Basic, essential digging and clearing tools – what’s best?


During the February snowstorm, Miss D. and I found ourselves unable to clear snow from our driveway because we couldn’t find the right tools.  We had no snow shovel, and no full-size spade or shovel – only small gardening trowels, and a couple of entrenching tools.  It’s not that we didn’t have better tools, but they were stored elsewhere for the winter.  We didn’t expect to need them in North Texas weather, where snow and ice are seldom an issue.  A fat lot of good that was to us when we needed them!  (Yes, I’ve rectified that.  Mea culpa.  Mea maxima culpa.)

A recent article at American Partisan, titled “Axes, Shovels, Hoes and Picks:  The Pioneer’s Kit Revisited“, reminded me again of the need for a basic selection of such tools, not just on off-road vehicles or at home for bad weather, but for everyday needs, particularly in an emergency.

Another tool you may own one, or two of, is the E-Tool and a handy pick or a half-pick. You may even own a short crow bar. Crowbars make great digging tools in the right soil. All three are wildly useful, and half the weight of their full size counterparts. But there is another variety of tools that also peaks my interest, raises a brow, and tweaks an ear like a good roman legionnaire. That is the full sized tools like a kick shovel; or a full size shovel. Possibly even the longer “Diggers” length shovels.

Using full size tools compared to the pack sized tools is night and day in terms of efficiency and comfort.

. . .

It doesn’t hurt to have these tools handy. Imagine not having a garden hoe when everyone is starving to death and planting those emergency seeds they bought. Or a weeding tool? Do you have a gardener’s pick? That’s the fastest way to remove weeds in my experience.

. . .

You should build a pioneers kit for your vehicle, get some quality home garden tools, and you should build a pioneers pack.

There’s more at the link.

Trouble is, when one reads customer reviews of typical products of that kind, there are many complaints that they simply can’t take the strain.  Handles crack, blades bend, metal is so thin as to be flimsy, and all that sort of thing.  It seems a far cry from the tools I grew up with in South Africa.  My father’s outdoor tools were beast-tough.  They’re probably still in use by somebody, somewhere in that country.  They were made as strongly as possible, and built to last.  Do such products still exist today?

I thought I’d throw this open to you, dear readers.  In the category of essential outdoor tools, what brands and models do you recommend from your own experience as being strong and tough enough to be truly useful over the long term?  You can add other items such as snow shovels, pick-axes, digging forks, etc. as well, at your discretion.  Please tell us where to buy them, and their price.  Give us a link to the Internet product page if you can.  I’m sure I’m not the only person who would benefit from such information.




  1. yeah that's a question. ames used to be the brand but i haven't tried them lately. i'll be checking back as i have had new garden tools on my list for some time and had no idea which if any are sturdy. the ones i have now are falling apart.

    1. As I recall, most Ames tools are now made in Brazil, still of decent quality, but not as good as the American Ames tools were.
      John in Indy

  2. AM Leonard makes/distributes the kind of nursery and landscaper tough tools you're talking about

  3. Another good route is attending estate sales and buying old-school garden equipment… a hoe that shows a thin blade will be usually dismissed as "junk" but it shows that it has stood the test of time long enough to be worn. Fortunately there's a far stretch between worn and worn out on things like that.

  4. I went out and looked at all my tools. Unfortunantly, they are all 40 or so years old and the companies that made them no longer exist. My axe, for instance, was made by Belknap Bluegrass which is no longer around. I recommend a double-bitted axe, better balanced, easier to swing, and you get two sharp cutting edges. It lasted more than 40 years of chopping and splitting wood for the stove, but this is about the 4th handle.

    The mattock (which is essintial for grubbing out brush) was my grandfather's, and old when he had it. Heavy hard work over the years and still the original handle. I can't make out the brand, a kind of diamond, but no modern one is as stong.

    Not much help I know. A far as the American Partisan article, I carried the axe mentioned, a full-sized shovel, and a small bow saw in my truck year round. For washed out roads, ice or wind felled trees, both those you ran into and those that happened after you passed. The bow saw was better than the axe a lot of times. And a log chain (has a swivel near one end) and a winch of some kind. Driving over rural roads from my teen years to sixty proved this kit for me. Other over different roads will have different needs.

    Someone mentioned estate sales. That's your best bet. Those old German farmers, especially had the best and the best maintained tools of all.

  5. Over the last twenty five years I have cleared up about a quarter acre of garden from virgin spruce forest in Alaska. Chain saw for the initial felling. I use a mattock and shovel as mentioned above to remove brush and dig some roots. I have a thirty horse tractor and use a log chain on the three point drawbar to pull stumps. You put the chain around a root on the far side, lift as high as possible and pull forward. You might try a modern version of an old horse days method. Get the biggest truck wheel you can find. Hook the chain to the root, run out over the wheel to your truck and pull forward. I have read that they pulled most of the stumps in the way of building the Erie Canal with horse teams and giant wheels. An ax is always handy.
    I have a rear tine tiller for initial tillage. You could use a spading fork. I use a weeding hook about five inches wide and four inch long tines with a long handle to till raised beds and work in compost and fertilizer. A standard garden hoe especially for hilling potatoes. A warren hoe which has a triangular shape for making shallow trenches for planting seeds and a standard garden rake for tamping in newly planted seeds and potatoes. I use a cobra head welder both a long handle one and a short handle one for close weeding. You can get these from Johnny’s select seed in Maine. I’m 71 and I have been involved in gardening since I was 5 so t hope this helps.

