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Building Business

Building Business

Self-Taught MBA: The Builder's Briefcase

comments (4) June 3rd, 2014 in Blogs
FPR Fernando Pages Ruiz, contributor

The T-Tech by Tumi, $185. This rugged briefcase has an assortment of exterior pockets for fast-access items such as a tablet, tape measure, and smartphone. For a low-cost version of the same thing, take a look at the BonDura Overnight Briefcase.
Panasonic Toughbook CF-30 starting at $599. This very rugged laptop has adequate specs, including 2GB of RAM, a 64GB solid-state hard drive, and a 13 in. LCD (non-touchscreen) at the base-model level. Its not the best laptop, but its adequate for most of us using Office programs and cloud-based internet programs.
Bosch Digital Laser Distance Measurer, $90. Laser-measuring technology provides precise measurement of length, area, and volume. A continuous-length mode automatically adjusts measurements when walking off distances.
The iHandy Level, one of the five tools in the iHandy Carpenter toolkit, is available for download for free.
The T-Tech by Tumi, $185. This rugged briefcase has an assortment of exterior pockets for fast-access items such as a tablet, tape measure, and smartphone. For a low-cost version of the same thing, take a look at the BonDura Overnight Briefcase.Click To Enlarge

The T-Tech by Tumi, $185. This rugged briefcase has an assortment of exterior pockets for fast-access items such as a tablet, tape measure, and smartphone. For a low-cost version of the same thing, take a look at the BonDura Overnight Briefcase.

Years ago, when I wore a carpenter's belt and drove a beat-up F-150 pickup truck, my favorite form of consumerism was strolling the tool aisles at the local lumberyard. I wanted a shop full of the best from Milwaukee, Bosch, and Makita. Nowadays, I drive an Audi and find myself ogling Bosca briefcases at Nordstrom. It sounds effete, but it's actually the same thing as what I used to do: lusting after the very best tools of the trade. Alas, I still can't afford them; the Bosca bags start at $600, and for a contractor, such an executive attaché isn't appropriate. Nevertheless, I've tried many bags and gadgets during my 20 years of running the company, and I can attest to the value of having the best business gear you can afford. The right tools always make the job a lot easier.


Let's start with the briefcase itself. You want something functional, slightly stylish, and appropriate to the business--which is construction, not finance or insurance, so avoid the traditional white-collar attaché case, the kind you must lay on a table to flip open. To start, you won't always have a table; also, it's obnoxious to slap your briefcase down on a client's kitchen countertop. You want a bag you can place on the floor beside your seat and pull papers from the top. You want pouches you can reach into for a tablet, your electronic measuring device, a screwdriver, or your smartphone. I like canvas over leather for its durability and scratch resistance.

There are some briefcases made especially for the contractor. I have used a few of these, such the Stanley Bucket Boss Contractor's Briefcase. When you're managing projects on site, and when you do estimate takeoffs and punch lists, your briefcase really does become a toolbox and rests in some nasty places. At under $45, I like the Bon Tool 41-103 Builder's "BonDura" Overnight Briefcase, which neatly combines the utility of a canvas tote bag for tools along with all the necessary file-folder sleeves and a padded laptop pouch.


If you're a designer, you may want to carry a $1500 MacBook in your briefcase, with its quick start, easy interface, and beautiful graphic display. There's nothing better for showing off your CAD chops and 3D renderings. At the other extreme, you may have bought the cheapest, plastic laptop at Best Buy for under $500. But I recommend neither.

If you grew up in the trades, you're likely to be hard on delicate electronic equipment. So you may want a rugged business tool, not a fashion statement. Panasonic's Tough-Book line eschews style (and to an extent computing) in favor of a 6-ft. drop-resistant, IP65-certified, magnesium-alloy case. If I were still on the job site all of the time, I would buy one of these. Dell makes the very durable Latitude line of laptops, which is fine for those who visit the job site but don't live there. I've owned three Dells over the years and dropped one, spilled coffee on every single keyboard, and otherwise mistreated them, but the Dells kept on computing. I recently wiped the hard drive clean on my Latitude D830, an old workhorse, and gave it to an employee for basic tasks. Check out the new Latitude E6430 ATG with an outdoor viewable display and a grime-resistive touch screen.

