CHICAGO - They call it "The World's Fair of Home Improvement." Compared to some fairs, The National Hardware Show leaps a much higher bar.

It's the Guggenheim of Home Improvement; what McCormick Place was built for. More than 3,000 exhibitors were showing 10,000 products. And once we saw them, we realized we needed about one-third of them, as soon as possible.

Home improvement is a $300 billion retail market, and the industry grew 6% last year. Homeowners' thirst for tools and other useful stuff has not been slaked, and suppliers all over the world are battling for their share.

You could get everything you need in this one place. Categories of products included hardware; paint and home decorating; lawn, garden, outdoor living; plumbing, electrical, hvac, housewares and building products.

This is a trade show, of course, held for buyers, not consumers. Retail execs, store managers, and merchandise managers are exhibitors' targets. All understood that the successful booth should show buyers exactly how great the products would look on their shelves. Packaging and presentation appeal to a strong impulse to purchase, a major factor in hardware buys, according to experts.

The result is that the show looks like an enormous retail store. "Honey, why don't you go look at the grills while I pick out door handles for the closets? Don't buy anything unless we talk about it."

No actual buying was allowed on the floor, at least not the retail kind. You couldn't even walk around with individual items. This rule was meant to stop those who would help themselves to a cordless drill while booth personnel were occupied.

The broadcast TV networks did segments for their morning shows, and cable TV channel HGTV proved it is growing in size and influence with its coverage. Local TV and radio stations attended, and hundreds of print journalists, both consumer and trade, looked for copy.

DIY, not trade

Almost all of these exhibitors have trade divisions to address the pro-residential, commercial and industrial markets. They are happy to take your card and will get back to you with full information on their commercial-quality product lines and buying plans. Some even had the trade guy around if you wanted to talk on the floor.

Still, most booths were primarily home-oriented. If you were looking for counter items to sell to tradesman, there wasn't a lot here to get excited about. The usual suppliers will be able to continue fill your needs without you missing something revolutionary. We did not see the ultimate pair of snips at the hardware show. We did see a very long level called "The Big Johnson."

On these pages, we decided to go with the flow and present what we found new, fun and interesting, even if some items will not increase the profitability of your sheet metal operation by a single 0.01%. We did not deviate from one strongly held principle: The item must be useful. Or at least somewhat useful.

We were especially attracted to individual innovators, people who actually translated an idea for something better into a marketable product. At this stage, one major sale puts their products into the home improvement mainstream. If the sale never comes, they've got another idea.

To enjoy the show fully, whether you attended or not, you must peruse the www.nationalhardwareshow.com Web site. There you may browse through all the product categories that strike your interest, and zero in on the suppliers that fit your particular needs. Since most of us are not trying to fill the aisles at The Home Depot, we can ignore the thousands of products that hold no appeal and concentrate on those that look too good to pass up.

All contact information for manufacturers is listed at the end of this article.

The Grill-N-Chill.

Targeting tailgaters

Grill's on the left, cooler's on the right. Unless you're standing on the other side. Nothing fancy there. But check out the quality mobile scissor-lift base. That's what makes this unit work. Dan Brennan and friends were tailgating at an Indy Colts game five years ago when it struck them. Some things, like meats and foods, should be served hot, while others, your beverages and beers for instance, must remain much cooler. The rest is Grill-N-Chill history. The unit hitches to a vehicle and even has its own taillights. With a rig like this, we would search the parking lot for Ohio State fans to humiliate with our superior cooking and chilling capabilities.

Thermos' Grill2Go comes with a rolling cart.

Yuppy, yes, but fun

It's hard to know what to think about the Thermos Grill2Go Fire & Ice. Professional tailgaters might sneer, but this special-edition Grill2Go looks like a snazzy little rolling fun center that will only cost about $300 retail. A pedal lifts the grill up from the 10-gallon cooler, providing 310 sq. in. of Teflon cooking surface (two-thirds grate, one-third flat griddle). A one-pound LP tank should last two-plus hours on high. The whole unit can all be pulled on convenient back wheels. Cool or geeky? You decide.

Gloves help grip

Gloves. IronClad Performance Wear recommends two new models that incorporate the gReptile griping material strategically located throughout the glove, and with an adhesive-backed strip to apply to the tool handle for "up to 300% more gripping strength." The GripTec Striker has two fingers and a thumb exposed for maximum utility of the fingertips. The GripTech Advantage is the full-finger design for dry, wet, or oily conditions.

Metal finding, the real-tool way

The Surveyor by Bounty Hunter finds pipes, property markers, rebar, or dangerous nails and lost tools. It "sees through" dirt, rock, wood, cement, sand, or water. This is your industrial model, not the toy the guy on TV uses. Turn up the discrimination control, and you'll be turning up your nose at iron while detecting copper or brass. Sensitivity control is provided, for searches that range from a few feet down to a point closer to the center of the earth. From First Texas Products, L.P.

