The Farming Manual: Farm Tools

TheFarmingManual

Henderson spends a lot of time in this chapter describing a world I have only read about. I realize the traditional tools used in York differ from those used in Cornwall but I may be in the minority of Americans who can point to York and Cornwall on a map…let alone understand that there are differences between racial or cultural subgroups living within Cornwall.

It is in the shovel that we see the racial choice most strongly marked, the so-called Devon or Welsh socket shovel is used wherever you find Celtic people, in Cornwall, Wales, the west of Ireland, up the west coast of Scotland, and of course in the Western Isles.

What a diverse world! It is all but gone in America’s Midwest. There are only a few tokens of my ancestry laying around the old farm house. Stories mostly along with a few food items and family values. But really, the whole thing has gone the way of the shovel. No real variety. The industrial age standardized the shovel into a horrible thing that breaks upon use. There is one design available at multiple price points in every hardware store in America.

This chapter describes the different tools in use by farmers from different counties. Changes depend on the size of the people in the county, the variety of plants available and just plain old user preference. It’s kind of amazing. Tools with enough variety to meet the needs of the farmer. Tools that farmer will use for his lifetime.

I can’t imagine. I recently bought a new hatchet. I didn’t need a new hatchet. I didn’t particularly want a new hatchet. Especially not the toy steel hatchet I bought. But I spent about 5 minutes looking at the grain of the handles in the store and found one with straight grain pointed in the right direction. I bought it. It is nearly impossible to find tool handles with the right grain orientation, let alone one that will hold an edge or is the right weight. I suppose that’s why there are so many of those horrible tools with fiberglass handles. Yuk.

So here I am, living in a world of stamped, pre-broken round point shovels and cross-grain handled axes and hatchets reading about a world of quality hand-made tools in large varieties. Different shovels for different soil types, scaled down for users under a certain weight (14 stone). I can’t imagine.

And it is probably my fault. I don’t want to pay $100 for a spade. I want to buy a $20 shovel and use it like a spade, then complain loudly on the internet when it breaks.

So where does that leave us?

I don’t know about you but I could do a better job of caring for my tools. I could take time to clean my unbroken shovel and wipe the blade with an oil rag. I could keep the edge sharp. I could rub a little linseed oil on the handles of my tools. I could do a better job of keeping them put away (following behind my children…). Even my horrible post-industrial tools would be better if I would care for them a little better.

But it can’t just stop there. There are tools I use regularly and for hours on end. And I’m not talking about my chainsaw. We butcher chickens with hand tools. My best knives were given to me by an elderly man. His father was a butcher. My new knives don’t compare to those old ones. I prefer a high-carbon steel blade to a stainless steel blade. By that I mean I prefer working to sharpening. And in this case, I can buy near replacements of my old tools cheaper than their modern, stainless alternatives.

So where does this chapter leave us?

It may be as simple as this: Make an honest evaluation of your land, your size, your strength, your ability and your preferences. What are your needs? Now, what tools best fit your needs? Maybe you do need that $100 spade to help you double-dig your garden beds. Or maybe you don’t need to double-dig your garden beds. Maybe you need to mound up layers and layers of compost instead. That’s a different job, requiring a different tool. One sized to fit your body mechanics. One that does not overextend your reach or overtax your strength. One that makes work easy. Fun even.

How much is that tool worth? How many junk shovels and sore backs do you want to buy? Can you do a better job of deploying your resources? I’m sure Mr. Henderson would say something about Scottish opinions on relative scarcity.

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6 thoughts on “The Farming Manual: Farm Tools

  1. John Seymour used to advocate keeping a bucket of sand with used motor oil in it next to the door of the garden shed, so you could push your tool into it after use, then hang it up, thereby keeping the blade/tines oiled and clean. Not terribly eco-friendly, but possibly some other oil might work for this. My Dad used to oil his handles every winter, and sharpen the edges on spades and shovels, but I fell off the wagon on that one, unfortunately. He also taught me how to choose a digging tool – to test for heft, for swing, for where my hands would be on it for digging, and yes for grain as well. I currently have about 4 round nosed shovels, two are from my Dad’s time – and one of those is about the only shovel I use around here – the combination of height, weight and the size of the blade just work for me. “His” shovel looks exactly like mine, but the blade is thicker, the whole thing just a bit heavier – I use it for heavy jobs, but it’s not the same.

  2. I currently use my grandfather’s shovel. And I have a pile of shovel heads waiting to be rehandled. Unfortunately they are modern shovel heads.

    A Mora knife is what I use for chicken harvest. I’ve tried others but so far this is the best.

    I am looking for a quality spade. Any suggestions?

    • I am familiar with Mora knives. Inexpensive and quite handy. I have read quite a bit about Bulldog tools and linked in the post to Lee Valley. I haven’t used either but I suspect you can start there and find reviews that will give you a measure of confidence.

  3. I’m so tired tonight I can’t even write a decent comment but I thoroughly enjoy your posts… the way you examine your own life and pose questions is very thought-provoking. Thank you.

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