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What Is a Tool-Lending Library – Benefits & How to Start Your Own

One of the most frustrating things about home improvement is having to shell out money for a new tool that you only expect to use once. For example, if your bathroom needs re-tiling, you can’t reasonably do the job without a wet saw, which costs anywhere from $100 to $750. But unless you have another bathroom to re-tile after this one, that expensive tool is just going to sit in your garage gathering dust once you’re finished with the job.

What makes it all the more annoying is that your next-door neighbor may be re-tiling his bathroom next month, and the neighbor across the street could be doing hers next year. Unless they know that you already have a wet saw, they’ll probably end up going out and buying their own. It would make so much more sense for the three of you – or maybe even all the neighbors on the block – to chip in together and buy just one wet saw that you could all take turns using.

With a tool library in your town, you can do exactly that. A tool-lending library is just like a regular public library, except instead of books, it has a large collection of tools – gardening tools, woodworking tools, home repair tools, and more. Once you join a tool library, you can simply check out any of these tools whenever necessary. You don’t have to buy or rent new tools for every home project, and you don’t have to find space in your house to store a lot of tools you hardly ever use.

Benefits of Tool-Lending Libraries

Like other parts of the sharing economy, tool libraries are a way to use resources more efficiently. They make it possible for dozens of people to share one rotary tiller, one drill press, or one extension ladder, instead of each having to buy their own.

This arrangement has a number of benefits for members:

  • Saving Money. Do-it-yourself (DIY) experts interviewed in The New York Times say it costs about $250 to equip a basic home workshop – and that’s not counting the cost of specialized tools for particular jobs. But if you belong to a tool library, all you ever need to pay for tools is a yearly membership fee, which can cost anywhere from $10 to $100. Some tool libraries are run by town governments, so membership is completely free for residents.
  • Saving Space. Many avid DIYers have houses stuffed with a huge assortment of tools, many of which they don’t use more than once or twice a year. When you belong to a tool-lending library, it stores all those seldom-used tools for you, so they don’t take up space in your basement and garage.
  • Sharing Knowledge. A tool-lending library is more than just a building full of tools – it’s also a place for DIY fans to gather and share ideas and tips for home projects. Many tool libraries also sponsor workshops to teach specific DIY skills, either for free or at a low charge.
  • Protecting the Environment. Sharing tools reduces the number of new tools that need to be made and sold each year. In turn, this saves the energy and natural resources that would be used to produce them. On top of that, tool libraries can serve as centers to promote sustainable living. For example, the West Seattle Tool Library encourages its members to take part in projects such as setting up home gardens, improving energy efficiency, and harvesting rainwater.
  • Building Community. Belonging to a tool-lending library gives you a chance to get to know your neighbors. You can discuss your projects together, help each other out, and possibly form lasting friendships.

The only real downside of belonging to a tool library is that when you don’t own your tools, you don’t have immediate access to them. You can only check them out when the tool library is open, and there’s always a risk that someone else may be using the specific tool you need.

So even if you belong to a tool library, it makes sense to keep at least a small collection of tools of your own. This should include the tools that you use often and the ones you’re most likely to need at a moment’s notice. For instance, when your toilet starts leaking, you want to have a wrench ready in hand so you can stop the water before it does any damage, not have to run down to the tool library to check one out.

Tool Lending Library Benefits

Inside a Tool-Lending Library

The Berkeley Tool-Lending Library in Berkeley, California, is part of the town’s public library system. Any adult resident who has a library card can also check out tools, free of charge. Thousands of people use the tool library, with more than 100 new members signing up each month.

Berkeley’s tool library is one of the oldest in the country. It was founded in 1979 with a federal community development block grant (CDBG) of $30,000. It started as a collection of 500 tools housed in a portable trailer, with one full-time employee. The city took over the funding of the tool-lending library two years later, and in 1988 it officially became part of the library system.

Today, the tool-lending library resides in a large, warehouse-like building that’s open Tuesday through Saturday. It contains more than 3,500 tools, with three part-time employees to supervise the collection. The library’s most popular tools include weed eaters, extension cords, ladders, hand trucks, and hedge trimmers. The collection also includes smaller tools, such as screwdrivers and masonry bits.

Borrowers can check out up to 10 tools at a time and can keep them for either three days or seven days, depending on the demand for the tool. They can also call the library ahead of time to reserve a tool, but only to be picked up that same day. If they return tools late, they must pay an overdue fine of anywhere from $1 to $18 per day, depending on the tool. The overdue fines provide the library with nearly $20,000 a year to add new tools to its collection and to maintain the ones it already has.

Although overdue fines are common, it’s very rare for people to fail to return tools. Adam Broner, one of the libary’s tool lending specialists, says that the tool library’s patrons are “very loyal” and tend to be more reliable about returning tools than regular library users are about returning books.

Broner says the library is more than just a tool lending service – it also serves as a “community center” of sorts for people interested in DIY. Some patrons say that they visit the tool library regularly, even daily. Users say the service is convenient, saves them a lot of money, and makes DIY accessible to people who can’t afford to buy their own tools. One woman even confides that the library has taken away her landlord’s excuse that he can’t afford to do repairs because tools are too expensive.

Finding a Tool Library

The easiest way to find a tool library in your area is to check Local Tools, a website that promotes tool-lending libraries. Its comprehensive list shows tool libraries throughout the United States, Canada, and even Great Britain. You can use the map to find a tool library in your state or region, or you can search the list for the name of a particular town. Each listing includes contact information for the tool library – a physical address, phone number, and email address – and a link to its website.

