Good hand tools turn work to joy

During the crusades, so the story goes, Richard the Lion-Hearted wished to show off the destructive power of the mighty English broadsword. Raising it above his head, he brought it crashing down upon a heavy ceremonial mace, severing the mace as if it were a twig.

It was, indeed, a destructive weapon, but only a swordsman with the forearms of a blacksmith could wield it with any dexterity at all.

In contrast, Emperor Saladin tossed a silk scarf into the air and cut it in two with a Turkish scimitar. The lesson was obvious: the smallest man could perform effectively with a razor-sharp weapon so light and well designed that it felt like an extension of his own arm.

David Tresemer, author of several books on the use of hand tools, likes that story. The same principle applies to hand implements used in gardening and farming, he says. If the scythe, hoe, spade, trowel, or whatever is to accomplish its task speedily and with a minimum of effort, it should feel as comfortable in the farmer's or gardener's hands as the scimitar did in Saladin's.

Under such conditions the experienced hand-tool user can accomplish far more work in far less time than we have grown to expect in this motorized world.

Tresemer, whose work involves research into hand tools from around the world for By Hand and Foot Ltd. here in Vermont, learned firsthand the vast performance gulf that exists between the quality hand tool and the cheap imitation.

A decade ago, he gave up psychology and the BMW that went with a high-salaried position to go farming in Vermont. It was a small farm, and he felt hand tools would go far in such an operation until his experience with a hardware-store scythe disillusioned him. He was tired after an hour of trying to cut down dandelion weeds, and he concluded that his farming forebears were made of stouter stuff than he.

Then he was introduced to the Austrian scythe, which is actually Turkish in origin. Where the modern American scythe blade is stamped out of a single piece of metal, the Austrian scythe is a blend of several layers of metal hammered into shape in 26 separate steps. It can hold an edge that will cut tissue paper.

The result was predictable. Tresemer found he could scythe for hours on end without tiring. He was, after all, made in the likeness of his forebears.

The point to remember is that American scythes of the past were handmade of layered metals by blacksmiths who were masters of their craft. Finesse, not brute force, cut early American hay.

In his fascinating book, The Scythe Book ($6.95, By Hand and Foot Ltd., PO Box 611, Brattleboro, Vt. 05301), Tresemer recounts the story of a New Hampshire blacksmith who made a scythe for a young mower in 1769. The price: 21 cords of rock maple, cut, split, and stacked. That might seem like a high price, but the smith assured the purchaser that, in forging the blade, there would be at least one strike of the hammer for every blow with the axe.


The same improved performance that Tresemer experienced with the Austrian scythe is noticeable in most quality hand tools.

For a variety of reasons the Europeans have retained the old traditions of quality in hand tools to a greater degree than is often the case on this side of the Atlantic. Each country, it seems, does best at a particular speciality - the Austrians with scythes, the Dutch and Swiss with hoes, and the English with spades and spading forks.

Americans still make one of the best shovels you will find anywhere in the world. Tresemer says this is the outcome of years of research and development when Americans built their railroads by hand - largely with shovels.

You have to bend slightly when using the American-made weeding hoe, the result of the tool being designed more for the convenience of the delivery system than for the comfort of the user. In contrast, the Dutch and Swiss hoes allow the weeder to stay perfectly erect as he walks down the rows. This, in Tresemer's words, is typical of the way a quality tool saves wear and tear of the body.

In his search for the best hand tools for the job, Tresemer uses these guidelines. The tool must:

* Fit or complement the human body.

* Impose no strain on any one part of the body.

* Do the job it was designed for.

When these criteria are met, the experienced user of hand tools can compete effectively with the power-tool operator in many instances.

''I can scythe a fairly large area of grass in the time another farmer takes to attach his mower to the tractor,'' Tresemer says with a smile of satisfaction.

Two organizations that offer catalogs of quality hand tools for the farmer and gardener are: By Hand and Foot Ltd. (address above) and Gardens for All (180 Flynn Avenue, Burlington, Vt. 05401).

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.