Charlottesville’s ‘tooligans’ are teaching people to fix up their homes — and lending out the right tools for the job

Woman in teal sweater stands at work bench with tools in front of her, shelves of organized parts to the side.

Valerie Farrell believes there’s no such thing as enough tools. She said as much last Saturday morning, standing in a corner of a vast multi-use warehouse on Broadway St. with half a dozen screwdrivers in her hands.

She looked around at the racks of rakes, shovels and spades. A wood chipper, a log splitter, shelves lined with hedge trimmers, chainsaws, power washers and table saws. Tool kits in long metal boxes and wooden racks full of meticulously labeled bins of wrenches, hammers, drill bits, screwdrivers, scrapers, shears and chalk line reels.

These aren’t Farrell’s tools, though. Well, not entirely — she shares them with hundreds of people. They’re all part of the Charlottesville Tool Library, which is exactly what its name says it is: A library that loans out tools. And gives away instruction, safety goggles and ear plugs too.

Farrell is a longtime carpenter and woodworker and she loves the tools that help her make a living and make the world a little more beautiful and functional. But tools also take up a lot of space and can cost a lot of money per use for someone who’s not using their tools on a daily, or even weekly basis. 

Volunteers, like librarian MJ Lightbody, help manage the program. While checking out a cordless screwdriver to a member, Lightbody recounts people saying, “I’m glad you’re here, because I don’t want to buy this tool to use once.”

A few minutes later, someone else came in to borrow a belt sander, circular saw and square shovel — at least $300 worth of gear.

Encouraging people to do repair or build projects on their own — by offering them access to the literal tools and the training to do so — is empowering. It can also help keep things out of the landfill.

More about community-led initiatives

The Charlottesville Tool Library got its start a couple years ago on Zoom, like so many other pandemic-era projects. It began as a work project of Virginia Organizing, a statewide non-partisan, nonprofit grassroots advocacy organization, and is working on becoming a standalone nonprofit in the next year or so.

After taking initial tool donations and getting organized in a donated space in the warehouse at 1740 Broadway Street, the library officially loaned its first tool one year ago, on March 19, 2022. The library is currently open Saturday mornings from 9 a.m. to noon, with workshops happening later in the afternoon. They hope to add weeknight hours soon, and the library has grown enough that they’ve started renting a little more space in the warehouse to expand the offerings even further.

Members of the Charlottesville Tool Library pay a sliding scale annual membership fee — a suggested $1 for every $1,000 of income — to check out as many tools as they want. Someone who earns $40,000 a year can become a member for $40 a year, the price of a basic power drill. There are late fees too (which are meant to be an incentive to return the tool on time, not as a barrier for borrowing) and, occasionally, tool cleaning fees. Money from the fees goes to buying new tools for the volunteer-run library.

So far, 287 people have joined, and people are walking in all the time to sign up and check out a tool on the spot.

But members can browse the online tool catalog and reserve what they need. The librarians then retrieve the requested items from the shelves and place them in a pickup area to be scanned upon check out.

The library has more than 500 tools in its catalog, but they’re always adding more, either via donations or purchasing oft-requested items like large floor sanders. (The most lent-out item? Extension cords.)

No matter the tool, librarians always offer safety goggles and ear plugs with each tool pickup, while also hammering home the importance of reading the safety instructions and manuals attached to the tool’s online catalog listing. Librarians also frequently ask people what sort of project they’re doing to make sure they are checking out the right tools for the job and if they have everything they need to do it. A power drill, for example, is useless without bits.

Click here to become a member of the Charlottesville Tool Library, or to sign up for workshops.

For some of the more complicated tools, there are links to how-to videos in the online catalog. The library has some safety videos on its website and holds safety classes that give people hands-on experience using table saws, jigsaws, circular saws and more. They hold workshops, too, on things like making a home energy efficient. Basic plumbing and lamp rewiring workshops are coming up soon.

“There are a lot of people who are trying to take care of their homes,” said Frome, who sees a lot of young couples who’ve bought their first homes — usually fixer-uppers — and are trying to embark on some DIY projects.

That’s what Frome’s family did. Her father was a wood shop teacher and kept his own wood shop in their basement. Frome grew up around tools and likes sharing what she knows with younger generations.

A large warehouse with wooden shelves and metal racks, with four people shown looking at tools.
The Charlottesville Tool Library works like, well, a library. Members can check out tools, but also get help from the librarians — also called “tooligans.” The library has more than 500 tools in its catalog, but they’re always adding more, either via donations or purchasing oft-requested items.

All of that passion and expertise comes in handy, not just for how-tos, but for keeping the library collection intact. Tools are often returned all screwed up, said Farrell, looking on as two of the library “tooligans” tried to figure out whether or not a tamper — a heavy, metal square attached to one end of a wooden handle used to even out soil or sand before, say, laying patio tiles. (Or for tamping down mole trails so that the little creatures can’t get through and go to your neighbor’s yard instead of chomping your garden, Lightbody said to laughter from her fellow volunteers.)

Librarian and tooligan Tyler Whitney suggested cutting a couple inches off the frayed wooden handle and re-attaching it to the metal part. That would make it short, said Farrell — would that be comfortable for tall people, like Erika Rydergaard, another librarian/tooligan? 

Rydergaard tried it out. “It’s awkward,” she said, but then again, most tools are too short for her, even her wheelbarrow. She suggested adding a note to the item’s catalog listing that it’s best for people of short or average height.

“This is very illustrative of what it’s like in the library,” said Rydergaard as Farrell took the wooden handle over to a table saw and started cutting away.

“A bunch of people looking at one tool, asking what we should do with it,” added Whitney, before heading over to the bench to help Farrell with the fix.