Gene Logsdon and Friends

Good Hoes/Bad Hoes

In Gene Logsdon Blog on August 11, 2010 at 7:36 am

From GENE LOGSDON

If you look closely at the photo above, you will see what I failed to see for many years. Although I think of myself as a venerable member of the Brethren of the Holy Hoe Society, and have made shiny the handles of more than a few hoes, I took their construction for granted all these years. I did not scrutinize any of them, thinking that once you have met one hoe, you’ve met them all. Wrong.

In the photo, the hoe with the blue collar around the end of the handle (the collar is also referred to as a shank or a ferrule) is a cheap one, a bad one. Notice that the blade and the crook neck above the blade are separate from the collar. The neck fits down inside the collar. Notice the nails driven in around the neck. I had to resort to this kind of makeshift repair because the neck of the hoe kept loosening up inside the collar. Then the hoe blade would turn sideways every time it hit the soil surface. The nails hold the blade firm for only a few hours of weed whacking. Then I had to wedge in bigger nails. Eventually the whole contraption got too loose to hold the hoe blade in place this way.

Nor is the collar made so that it can be removed from the hoe handle— no bolt, screw, or nail holding it in place. Far as I can tell, some kind of machine pressed an indentation into the collar and on into the wood so that the handle would stay in place. For all practical purposes, this hoe is made to throw away in a few years. A real repair job, if possible, would cost more than a new cheap hoe.

Now look at the other hoe blade. This is a good hoe. The collar, neck, and blade are all one solid piece. Because I am not a great photographer, it looks a little like the neck is inserted into the collar but believe me, it is all one solid piece. Surely, someone still makes a hoe like this, but I have spent considerable time onlining and haven’t turned one up yet nor have I seen one in a hardware store. Smith & Hawken once carried imported tools with single-piece heads, but that company is no longer with us. The advertisers use all sorts of words to make it sound like the blade and collar are all one solid piece, but scrutinizing the pictures on Google, I have yet to find a full-length, real- life, garden hoe with a business end of one solid piece. But if you know of one, I am here to say: buy it.

The hoe blade cannot turn in the collar because it is part of the collar. The forging of this piece of metal is skilled work. I can see a seam in the metal where it was welded together after being rounded into a collar to accept the handle, but the weld is so smooth it hardly seems to be a seam. The weld between the neck and the hoe blade is equally as masterful. I can’t see or even feel a seam there at all.

There are two holes in the collar spaced about two inches apart to take two nails that hold the handle firmly in place. If the handle breaks, it is easily replaced.

Finally, the curve or crook in the neck of the solid metal blade is different than on the blue handled hoe. It is hard to describe in words. On the latter, the blade is at almost a right angle to the handle, so that when one chops down on a weed, or on the soil surface from a standing position, the blade hits the ground almost squarely. On the good hoe, the angle of blade to handle is more acute, so that when the hoer chops down, the blade meets the earth at a slicing angle— more easily skims through weeds or soil surface. The muscular effort involved is appreciably less. The old hoe makers knew a thing or two about hoeing that has evidently become lost to new hoe makers.

We have quite an array of fallen hoes on our place, so I examined all of them, curious to see if any others had collars and blades in one solid piece of metal. Sure enough, the one that my wife loves and uses is also so made. It also has the proper angle to the neck that makes hoeing less strenuous. And then there is one more thing. The handle on her old hoe is just the right diameter and ever so slightly tapered to fit into the hand comfortably. The blue-handled hoe handle is too thick and the same diameter from one end to the other. Your fingers start aching sooner than when using Carol’s hoe.

I do not know the age of the solid metal hoe blades. They have to be ancient because they have been sharpened so many times that they are barely half the original size. A friend gave them to us years ago, after he brought a whole armful of old hand tools at a farm sale. I broke the handle off the one in the photo just above the collar quite a few years ago (which is why Carol doesn’t like me to use hers) and, always in a hurry in those days, I hung the old blade on a nail in the barn and bought one of the blue-handled variety.

