Last summer, during a trip to the Midwest, I arranged to spend a day visiting IDEAL Industries' tool factories in Sycamore Illinois. The day began with a tour of the plant where their subsidiary, SK Tools, makes sockets and mechanics tools. Next I saw the facilities where the company makes wire nuts and other connectors—more on those in an upcoming story. Finally, I visited the plant where IDEAL makes hand tools, wire lubricant, and an unusual type of abrasive used to maintain and repair electric motors.

Click the slideshow on the left to see what I saw during my tour of the factory. Be sure to check out the captions; they explain what's going on and contain links to videos that show things that couldn't be captured in photos.

It would be impossible to list every product made or sold by IDEAL. There are more than 6,000 of them, most aimed at electricians and people who do network or DataComm wiring. IDEAL makes hand tools such as screwdrivers, pliers, wire strippers, cable cutters, crimpers, and tool bags. Some of this product (screwdrivers in particular) is OEMed for other brands and manufacturers. The company makes fish tapes, conduit benders, and offers test equipment such as multimeters, clamp meters, and circuit tracers. And IDEAL produces supplies—the best known being wire nuts and other connectors, and Yellow 77 wire pulling lubricant.

Like its competitor, Klein Tools, IDEAL is a family-owned company. The top managers are hired professionals but several descendants of the company's founder sit on the board of directors. The company was founded by J. Walter Becker, who in 1916 developed an abrasive block known as the commutator dresser stone. Electric motors were the hot new thing and they needed to be maintained; dresser stones were used to smooth commutators which had become scored due to arcing or the friction from brushes riding against them. The company still makes commutator dresser stones because the large electric motors used to power elevators, escalators, subway cars, and the like are worth taking care of.

In 1924 the IDEAL left Chicago for Sycamore, Illinois and in the 1930s began to produce what has come to be known as the wire nut. Since that time the company has developed thousands of products and acquired companies in related industries, tool makers such as SK, Pratt-Reid, and Western Forge, and test-equipment manufacturers such as Casella, Trend Communications, and Wavetek. IDEAL Industries has facilities in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia.