Monday 25 December 2017

Tool story

Not Peter's tool shed
 More like it
Nothing like
Peter Williams tells me he wrote this down in frustration the day of the debacle. Don’t ask me as a none digger why he wanted to fluff up his soil!
The article has been published in the journal of our local group of the Hardy Plant Society. Peter has published many fine pieces for this blog This is a long one but it has tickled my fancy and I know you will have nothing better to do than read it this Christmas day!

Old tools for new by Peter Williams

Early this year on the day before we opened our garden for a small group of retired professional gardeners, I was madly rushing about trying to do all the jobs I had intended to do much earlier
The final job was to lightly scarify the soil between the plants and I went to the tool store to find my cultivator.  This old friend belonged to my late father-in-law who used it for at least 50 years before I became its keeper. He used it throughout his garden but especially in his immaculate vegetable plot.  I opened the door of the tool store to reveal the total jumble of tools thrown in at the end of the previous day’s panic gardening.  The cultivator was nowhere to be seen.  I guessed that I must have left it somewhere in the garden and began looking for it. Initially I looked in the likely places, then the unlikely places, then the shed another couple of times until finally, I remembered that I had last seen it lying on top of the front hedge a couple of days earlier. Unfortunately it was not on the hedge when I went to look and soon convinced myself, after looking in the shed yet again, that someone had seen this lovely tool as they passed by and just couldn’t resist walking off with it. 

Now the obvious thing to do was to get a fork and use this instead of the cultivator, but of course, I didn’t.  My mind was set on a cultivator so I drove to my local agricultural store that stocked quality tools, replacement handles and all sorts of wonderful bits and pieces used by real farmers and growers. I was dressed appropriately for this visit, mucky jeans with holes, old wellies, and a general tramp-like scruffiness that passed as entirely normal in the agricultural store.  To my horror, there were no cultivators in stock but the helpful assistant suggested that I might get one at the local garden centre

Now this up-market garden centre is of the ‘cafe with plants’ variety and I knew that in my current state of dress, I would look as out of place there as would a single bedding plant in a three litre pot selling for £7.50  in a real nursery. But I decided this was an emergency – I needed the cultivator and I would just rush in, get one, rush out again and not embarrass the gentle folk there for coffee and cakes. I ignored the bedding plants which seemed to be on on the fertiliser equivalent of steroids that greeted me on entering the store, and went directly to the rack of shiny tools.  I selected a cultivator with a nicely varnished handle and three gleaming stainless steel tines.  It was expensive, but it looked well-made and after all, this was a real emergency.  I bought it and returned home. It took only one attempted stroke to see there was a problem! 

Instead of nicely disturbing all the soil, the cultivator merely produced two scratches on the soil surface. I tried a few more times with the same result and then made the sort of inspection that I should have had in the garden centre.  The realisation came instantly. In the words of my father-in-law, “You have bought a pup”   

The three tines were all the same length and bent to the same angle instead of the usual configuration where the central tine is longer (or shorter) than the outside ones. No adjustment was possible because the tines were welded together. This meant that the only way the points of all three tines could engage with the soil at the same time was when the tool was parallel with the ground.  Now I know that I am getting old and spend  more time on my knees than I should, but the idea of having to lie flat on my stomach in order to use the wretched tool was going too far.  In addition, the three tines were generally round in section with just a slight horizontal flattening at their tips, so even if I did adopt a prostrate position, all I would achieve would be three scratch marks rather than two.  
My inherited cultivator on the other hand, had adjustable tines so that it could be made comfortable to use for gardeners of all heights. In addition, the tines had spoon-shaped, flattened sections that almost overlapped and hence created a fine tilth across the entire width of the tool as it was drawn along. I used it as a three tine cultivator but it was possible to add two additional tines when a wider cultivation was required or the middle tine could be removed to cultivate either side of a row of seedlings.  This configuration was widely used by farmers who grew sugar beet and hand weeded, before modern selective herbicides were introduced. My father-in-law used it in this configuration to weed either side of his laser-straight lines of seedlings in his vegetable garden. 
I thought about putting the new cultivator into the vice and bending the middle tine to a more appropriate angle but I remembered the occasion when I used the gleaming stainless steel gardening fork that I was given as a retirement present. A tine broke the first time I used it.