Wisdom does sometimes come with old age. I drilled out the broken handle of my solid metal hoe blade just yesterday. I will buy a new handle, if I can find one, when I go to town. If not, by hickory I will make my own, out of my own hickory or ash. The point is that I have discovered a hoe blade that defies the laws of thermodynamics. It is indestructible, a treasure that should be in a museum but doesn’t need to be because it was made to last nearly forever as long as I keep the rust off of it. Keeping the rust off will keep me so busy I won’t have time to be relegated to a museum either.
~
See also Gene’s Hoemanship
~~

  1. The quality of “old” hand tools is amazing. I was never a hoe fan, mostly because our soil was so hard and full of clay that I needed something more aggressive. I ended up with a great long-handled four-prong digger/hoe that I bought at the local feed co-op. That was over 30 years ago. It has spent every year hanging from a post by my garden so it’s always handy. The sun and rain have aged the well-shaped handle, but it’s still as solid as the day I bought it. I do hang it up in the garage for winter, but it gets occasional use as an ice chopper in the winter. As luck would have it, I also found a shorter version of the same tool a year or two later and bought that, and it is also still in use. They are of the one-piece design you showed, but I never noticed before – they just work great and last.
    It seems that people now want power tools for everything or, if they do buy a hand garden tool, it is to display as an ornament on the fancy garden shed, not to use. I just don’t think you can get a feel for your soil with the Mantis or Troy-Bilt. You have to physically work with it, feel it, touch it, work it with your arms and hands. Losing touch with the soil that feeds us is a sad thing.

  2. Gene, once again you have hit the nail on the head–or the hoe on the shank… it seems as though hand tools in general suffer from poor design these days. I’ve often wondered whether it’s because too many people disdain hand work. For that matter, I find that in a wide variety of areas, there seems to be less attention paid to the basic dictum that form (design) should follow function. You see it in tools, you see it in automobiles, you see it in appliances–heck, you see it in animals! We raised Quarter Horses for years (still have our stud), and I could not believe what other breeders were doing to a horse that was supposed to be a working animal that would stay sound for twenty years or more: feet you could put in a teacup on a 1200 pound horse, cannon bones more suited to a Pekingese. It was harder and harder to find mares we felt were of a quality to breed. While that takes me a little afield from the topic of hand tools, it’s still about good design–you’re just breeding for it instead of manufacturing it. I cherish the things that are well made and hope to keep using them for many years. I got thirty five years out of my old sewing machine and am going on fifteen for a trowel I like. My husband’s truck is at 16 years and 460,000 miles thanks to his dedicated care, and now that I can see the difference so clearly, I’m going to see if he can make me a hoe like the one in the picture!

  3. Be interested is knowing what you think of these tools:

    http://www.easydigging.com/

    Never ordered from there and unrelated, but they seems nicely made.

  4. A lovely ode to the pleasure of using good tools.

  5. It’s because everything is made in China anymore. We Americans insist on paying the very least we can for anything; consequently we’ve exported all our manufacturing jobs to China.

    You can still find really good tools, but they tend to be hand made, so they’re super expensive. But, as Jimmy Dean used to say on his sausage commercials, ‘you get what you pay for’.

    I just took a look at the hoe I bought at the big box store, and it’s made very similarly to the bad hoe you have. However, it does have a rivet in the shank, and it does have a 25 year warranty. I know- good luck collecting on that warranty if you need it, right?

  6. Hi Gene
    Here are some good looking hoes:

    http://www.earthtoolsbcs.com/html/other_hoes.html

    http://www.earthtoolsbcs.com/html/shw_hoes.html

    You might also check Ebay or some of the antique tool dealers for those single piece, mountable hoe heads of yesteryear.

    deb

  7. For what ever it’s worth, there’s an intermediate version between the two. These have the seperate collar but the shank goes into a hole drilled in the handle and a screw goes through the collar, the shank, and the wood. They get loose more easily than the all-one-piece kind but have the right curve/angle and hold an edge better than the pressed collar kind.

    I bought my wife one of those Coleman colinear hoes. Under the right circumtances — Slightly moist soil and young weeds — it is an amazing tool. I keep hers literally razor sharp and up to it’s limits it is as near effortless as is possible to imagine. I really like it for getting up close to plants since I am an expert at killing more plants than weeds with a hoe.

    Here’s one idea for getting a good hoe of the kind you want. There aren’t very many blacksmiths around but they do still exist. I think they’re still having the Quad State event in Ohio for example. Also around living history museums you can usually find one. A lot of those guys will make custom tools like that for you as a side job. You won’t get 3 of them for $5 in the bargain bin at Walmart etc. but unless I miss my guess it won’t be too much to pay for a high quality tool, made exactly the way you want it, and which will probably last a life time.

  8. I’m no expert, but I like my Rogue Hoe. (I don’t work for them.)

    I’ve become really irritated that most garden tools seem to be made in China. It’s not something I paid much attention to with a couple hoes I bought. But from now on, I’d rather use a pointed stick than a Chinese hoe.

