Category Archives: Tools of the Trade

Been Awhile

It’s Spring! Busyiness aka business. Lots to post as time and internet access allow…Rain day of sorts here, thoughts runneth over. Planning, scheduling, truck shopping. If it weren’t for that “head-on” I’d be “spot-on” and moving forward. Right now life is like an exercise bike (Pedalling away only to end up right where I started). Things could be worse, actually things couldn’t be a whole lot better. My first landscape employer is still plugging away on his own, he needs my help and likewise I need his. Another good friend, semi- retired from the “mow, trim, and blow” end of the industry is bored and looking for projects. With all the “Yard Crasher” stuff folks are begging for pergolas, fire pits, and water features. He might not know plants or pruning but woodwork, electric, and irrigation are right up his alley. Don’t even ask about fire! Between the three of us we’ve got alot of potential. I’m not even going to cross my fingers, good things are about to happen. We’re all old, we’re not quitters. Between us we should have the charm of a fresh litter of puppies (O.K., we’re not that charming). We’re not stupid or inexperienced, not a new business or partnership. We know better. No need for investors, we’re just planning to focus on each others talents. He who sells the job gets a larger take, many jobs won’t require anyone but the salesman. We did 2 jobs together last year that just came out great, none of the 3 of us could have done them alone. We’ve all been around long enough to know the pitfalls of such an association, full knowledge of every risk and our personal experiences over the past 20-30 years. Between the three of us we all have specialties to bring to the table, what people see, want, and are asking for demands reaching out to one another. 80-100 square mile client base between us for jobs that don’t require teamwork. We all turn down good jobs (great jobs) because a one-man show is hard enough to run, let alone try to sell and accomplish the unknown. After last year, if we can repeat that a few times we’ll all have made a little more money and have some great memories doing so. Business is business, fun is hard to find. As much as I love what I do working alone is tough. Good times working with good folks? I could do that ’til I die. Better than hiring strangers or “helper monkees”. We’re all insured, no tax issues regarding one another, if we were Facebook people we would “like” ourselves. Better odds of one of us taking the big dirt nap than failing to complete a job.

Havent had alot of time to write but I have had time to use a few of the new tools. Of the long handled tools the standard round point shovel is yet to be used but the border spade and bow rake have been hard at work. The border spade takes a little time to get used to. The drains spade-type angles coupled with the extra large stepping platform change my view from above. The stepping platform is nice but after 20 years of conventional spade design I found it akward to use the ball of my foot to exert pressure. With the conventional style my foot usually stopped right ahead of the heel of my boots, it worked but I actually think this new design is more effective. I’ve yet to encounter heavy clay but it happens every season and that will be time for the trusty AM Leonand all steel nursery spade. I bought it knowing it would last forever and thought it would be my one and only spade. A few drawbacks: 1. it’s conductive, 2. it’s heavy, and 3. it’s tall (15″) blade and narrow bit aren’t terribly efficient for speed edging. They make other sizes and offer a fine looking fiberglass handled spade with full steel strapping. I found mine at a local nursery and had to have it without bothering to shop varieties. Still a great investment. There are quite a few on the market and with a minimum investment of $50 to a little over $100 you’ll have (perhaps the only) tool that will realistically outlive you. On the plus side? 1. they’re virtually indestructable, and 2. (yet again) they’re heavy. Perfect for thick clay and some of the misc. junk you run into at newly built homes (giant gravel, chunks of concrete–anything the builders and contractors didn’t feel like hauling off of the site). Given difficult circumstances there simply isn’t a better tool for the job. I like my cut-edge beds and as I abhor those concrete paver blocks that seem to be the rage I’d prefer to deal with difficult soil anyday of the week. Many of the all-steel offerings have a rubber foot pad installed, I considered ordering one for my spade but the 15″ blade is akward enough without the rubber cushion. On a 12-13″ model it might be a nice option. If I can edge with 15″ of steel you can probably do it easier with 13″ and a rubber bumper. (I stand about 5’10 on a good day, height and leg length should determine your choice, the bumpers are removable)

