The city's first nonprofit tool library, founded in 2004 in North Portland, is up to 2,300 members.
PORTLAND — If you need a table saw, a 10-foot pipe clamp or a 20-foot pruner, you've normally got three choices: Buy it, rent it or borrow it from a neighbor.
Portland is fast becoming a leader in a fourth way: checking it out for free at a tool lending library.
The city's first nonprofit tool library, founded in 2004 in North Portland, is up to 2,300 members. Its second, in Northeast, has already drawn 800 members in 16 months and just expanded to a far bigger space. A third, in southeast Portland, is scheduled to open this spring, which would make Portland the only U.S. city with a trio.
The volunteer-run tool libraries offer low-cost home and garden lessons as well as tools. They help people save money and connect to their community.
And they promote recycling and reuse.
About 900 of the more than 1,100 tools at the Northeast Portland Tool Library were donated, helping give the library a hardware store's worth of inventory.
"The whole idea is everybody doesn't have to own a power drill or a post-hole digger," says Tom Thompson, a 58-year-old remodeling contractor who serves as volunteer toolmaster for the northeast tool library. "We wanted to be able to help out the environment and help out people, especially with the economy the way it is today."
The first modern tool libraries started in the 1970s, with libraries in Berkeley, Calif., and Columbus, Ohio, among the pioneers. Informal Web lists put the latest U.S. total at about 25, including five in California and one in Seattle.
The Northeast Portland library just moved from a garage and storage pod into the 700-square-foot room in the basement of Redeemer Lutheran Church at Northeast Killingsworth Street and 20th Avenue. That's enough room to double the tools lent each day and boost membership into North Portland's range and above, the library's leaders figure.
Membership is free — borrowers need to live in Northeast Portland and they need an ID and proof of address. Members get a sticker with a four-digit ID number they can stick on the back of their driver's license.
The library is open on Saturday, with two volunteers on duty, and allows borrowers to check out up to seven tools for a week, bringing them back the next Saturday. That's a real upgrade from tool renter centers that charge by the half-day.
Charles Rose, 56, rented kneepads for laying tile flooring on a recent Saturday. He's also rented a reciprocating saw, a shop vacuum and a post-hole digger for various odd jobs.
"You're talking about hundreds of dollars I would have spent (renting or buying)," Rose said.
Tools range from the simple, including screwdrivers, hoes, hand saws and wheelbarrows, to the complex, including table saws, chop saws, air compressors and nail guns. Each tool has a four-digit ID number so the library can track borrowing on a volunteer-built computer program.
The inventory isn't particularly high-tech: There's not a laser-guided tool in sight. But power tools are plentiful, and the volunteers screen the tools to make sure they're in good working order. Gregg Lavender, one of the library's most frequent borrowers, was able to tear down a living room to the studs and rebuild it with only library tools.
The library survives on donations that help it buy new and refurbished tools, small grants, tool sales, late fees — and the good will of members: Since the library opened in August 2008, it has lent about 5,000 tools, with only a dozen not returned, Thompson says.
It lends from 75 to 125 tools each Saturday in winter and up to 200 a day in summertime, when it's open on Wednesday evenings as well as Saturday. It also helps nearby schools and nonprofits with bigger jobs.
Members' projects range from practical to prosaic. In the latter category include Steve Fancler, 26, who rented a router recently to help cut speaker holes for a custom-made bike trailer sound system.
"I used to mooch tools off my neighbors when I lived in my old place," he said. "But I just moved, so I can't do that anymore."
There are more women than men among the borrowers, Thompson says. Linda Martin, 35, returned a drill and a faucet wrench that she used to replace a faucet in her 1925 house, and says she's been using the library to gradually upgrade her do-it-yourself skills.
"I only really need these tools for one job, so why buy it," Martin said, "especially when everything in here is available for free."