Thursday, July 29, 2010

Another Glorious Tool

We're building our tool base bit by bit. First came our spades and forks, both from Bountiful Gardens. Next, I am pleased to say, came our metal Haws watering can, also from BG. Pleased, because during Seed Propagation classes I would haul out the can and talk about what a great tool it was and that, despite its expense, it would be the first garden purchase I would make after spade and fork. (Then I would use it to water the flats we had just pricked out into, and everyone would ooh and ah.) There followed a string of other tools, like a rake, trenching spade, kama, pruners, sickles (which deserve their own post), and bow saw.
But the most recent is another classic in the small-scale world. Hula hoe, scuffle hoe, stirrup hoe; call it what you will, it fills a void. Once you start getting tools, you'll probably end up getting one of these. We use them to great effect one soil that needs a quick clearing of weeds or a little loosening up on top, and in between crops to take care of light weed troubles quickly.

After digging our first potatoes and harvesting our first grains we realized it was time, right then, to acquire our hoe. I went online looking at all the big chain stores in the area, like Lowes, Home Depot, and TSC (none of whom will I deign to hyperlink), trying to find the best deal to pick up on that day. Margo was on the phone catching up with our friend Elaine, who runs the butt-kicking CSA Everblossom Farm out in Adams County, PA. I was getting a bit overwhelmed, not finding a great looking specimen, so I had Margo ask Elaine where she'd go.

"Unless you have a really good hardware store, I'd buy from Johnny's. They sell great, sturdy stuff."
And I said "But we need it now. We'd have to wait to get it shipped. Where would you go if you wanted it now?"
"I'd order from Johnny's and wait. And then, later, I wouldn't be disappointed, because the tool wouldn't be crap."

While Elaine has many excellent qualities, two of the things I appreciate most about her are that she's straightforward and she has good judgment. Her advice carried, and soon after we ordered the 7" Stirrup Hoe from Johnny's Selected Seeds (and employee-owned company). And today it came!

Elaine's advice was really a reflection of our own tool-buying philosophy, which I had temporarily put on hold due to a feeling of urgency. When buying tools, only buy what you need. And, if possible, buy the best you can get. The best isn't necessarily the most expensive, but it will certainly not be the cheapest.

Our rationale is this: with a good tool you will work more efficiently and be a better steward of your resources Most of us nowadays don't have the skills to repair tools we break, but a good tool will 1) be less likely to break in the first place, 2) not be too flimsy to repair, and 3) will be worth the time, energy , and/or money to repair. Digging spades make a great example. We got a Clarington Forge spade for ~$70, which will last until the metal wears away, 30 or more years. If the handle breaks it can be replaced. It would be cheaper to buy a Craftsman digging spade from Sears for $25. They have a lifetime warranty, so when it breaks, which it will because the metal is pressed instead of forged, you just take it in and they'll replace it.

On the work end of things, a good tool allows you to accomplish your tasks with confidence in your tool. With a cheap tool you worry more about its limitations, and are not allowed give a task your all. The cheap tool will break more frequently, causing frustration and costing you time and possibly money.

On the resource end, a good tool may consume more resources or energy in its construction than a cheap tool, but the cheap tool will have a short lifespan. Then you'll need another, then another again. I note that fiberglass handles are quite popular, being more durable than wood. But when wood breaks it can be burned or cut into another handle. When fiberglass breaks it becomes trash and a health hazard. A future post will illustrate this reality with some personal experience...

So friends, buy worthwhile tools. Cast not thy talents into the abyss of cheapness.

I have been prevailed upon to include recent footage of Alten. This one highlights his cute hiccups.


  1. While building my house a few years ago, I realized what you just wrote about. Good tools just last longer and feel good to use. Cheap tools... well, they are just cheap. They don't fit the hand or your working posture as well. You end up with sore muscles and get less work done than you would with a good tool.

    Alten is looking good!

  2. Yeah, I have heard it most specifically applied to building and woodworking tools, since in addition to any frustration they can be dangerous. So did you end up getting crappy tools, then going back and getting good ones? Or did you make do?

  3. HI Dan and Margo! I've been trying to find you both since our class at Ecology Action in November '09. Congrats on the new addition!

    Dan - I am building a solar food dryer and need to ask you a question about the one you made: Where did you get or what did you use for the metal absorber plate? So far I've scavenged recycled materials from construction projects and stuff lying around, but that plate might cost me more than buying a regular dehydrator! Any advice you could give would be great. You can find me at

    Christy Wilhelmi

  4. I started with crappy tools, and made do with some of them. But the really important ones- impact driver, levels, drill, among others- I got some decent middle-price range tools. The most expensive was not always the best fit for me. I have enormous hands, with fingers like sausages. So a Black and Decker drill was actually the best hand fit for me, even though it was one of the cheaper tools.