Tools for the Small Farm or Homestead

The following information on tools for the small farm and homestead comes from Five Acres and Independence by M. G. Kains. Five Acres and Independence is also available to purchase in print.

One of the greatest satisfactions you can have in farming and gardening is to use the right tool for each kind of work. Just as auto mechanics have special tools for saving time so you can have a special tool for each kind of garden work. Such tools lighten and speed up the work and thus reduce both the time and the labor as well as add to the pleasure of doing the work well.

Though a poor workman quarrels with his tools he is to blame for having chosen poor ones. On the other hand, though a skilled workman may be able to do a good job with poor tools he is the man who never buys any but the best because he knows the satisfaction of owning, to say nothing of using good ones. No one better than he knows that a good tool keeps its temper and thus helps him to control his. If anyone should have good tools he is the owner of the small farm.

Suppose that good tools do cost a little more than inferior ones, the difference is, or should be, more than offset by higher quality, keener edge, better service, longer life, and the increased satisfaction these characteristics insure. Good tools properly cared for will often last many times as long as cheaper ones of the same kind. They will wear out rather than give out. Their initial cost is therefore less than two, three or more of the cheaper kind that might have been necessary to buy during the same period. By the time the good tools will have worn out their prices will have been forgotten, but the satisfaction they will have given during a term of years will always be pleasant to remember.

One of my trowels will illustrate these points. At the time I bought it other trowels were selling at 25c to 50c but I paid 75c (!) for mine because it was made of a better steel and because its blade and handle are all of one piece of metal, the handle being expanded to form a hollow cone in which a short piece of hardwood is fitted and fastened with a pin. Because of the quality of the metal and the construction this tool can neither pull apart nor be broken by any effort that a man can make when using it as a trowel should be used. During the 17 years I have used this tool other trowels of several styles have either pulled apart or broken, but this one, though its blade has worn down about a third, is still my favorite.

Most cheap trowels are made by thrusting a metal shank into a wooden handle which, being thus weakened, soon either pulls apart or breaks. A still cheaper style is made of one piece of metal pressed into trowel-shape so part forms the blade, and part the handle. All specimens of this style that I have seen are weak where handle ends and blade begins. They are therefore useful for only the lightest kinds of work.

The reason why I have discussed these trowels so fully is because two of the methods of construction are used in making various other hand tools, especially rakes, hoes and weeders. When these are made by the conical construction plan it is impossible to pull them apart and almost impossible to break the shank by ordinary use, because the tools are strongest at the point where greatest strength is needed. But in the other style, when the shank is tapered and thrust into the wooden handle, the wood is always weakened at the point it should be strongest and it is almost certain to work loose.

Attempts to prevent such pulling apart and breakage by placing a ferrule where metal and wood meet is at best a makeshift way to offset a weakness. The only way to prevent the wood and the metal pulling apart is to use a ferrule four or more inches long for rakes, hoes, etc.—much more for spades—and to pass a metal pin not only through it and the wood but also through the flattened metal shank of the tool. This forms a permanent union and positively prevents separation of the various parts. On tools of equal size such construction is weaker than the cone style because the amount of wood is reduced.

Another objection to this style is that manufacturing costs are higher than for common construction; hence selling prices must be higher. However, such costs are offset by the greater value and strength of such tools; for manufacturers are careful to put better metal as well as workmanship into tools of this type than into the cheaper styles. Of the three styles, other things being equal, the cone type is the strongest though not necessarily the most costly. Spades, shovels, forks and some other large hand tools are made after this pattern. Like all other tools so constructed they cost a trifle more than the other kind but are well worth the difference.

Much of the economy and success as well as pleasure of gardening is derived through adequate tool equipment; yet only too often people who supply only their own tables with home grown fruits and vegetables manage to get along with poorer and fewer tools than they really need. If they think at all about the matter they silence their better judgment by declaring that their gardens bring them no money, therefore they will put as little as possible into them. This applies as much to fertilizers, manures, seeds, plants and work as to tools. All mistakes!

These people fail to realize that they can doubtless make several times as much profit as market gardeners do out of the same crops; also that unlike these commercial growers they have, or should have, no waste; for they can gather each crop as soon as ready and sell it—all of it—without deterioration of quality to the best market of the world—their own home tables! If they will credit their gardens with only the cost of equal amounts of store stuff at market prices, even though they disregard the freshness which warrants higher prices, they should more than justify their outlay for adequate equipment of tools and accessories and plant food to assure abundant yields.

Both because tools are costly and because keeping them in good condition enhances the satisfaction in using them, tools should be kept in proper places. Next to having them exposed to the weather the worst place to keep them is probably a cellar because of the almost invariable dampness and the certainty of rust. Some of mine have suffered in this way because at first I had no other place to keep them. Several of my friends store their tools beneath their verandas, the floors of which are high enough above ground to serve as shed roofs. Other friends have tool rooms or sheds or use their garages. All such places are good, provided they are dry and airy.

