multitool as an item that every person on earth should have. Again, I would not cheap out to save a few bucks. When you're working in the theatre, your tools get banged up quite a bit and the durability of mini mags is much higher than the cheaper brands. When you buy a minimag they usually come with at least one extra bulb in the holder (built into the endcap), and you can sometimes get them packaged with more extra bulbs. Either way, make sure to store an extra bulb in the holder because you know it will burn out at the worst possible moment.
Pencils One of the most overlooked tools in the box yet one of the most important and I hope that I don't have to explain why. Try to keep a stock of pencils in your kit and have at least one pencil on your body when you start a call (I generally try to carry at least two). Mechanical pencils are best for this because when you break a tip, finding a sharpener in the theatre isn't usually the easiest thing to do.
Electrical tape This one needs little explanation, when you're wiring stuff you need electrical tape. Make sure you buy the higher quality tape, especially when you are working with the high load equipment you see in theatre. The lower quality tape has a tendency to become brittle and lose it's adhesiveness. It should have a rubbery feel, whereas the cheap stuff tends to feel like plastic.