As far as tablets go, I still enjoy my easy-to-use, always-ready, superlong-battery-life iPad. Light and as small as a notepad, it's become my only scratch paper; I no longer carry a yellow legal pad. Its beautiful display also makes a great photo album to show prospective clients my best work. You can take pictures with it that automatically sync up with your other devices, and you can use the web. But if you're shopping for price, check out the Lenovo Tablet 10 at $275. Not only is it ergonomic, but I've tested the screen in bright sun and could see the display, unlike the one on my iPad. The device is cheap, sleek, and rugged.


For short-distance measuring, such as across a countertop, you'll always want a tape measure in your briefcase. Tapes are still the most practical tool for measuring the width of tile or the depth of a sink. But your tape doesn't have be a bulky 25-footer, as you can easily get by with a thin, 10-ft. tape that fits easily into a briefcase side pocket or pouch. For measuring interior room sizes and even doing most exterior calculations, you can use a digital laser measurer. I like Bosch's Digital Distance Measurer ($90), although you can spend over $800 on a Leica Disto Series D8 if you're a fanatic for accuracy.

The basic Bosch does what you do most: areas and volumes. You can walk off distances while the built-in calculator keeps a running total. It also offers a slick geometry function that allows you to triangulate measurements that are difficult to take in a linear manner, such as the height of a gable end. You reference the distance between you (holding the digital measurer) and the base of the wall, and then point the laser at the tip of the gable. The device then calculates the height of the wall. 

You'll still want to carry a compact 100-ft. tape in the car for measuring fence lines and elevation lengths not because your Bosch can't handle it, but because the tape, in these applications, is so much easier. Use a screwdriver as a stake to hold down the tab at the end of the tape, and start walking. Don't go digital unless digital makes it easier.

posted in: Blogs

Comments (4)

Burketa Burketa writes: Lenova tablets or any Android tablet doesn't work with AirPrint. There are free print apps in the marketplace. "Print Hammermill" is the highest rated and has the best functionality for WiFi, Google Cloud, USB, etc.
Posted: 11:25 am on July 1st

DavidGerstel DavidGerstel writes: It was fun to see the old "Portable Office" idea (the subject of my first Fine Homebuilding article about 30 years ago) brought forward into our digital age. What struck me as especially good about your piece, Fernando, is that it focuses on essentials; you don't stuff every electronic possibility into your portable office -- and I have noticed that 21st century builders fall prey to excess accumulation of digital possibilities just as us veterans fell prey to piling up too many hand and power tools in the 20th century. (In fact, some of us have to fight off both inclinations today. Is there a twelve step group . . .?)
Of course, each of us would probably add one or two favorite items to your well-outfitted bag. For me it would be a headlamp, dust mask, and paper note pad with pen for use in the crawl space. I would not want to take electronics down there.
Dan's pocketknife seems indispensable, too, though I will opt for a meatloaf sandwich with swiss cheese and red onions -- or at least some high quality dark chocolate -- over his breath mints.

Posted: 11:42 am on June 17th

FPR FPR writes: Good comment, DancingDan. I carry a voice record, too. I call it my prosthetic memory. Breath mints, pocket knife, graph paper, all good suggestions. I carry a circuit tester, too, seemed like a good tool to have, although I cannot say I have ever used it.
Posted: 10:33 pm on June 6th

DancingDan DancingDan writes: I also have a digital voice recorder, although most phones can do that now. Like to record thought, observations, measurements as I'm walking around inspecting. A touch-type circuit tester. Breath mints. Pocket knife. Graph paper.
Posted: 3:05 pm on June 6th

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