Spending a weekend with the folks from Irwin Tools, covering the Ultimate Tradesman Challenge World Finals and watching the Food City 500 at the Bristol Motor Speedway is almost more than any tool guy could imagine. Yet, under all this fun was really a message that Irwin is extremely intent on communicating. And since we wholeheartedly agree – it is our pleasure to help them do it. It is the concept of elevating the role of today’s tradesmen. On the surface this does not sound like much, but if you really start to think about it, when was the last time you heard of a young person going to a vocational or trade school? When was the last time you honestly thanked your mechanic, plumber, electrician or carpenter for the job they did? How about the last time you heard a student enthusiastically proclaim that they wanted to be a builder, electrician, or plumber? Makes you think, doesn’t it? If it were not for craftsman and tradesman, we would not have fine furniture, beautiful buildings, hand built cabinetry, electricity in our homes, running water, air conditioning, working automobiles and the list goes on and on. Somehow in today’s society, we tend to unconsciously look down on folks that work day in and day out with their hands. We have progressed from a time when hard work equaled job satisfaction (and perhaps calloused hands) to a time where the expectation is that you should get a college degree and work smarter, not harder. What Irwin really drilled home (yes, pun intended, darn it!) was that they want to be here to bring honor and elevate the roles of tradesmen. All we can say is: Preach it, brother!
The Irwin education started with a morning meeting that was opened up by Ross Porter, President of Irwin Tools. After introducing many of the Irwin staff and product managers that were present, he turned the floor over to Curt Rahilly, Vice President of Marketing. As is common in these types of events, the first place that Curt took us was through the history of the company. To many Irwin Tools is a newer brand, but we learned that the many roots of the company started as far back as 1828. Through the years (and many brand acquisitions) the Irwin product portfolio grew to really cover a broad line of different tools. Some of the brands that Irwin has kept on because of their fantastic name recognition in the market place include Vice-grip, Marathon, Quick-grip, Speedbor, Strait-line, Unibit and Hanson. These product lines, along with Irwin-branded tools, make up the four major core product groups: drilling, hand-tools, cutting, and layout. In each of these categories, Irwin has analyzed the end users’ true needs and found ways to make both the tools and the tradesman safer and more productive. The Irwin DNA combines a respect for the past and the products that folks are familiar with and yet really figures out ways to make them better. Curt discussed with us how even now as they look at new products that their engineers and product managers continually go back to the end user in what they call a process of being “built by those who build”. To build on this, Irwin developed a mission where they find and see the possibilities, make tools that extend the capabilities of the user and strive to elevate the role of the tradesman.
Irwin Ultimate Tradesman Challenge World Finalist
To drive home the idea of elevating the role of the tradesman, Irwin devised the Ultimate Tradesman Challenge that took place in 9 different countries. It involved 16,000 participants at 250 different events. Be sure to check out our complete coverage of the Tradesman Challenge world finals. Also building on this theme they have a web sweepstakes called Thank A Tradesman and on September 16, 2011 Irwin is launching the National Tradesmen Day. It is high time that we honor the hard work that has made our country the land of opportunities. As September 16th approaches, there will be planned events and some surprises as the full details of the day are still unfolding.
After our Irwin education it was time to hit the patio where a host of different Irwin products were not only on display but also available for us to play with. It is one thing to be told how great a product is, but it is another to experience it. We started with a bench covered with Vice-Grips, Irwin pliers and Quick-Grip clamps. The product manager walked us through the latest product developments and explained some of the key differences of the new verses the old. In the case of Vice-Grips, a design that has been unchanged for nearly a century, they have had some re-engineering recently. As locking pliers, they still took a bit of muscle to grip a stubborn bolt or nut. With the new design, you can attain three times the grip force with no slipping and virtually no effort to close the tool. Part of the innovation came from the new geometry of the jaws. The new jaws move independently of other and have a fast release handle. An array of Quick-Grip one-hand clamps were demoed with sizes suitable for building doll furniture to others that could provide up to 600 lbs of clamping force for heavy-duty applications. We were also able to use the ever popular Groove-Lock pliers.
Irwin Groove-Lock Adjustable Pliers
Moving on to the next area, we had an opportunity to see the new Speedbor Ship Auger Bit with WeldTec in use. The scenario they set up was more to demonstrate the ability of the bit rather than what might be encountered in the real world, that is, unless you need to drill a 1″ hole through a PT 6×6 with at least a dozen 16D common nails in its path. Needless to say, the bit plowed through the wood and nails without even as much as a hiccup. Upon examining the cutting edges of the drill, it was clear to see that there was a ton of life left. The edge retention came from the WeldTec technology that Irwin has learned from their circular saw cutting edges. Rather than hardening the whole bit (and making it more brittle) they welded the material on the cutting edge and then ground it to shape. This gives a very hard, durable edge with a bit that still has the flexibility and shock absorbency it needs. Also, at this same booth, the Speedbor MAX Speed Bit was being demonstrated. This bit is a hybrid that combines the smooth hole of a spade bit with the fast feed and chip removal of an auger bit. This one was an easy one to test out. if you just start the drill, and touch the tip of the bit against the 2×4, it literally suck its way through the wood thanks to its screw feeding tip. We were through in seconds. The hole was smooth and had very little breakout on the back side.
