Column: If you see someone using a Dremel, back away

The shop teacher wasn't wrong in offering this advice

As I grow older, I am finding there are some things whose life expectancy terminates, like clockwork.

Hot water heaters? Replace it in seven years, period.

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Car and truck batteries? Six years and replace it, or you better have some long, thick booster cables in the back.

It was with this in mind that I bought a replacement battery for my wife’s truck the other day. And since No. 1 daughter is taking auto mechanics and thoroughly enjoying it, she got the pleasure of changing it.

It wasn’t her first time, as we replaced the battery on the ’98 Metro when we brought it back from Dad’s place last spring. “The first thing you do when you take possession of an older vehicle is replace the battery,” I told her. “That will eliminate a lot of your starting issues.”

Armed with new battery, Katrina attacked the task at hand. First, she removed the battery cables, then went for the bolt that secured the sliding wedge which, in turn, holds down the battery via a flange on the bottom. It’s generally a good design, compared to the bracket you would see on much older designs.

That is, until daughter says, “Oh crap. The bolt broke.”

Indeed, it had. The bolt, which holds down the wedge, used to be an 5 mm thick. But 10 years of exposure to the corrosion that forms around battery posts (despite my efforts to keep them clean) had reduced the thickness of the bolt by about half. Snap. Done.

And without its removal, there was no way this battery was going to come out. Probably a good thing in case of a rollover, but not so much when doing a replacement.

“And this is where we get the Dremel,” I told her.

I’ve been trying to expose her to as much of my tools chest as possible, but she had never seen the Dremel.

“Ohhhh,” she said, explaining that her shop teacher had said, “If you see someone using a Dremel, back away. Don’t even ask. They’re having a bad day.”


This Dremel was given to me as a wedding gift from my groomsmen. While all the other wedding gifts where house stuff, this was exclusively a guy thing. It was the top-end kit, with a flexible, attachable snake. More on that later.

For those who don’t know, a Dremel is a high-speed rotary tool that is akin to an old fashioned dental drill. Maybe there’s a relationship there, somewhere. They have a nearly infinite selection of tools that can be used.

A 1995 TV commercial for the Dremel went like this: “You cut, Dremel cuts. You sharpen, Dremel sharpens. You polish, Dremel polishs. You drill, Dremel drills. You clean, Dremel cleans. You sand, Dremel sands. You grind, Dremel grinds. You hammer … did I mention we cut?”

It was the perfect advertisement, so much so that my memory of it, 24 years later, was spot on to the commercial I found on YouTube.

And it’s that cutting feature that had the shop teacher making the warning, because that’s very likely what he was referring to.

If you simply cannot wrench it out, WD-40 it out, grind it out or torch it out, your very last plan of attack is to pull out the Dremel with its cutting disks.

They’re about an inch across, and only as thick as maybe 8 sheets of paper. They’re incredibly fragile, which means if you apply any force to it, up or down, while its cutting, and the disk will shatter. You look at it funny, the disk will shatter. There’s a reason they come in a container with a few dozen.

Not long after my wedding I needed to modify my Ford E-250 camper van, removing the folding bench/bed and putting in my excavator virtual reality simulator prototype, making it a rolling demo. This meant removing the four very rusted 5/8 inch bolts securing the bench to the floor. Nothing, but nothing, worked, except the Dremel. It was a cold, dreary, snowy October or November day. I was lying under the van on a Saskatoon street, shattering at least 20 disks (40? 60?) before the fourth bolt came out. But it did, indeed, come out.

Which brings us 20 years forward to the battery removal. Nothing else was going to work. No grinding. No drilling. No chiselling. No wrenching. That bolt was going to have to be cut out. And it was too tight to even get the Dremel tool in there.

But my friends had bought the model that had the flexible snake. Like an old-fashioned dental drill, it allowed me to just get in there with just a few millimetres of space on either side of the cutting disk. One wrong move and I’d slice open the battery and spray acid everywhere.

An hour or so and at least nine disks later, the bolt and nut were cut off. The wedge easily came out, and the battery soon after. Once again, the Dremel saved the day.

But the teacher was right – if you see someone using a Dremel, back away.


Brian Zinchuk is editor of Pipeline News. He can be reached at

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