Listed below are the tools we use most often for daily maintenance and DIY repairs, with the exception of safety glasses. In all cases, when working outdoors we wear safety glasses. Replacement eyeballs were not an option for America’s original pioneers, and still aren’t.
These represent the basic hand tools we use regularly. Power tools are great. They save time. They are easier on the user, and we use them. But they require substantial maintenance and are dependent upon fuel. Hand tools require much less maintenance to last several lifetimes, and you are the fuel. And, in some cases, there isn’t a power tool suited for the job.
Folding Knife: I am more likely to leave the house without pants than to leave without a folding knife. Knives are indispensable tools, period. Fortunately, there are several great knifemakers in the United States. Choose the style and design befitting your budget while realizing that one quality knife will last your lifetime, and that of your children’s children. I still use a Case folder purchased by my father in the early ’70s and have many years left on a Benchmade folder from the ’90s.
Shovels: Shovels come in a variety of shapes and sizes for various applications. We find several more useful than others. We use a tile spade for digging trenches, exhuming small and medium-sized boulders, transplanting trees, shrubs and perennials. With its long, narrow blade and short robust handle, it exerts more leverage than a round-point shovel.
The round-point shovel gets a great workout every time we shovel compost or turn over our garden. The spear-point design makes it great for these chores. If my wife could only have one shovel this is it.
The square-point shovel is great for any chore requiring a rigid, flat scoop. We use it to cut and remove sod, for ash removal, as an improvised ice chipper/snow shovel and for other cleanup because it excels at scooping and moving material from hard, flat surfaces. Finally, in our neighborhood, a snow shovel or two surpass all others for the shovel work between October and March!
Sledgehammers: Sledges also come in various sizes. A 4-pound hand sledge is a great tool for driving stakes, shaping metal, loosening frozen parts and making “adjustments” on big mechanical things. A 10- or 12-pound sledgehammer is also handy on the homestead. The basic concept is simple: “Let the tool work for you.”
We keep several around for heavy-duty hammering, log splitting and busting up fieldstones that are too large to wrench out with the tile spade. When we uncovered what we believe to be the top of Mount Wisconsin in our garden, and couldn’t excavate it with the tile spade, I merely took a sledge, knocked enough of the top off to cover it with soil and kept tilling.
Bow Saw: This is another tool we couldn’t live without. We use it to prep firewood, trim trees and for felling smaller trees without dragging out the chainsaw. Its compact size, aggressive teeth and “almost unlimited” fuel capacity make it our first choice for small sawing chores. Buy extra blades with your saw. It’s often a long way to the hardware store for new pioneers!
Loppers/Pruners: Our loppers and pruners see inordinate use, from trimming trees and shrubs, to pruning tomatoes, topping carrots and harvesting pumpkins. They are light, portable and a great complement to the bow saw.
Pitchfork: We don’t have a cow…yet. Therefore, we do not pitch hay. However, I have found no tool more useful at tending fires than a pitchfork. Its long handle keeps me a safe distance from the blaze and I can manipulate the burning debris very effectively. It’s great for scooping up sticks, twigs and other yard waste. And if we get a dairy cow, I am certain it will be handy for pitching hay. Until then, it serves unequaled at fire control.
Yard Cart: I have to admit, I laughed a bit (to myself) when this item arrived as a Christmas present. But it has proven invaluable for making small and large jobs easier. Moving mulch, compost, or firewood, hauling pumpkins and sweet corn, even carting tomatoes and cucumbers up to the house for canning is much easier. Its two-wheeled design with two feet makes it more stable than a wheelbarrow, less likely to overturn when cornering, and it’s lighter than the average wheelbarrow.
Rakes: From corralling leaves and sticks, cleaning up coops, stalls and kennels to garden work, rakes are necessary maintenance tools. We use either a leaf rake or a bow rake for the bulk of our chores. Bow rakes are good for manipulating earth and compost in the garden, for handling larger sticks and twigs, or moving any heavier debris. The leaf rake isn’t just for leaves, but for coop and kennel cleanup, and firebreaks, including preventing and/or controlling the small “strays” during a controlled burn intent on becoming an uncontrolled burn.
Ladders: Though not technically a hand tool, they are darn handy. Outdoor lights need to be maintained. Gutters need cleaning. Fruit trees need pruning. The exterior of the house needs to be painted, caulked, windows washed and screens replaced. Barns and outbuildings need work on their rafters and roofs. For our property, a 6-foot A-frame ladder gets almost as much work as the 3-foot step stool, but the 24-foot extension ladder is a necessity when working on any of the roofs, cleaning and maintaining gutters, stove pipes, and any other thing that is more than 10 feet off the ground. Caution: See owner’s manual for all A-frame ladders regarding using that top step. Gravity is not always our friend.
Rope: Again, this might be a stretch for hand tools, but I cannot imagine working on our property without adequate rope, from tow straps to twine. For controlling the direction when felling a difficult tree, to dragging logs and brush, to pulling invasive vines out or any other dragging/pulling endeavor, rope rules! It’s much safer than chains should it break or come loose under stress. For tying things up, down or into bundles, smaller-diameter cordage is the ticket, while we use twines for supporting garden plants or laying out our garden.
Work Gloves: As a kid, I rarely wore any gloves other than a baseball glove. But I cannot imagine life on our little homestead without gloves. We wear a smattering of them; leather for heavy work, cotton for lighter duty, rubber ones for wet conditions, welding gauntlets for welding and working with fire, and latex for handling things we’d rather not handle barehanded. I cannot quantify the times my hands have been saved from more serious injury due to good gloves.
This article was originally published in the NEW PIONEER ™ Summer 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.