In the garden: Picking the right garden tools

Scott Eckert

To choose a well-made tool that is appropriate for the purpose, it helps to know a few principles of tool anatomy.

Garden tools have two parts, a head and a handle. Heads vary in materials, shapes and orientation. A handle can be short, long or curved. It can be designed as a simple cylinder or feature both a shaft and a grip. Pruning tools have of a pair of handles joined at the fulcrum.

Scott Eckert

The way a tool fits is just as important as construction. A pruning tool should fit comfortably in your hand. A digging tool should fit your body and the intended use. You should handle a tool before purchasing to make sure it fits.

Tools may look similar, but the materials, manufacturing methods and construction make an unquestionable difference in performance. Tools made with high-carbon steel are best for digging, planting, cutting and weeding. High-carbon steel is an alloy made of iron and a small amount of carbon combined at extremely high temperature. These materials are reheated and tempered, mixing the iron with carbon grains to form a strong steel.

Some garden tools are made of stainless steel, which is carbon steel combined with chromium and nickel. Chromium rustproofs the steel but does not add strength. This may not justify the purchase of stainless steel tools, which can be expensive.

Digging tool heads can be forged or stamped. Forged heads are stronger than stamped heads and can be identified by the word tempered, heat-treated, forged or dropforged near where the head meets the handle. Forged steel is heated and shaped by rolling it over blocks to give the head thickness at the point of maximum stress and thinness where a sharp edge is needed.

A stamped head is machine cut from a sheet of steel then bent to form the head of a shovel, spade, trowel or hoe. This type of head is weaker because of the steel’s uniform thickness. The socket that fits over the shaft is made by bending the steel to form an open-backed tube called the frog. This type of connection can collect dirt along the back edge of the shaft, which weakens or rots the wood. Avoid welded tools. Bad welds, a common flaw in rakes or forks, can fail under stress. Look for a tool that is forged from a single piece.

Long-handled tools are usually more efficient than tools with shorter handles. Most shovels have a straight shaft approximately 48 inches long without a handle. Spades and garden forks come in standard lengths of 28 to 32 inches. For many people, 32 inches is barely long enough for comfort or leverage, but proper length depends on how the tool will be used. Nothing works better for lifting and dividing perennials than a garden fork with a short shaft. It provides better leverage than a tool with a longer shaft and the YD handle is strong and comfortable.

A mark of a high-quality tool is a smooth handle with wood grain that flows straight and steady along the length. Ash is the best wood for a handle because it is strong and not brittle. Maple is a harder and heavier wood, but a maple handle can break unexpectedly, especially when a tool is used incorrectly. A hickory shaft is heavier but not as flexible or as strong as ash. Examine the handle for flaws or imperfections in the wood grain.

In shopping for tools, you may come across fiberglass, steel or aluminum handles. Fiberglass handles are stronger than wood handles, but they transfer vibrations through the shaft, which can fatigue the user. Wooden handles can be fixed if broken. Metal handles are found mostly in smaller hand tools.

The main stress point in a handled tool is where the handle meets the head. A quality tool head has a forged solid socket or long steel straps riveted through the shaft in two or three places. An open socket where the wooden handle meets the tool head allows soil and moisture to penetrate, causing the handle to shrink and loosen over time.

Less expensive tools may have a two-piece head referred to as tang and ferrule. The tang fits into the hole of the handle, which is sheathed in a metal casing or ferrule. This type of construction is common in small hand tools. High-quality tools have a closed socket or solid, shank-type construction that prevents dirt, debris, and moisture from entering the socket.

— Scott Eckert is a Kansas State Research and Extension Agent for Harvey County. Horticulture is his specialty. He can be reached at 316-284-6930.