Working around our homestead and business, I struggle with heavy, awkward tools almost daily. Getting creative gets the jobs done, but it often involves working harder and longer. Many women who have spent time with tools have had to figure out how to use leverage, gravity and ingenuity to make up for the disadvantages that come with using standard tools. The simple truth is that most hand and power tools are designed for men. They’re made for bigger hands, larger bodies and more strength in the upper body.
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Traditional tools are hard for us to use because women’s bodies are different in several ways. In general, we have quite a bit less upper-body strength. Most of us also have proportionally less lower-body strength than men. Our smaller statures make using leverage more difficult, which a lot of tools are designed for, like shovels, cutters, hammers and such.
Long tools are more difficult to use because we generally have narrower shoulders and wider hips than men, and our arms and legs are proportionally shorter to the rest of our bodies. The fact that we tend to have smaller hands and grips makes using big tools not only difficult, but our hands and wrists are more prone to tendon and tissue injury while using large, heavy tools.
Finding A Fit
I’ve found shopping for tools specifically designed for women to be vexing. There are smaller versions of standard tools out there, but these don’t necessarily address the ergonomics of our bodies. Most tools that are targeted for women are cheap and flimsy and covered in pink, purple or flowers. As a rule, tools specifically for women are marketed for crafty projects or small household repairs.
Many companies seem to think that women don’t need well-made, heavy-duty tools because they don’t use the tools as often and are not as hard on them. Many of us do, and we are farming, homesteading and fixing our own stuff just like the guys. There are a precious few companies out there that have designed tools for women.
I bought a small tool kit specifically marketed to women from a big-box store and put it through the torture test of my work routine. The tools didn’t pass. I also bought a specially designed shovel from Green Heron tools. What a relief it was to find that there are some folks out there who are creating tools based on research and real-life experience. Based on the company’s studies, people there designed the HERShovel (and a few other tools you can find online) specifically for women’s bodies. The shovel is wonderful. It puts a lot less strain on my back, and my arm muscles don’t tire as quickly because I use my whole body with this shovel.
Here are some ways I’ve devised to use traditional tools to do a job without causing too much wear and tear on my body.
Drills are definitely a challenge to use because they strain the tendons and ligaments in my hands when I hold them for long periods. The more powerful the drill, the heavier it is. I am not able to grasp the battery on my drill with one hand to pinch it to remove it the way it was designed to work. My hand is too small to fit around it.
I usually wedge the drill between my body and a worktable, and use both hands to pinch the battery to remove it. (As a side note, a new, smaller lithium battery is now on the market for these tools.) Drilling on a project above chest level leaves me with aching arms, and I usually have to take a break to rest my arms and shoulders before I can get the job done. If the project is low enough, I sometimes squat and balance the drill against my knee and use it to push. At waist level, I can brace my elbow against my torso and use my core muscles to push the drill.
Hammers can be awkward. I’ve discovered that smaller (but well made) hammers usually work well. Even though one with a longer handle is more efficient for getting a longer (and therefore more powerful) swing, it is easier with my short arms to use a shorter hammer with a lighter head. I just have to swing it a few more times than I would a longer-handled hammer.
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Shoveling usually hurts my back. The Green Heron HERShovel really does make digging and shoveling easier. When I’m working on a big hole with a traditional shovel, I’ll alternately sit on the ground or squat while digging for a while to relieve my back and upper body. (Using shoes with a solid sole and covered toes is important, which I found out the hard way).
Saws are usually too long, and I’m not able to make a full draw with them because of my short arms. When they are too long, they bow and jump out of the groove because they are hard to control. Again, finding shorter and lighter saws has worked.
Cutting tools strain the tendons in my hands. I have not been able to find smaller cutting tools, although they are probably out there. The problem is that the smaller the tool, the less effective it is, because the leverage from the length equals more cutting power. I sometimes brace the work I am doing on a worktable or in a vise, and then use one hand on each handle of the “handheld” cutter, even though it’s designed to be used in one hand. Or, with long-handled cutters, I brace one handle against the worktable and push the other with my stomach while tightening my core muscles. There are occasionally some less-than-wholesome words used in this process.
An old hay hook is one of the best discoveries I’ve made while working around the farm. Any time I need to pick something up, I just hook it with the hay hook so that I don’t have to bend down. It has all sorts of great uses, from pulling staples from fence posts to dragging hoses. I can carry things, such as fuel cans, wire rolls, etc., around without the weight pulling me to one side. At the end of the day, my back is much happier with me.
I’ve found that the following guidelines when using tools or doing physical work have helped me to avoid injuries and soreness. I try to do a little stretching and warming up if I’m going to be working a lot, and I take breaks every few hours to stretch my muscles out. To keep your back in good shape, always remember to have good posture, especially when straightening up or lifting. Use your legs and core muscles while bending your knees to lift. Keep your feet a little ways apart and flex your knees a bit at all times. Pivot on your feet instead of twisting at your waist.
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Be conscious of your core and use it instead of your back. Align your center (your lower belly or pelvis) with what you are working on in front of you when possible. Switch positions regularly so that you can use different muscle groups. Have grips or handles that comfortably fit your hands, and use work gloves as much as possible. If you are using your body properly, a few hours of work will be a great workout. If you’re not, you’ll just end up sore or possibly battling frequent soft-tissue injuries.
Can You Dig It?
TNP editors have dug up a bit of a newsflash here. You might say that this new product is, well, groundbreaking! The Dig Rig, a simple attachment that will work on all types of shovels, will make digging much more pleasurable on the user’s digging foot. It is designed to reduce wear and tear on the ankles, knees, legs and back. A Dig Rig might just be the best $13.49 a gardener or homeowner might ever spend. For more info, visit digrigshovel.com or call 877-590-1599.
Pretty Easy To Spot In Pink
Some people seem to think that if tools are pink or purple they work better for women. To test this theory, I spray-painted my tools pink. It didn’t help a bit. The only benefit I found was that they didn’t vanish into thin air, which they tend to do if there are men around. Even though it doesn’t make them any easier to use, I do recommend pink spray paint if your tools disappear when guys are around.
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This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Spring 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.