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Tools are costly and take up space. Tool libraries are popping up so people can share.

A sign points the way to the Chicago Tool Library, which opened in 2019. (Shelby Rodeffer)
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correction

A previous version of this story included the incorrect gender for René Nuñez, who is a man.

Tools are expensive, and most of them spend way more time collecting dust in our basements 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 some branches that were 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 D.C., Baltimore, Seattle, Atlanta and Denver. One of the first collections devoted to caulking guns and wrenches opened in Berkeley, Calif., in 1979.

Drivers were stuck on I-95 when one saw a bakery truck. Soon, stranded motorists were breaking bread together.

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 volunteer with Green Neighbors DC.

“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 emails, 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.

“The same people who donated some of these things will then come back once or twice a year to borrow them,” she said. “We like to see that. Why keep it in your closet when other people can use it?”

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 and repairs, their library shelves were stocked with donated items just in time, said Vierk, 31.

“I was really happy to help make this a reality for people in Chicago,” Vierk said. “Borrowing tools instead of buying them just makes sense.”

Vierk, a former chef who is taking a break from restaurants, had often visited Berkeley’s tool-lending library when she lived in the Bay Area. When she moved to Chicago in 2016, she wanted to start a community project of some kind and was amazed that nobody had opened a tool-lending library.

“I put out a community survey to see what kind of interest there would be in having one, and the response was overwhelmingly positive,” she said. “People were really excited about the idea.”

One person who responded was Benton, a Chicago software engineer who had volunteered at a tool library when he lived in Portland, Ore.

“I’d been wondering why Chicago didn’t have something similar when I saw Tessa’s survey,” he said. “I said that if she’d like to meet up and talk about it, I might know a few things that could be of use.”

A UPS driver left a kind message for a family. They put it on Instagram, and strangers showered the driver’s baby with gifts.

The two nailed down the details and decided to work together.

They put the word out on social media that they were looking for donations to rent a building and stock the shelves with gently used drills, power saws, ladders, gardening equipment, car tools and small kitchen appliances.

“People donated things from all over Chicago,” said Vierk, noting that the library had about 500 tools and 160 members when it opened.

Now more than 1,700 members have donated from zero to $350 a year for a library card, with all proceeds paying for rent of the building and operating costs. There are currently about 2,500 items on the shelves, she said, adding that the all-volunteer library has become so popular that she and Benton are now almost out of room and are looking for a new space.

“We operate on a ‘pay-what-you-can,’ basis and there aren’t any fines,” said Benton, 39. “It’s rare that a tool doesn’t come back, and if something breaks, we’ll replace it.”

“So many of these things typically sit in a closet or a garage or take up space in a landfill after they’re used once or twice, but a tool library uses these things up until they’ve given everything they have to offer,” he added. “That’s certainly better for the environment.”

Carina Trudell is among those who are grateful that others regularly clean out their basements and garage workshops. The Chicago flight attendant said she’s visited the tool-lending library many times since she discovered it in May 2020.

“I’ve borrowed saws, sanders, a ladder, a nail gun, power washer, label maker, ice cream maker, dollies and gardening tools,” said Trudell, 29. During the pandemic, she tore up her carpet and put down hardwood flooring, painted her walls and baseboards and installed decorative molding, she said.

“The tool library saved me hundreds of dollars and helped build my confidence, since I didn’t have to commit to buying expensive tools and feel unsure if I would know how to use them,” she said. “It’s also helped me to understand what a circular economy is and how it can thrive.”

The libraries are somewhat similar in concept to “Buy Nothing” groups, where people give away and accept goods and services in their communities — and selling is prohibited.

‘I’m looking to borrow a blue cocktail/gala dress’: How a Pa. community grew close by giving one another free stuff

Trudell noted that buying a power tool and using it for only a few hours a year isn’t a sustainable or healthy practice for the planet.

Vierk said it’s something she hears regularly from her patrons.

“A project like ours seems quaint, but to me it’s a hint of what communities of the future could look like,” she said. “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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