When establishing a farm tools list, the #1 consideration should be quality. Quality will be remembered, and appreciated, long after the price is forgotten.
While this has always been true, it will become even more important if a cheap, “disposable” tool breaks and it would be difficult or impossible to replace it.
There are several ways to judge the quality of a farm tool. List price isn’t necessarily one of them: Even the most expensive models at your local hardware store or discount center might not serve your needs. And fortunately, even an excellent tool often costs no more than a poorer one.
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One important test of quality is how the handle is attached.
There are 3 Common Choices
- In hollowback shovels, hoes, rakes, etc., a flat piece of metal is wrapped around the wooden handle. This is cheap, lightweight. . . and weak. It’s okay for scoop shovels and snow shovels, but for heavier work it leaves much to be desired.
- Solid strap. The tool head, socket, and straps that extend up the handle are forged from a single piece of metal and riveted to the handle.
- Solid shank or solid socket. This is similar to the solid strap, but the handle is worked to fit the shank, tapped into place, and riveted. It’s almost as strong as the solid strap method, but broken handles are easier to replace.
Lighter metal and handles mean a lighter tool that might seem to be easier to use, but their real purpose is to save money. The extra weight of a substantial tool is of little consequence to most people. The extra strength and durability are not.
We have not been successful in locating a satisfactory American-made garden fork to add to our farm tools list. They’re all made with the tangs and ferrules. (A tang, or shank, is the projection by which the tool is attached to the handle. A ferrule is a metal cap wrapped around the handle and tang for reinforcement.) To add insult to injury, these forks are invariably weak. They bend out of shape. . . and after being bent back, they break. We discarded several 3-1/2 prong forks before locating one made by Spear and Jackson, a British firm. (The best garden tools seem to come from Britain, perhaps because they take gardening more seriously over there, or because they rely less on rotary tillers.) This fork has been in regular use for more than 15 years and has been completely satisfactory.
When it comes to a survival garden, the garden fork is arguably the most important and indispensable item on a farm tool list. In the time of World War II Victory Gardens, rotary tillers were unheard of, and except for some large farm gardens where horses or tractors could be used, spading by hand was the only option. But since a good worker with reasonably decent soil should be able to spade a quarter of an acre or so in a day, the spade might be a cost-effective tillage tool for many, anytime.
While also indispensable around the homestead, the long-handled shovel gets little use in the garden, except jobs such as double-digging and executing raised bed garden plans. It could be used for spading, but it doesn’t break up the soil nearly as well or easily as the fork. Here again, note how the head is attached to the handle, and the overall quality of materials. You wouldn’t want to dig a well, root cellar or basement with a flimsy shovel. The solid-shank shovel will be the most satisfactory. (Unlike forks, solid-shank shovels are made in the USA.)
When the garden is spaded, you will break up clumps and level the plot with a rake. If you grab one off the rack in a store, chances are it will be a bow rake. . . and that’s bad news.
With this rake the tang is formed by two slender pieces of metal that curve back, or bow, from the tool head. The double tang is inserted into a hole in the wooden handle, and “secured” by a metal ferrule.
Secured. . . but not enough, especially if the rake is used to break up clods with a chopping action. Even with lighter use, the tang is going to come out eventually. Part of the reason is that the head, with the rake teeth, is several inches from the handle and ferrule, increasing the leverage on that already-weak union. It starts to wobble, soon falls out, and is next-to-impossible to repair.
A much better choice is the forged head with one tang, which is driven into the handle. Heavy-duty, solid-shank rakes are even better, but again, you’ll have to find a British-made one.
American tool makers do offer solid shank hoes, however. The main problem with hoes is the seemingly vast variety.
The “normal” garden hoe is still a useful all-purpose tool for weed control and hilling crops such as potatoes. However, many gardeners who also have other shapes and styles for specialized tasks seldom use the traditional model. One common one is the onion hoe, which is similar, but the blade isn’t as high.
There are oscillating hoes, scuffle hoes, draw hoes, grub hoes, swan-neck hoes. . . and the list goes on. But the two that get the most use in our gardens are one with a thin half-moon shape, and one that is very much like a cutting knife from a sicklebar mower. (In fact, those triangular knives, a few inches on each side, have been fashioned into hoes by frugal or handy homesteaders.)
One hoe-like tool we find extremely useful for planting large quantities of potatoes is a furrower. Shaped somewhat like the prow of a large boat, it throws soil on both sides of a furrow. We find this much easier than repeatedly scraping with a smaller hoe to achieve the same results.
As with all tools, and regardless of style, overall quality of materials and construction is important.
The three largest American makers of gardening tools are Ames, True Temper, and Union Fork and Hoe (Ed Note: In 1999). All three offer three or more grades. But as with many other products, the manufacturer’s designations of quality should be taken with a grain of salt.
As one example, True Temper uses a rating system with stars stamped into the handle. Three stars denotes their “quality” line (good); four stars means “premium” (better), and five stars is the “professional” (best). (They also have a “promotional” one-star category, made to compete with cheap imports.)
Where this can lead buyers astray is when both their Dynalite shovels and their Fox shovels both rate five stars. This can be misleading because the Dynalite is the best of their hollowback shovels, while the Fox is the best of the solid-shank shovels, and as we have seen, solid-shank is better than hollowback.
Similarly, heavier metal is generally to be preferred over lighter metal. (Note that the higher the gauge, the lighter the metal. 14-gauge steel is heavier than 15-gauge steel.)
This farm tool list not only provides the basis for a successful garden: in most cases, these are the only tools required. And in a survival garden, they will certainly do the job. . . if you choose quality tools, and take care of them.
When considering what should make your list of farm tools and equipment, you might also enjoy this Compact Tractor Comparison, and why its a good idea Why a PTO Slip Clutch Needs To Make Your Farm Tools List.
Originally published in Countryside January / February 1999