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Start a Shared Tool Co-op

Save money and have access to a truly stunning tool collection by starting a neighbor-to-neighbor lending program or a tool library.

You might use a neighbor's garage or a donated space from a local business as a storage space for a tool-sharing program. Image: Stewart Cohen/Pam Ostrow/Blend Images/Getty Images

The amount you save by borrowing a table saw the two or three times a year you need it, rather than buying one, is so great that neighborhoods around the country have formalized the process with tool-sharing programs. Neighbors organize a process to lend each other specific tools, and establish tool libraries that loan tools to members.

The benefits aren’t just economic: Pooling tools is good for the environment (fewer tools manufactured means less waste down the road), it’s a great way to get to know your neighbors, and it’s helpful to anyone who wants to keep up their property without spending a lot of money for tools.

Starting a tool library is a bigger job than a neighborhood tool-sharing program, but it has some clear advantages. Members don’t have to deal with the hassles of lending out their property. The scale can be much larger—tool libraries in Berkeley and Atlanta serve the whole city. Wikipedia has a list of tool-lending programs of various sizes in several states.

And, if the library is incorporated as a nonprofit (or becomes associated with an existing local nonprofit), donations of money and tools are tax-deductible.

Both tool-sharing programs and tool libraries require some key decisions that you and other organizers (and it’s best to do this project with some partners) should consider before starting:

Raising money

It costs money to start and run a tool library, even one run by volunteers. You should be able to set up and equip a new tool library for about $2,000, experts say. Typical annual membership fees range from $20 to $60. Some libraries charge 2% to 3% of the cost of a tool when it’s checked out. If your organization is a nonprofit, you may want to seek funding grants from local foundations.

Building inventory

For a tool-sharing program, ask everyone to list the tools they’re willing to loan out. For a library, ask neighbors for tool donations, and purchase new tools with membership-fee funds. “Seventy-five percent of our power tools we purchased new, and 100% of our hand tools have been donated. It’s been a big surprise for us—at least once a month someone wants to donate nice tools,” says Michael Froehlich, the co-founder of the West Philly Tool Library.

Once open, choose new tools to add based on what is popular, and ask members for suggestions. Avoid troublesome tools, such as paint sprayers that often need repair and gas-powered machines that require smelly, explosive fuel.

Tool storage

In a tool-sharing program, everyone keeps their tools at home, but a library needs a storage facility. Rent gets expensive, so free space that’s easy to get to for members is vital. Options to consider: a member’s garage, donated space from a local business, or excess capacity at a local nonprofit.

Set the rules

Be clear on how long someone can keep a tool—a week with the option to renew once or twice is common. Set penalties for overdue tools. If a borrower breaks a neighbor’s tool, they have to replace it, but tool libraries typically pay for repairs, unless there’s evidence of serious misuse. Berkeley’s tool library has a good set of rules to consider as a model.

Keeping track

Once a program has more than a few dozen tools, keeping on top of what’s available, what’s checked out, and when it’s due becomes complicated. Off-the-shelf library database programs are relatively easy to modify for a tool inventory—consider a bar code set to make check-out and return a snap. For a tool-sharing program, a simple Google Docs spreadsheet may be all you need.

Buying insurance

A liability waiver, especially for use of power tools, is a good idea. A tool-sharing program probably doesn’t require liability insurance, and tool libraries have to decide if they feel more comfortable with such coverage. Consider storefront insurance, though, in case anyone is injured while at your location.

Once you launch a tool-lending program, you may be surprised at how quickly it catches on. “Start very simply, and it can grow organically for what people want,” says Dustin Zuckerman, the founder of the Santa Rosa Tool Library in California, which expanded in two years from an inventory of 15 tools to more than 1,700 tools today. “You have the potential to create an organization that people love.”