Tool Time

by Mark Cullen

I love my garden tools. 

Using quality tools, when doing any job, is a key to squeezing the greatest possible joy out of the experience. But how do you know when you are buying ‘quality’ with the inherent benefits like durability, long lasting performance and a tool that just works better with the passage of time? Ask me, I know a thing or two about it.

My Dad was a tool hound. He loved to use well-used tools. I learned from him that there is a lot of satisfaction in using a tool for a long time. He left me many great garden tools and I have collected more of my own. I have a garden-tool museum, of sorts. It is a celebration of craftsmanship that goes back a few generations.

What to look for in a great tool:

Hardened Steel.

High carbon steel has great tensile strength. This means that a pair of hand pruners made from this material will resist breaking and will hold a sharp edge longer than a blade that is not made of high carbon steel.

It helps to have a metal file handy in the garage or tool shed to run up and down the blade before you begin work. I don’t just mean ‘at the beginning of the season’ but at the beginning of each work session in the garden. I have several bastard files around my 10 acre property so that I don’t ever have to walk too far to find one. I use it for a minute – sometimes less – to put an edge on my hedge shears, digging tools like a spade or shovel and my weeding tools like the Backhoe or Dutch hoe.

If you make this simple task a habit before you head out to the garden with your steel tools, I guarantee you will reduce the stress on your own body as you work. And you will work more efficiently. I give the metal parts a squirt of oil too.


Chrome digging tools are gaining a lot of attention these days. They are less sticky than steel tools, so dirt falls off them more freely. They tend to be ‘head heavy’, as the blade is solid forged and if you just drop it into the soil you will find that it will do much of the work for you. I think that they are handsome too. We have planted many ceremonial trees along the Highway of Heroes ( using chrome digging spades. They always look great in photographs.


There are many heavy-duty handles on digging and weeding tools. If you find a shovel, for example, with a fiberglass handle, you will no doubt have trouble wearing it out in your lifetime. Maybe that’s because you will seldom use it. Unless you have arms like Sampson, lifting a fiberglass handled digging tool is a chore. Aluminium is soft and bends easily. Plastic is, well plastic and performs like plastic. Uggh.

I much prefer old fashioned hardwood handles. They are light, heavy duty, provide just the right amount of flexibility and they are handsome when you care for them. After the first couple of seasons of use, either rub some linseed oil on them or apply a spar varnish and you will lengthen the useful life of the tool.

When you buy a wooden handled tool, be sure to wrap your hand around it before you purchase. Make sure that it feels confident in your hand. Some handles are ultra-padded and others are very thick: I don’t like either. I get all the padding that I need from a quality pair of gloves. A tapered, long handle is best: balanced and a fine fit to my hand.

Other tips:

Sharpen your lawn mower this time of year. If you did it in spring, now is an appropriate time to do it again. Grass blades cut with a dull blade can look blunted and produce a brown hew to the appearance of your lawn. If you don’t sharpen it yourself, stop the guy with the bell in the slow-moving vehicle who comes round the neighbourhood from time to time with a grinding wheel in the back. He will remove the blade, sharpen it and put it back on (the right way, one assumes).

  • Gloves. I find that a pigskin glove, with neoprene finger tips are excellent for long wear and flexibility.  Some of the thin-skinned rubber-dipped gloves are great for planting and mucking in the soil as they repel moisture.
  • Veggie brush. A small, soft brush is great for cleaning the dirt off your carrots and potatoes and for removing loose dirt from a shovel or hoe, the white ‘salt’ stains that appear on clay pots and to give your finger nails a good scrub before you go in the house. I have one at each of my four rain barrels.
  • Aerosol oil. I mentioned that you should to apply oil to digging tools before use. Apply to the cutting deck of your power lawn mower to prevent grass build-up, to the blades of a manual, walk-behind mower and while it is in your hand, give the wheels on your garage door a squirt.

Quality hand tools are always a little more expensive than the disposable lightweights that you find at many retailers. It is my experience that a quality tool can make the difference between a job filled with joy and ‘work’. In my books, I consider the added investment a good one.

Mark Cullen is lawn & garden expert for Home Hardware, member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at Look for his new best seller, ‘The New Canadian Garden’ published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.