Tessa Vierk hands off power tools to Chicago Tool Library customer.
Tessa Vierk hands off power tools to Chicago Tool Library customer. Credit: Tran Tran

Pandemic home remodeling provides a productive way to cope with quarantining and isolation. From fresh coats of paint to reenvisioned bedrooms, Chicagoans are getting crafty to stay sane indoors. While many have big dreams of modeling their kitchen like Friends‘ Monica Geller (complete with a yellow frame around the peephole), many of us don’t have the budget to invest in the necessary power tools to get the job done.

That’s where Chicago Tool Library (CTL) comes in clutch. The nonprofit made its debut at 1048 W. 37th, Suite 102, in August 2019—just months before the arrival of COVID-19. Cofounders Tessa Vierk and Jim Benton created this space as a hub for the community to borrow tools for up to seven days at a time. Think of the CTL like a public library, but instead of books, the shelves are stocked with power tools and miscellaneous appliances you can check out for projects.

“Over 90 percent of our inventory has been donated by community members, so if folks have tools or equipment hiding in their garages or closets they can donate them to us,” Vierk says. “Our current list of accepted items is here and it’s a great way for people to give their items a chance at a second life and help their neighbors accomplish their tasks.”

The concept offers a sliding scale membership program making it easy for anybody to sign up, regardless of income.

“Membership fees cover the entire year, and it can cost whatever they want,” Vierk explains. “[Members] can pay $350 or $3 for the year, it depends on what works for them.”

Once your membership is in order, you don’t have to sweat rental fees per item or late fees. Vierk and Benton are keeping it simple. This method has proved to be invaluable to locals who were looking to revamp spaces during quarantine.

“We’ve never been busier,” Vierk says. “We saw a lot of new visitors. Even after being closed for a month at the beginning of COVID, we still managed to have about 1,300 visitors.”

Just to give you an idea of the impact, the Chicago Tool Library’s members are from 80 percent of Chicago’s zip codes. Damn, that’s a lot of do-it-yourselfers, which can be a little tricky when a pandemic works its way into the mix.

When the virus first hit, Chicago Tool Library sprang into action in order to put some safety protocols in place for both members and volunteers. The CTL team built software for the library inventory.

“As a COVID response, we added a new login feature that includes tool reservation and schedulings for pickups and drop-offs,” Vierk says.

This means no in-person browsing of the library, but don’t stress it; the CTL team is working hard to keep the inventory on the site as up to date as possible. Once an item is reserved, members can head over to CTL’s service window for pickup.

While tool usage is seasonal, Vierk says that a major trend for members over the last year was checking out sewing machines to create face masks. The cofounder also says that the nonprofit’s kitchen section was a hit in 2020, allowing locals access to nontraditional appliances like tortilla presses, food dehydrators, and ice cream machines.

“We have a broad definition of what makes a ‘tool’ and our library includes lots of items that the average Chicagoan might want to access, but not own because it is either too expensive, too bulky, or too rarely used for folks to want to purchase or own it,” Vierk says. “Access over ownership is the point of libraries—it’s more environmentally and financially sensible and it builds community.”   v

If you want to get involved with Chicago Tool Library as a handy volunteer, Vierk asks you to hold off until the pandemic subsides. But if you’re itching to be part of the team, there may be some remote opportunities available. Check out chicagotoollibrary.org/volunteering.