  6. A great many standard hand tools are made for "standard" size and shape people. If you are taller or shorter than the design size things won't work as well for you. You can even find old photographs that match this, larger and smaller people with hand crafted tools that are longer or shorter to match their needs. Plan on needing to replace handles on even good quality tools with something that suits your size; or plan for this and try to find things that match your body ergos.

    It's amazing the difference in your legs and back if you can use a shovel all day and not be bent over the entire time trying to make it reach.

  7. Try Lehman's:

    No guarantees, nor experience (I bought my tools in person when they were made to last), but with Lehman's their heads are in the right place.

    Think Amish in general for anything hand-powered, and you won't go far wrong.

  8. Find the place where your local farmers buy their's.
    (Likely a co-op, a D&B, a Rural King, a Tractor Supply, etc.)
    Buy the basic tools with wooden handles and blackened metal that are the opposite of eye catching. At most you're looking for a "tempered" stamp on the metal, and a "hickory" stamp on the handle.
    You'll note that they're as sharp as licorice whips when you buy them. You're going to have to fix that.
    A file and a few hours, an angle grinder and a vice, or a bench grinder will all see you through (in ascending level of difficulty). This is the hard part, that's difficult to describe as getting the right bevel in the right place, facing the right direction, takes a bit of skill. There are probably youtube videos to help you out. Or you could ask someone to show you. Or you can try to use it for a bit, see where it wears, and sharpen there.
    (Example: for a pointed shovel, place the shaft under your right leg, and over your left, with the bowl facing up. The point and the shoulders are the pivot points for the file. Anchor it at one, and drag the file to the adjacent anchor point. Repeat this a lot, alternating anchor points.)

    1. I guess I should say keep one end of the file anchored, and drag it rotationally between the two other points. Changing anchor point frequently.

  9. We have a lot of handtools accumulated over the years. Local shops include the Farmers Co-op, Tractor Supply and Ames Hardware. While I do buy tools from them, they are not built to last but will get you thru a season. For long term usage, esp after TEOTWAWKI, Lehman's in the one.

    (I actually cried when my son broke the blade on my Grandfathers short-handled spade – Im 4'10" and it was "my" best shovel. No, son, you really can't use a 100 year-old shovel to lever a boulder the size of a wheel-barrel.)

    On a related topic, I've never seen anyone mention splitting firewood using a tire and splitting maul.

    Using a firm surface, like a tree stump or something similar: Take a wide tire (like from an ATV) with a good sized center hole, put your round or several pieces that need to be split into the hole so that it is packed relatively tightly, but with a bit of "give". Then, using a splitting maul, just smack at it. The tire will hold the pieces upright and prevent them from flying off and having to be individually picked up and balanced for the next swing. A few good well-aimed swings and you're done.

  10. The son's funeral is when? Kidding… mostly.

    A former friend (not the reason he's a "former" friend, but indicative of his level of general thoughtlessness) snapped the handle of my great grandfather's digging shovel, using it like a mattock on the roots of a fallen tree.

    It was a long, beautiful handle, shaped by a master of his craft. The replacements are thick, ungainly cylinders, that don't aid in the work the way a properly made handle does. Thankfully I can shape it myself but it's still not the same.

    I can't imagine how I'd feel if he'd broken the blade.

    On the subject of acquiring digging tools: has some excellent tools, I cannot say enough about the meadowcreature broadfork (seriously. It's worth every single penny, and then some.)

    I've been pretty happy with my razorback digging shovel from Home Depot (the 48" "super socket" "poweredge" model) the extra long socket adds some nice reinforcement, but the handle is one of those cylinders I mentioned above. I picked through them for one where the socket's seam was (fairly) tight to the shaft of the handle, rather than puckered up away from it, but that's to be expected these days.

    Other than that, I'd recommend looking for older tools. The quality is just better. The main difficulty is finding good quality handles. It helps if you can use a spokeshave, drawknife, and rasp, but the cylinders they sell now will work if it's the only option.

    On a separate note, a happy and blessed Easter to you all!

  11. As an aside, this same son took a brand new out of the box weed whacker (heaviest heavy duty with metal blade for doing brushwork – at $200 30 years ago) turned it on and promptly smacked it into the ground, throwing a piston through the engine housing and almost killed himself.

    Not to be outdone, his twin brother, that same summer, drove a riding tractor OVER A 10' PINE TREE in the yard. And not exactly a sapling. The tree snapped back, but was always a bit uneven after that.

    Both their father and I strongly believe that the kids should all be taught everything we know, but yard work was a very expensive series of lessons.

  12. Pro Tip:

    Buy an extra set of Big Box common garden tools (rake, shovel, etc.), and whatever passes for a handyman toolbox these days (hammer, pliers, couple of screwdrivers, etc.)
    Those are your "neighbor loaners".

    {cf. Gran Torino.}

    They get lent out with the clear and plainly-stated understanding of "You lose 'em/break 'em, you bought 'em. No, I'm not kidding." ZFG.

    If your tools don't stay your tools, you're not tall enough for this ride.

  13. While I was in El Paso, Tx, it snowed on two occasions. An inch of snow on the grass precipitated widespread panic and shutdowns. Calling around to hardware stores and garden shops revealed that no one even knew what a "snow shovel" was, so I made a pusher out of scrap wood.

  14. In my 60's, the weapon of choice for snow removal is a long-handled square-nosed shovel. Not as heavy when full, no stopping. Time I got, can always break for coffee.

  15. A cane blade. It’s a wide flat blade, often lighter but more efficient than a machete. A machete will cut vines or kudzu. A cane blade will take out 1” saplings.

    I’ve got a $20 one from Tractor Supply that I’ve used every summer. When I bought my house, it had been empty for a year. The backyard was filled with 6’ milkweed, most of which fell to the cane blade.

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