Irwin Speedbor MAX Speed Bit at work
On other booths, we got a rundown of the new inventions in utility knives and how different industries have different needs. One of the really cool things was a utility knife blade that you almost couldn’t break. With the main body made of spring steel, the edge is welded-on carbon steel. What this does is create a super flexible blade with excellent edge retention. In addition to this blade, keep an eye out for a new utility knife blade that has two snap-and-go edges. This snap blade utility knife meets traditional utility knife. With the snap off tip, you get double the use out of the blade at no extra cost.
If you have to make frequent bit changes, there is an extensive line of Lock-N-Load Quick Change Extensions. Set up to accept three of the most common sizes of hex drive bits, there is 1/4″, 3/8″ and 7/16″. The extensions vary in length from just a few inches to 18″ in length. With a sure fit and positive locking mechanism, swapping bits is faster and you can be sure that your bits will stay put until you remove them.
Irwin Lock-N-Load Quick Change Extensions
It seemed like everywhere we went there were more tools and accessories to try out. One of our favorite tools was the new Universal hand saw that we recently reviewed along with the WeldTec Circular saw blades that make excellent demolition and general use blades. They demonstrated how the welded teeth of the saw blade are much harder to break and damage than the conventional brazed on style used by most manufacturers. We experienced this first hand when ripping in a ridge vent into the roof of a 1920′s home recently. For the rest of the crew, however, it was demonstrated with a pile of 16D nails pounded in the side of a 2×4. We watched as the Irwin crew proceeded to make longitudinal cuts through both the wood and the nails with no problems. At the end of the cut, the blade was no worse for wear. In addition to the WeldTec wood blade, Irwin had a new line of blades designed for cutting metal and fiber cement type products.
Food City 500 at the Bristol Motor Speedway
While we were called out for the weekend to work and report, the staff at Irwin also knew how to have fun. Seeing how the backdrop to the Irwin Ultimate Tradesman Challenge World Finals was the Bristol Motor Speedway, it was only fitting that we concluded the weekend with a NASCAR race. The evening before the big race we had a quick track tour that ended with each of us taking three laps around the track in one of three 2011 Ford Mustang GT pace cars. Due to liability reasons and the busy race day ahead, we were not allowed to drive but instead had a pro take us around to give us a taste of the track and show off the new 2011Ford Mustang GT’s. The track time did not last long since it is just a 1/2 mile long track and given our speeds I think we were on the track for less than a minute total for all three laps! The 30 degree corner banks were extreme and I now have a new appreciation for what the drivers have to endure for 500 laps.
The closest I will ever get to the Podium
Race day kicked off with full track-side tour that included the infield area, the pits and the track. Once we were back up at the Irwin Suite high above the start/finish line, we had a pep talk that followed with a question and answer session with Jeff Hammond (FOX News NASCAR commentator) and Jamie McMurry (Driver of the #1 Bass Pro Shops Car). Both guys spent a good bit of time with us explaining some of the technical aspects of Bristol compared to other tracks and how teams strategize here since it is so difficult to pass on this track. Jamie really drove home how on this track in particular who wins and loses comes down to the guys in the pit and their ability to work fast.
Jeff Hammond and Jamie McMurry
Just prior to the race, we were down on pit row for the starting ceremonies of the race. We stayed on the track all the way until the announcement came for the guys to start their engines. Up to this point, the noise was pretty low. As soon as the cars all fired their engines, however, I knew I was in for a treat. While I might not be a bona fied NASCAR fan, I am definitely a gear head and it was easy to appreciate all the horsepower that was represented there!
Ross Porter (President of Irwin Tools) and I track-side just before the start of the race
After the start we enjoyed much of the race from the Irwin Suite where the hospitality was amazing. With enough food and drinks to feed a small army, we were treated like royalty. Since going to a race is more than just watching it for me, I had to venture down into the stands and go to the fence at the edge of the track to take full appreciation for the speed, noise and smells that come with machines moving that fast. After my adventure track-side, I went back up the suite and they had a little surprise for us: VIP passes that gave us access to the roof top of the building that was located in the middle of turns three and four on the infield. From this vantage point, we were right in the middle of it all and we got to watch the last 40 laps of the race from there.
View from the infield roof top between turns 3 & 4
While the race was great and a lot of fun, it was actually just as enjoyable (not to mention educational) to hear more of what Irwin is all about. With their long history of different tools and different product lines, they showed us that they were not afraid to change things up if they can find a way to make a product better or help a tradesman be more productive. At the end of the day, Irwin’s vision is not only to provide quality and innovative tools, but that they really are about the guys that work daily with their hands. Things like the Ultimate Tradesman Challenge, National Tradesman Day, sponsorship for young people in SkillUSA, and other programs are all ways that Irwin is trying to get their message out about elevating the roles of the tradesman. We would have to agree that this is a good message for all of us to proclaim.