You have but two hands

Mr.7-Hands. Multiple screwdriver heads and a flashlight. Everything works. You get the light right in the spot you need it. It's "perfect for home and office," in case anyone had questions about industrial usage. But if the thing were there when you needed it, it would be just the thing. From Adroit Precision Tools.

Functional? Safe? Yes.

Nothing is harder to accept than a dysfunctional tape measure. "It brings inaccuracy and inconvenience." You must have: "The most USEFUL tape measure ever made."

Snips presents this press release in a somewhat readable size as a service to readers and the manufacturer, European Hi Tech, Inc., Harbor City, Calif.

It's your standard-length 7.5-meter metric ruler, of course, yet it has advantages you've never dreamed of. They're fairly obvious, once you sort it all out.

But you don't buy the FUNCTIONAL Tape Measure (??) for its gadgets. Pulling this bad boy out of your pocket at the next jobsite or barbeque is the thrill you're looking for. And why not? You've earned it. The admiration of your relatives and peers is thanks enough.

Sharp tools satisfy inner needs

SOG is one of the premier knife manufacturers among those that exhibit at the hardware show. If you like knives, you can never have enough. For example, bet you're not carrying your cash in a money clip that includes a 2.7-in. swing-out blade. You'll have some proud explaining to do at your next airport visit when this charmer drops into the little basket. But when you're just relaxing at home or work, twirling the X2-42 Recondo on your knee is the better choice. Named after the Vietnam-era MACV Recondo School for Special Forces, the X-42 "features wicked grid lines which focus power on the edge and top of the intensely sharp blade. This is one serious fixed blade." That's good enough for us.

All thumbs still intact

Some people should not operate dangerous tools. Maybe you know this about certain others, or it may even apply to you. A hand is a terrible thing to waste. Enter the Allsaw 150, a revolutionary new saw for cutting brick mortar, wood, plastics and paneling.

The eight-pound, 850 watt saw features a patented cutting mechanism. An orbital drive moves the changeable blades in a reciprocating action, at about 5,000 to 7,000 rpm, much slower than a conventional saw.

"Your skin will actually move with the blade if you touch it," says Arbortech Industries marketing manager Florian Popp. However, if your cutting needs require it, you could "hold somebody down and very firmly push the blade into them," Popp explained, "but if you just hold your hand on top of the blade or touch it, there's no danger."

It's a cinch

When the time came, Matthew Pawlowski saw the world needed the CinchStrap, "a fast, convenient, and inexpensive way to control, contain, organize, and transport the numerous extension cords, ropes, pneumatic lines, water hoses, tarps and drop clothes, and cords for electric tools."

Even if you had thought of this first, would you have used tough one-inch-wide 100% nylon webbed straps that will not clog, rot or decay, a D-ring for convenient hanging, or the convenient side release buckle? You need at least a dozen.

TV's Richard Karn has his hands full.

Al solves one modern problem

Spokesperson Richard Karn, "Al" from TV sitcom Home Improvement is destined to sell tools for the rest of his life. He was the brains behind Tim Allen's character on the show, even though Allen was the funny one and sort of knew a few things. Now Karn is throwing his support to the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp., a non-profit public service organization with two goals: increase awareness, and implement recycling programs where none exist.

Karn was available for interviews but scheduling difficulties prevented Snips from participating.

Still, we feel comfortable that Karn would have agreed with the RBRC that "54% of consumers power their daily lives with four or more cordless electronic products, using an average of five in their day-to-day lives."

Al may have smiled as he reminded us that the "Charge Up to Recylcle!" program in both the U.S. and Canada includes such participants as Best Buy, The Home Depot, RadioShack, Sears, Wal-Mart, and a lot more where old rechargeable batteries are accepted for recycling. Then somebody else would have asked a question.

Simple, strong, effective

Corey Snapp, Advanced Machine Technology, gets it done in the machining world. His company offers an impressive array of metal-related services. He also offers The Tool Crib, a see-through nylon tool storage system that rolls up. Hang it up by its three rings and you can see and access up to 85 lb of tools and equipment, all snug in their built-in pockets and compartments. Made of high-tech nylon mesh/cloth "and a dose of carbon fiber," the material will stand up to heavy use, Snapp says. Snips liked the fit and feel of this ultimate tool belt.

Just click and spend

Haven't had time to check out eBay lately? Don't worry, daily visits to the Web site aren't mandatory yet, but until then, you'll want to consider how many bargains are slipping away while you sit around earning money. eBay said its Tools category is growing more than 40% annually, offering more than 25,000 tool items for sale, three-quarters new or refurbished. According to eBay, final prices are "10% to 20% below retail." But take Snips' advice: If you're paying more than 60% retail through eBay, you haven't found a bargain. That's getting harder to do. Much of eBay isn't even an "auction" any more. Many sellers have their own eBay stores for direct sales, and others offer the "Buy it Now" option on their auction listings. Still, not a bad place to buy and sell tools if you've got the time to surf.