There’s also a list of tool-lending libraries on Wikipedia. It includes listings for tool libraries in several additional countries, such as Israel and Australia. The U.S. listings are also somewhat easier to search because they’re organized by state. However, the Wikipedia list doesn’t contain links to the tool libraries’ websites.

Starting a Tool-Lending Library

If you can’t find a tool-lending library in your area, you can try starting your own. The Center for a New American Dream, a national organization that promotes conscious consumption and greener living, outlines the basic process for starting a tool library in its Guide to Sharing. Here is a basic outline of the steps you need to take.

Step 1: Form a Group

Find people in your community who are interested in starting a tool library. Try asking friends and neighbors and asking at your church, school, or homeowner’s association. Once you find a group of interested people, hold a meeting and select a team to take the lead on the project. Choose people to take on key jobs such as financing, marketing, coordinating volunteers, and gathering tools.

Step 2: Outline Ideas

Meet with your team and put together a plan for your tool-lending library. Discuss issues such as:

  • Tools. Consider how many tools you initially want to offer, and where you will obtain them. You could buy new tools or start with donated tools from members, contractors, and your own collections.
  • Facilities. Think about possible places to house the tool library. You could rent a building, ask your town to donate space in a municipal building, or even run the library out of someone’s garage.
  • Business Structure. One popular way to run a tool library is as a tax-exempt public charity known as a 501(c)(3) organization. Setting up your tool library as a 501(c)(3) allows you to avoid taxes, but it is a fairly long and complicated process. One way around it is to make the tool library part of a government organization, such as a public library. You can also ask an existing 501(c)(3) to be your fiscal sponsor so that the tool library is officially one of that organization’s projects; however, many groups charge a fee for this kind of sponsorship.
  • Funding. Possible sources of funding include community block grants, local businesses, private foundations, and individual donors. Decide whether you want to charge a membership fee to help cover your expenses and what kind of fees you want to charge for overdue, lost, or damaged tools.
  • Staffing. Decide how many workers you will need to run the tool library. You can try to work with volunteers only, but it’s helpful to have at least one paid tool coordinator to keep everything running smoothly. You can have paid employees and still be a nonprofit organization, but you are responsible for paying their federal taxes. The IRS has detailed information about how to handle taxes for employees of nonprofits.
  • Membership. Decide which area you want your tool library to serve. Most tool libraries are open to all residents in a specific town or region. Another option is to have membership be free for residents and allow people outside the area to join for a fee.
  • Services. Consider whether you want your tool-lending library to offer any other services besides tools. For example, some tool libraries provide space for people to work on projects, hands-on assistance, or educational workshops.

The West Seattle Tool Library has developed a “starter kit” for tool-lending libraries that talks about all these issues in detail. This kit is available on its outreach website, ShareStarter.org. Although the document does its best to cover all the issues tool libraries face, the authors also recommend that you consult a lawyer about your plans to ensure that your tool library complies with all state and local laws. If you can’t afford a lawyer, try contacting a legal organization in your state that offers advice on a pro bono (free) basis.

Set Ground Rules

Step 3: Set Ground Rules

To keep your organization functioning smoothly, you need a clear set of ground rules that all borrowers understand. For instance, you should decide the following:

  • How old people must be to check out tools
  • How many tools they can borrow at a time
  • How long they can keep tools
  • What kind of identification people need to sign up for membership
  • Whether they need to sign a waiver to release the tool library from liability if they injure themselves
  • Whether to require training before allowing people to borrow certain tools that are dangerous to use

You can see examples of lending policies on the websites of the North Portland Tool Library and the Rebuilding Together Central Ohio Tool Library.

Step 4: Build Your Tool Collection

To reduce the risk of damage and breakage, it’s best to start with new, construction-grade tools that can stand up to heavy use. You can also get donations of tools from local contractors and tool sellers, but you should test them first to make sure they’re in good working order.

As you gather tools, mark them with the library’s name and give each one a unique identification number. Give each borrower a unique ID as well, so that you can keep track of who is using which tools at any given time. You can use a spreadsheet program or library software to keep track of your inventory.

Once you have all the tools you need, be sure to keep them in good working order. Check them for damage whenever they’re returned to the library, and make any repairs that are needed, such as sharpening. You can charge users a fee if they fail to clean tools properly before returning them.

The Center for a New American Dream recommends devoting at least 10% of your budget to maintaining, repairing, and replacing tools as needed. Poll your members from time to time to find out what new tools they think the library should have.

Step 5: Spread the Word

The final step in putting together your tool library is to let people know about it. Some ways to publicize your library include:

  • Advertising your services through local papers, community websites, bulletin boards, or direct mailings to the public
  • Reaching out to the local press with news about the tool library
  • Encouraging library members to document their projects and share their stories through social media
  • Sponsoring community projects, such as park restoration
  • Joining forces with community groups, such as affordable housing organizations, woodworking clubs, or gardening programs

Build Own Tool Collection

Final Word

Belonging to a tool library isn’t the only way to save money on tools for home repairs, of course. You can also rent tools that you only plan to use once, or borrow them from friends and family members. But a tool-lending library is more than just a source of cheap tools – it’s also a community. Joining one is a way to meet people, share ideas, and form closer ties to your neighbors.

Have you ever used a tool library? Would you use one if you had the chance?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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