On to the new Craftsman, err Union/True Temper “Double Play” 16 tine bow rake. One word. Awesome! The conventional bow rake design should be thrown away. For their intended uses this design cannot be beat. I recently did a lawn renovation that included sod removal, topsoil to compensate for loss, and new sod. The topsoil deliveryman did a fantastic job with his slinger truck but there was still quite a bit of work left. Between the homeowner, his helper, and myself it wasn’t too bad. The owner had his own stout new bow rake, his helper got my old Craftsman, and I had the new toy. Within minutes my progress was visibly noticeable and I could litterally feel how much more effective the “double play’ rake design is. I couldn’t resist letting the other guys have a try. Their conclusions matched mine, for raking and leveling soil this is a completely different tool. True Temper offers 2 varieties, of note the “Master Gardener” model with odd steering wheel contraption on the handle. No idea how that works but I think it’s safe to assume it might cost more. I’m impressed and since I’ve found them on sale I will buy a second even though these are low use tools for most of the jobs I do. The old rake? Still as good as the day I bought it, I’ll cut the handle down and add it to my “trunk gardener’s kit”. Just in case rake, otherwise it is retired! Seriously, this new design should be the industry standard. I happily payed nearly the same for it’s Jurassic predecessor and would have again had this odd twist of fate/marketing not been on my side. I’ve never purchased a landscape rake but those that produce them offer a similar design. I don’t know who offered it first but it’s a winner in my book.

New cutting tools have yet to be used. Yes, it’s late April but I picked up an inexpensive carbide sharpener when I bought my latest anvil lopper and tried it out on some old tools. I got good results with sharpening stones over the years but I already prefer the carbide tool. Wish I had learned of these handy dandy little gadgets years ago! Tool shopping itself has been an adventure. Just check out the Union Tools website. Their biggest competitor is themselves, it’s not a monopoly but nearly as close as you can get considering they’re the parent company for Ames, True Temper, Razorback, & Jackson. Every tool for every budget and market and of course some re-marketed for chain stores as with the Craftsman. Theres an eerie similarity between brands and products and it’s certainly not coincidence. More on that another time…Much more.

Reviews, everbody likes them. I know I do but blog reviews far outweigh Amazon, store, and manufacturer reviews. Lowe’s, Home Depot, and Sears are shining examples of this. “Joe from anytown” says ” I bought this brand X (insert tool) and it broke in five minutes”. Then I think to myself, I’ve owned that “brand X” tool for 5 years, used it commercially and have been perfectly happy. What the hell was Joe doing? Loppers are a prime example of horrible reviews. Probably the most misused tool in all of gardening. They’re not saws folks! Just because it opens 2 or 3″, well you know… I had to laugh at reviews for my new spade and unused shovel. Same guy hates his shovel and bent the blade on the spade. Now how do you bend 14 gauge steel on a fiberglass handled tool without cracking or breaking the shaft or attached D-grip? Bet his gripe is more with Sears (not realizing who manufactures the tools) or he’s terribly brutal. (might have been burying an in-law?) Another reviewer of the round point shovel griped as he explains that he was digging irrigation ditches. Not a job for a full length ‘glass handled shovel. Trenching shovels are great! I think alot of folks could benefit from the “all steel” option, LOL! Tools generally don’t break without fair warning, at which point you realize you’re doing something terribly wrong or simpler yet, using the wrong tool…

Forgive me, “Memory Lane” time. I remember my first foreman’s position and tagging along with the boss early one spring morning to pick up tools to outfit every gardening crew. Big Union Tools warehouse in Columbus, Ohio. A virtual “Tool Mecca”. Gardening tool Holyland.  One expensive tool per crew, the coveted sod lifter which we’d all been trained to edge, expand, and create beds with. They were about $75 per piece of tempered goodness, still are. (I actually got to spend about an hour talking with a man who MADE them a few years back, fantastic conversation that makes me wonder about the re-badged Mexico mfg. Truper line that Menards sells with a lifetime warranty for $30) Beyond that everything was base model stuff. 2 hedge shears, 2 leaf rakes, 1 bow rake, 1 bow rake, 1 lopper, 1 pruner. Nothing electric, nothing gas powered. String trimmers and blowers shared as needed and available. Same held true with wheelbarrows and pole pruners. The loppers and hedge shears were the absolute worst and lovingly referred to as “knuckle busters”. These should have never been manufactured for anyone. That’s $6-8 bucks you’ll never get back! Everyone’s tools had been color coded and the rule was “you break or lose it, you replace it”. Within the first week I noticed my tools had gone from bad to useless. Closer observation revealed that crew “red” had swapped his hand tools for my code “orange” tools. Early the next morning a swapped them all back and by lunch I was being called a thief! Ahh, the good old days! Within the month my orange coded tools were mostly shot and I took it upon myself to equip my truck/crew with good stuff. It made my job easier and since nobody had similar tools, no theft. This is when I first realized it’s worth paying a little more for quality, always looking for a bargain but new junk turns into old junk too fast. I was first to add tools beyond what we’d been issued. A push broom, hand hoes, cultivators & a border spade. Short shovel, bow saw and eventually an electric hedge shear, gas leaf blower and more. It made my job easier and my jobs more professional. Even though working in a prestigious old neighborhood for many busy people, alot of our clients noticed I was using better equipment than some of our other crews. It pleased them and that stuck with me. Our maintenance jobs got rotated quite a bit. I distinctly recall the first time my employer informed me that a client had requested that only my crew work at their property. It was a proud moment, I smiled all day. I certainly wasn’t the most knowledgeable or most experienced, I was simply better equipped to do a more thorough job. The great guys I worked with that I still call friends trained me. It’s still a proud moment.  It’s not so much whether it’s shiny and new, it’s hard to do a meticulous job with sub-standard equipment. Good, well maintained tools can get you and your work noticed. Knowledge and skill are factors, I think there was a priceless lesson learned by being issued (and trying to maintain) junk. When my employer filed bankruptcy and the company slowly collapsed I walked away with more than experience, I was equipped to take off on my own. Some seasons are better than others, I couldn’t stop if I hit the lottery.