Dogs learn we mean business

You've tried "GladWrap" doorwalls and, let's be frank, the dog is smarter than you are. Isn't this the sixth time today she's stuck her big head through the door? She doesn't even slow down anymore, just keeps on walking. Imagine the fun you'll have the first time she hits the Phifer PetScreen. That priceless look of confusion, the grim realization that free access is a thing of the past. Once again, dominance of the house is unquestioned. PetScreen is seven-times stronger than regular insect screening "to help resist tears, punctures, and other damage caused by cats and dogs." Now, whose turn is it to let the dog in?

IRS offers a fresh look at persistent tax problems

Got an ongoing tax problem, or at least a tax problem that's been "going on" for quite a while? Thanks to the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998, you may have alternatives.

Call the Advocate, especially if you have the ugly problem of either paying the IRS or paying your employees.

The IRS National Taxpayer Advocate has increased authority to issue Taxpayer Assistance Orders. By filing Form 911, the Taxpayer Advocate can "intervene, review circumstances and facts, and take appropriate steps as allowed by law to?" and here comes the good part, "relieve the taxpayer's hardship."

The hardship ruling may be granted if "an adverse action by the IRS" would leave you unable to pay for basic necessities, incur significant costs, including professional representation, or face irreparable injury or long-term adverse impact if relief is not granted."

Taxpayer Advocate promises:

"A fresh look at your problem, timely acknowledgement, the name and phone number of people you speak with, updates on progress, time frames for action, courteous service, and advice on how to prevent future problems." In other words, all the things you should have been getting from the start.

But these brave women (you try standing in an IRS booth at a hardware show) work in an office where they're trying to help. Give 'em a break and maybe they'll give you one.

It's hammer time.

A striker, not a driver

Haven't swung a titanium hammer yet? You'll be hitting the green on the head of a nail with the two-faced Ti-Tech titanium hammer from Vaughn & Bushnell. Yes, nails are harder to hit when they're stuck on top of the head like that, so the company also makes a striking cap with a non-magnetic smooth face (as shown).

To get a titanium hammer, you may need to explain to someone why you need it. Here's what you say: interchangeable caps! You can go from rough framing work to finished carpentry with the same tool, even if you haven't done either lately.

And the titanium part? Most ergonomic experts agree that in this modern era, you need the lightness of titanium with the toughness of steel, mounted onto a titanium head. The hammer's only 16 ounces, "almost half a pound lighter than similar models."

If a short-sighted purchasing agent bumps back the P.O., get it yourself without asking anyone for $90 retail.

Need more info? Call, visit or write

Information in these listings is provided in the form that each manufacturer seems to prefer for responses.

Adroit Precision Tools, US Office, 120 Cambridge St., Burlington, Mass. 01803; 781-272-4229; www.tridirectmarketing.com

Advanced Machine Technology, 2445 Directors Row Suite B, Indianapolis, Ind. 46241; 317-248-0066

Arbortech Industries Ltd., 67 Westchester Rd., Malaga, WA 6090, Australia; +61-8-9249 1944; www.arbortech.com.au

Cinch Strap, Inc., 27 Silver Thorne Dr., Williamsville, N.Y. 14221; 716-568-1629; www.CinchStrap.com

European Hi Tech, Inc., 25930 Belle Porte Ave., Harbor City, Calif. 90710; 310-517-8303, functionaltape@hotmail.com

First Texas Products, L.P., El Paso, Texas, 800-444-5994; www.detecting.com

Grill-n-Chill, Inc., 7720 Records St., Indianapolis, Ind. 46226; 800-841-4028; . www.grill-n-chill.com

Ironclad, Performance Wear, 5775 Wayzata Blvd., Minneapolis, Minn. 55416; 952-582-2925; www.iclad.com

IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service, 877-777-4778, www.irs.gov

Leatherman Tool Group, Inc., P.O. Box 20595, Portland, Ore. 97294-0595; 800-847-8665, www.leatherman.com

Neeruam, Inc., 4120 Douglas Blvd. #306-278, Granite Bay, Calif. 95746; 800-491-0970; www.neeruam.com

Phifer Wire Products, Inc., Box 1700, Tuscaloosa, Ala. 35403-1700; 205-345-2120; www.phifer.com

Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corp., 1000 Parkwood Circle, Suite 450, Atlanta, Ga. 30339; 678-419-9990; www.rbrc.org. Call 800-8-BATTERY to find a collection site near you

Rhino Linings USA, Inc., 9151 Rehco Rd., San Diego, Calif. 92121; 858-450-0441; www.rhinolinings.com

SOG Specialty Knives Inc., 6521 212th St. SW, Lynnwood, Wash. 98036; 888-SOG-BEST, www.sogknives.com

Solar Company, The, Magdalen Centre, Oxford, U.K. 0X4 4GA; 011-44-1865784670; www.thesolarcompany.com

Thermos, Char-Broil, www.grill2go.com

Vaughan & Bushnell Manufacturing Co., 11414 Maple Ave., Hebron, Ill. 60034, www.vaughanmfg.com

Xactware, Inc., Rob Neumann, 800-932-9228 x504, iskills.com.