    • I second the endorsement of Rouge Hoes. Very sturdy and the blades are high quality steel. I have several and love them!

  9. Among others, I have a particular hoe of the “blue ferrule” variety, and have just replaced the handle — the old one snapped in half after many years (> 20) of good service. It was my favorite hoe, so I got another handle for it.

    The trick with this hoe is that there is a hole in the shank that you can run a nail through crosswise (after making matching holes in the ferrule), rather than wedge in next to the shank, to keep the head of the hoe from turning. I had to chisel off the end of nail that held the hoe shank inside the old handle. It sounds like your “blue ferrule” hoe didn’t have that hole.

    So far, the hoe head hasn’t turned in the handle, even without that cross nail. When it does, I will knock it loose, drill those matching holes in the ferrule, and then place a nail through the holes, clip it to length, and then peen over the end. Then I expect to continue to use this hoe for at least another 20 years (I’m 52).

    • I forgot to mention that my “blue ferrule” hoe also has the more acute angle between the blade and the handle, as you describe for your “good hoe”. I adjusted it to match my height some time back, to get the best angle with the ground when I’m working in the garden.

  10. Dear Gene and Company,
    I’ve found the absolutely best hoe ever, but it is a large full sized hoe. It needs a well developed hip sway,swish arms locked at your sides down to your elbows pushing off your hip sway. A lot like doing the twist.
    Anyway, really if you do it right you can hoe all day. If not sore back time.
    Fanno Saw works: Forester Hoe (FH-1) $63.00 http://www.fannosaw.com/
    I’ve used this brand for thirty years wore many of them all the way down without them breaking.Especially good for farming,moving dirt, scalping grass or weeds.
    Spring steel hoe with Chinqapin handle(not tapered though)
    Katie

  11. You might consider this hoe, especially if you have an Ace Hardware nearby — you can order online and have it shipped free of charge to the store for pickup. (Check with the store manager).

    http://www.acehardwareoutlet.com/productDetails.aspx?SKU=72040

    It appears to have the desirable one piece forged construction, though handle taper and overall weight are an unknown. (You won’t see this item displayed in the store).

  12. Thanks Gene! Speaking of hoes, I wonder if you have any thoughts on using something like this Hoss wheel hoe that they now sell at EasyDigging – it’s supposed to duplicate the original Planet Jr machines that were used by lots of small farmers long ago.

  13. Nickie, I pushed a wheel hoe up and down my mother’s garden from age 8 to 12 which prejudiced me for life against them. They really are okay though, if you are tall and strong. Wheel hoes and all the many tools that stir the soil when you push them, appeal to the desire in the human being for an easier way or at least a different way. But they all require effort at least as great as wielding a hoe and are not as handy up around plants. I assure you that a regular hoe, properly sharpened and adapted to your body, and used long enough so that the user acquires skill at it, is better than any other way to cultivate a small garden. But it is like swinging a ball bat. You have to learn how to do it and have some innate ability at it, and WANT to do it.
    Thanks to all the respondents above. You have been very helpful. Gene

  14. Here is a decent forged hoe that I use daily. Expensive, but it has the qualities you note in your article.

    http://www.leevalley.com/US/garden/page.aspx?p=51678&cat=2,2300,54306&ap=1

  15. Have you checked out the Clarington Forge hand tools? They are made in the UK, but the company has been around for a really long time, and all their metal parts are forged as one piece. I have one of their hoes on my Christmas list for this year! Tired of using the stinky one we bought at the big box a few years ago… By the way, been a fan for a long time, Gene. The new book is also on that wish list!

  16. Johnny’s Selected Seeds sells Swiss Made one piece hoes. Johnny’s
    has great hand garden tools at good prices.

  17. A blacksmith on a web board I hang out on Created this, and then after much acclaim decided it was worth making more for sale, and you blog was linked as a comparison of a “good hoe, bad hoe”. Thought you might be interested in the hand forged “good hoe”.

    http://helmforge.blogspot.com/2011/05/garden-hoes-and-camp-axes-offered-for.html

    • I think these are known as “Swan Neck” hoes. A “good” hoe, as Gene wrote, is made from one piece of steel, or if made with more than one piece of steel, the pieces are welded together, rather than cheaply-constructed “Tang and Ferrule” designs which break easily. A similar “Swan Neck” is sold at Gardener’s Supply.

  18. old tools are the best! The easiest way to remove a broken handle from your garden tools though is to burn it out. We place the tool in a bon fire, roast marshmallows and by the time we are finished the old handle is gone. Let the tool cool and add your new handle. Alot easier than drilling and pounding!

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