Hired Horsepower

Leverage your building efforts with pro-grade tool rentals

By Steve Maxwell

Renting tools is all about trading a little money for a whole lot of time saved and progress gained. You get economical access to an entire universe of equipment that only professionals could normally afford to own. But renting isn’t just for amateurs. Tool technologies are advancing quickly enough these days that renting even makes sense for pros. It provides access to the latest models without tying up cash in traditional ownership.

Renting is a good deal, though there’s a problem. Exactly what is available to rent? There are thousands of great tools and machines out there, and it’s hard to know what to ask for. Here are some of the best and most useful rentables for boosting your building projects.

Scaffolding: This is probably the most widely rented item, but most people only ask for frames and planks. Few understand the value of the scaffolding accessories that are available. Take casters, for instance. These large-diameter, lockable wheels allow entire scaffold assemblies to roll over smooth surfaces for easy relocation. Rubber tires even prevent damage to wood floors.

Scaffold outriggers are worth remembering, too. They extend outwards from the top of frames, making it easier to brace scaffold installations. Outriggers are also designed for use as an extended hoist arm when you need to haul material up with a block and tackle or power winch. You’ll also find 20-inch-wide scaffold platforms safer and easier to work from than traditional wooden scaffold planks.

Micro-excavators: These are becoming more and more common, and for good reason. In an era where few people have the temperament or muscles to dig happily all day with a shovel, these scaled-down versions of the big diggers you see on large commercial building projects are ideal for small jobs in tight quarters.

Micro-excavators are typically offered as a service with operator rather than a DIY piece of equipment. When you’re sizing up an operator, you need to know precise information about the equipment being used. Will you be digging utility trenches? Ask for a 12-inch-wide bucket to minimize mess. Are you digging a foundation? Toothless buckets leave hole bottoms much cleaner, making it easier to form and pour a footing. Will the excavator have to drive over sod? Ask for a model with rubber tracks. They’re far less damaging than all-metal tracks.

Skid-steer loader: The first day I rented one of these machines, I moved and spread 100 cubic yards of topsoil, filling holes and low spots in my lawn. Even without experience, a skid-steer leverages your heavy landscaping efforts like nothing else can. It’s the ultimate landscaping power tool. Where the micro-excavator shines as a close-quarters digging machine, the skid-steer loader is all about moving rock, gravel and soil safely and efficiently into and out of small spaces.

Skid-steer loaders turn by spinning the wheels more on one side of the machine than the other, using a pair of control levers. Push both levers ahead the same amount and the skid-steer drives forward. Push the right lever more than the left and the machine veers left. Pull both levers backwards to reverse. Separate controls raise, lower and tilt the bucket.

Gas-powered compactor: Even contractors can’t always justify owning a compactor because they might not need one very often. But whenever you’re preparing an area for poured concrete floors, sidewalks or brick/stone pathways, a compactor is absolutely essential. Without packing down backfilled areas, you’ll get cracked foundations, settling and all kinds of recurring trouble. For small jobs, rent a walk-behind plate compactor. All models use a flat plate that vibrates under engine power to compact the ground underneath. Most plate compactors cover an 18- to 24-inch-wide swath and transport easily in the back of a pick-up truck.

Hammer drill/rotary hammer/coring drill: If you have holes to bore in concrete, brick or stone, you need one of these three electric tools. For holes from 1⁄4 to 1⁄2-inch in diameter, a rotary hammer is perfect. It looks like an ordinary corded or cordless drill, but the tip vibrates back and forth while spinning. This pounding action more than doubles the speed of drilling progress through all kinds of masonry.

For larger holes 1⁄2 to two inches, rent a rotary hammer. It’s like a larger version of a hammer drill, except the tool can also be fitted with a straight chisel or point for masonry demolition tasks. Used this way, a rotary hammer functions like a little electric jackhammer.

Got a really big hole to drill in concrete? Coring drills are capable of drilling holes up to 18 inches in diameter using a water-cooled coring bit. Instead of pulverizing all the material within the area of the hole, a coring bit simply saws around the outside perimeter, allowing a plug of masonry to be removed. It’s the only way to make large holes, but there may be a catch.

Some rental outlets require that you buy the drill and coring bits you need, since they’re a consumable item that can break unpredictably. These can be expensive, so ask up-front about store policy. Also, check for coring drills that come with a support stand. They boost safety and save your back big-time.

Powder-actuated tools (PATs): When you want to shoot fasteners directly into concrete and steel without predrilling, you need gunpowder. All PATs use an explosive charge to propel nail-like ‘pins’ into place. They’re ideal wherever wood and steel studs need to be anchored quickly into masonry. Single-shot models sell for less than $40, but they’re slow. Rent semi-automatic and fully automatic PATs when you have a lot of anchors to install. Depending on where you live, you may have to pass a simple safety test to be accredited to use a PAT.

Mortar mixer: At a purchase price of about $250, it’s hard to justify renting a rotating drum concrete mixer. Might as well just buy. But if you’re making lots of mortar, on the other hand, that’s a different matter. Mortar includes no crushed stone (only sand, cement and water), so it’s harder to mix smoothly than concrete in a simple drum-style machine. This is where a mortar mixer can help. It uses moving paddles to scrape and churn the sand, cement and water into a smooth blend. You can make mortar in a drum mixer, but it takes more skill to succeed than with a paddle mixer.

Masonry saw: There are several reasons you might need to make straight cuts in concrete, stone, brick or block, and a masonry saw spinning a diamond blade is ideal for the job. Demolition work goes much more quickly if you score masonry first, before busting it up. Then there are renovations. Installing doors and windows in concrete and block walls requires the ability to saw smoothly. New concrete floors are also much less likely to crack if you saw one-inch-deep grooves in a grid pattern before the surface fully cures.

Unless you’re tackling a light-duty job, opt to rent a big masonry saw. The most powerful hand-held units have engines larger than 100cc and spin a diamond blade that’s 14 inches in diameter. You’ll also want to rent a unit that allows water injection into the cut. The best have threaded fittings for use with a garden hose. Water extends the life of diamond blades, but more importantly, it keeps dust down.

Floor sander: You can save a bundle sanding your own wood floors, but you can also cause problems if you don’t know what you’re doing. The type of sander you rent plays a big part in your success.

The easiest floor sanders to operate use a flat, vibrating pad. Think of it like a huge palm sander. It’s almost impossible to gouge the floor with this tool, but it’s also quite mild. If you have a lot of old gunk to remove, progress could be slow. That’s when you should consider a belt-style machine. It has a flat platen on the bottom that supports a spinning belt. This design gives a much more aggressive cut, and while gouging is possible if you don’t maintain smooth and constant movement, success isn’t difficult.

The trickiest floor sanders of all use a cylindrical drum. This concentrates sanding action and can lead to bad gouging after just a moment of inattention.

Renting tools is one way to leverage your time and money so you can accomplish more. The list of rentable building equipment is huge and growing: laser levels, scissor lifts, generators, welding equipment, paint sprayers and much more. Rent well and you’ll be amazed how fast good things get done.