By the next post I should have some project pics, the start of my veggie/cutting garden and at least a second impression of the latest pair of Corona loppers. Also my choices of some Japanese gardening tools along with some items that may or may not be bargains (at any rate these cost roughly half what US vendors charge after adding their logo), if they’re worth having why not go to the source? Pruners come in so many varieties, I’m quite anxious to try several new (to me) but only time can really tell what they’re really worth. I’m gonna pump out the big bucks on Japanese hedge shears, a tool that could be built to last that generally isn’t. I’ve got my gas and electric models that I can praise and point out important details, I can work just as fast and turn out a better job with hand-helds depending on the type of shrub and conditions. Quiet and effective. As for loppers, just by design and nature of use…I just think they’re hit and miss. Money isn’t the issue, I don’t believe the best of them are really built to last a lifetime. My experience included, they are the one tool folks just tend to push a little too far. They’re never the same once that happens…

‘Til next time, be good.


Tool Time!

Had to get out and pick up a couple of new toys to tide me over until my latest internet orders arrive. I’v been shopping both online and in stores over the past several weeks. Today has been a great March day for me here in Ohio. A beautiful early spring day with perennials beginning to show, Daffs in bloom with tulips on the the way. An unexpected snow would almost be a pleasant surprise (almost). Tools ordered online, new tools in hand, and thanks to stumbling across an interesting gardener’s blog even more cool tools of interest to try this season including a rubber rake and innovative bow rake. As for the rubber rake? Don’t laugh just yet, I’m awed by this thing and I’ve yet to even handle one.

Today’s purchases are part of a long-term love-hate relationship with the Sears Craftsman line of tools. Sears is a monster and there are tools I simply will not purchase from them. 25 years ago things were a bit simpler when they offered Good, Better, & Best among the hand tools. Best being the obvious choice if you were shopping Craftsman. My last major purchase was around 1992 so we’re talking twenty years since I last bought hand tools at Sears. Add to that the tools purchased that day are still “in play”. I bought their premium yellow fiberglass-handled line at the time: bow rake, steel tine leaf rake, garden/border spade, 4-prong spading fork, & long handled round point shovel. The border spade has been used and abused and has finally cracked all the way from the collar to the D-handle. I used it today and will continue to use it until it fails and earns a spot on the shop wall. I’ve made alot of money with it. The round point shovel will be replaced soon by yet another premium Craftsman. I ran over the old one with a 3/4 ton truck loaded with mulch and cracked the handle. Sawed off about 8″ and replaced the cap, short but still going strong. The spading fork, bow rake, and surprisingly even the leaf rake are all in good working order. As they’re replaced they’ll be my “home tools”. I do enjoy getting every penny’s worth, more than ever these days!

Today’s new toys are two Craftsman premium that both stray a bit from my old ones. Slick marketing or improvements? Perhaps a bit of both. First is a really nice looking border spade, it feels good in the hands. 3″ taller than the old one (41″ vs. 38″). The D-handle is canted slightly forward and it has what they call a “Power Step” feature with large footsteps towards the front of the blade instead of rolled edges to the rear (this is an Ames/True Temper ~ala~Union tool). Entirely different than my old Craftsman and my much beloved  A.M. Leonard all steel nursery spade. Some sort of hybrid with a hint of drain spade incorporated. Unlike it’s predecessor the connection to the fiberglass handle is reinforced with steel instead of wood but that didn’t appear to be a major issue. I like it but I don’t love it (yet). Please bear with me on the picture layout, it’s been years since blogging and I’m skipping the html and trying for clickables…

