We use our hand tools everyday here at the Yardstead. Because we are a small scale urban homestead, we don't really need to use power tools that often. Sure we use a small tractor to till the garden and power tools such as drills and circular saws for construction projects, but most of the daily business gets done with hand tools. Many of our hand tools have been around for years now and their handles are worn smooth from use. We have also disposed of a lot of tools which seemed like good bargains when they were purchased, but failed shortly after being put to use. Over the years I've learned a few things about selecting tools, and these days our tools fail a lot less often. I love my trusted, reliable tools and I will share with you a few things I've learned about selecting quality tools.
One of the most common gardening tools is the garden hoe. Used mostly to eliminate weeds in the garden, the simple hoe design has been around for a long time. As with many hand tools there are no moving parts and the design is sturdy enough that even the cheapest models will usually be sufficient for its intended purpose. I have never broken a hoe while cutting down weeds in the garden, but because of the useful design of this tool, it frequently gets used beyond the garden.
I have however broken a few hoes digging, scraping and mixing concrete which are just a few of the things I might use a hoe for here at the yardstead. This type of use requires pulling the hoe handle towards the body with a load on the hoe head. This exposes a common failure point for hoes. The head can seperate from the handle. I have seen this happen to hoes with wooden and fiberglass handles. Usually the thin neck of the hoe gets pulled out of the collar which holds it on the handle. This weekness is easilly detectable by close inspection where the head meets the handle of the hoe. If the neck and collar are two seperate pieces then the neck is probably only secured by compression of the collar. I would avoid this type and search for a hoe where the neck and collar are a single piece or the neck is tack welded to the collar. This slight difference in design makes a big difference when you plan to use your hoe beyond the garden.
Another common garden tool is the shovel. Shovels come in all shapes and sizes, with long or short handles and heads of various widths. As with hoes, I've never broken a shovel while using it for its intended purpose. I have however, broken a few shovels by prying on roots and rocks, and several while prying old shigles from a roof. These days I only use shovels for digging and find the cheap models from the home stores adequate. I have several with weathered wooden handles that have been around for years. The only recommendation I have for selecting shovels, is to choose the type that best suits your digging needs. Round point shovels are best for digging holes as the round point and curved head easily penetrates the ground. Square point shovels are best for transfering loose materials such as sand or compost because the wide flat square shape holds more. Square points are also useful for leveling small plots due to their flat bottom. There are also narrower shovels such as 2", 3" and 4" wide trenching shovels. I have a 3" trenching shovel that has been very usefull for burying conduit and PVC pipe here at the yardstead. There are other specialty shovels available, I have even seen one made for prying off old roof shingles. In my opinion it is definetly worth the investment to get the right shovel for the job.
Pruning and cutting tools are another essential around the yardstead. There are numerous types of pruning and cutting tools available. I use five tools which cover almost all of the pruning reqirements around here: bypass pruning sheers, long-handle lopers, hedge shears, a folding pruning saw, and a 24" bow saw. I would recommend purchasing "commerciial" quality for any tools that have moving parts. I've tossed out several pairs of sheers in the past with broken handles or loose movement after just a few uses. I also consider my 24" bow saw an absolute necessity. In my opinion there is no better saw for cutting large limbs. The thin coarse blade can cut through 2" and 3" limbs in just a few strokes. I use the folding pruning saw to cut branches to big for the sheers, in spots to tight to fit the bow saw. Another cutting tool that I use frequently is the machete. A little to rough for pruning I primarily use my machete for clearing brush and limbs. I have found that machetes made in Brazil which are readily at flea markets and garden shops are far superior to the ones available at most mass retailers. Make sure to choose one which has the blade (tang)extending the full length of the grip. One more cutting tool I want to mention is the axe. I always recommend getting an axe with a fiberglass handle. Although I use my axe often and take great care, I still occasionally miss my mark and slam the handle against a trunk. This is difficult to avoid especially after a little fatigue sets in. A hard swing and miss could splinter a wooden handle.
Another garden tool to consider is the rake. For rakes I make the same recomendations as hoes and shovels. Make sure the head is securely attached to the handle and that you choose the right rake for the job. I like the wide plastic rakes for leaves, and a metal rake for heavier debris. I usually get the "commercial" grade garden rakes though. The heads are usually attached better and are less likely to pull off while raking a heavy load.
These are a few of the things I look for when selecting hand tools for the yardstead. Having the right tools always makes the job go easier and faster. This is especially true when working with hand tools. A good set of basic hand tools is important, but its also important to have some more specialized tools as well. For some power tools I would recommend the opposite. I might suggest a mutipurpose power tool rather than a more speclialized model due to the greater cost of power tools. But since we're talking about hand tools which are much cheaper, its definetly worth investing in the best tool for the job.