One point seldom emphasized is that an owner is more likely to take care of good tools than of poor ones. A case that came under my observation illustrates this. Years ago I visited a Maryland farmer who had just bought a transplanting machine for, I think, $150. He kept it in a shed and maintained it (like his other tools) in good condition by timely care. About 12 years later when I again visited him the machine was still giving him good service. During these years, he told me, one of his neighbors had had three transplanters whose terms of usefulness had been shortened because they were always left out-of-doors.

No matter how or where stored, tools should always be cleaned after being used, especially before being put in place. The rough earth may be scraped off with a flat stick and the finer particles rubbed off with burlap or some other coarse fabric. Whether or not the tool is soon to be used it is a good practice, especially in damp weather and before winter sets in, to rub all unpainted metal parts with an oily rag before hanging it up. Thus a thin film of oil is smeared on the surfaces and rust is prevented. The oil drained from the crankcase of an auto is good enough.

It is an excellent plan to overhaul the tools at least once a year, preferably as soon as the gardening season has closed. At this time worn and broken parts may be discovered and replaced. It is also a favorable time to paint the wooden and metal parts that do not come in actual contact with the soil. Instead of sticking to the colors applied by the manufacturers it is highly desirable to use only one color or a combination of colors so that all the tools one owns will have personal distinction. Whatever color scheme is adopted it should be such as will “stand out” well—orange, red, yellow or light blue—against the natural colors of the garden. Poor ones are green, brown, black and dark blue. Branding is also a good idea. Branding irons cost little but last “forever” and their brands last as long as the tools.

As part of the overhauling the tools should be sharpened; for much of the efficiency of spades, hoes, scythes, sickles, lawnmowers and pruning tools depends upon the keenness of their working parts. With the large tools, sharpening is best done by an emery wheel or a flat file. These are too rough for the finer edged tools such as knives and shears. An oil stone is best for them. After each tool is sharpened it should be rubbed with the oily rag, especially along the newly sharpened parts.

One of the greatest ways to waste time is to store a miscellaneous assortment of hand tools all huddled in a dark corner; for when so mixed desired ones are hard to find. In order to save time every individual tool should have its own place. Among the many satisfactory ways to arrange long handled garden tools are racks with holes bored for the handles to stand in erect; double hooks for spades, shovels and forks; and single hooks to hold up the handles of such tools as lawn-mowers, wheelhoes, and wheelbarrows. These last must be provided with a cleat on the floor to prevent their escaping from their moorings. Small tools such as shears, trowels, dibbles and weeders may be assigned places on the wall and held by various home-made devices. The one place not to keep them is a drawer, unless each tool has its own special compartment. The drawer should be well ventilated to prevent rust.

In order to make a quick check-up of tools to see that each is in its place and thus save time, perhaps also money, paint on the wall, in the cupboard and the drawer the exact position and form of each tool in some color that contrasts with that of the tool. When the design is made larger than the tool it will show at a glance whether or not the tool is in place so that, if necessary, search may be made for it.

Many, but not all, of the garden supply stores carry well chosen stocks of standard and nationally advertised tools. Thus they may be of far more distinguished service to beginners than most local stores that handle only limited lists of ordinary equipment; for there varied assortments may be examined before purchases are made.

From what has already been written the importance of this personal selection can hardly be overestimated; for it is greatly to be regretted that clerks, especially the “extras” employed during the rush season are not always as well posted as they should be on gardening operations or on the quality of materials, construction, workmanship, advantages and often positive disadvantages of many tools they offer for sale. It is therefore advisable not to place too implicit confidence in the statements of the salesman. To avoid such risks it is a good plan to buy tools during the off season for then the clerk is probably one regularly employed in the department and therefore likely to be well posted.

Some points to bear in mind with respect to certain tools and implements not already discussed are well worth considering. For instance, avoid combination tools such as rake and hoe mounted back to back and attached to the one handle. Though the salesman may declare that you get more for your money because you are buying two tools for the price of one you will really be getting less and will be adding to your work when using them; for not only is there no sense in toting one while you are using the other (!) but such tools are usually made of metal so poor that they are likely to break as well as do inferior work.

Still worse is the double-edged pruning saw. It is not only too light for heavy work and too heavy for light work but with it you are almost sure to do more damage than with any other tool; for it will often tear the bark of trees in unexpected places and even the hand that uses it!

By keeping the points discussed in mind it should be safe for anyone to trust himself in a garden supply store to choose the tools and other necessary items listed in the appendix.

Every year new tools, modifications and improvements on old ones are introduced. Seldom are they found in the garden supply stores sooner than the third year after they are first advertised because it usually takes about that long for the public to prove their worth. Until this has been done the stores are loath to list them. So it is advisable to be on the lookout for such tools as advertised in the farm and garden magazines and to try those that promise to be labor- , or time-savers.

To judge by my experience it pays to buy at least some of them. In any case it is well to send for circulars and catalogues offered by makers or introducers so as to be the better prepared to yield to the temptation to buy!

Click here to purchase Five Acres and Independence in paperback

Tools for the Small Farm or Homestead

Return to Five Acres and Independence Table of Contents