The second new one for today is a novel new bow rake with a couple of new twists. Marketed as the “Double Play” it’s tines are less straight and slightly hooked (looks more like a rake, less like a comb). The previously bare area above the tines has a unique row of teeth (hence the “double play”). Now after years and years of using these dogs to spread soil, this one looks like someone was really thinking. Roughly 3″ shorter but not very noticeable in hand, perhaps an inch wider on the business end. As with the new spade I’m impressed. I like it but I don’t love it (yet). Not quite as innovative as the Radius G-Series Ground Hog and Garden Shark rakes I plan to try but it does appear to be an improved version of an old standby.

That’s all for now, I’ve got a sod job coming up soon so these new two will get their first workout and I’ll be able to start to form an opinion. The backyard I’m doing has 3 nice walkways that will require the spade to cut in for sod cutter use and plenty of soil will be needed so we’ll see about that “double play” rake. Looking forward to it!

The Case For Inexpensive Tools?

Is there a case for disposable tools? Every now and again I can say “Yes” but not very often. I recall when I went into business for myself back in 1990 wanting to have nicer hand tools and equipment than my former employer issued to our crews. In fact I recall making tool purchases of my own to replace the bottom of the line Union “knuckle-busters” we were issued. Not to bash Union Tools but the low end stuff is what it is, they’re the equivilent of MTD these days owning the competition’s names. One of their gardening tools I consider absolutely essential can be found on the web under the True Temper and Jackson monikers, the sod lifter. I learned how to do border edging with those funny looking tools and still find them perfect to put a “speed edge” on a properly maintained landscape. I do prefer a good spade for neglected beds, still, I feel under-equipped without a sod lifter on-board the work truck. Slow and tedious but an excellent choice for their designed purpose. Great for tree rings or expanding a bed that doesn’t warrant a gasoline sod cutter. Definitely to be discussed further soon.

Back to the “inexpensive” tools. Getting started I spent the bulk of available funds on my larger power tools, ten dollar shovels and rakes seemed to be justifiable. A few hundred dollars down the road it just seemed wasteful. I started buying tools a notch above basic and with this new season I’m going to be buying and trying many tools. One particular brand of long-handled tools has served me quite well and I’ll compare new vs. old very soon.

Todays tools are one disappointment and one new purchase that I have no intentions of using. First off a Craftsman bypass lopper. Sears clocked me for close to $30 on this clunker. I was in the store for another reason and decided that I “needed” a new lopper. This was the best they had, I questioned it at the time. Just another Chinese novelty they chose to tag with their name. The same exact POS is now sold at Menards for under $15. I do shop Menards, but not for tools. As for the lopper? Guess. The plastic “cushions” between the handles were gone within days. The design did prevent them from becoming the proverbial “knuckle-busters” but the overtravel made them less than desireable. Cleaned and sharpened with a temporary fix they’re useable, a few bucks at the hardware and they will serve someone else’s needs. (the garden hose stops as a prototype, I’ve got the permanent fix in mind)

Second up for the day, a pair of pruners I couldn’t walk past. True Temper 3/4″ bypass pruners at a local “bargain outlet” for $6 and a cheesy holster for another dollar. Seriously, one could do far worse with a $20 in hand. For seven bucks this was a steal. The pruner’s design is contemporary to every TT pruner found online save for the color of the handles. Oddly enough the cheap nylon holster is a perfect match. I find the pruners to be O.K., the finger groove thing is utterly useless but it is the selling point True Temper has chosen to go with. Again, you can find a bargain but I know I wouldn’t pay full price for these or ever consider the heavier forged version.

I gave these a quick workout, they are worth what I paid. I’ll keep my “cheap” Coronas for back-up duty. However if they still have the anvil version (which I rarely use) in stock I will snag a pair for myself. The wide rubber grips might work quite well for that type of pruning.

These tools with both be gifts. Not to be mean-hearted or remotely rude, I have a client that they should be perfect for. One of my oldest and dearest, a sweet friend in her early 70’s, she always needs to borrow one or the other when I’m on her property. Soon she’ll have her own. I’m certain I’ll still be trusted to the roses and ornamentals, at least she’ll be able to deadhead without tearing the roses by hand. The True Temper pruners do have a lifetime warranty, many “disposable” tools do. The manufacturers just bet on everyone buying new…

Is there a case for cheap, er, inexpensive tools? Not very often.