By ED FINKELSTEIN
St. Louis – The ingenuity of a skilled union craftsman once again takes center stage with a the invention of simple, but ingenious modification for a standard tool – the pipe wrench - found in any craftsman’s toolbox – except this one can immediately increase productivity and prevent serious injuries.
Almost every trade at one time or another has a need for a pipe wrench. Misha Chkautovich uses one almost every day. He’s a 28-year veteran member of Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 562 working his entire career with Albert Arno, a full-service HVAC-R company employing members of Local 562 and Sheet Metal Local 36.
Working one day high in the air trying to screw a very large connector flange onto a hanging pipe, both a difficult task -- because there is not a practical pipe wrench large enough to get a grip on the oversized flange to allow the leverage needed to screw the connector flange onto a second pipe – and a dangerous task because he was six or so feet on a ladder struggling with a hanging pipe.
Even working on the ground, a standard makeshift “tool” is a 2x4 wedged between a couple of large bolts inserted into the flange screw holes to create leverage. This is difficult, inefficient and potentially dangerous if there’s a knot in the 2x4 and the pressure causes it to break; that’s especially dangerous at heights. And it happens!
IDEA IS BORN
And so an idea was born.
If a pair of pins could be screwed into his standard pipe wrench that then could easily slip into the flange’s screw holes, a regular wrench could be used as a lever to screw the flange onto the pipe.
Micha takes his concept to heart: he invents a modification concept for his pipe wrenches: drill a hole in both sides of the wrench’s jaws, screw in a steel pin, and walah, you turn the pipe wrench into a lever to quickly and efficiently turn the hinge onto a threaded pipe.
Thus began a yearlong, and expensive, journey to create, and then prove, that his new concept was viable.
First stop: Washington University’s machine shop. Albert Arno has had a long-term project at the university so he was familiar with the shop’s staff and capabilities. They were able to drill oversized holes into the hardened steel jaws of two pipe wrenches, then created and threaded a softer steel plug to go into the holes.
Here, Misha had another good idea. Make the threads left handed so that only proper strength pins could be screwed in. A built-in safety factor to avoid lesser strength regular pins from being used which could shear off under the pressure.
Second stop: another shop where the soft steel plugs were hardened to the strength of the jaws.
Third stop: the federal patent office. He has a patent-pending.
Fourth stop: an independent testing lab to make sure the pins could hold up and wouldn’t sheer off under pressure. Again, a critical safety factor both for anyone using the tool and for any potential manufacturer for liability issues.
TENSE TESTING MOMENTS
The journey culminated last September when Misha took his prototypes to St. Louis Testing Laboratories, an accredited local independent testing lab in St. Louis.
The critical issue: would the steel pins, screwed into the wrench jaws, hold up under the pressure as the modified wrench is being used as a lever?
As the lab technicians readied the test, the anxiety was palpable, in Misha of course, but in everyone else setting up the test, including this reporter watching.
With the steel pins screwed into the jaws of an 24-inch pipe wrench, the pins were then inserted into two holes pre-drilled in a hardened steel jib. The wrench now locked into position, a testing machine began to push down on the wrench handle: 100 pounds of pressure, 200, 500, 600, 1,000. The anxiety mounted as the pressure grew.
Then with a loud bang, the handle snapped -- at 2,125 pounds of pressure! Twenty-one hundred pounds of pressure, far more than could ever be exerted by a human using the wrench as a lever, for any function.
There was elation and high fives all around.
A second test of a 18-inch pipe wrench stood up to 1,599 pounds of pressure.
Misha was all smiles. His journey to this point – and the almost $5,000 of his own money invested to bring the dream to reality – had proven successful.
“I’m probably not the first one to come up with this idea, but I am the first one to decide to make it a reality,” he told the Labor Tribune. “We have a lot of really smart guys in the trades, but most just don’t have, or want to take, the time to make their great ideas work.”
THE NEW CHALLENGE
Now the real challenge begins. To find a manufacturer willing to modify its existing pipe wrenches to include pre-drilled holes for the steel pins during the manufacturing stage and sell the pins as an accessory. Two tools in one!
Misha said that he opted for an adaptation of an existing tool rather than creating a whole new tool simply because of the potential expense for the tradesmen, who have to buy all their own tools.
“When they replace a wrench, this one will provide real flexibility for that special job where they need the leverage, and they can do it at little more than the cost of a regular wrench.”
“There’s not a tradesman in America that wouldn’t want this adaptation in their toolbox,” said Local 562 President John O’Mara. “They are replacing tools all the time. Misha has created a process where a standard pipe wrench can be used effectively and efficiently as a lever when working with flanges larger than the wrench will open.
“It’s a simple, ingenious concept. We congratulate Brother Chkautovich for not only thinking of the idea, but having the fortitude to carry it from concept to reality. It is a brilliant idea and if a tool company takes it up, could be a boon for their sales.”
“The first company that takes on Misha’s idea will have a tremendous leg up on their competition,” O’Mara added.
“It’s a highly marketable tool if it can get produced,” said Lenny Knese, president of NSC, a leading regional provider of PVF, commercial plumbing, and HVAC products. “We have a lot of respect for an individual who not only has a good idea, but the courage to act and take it through the entire process to create a reality.”
“There are huge pipe wrenches that could tackle the large jobs but they are so heavy and expensive that no one wants to bother,” said Local 562 Business Representative Dick Kellett, “so they use the 2x4 and a couple of bolts. Misha’s is a good idea; once the guys start using it, they’ll all want to have one.”
If tool idea sells, all Local 562 members/families could benefit as well
Misha Chkautovich is not only a good pipefitter, he’s a family man (wife and four children) and an idealist.
If his invention is adopted by a tool manufacturer and sells, which he is confident it will, in big numbers, he wants a minimum of $2 from every sale to go back into the Plumbers & Pipefitters 562 Health & Welfare Fund.
“The union has been good to me and my family. I want to give something back.”
He also would like to see the tools manufactured in the U.S.A.
“We keep sending manufacturing jobs overseas, especially to China. If would be great for America to make this tool, and all others, right here at home,” Misha says with real enthusiasm.
“I can’t imagine a tradesman not willing to pay a few bucks more, if it comes to that, for an American-made tool!”