Stainless steel is a wonderful material but probably not to make digging forks. I took the cautious approach and a few days later, dressed rather more appropriately, returned to the garden centre. I had prepared my opening statement just in case they were reluctant to refund my purchase and it would go along the line “ It’s beautifully made but just not fit for purpose, it just doesn’t work” .(Rather like my modern ride-on lawn mower that has a comfortable seat, lovely paint work and brilliant lights but has three basic faults, it’s hopeless at cutting grass, even worse at picking it up and makes as much noise as a low flying Chinook helicopter)

Whose toy?
I had no need to worry about returning the item, on entering the garden centre the greeter (yes that’s right - just like the Disney store) looked at the tool I was carrying and said Oh dear, the return desk is on the left”.  The assistant hardly looked up as I approached and before I could get the first part of my story out said “Did you buy it with cash or card”. He just took it off me, turned around and put it on a shelf where I noticed a small collection of tools clearly from the same manufacturer.  I asked what was wrong with the tools that I could see on the pile and the assistant replied that the shafts of the hoes had bent and the teeth on the rakes snapped at their first time of use. This was clearly a case of tools being designed for appearance rather than performance which was a pity because they were actually well made with good materials.  Unfortunately, the designer had obviously never gardened or had his or her designs field-tested.  
On a subsequent visit to the garden centre about a month later, I visited the tool section and noted that the same range was still being stocked. Even the totally useless three tine cultivator!  

A few days after the garden visit I decided to tidy the garden shed.  I felt the only way forward was to take out all the tools and other items I had hidden in there just before our visitors had arrived (old barbecue, empty plant pots, broken seat, half-dead pot plant, tray of cat litter) and start again. During this operation I found my cultivator actually hanging on a peg near its intended home – how had I not seen it?   The answer lies I guess, in how I look for things, especially when I am in a panic – quick scan and then try somewhere else.  I believe this is a male trait and one so well known in my household that whenever I say to my wife “I’ve looked everywhere for item x and it is definitely not there”, she replies – “yes but that’s just a man’s look – I will go and have proper look”.  Minutes later she invariably returns with the missing item and hands it over with a deep sigh

Unlike the modern cultivator I purchased in haste, tools made in the past by high quality manufacturers were very much made for purpose. Catalogues advertised a wide range of spades, shovels, forks and a bewildering array of specialist weeding and cutting tools. Since hand tools were usually the only ones available it was important that they worked well. I was reminded of this just recently when I helped my elderly neighbour with his hedge cutting. He had farmed all his life in the village. I trimmed the hedge with a very effective but noisy petrol hedge cutter and then set about the longer task of clearing up the debris by forking it into a wheel barrow. My neighbour watched me work and then shuffled off and came back a few minutes later declaring “ Now lad, try this one” – he had brought a beautiful old fork with nine broad, flattened tines with rounded rather than pointed tips.  The inner tines were bent to make a shallow scoop and it was designed for moving potatoes and it worked brilliantly at picking up hedge clippings. When we finished he asked if I would like to see his other old tools and I was amazed to see a long row of beautiful spades, shovels and a range of forks all immaculately clean and well oiled.  He explained that whenever a farm worker finished with his tools he always cleaned and oiled them before they were put away. This task took only a few moments and was always considered worthwhile because the tools were expensive and highly valued items that only worked well when they were bright. If a young farm labourer ever forgot to clean his tools his foreman or the farmer would certainly let him know about it!  It is a pity that most museums and National Trust properties with collections of old farming and gardening equipment invariably display them as sets of rusty items in poor repair.  Since they faithfully conserve the house artefacts surely they could do the same for the gardening stock and display it how it would have been in the garden’s heyday - clean and in good working order  

Many of my own tools are hand-me downs and I love the fact that they were used by previous generations. My favourite is a ditching shovel that I inherited from an old uncle. The shovel has a small rectangular blade with the edges turned up and a very long swan-neck handle.  It was designed to skim the bottom of ditches and the design meant that the worker could stand almost upright and still use the blade in a horizontal plane.  The tool is very light and the long handle is quite narrow making it unsuitable for any heavy work. 

Unfortunately my shovel has a crack in the ash shaft just where it extends from the blade and it is now impossible to find a replacement steam-bent shaft.  However, I still use it on a daily basis for light duties and always when I mix my potting compost ingredients 

The shovel was made in Sheffield and is marked ’C.T.Skelton. The fact that it is marked only with ‘Sheffield’ (a sure sign of quality in the early 20th century) indicated that it is old and certainly made before 1916 because after this date tools usually carried the ‘Made in England’ stamp. Skelton together with other Sheffield companies like Hardy’s and Brade of Birmingham and Elwell of Wednesbury were the top makers of the day and their tools are now actively collected by vintage tool enthusiasts. 
Anna Pavord writing in The Independent suggested that Skeltons were the Rolls Royce of tool manufacturers and in their day workers were proud to own them

All of these companies have now disappeared but at plant fairs their products can still be purchased from  ‘old tool suppliers’.  The cost of many fully restored old tools is comparable to buying new tools but the quality, history and usability of the old tools make them much more appealing.  Alternatively, you can often buy excellent old tools from junk shops or local auctions. They might look rusty and unloved but with just a little care and attention can be fully restored.  So next time you want a ‘new’ spade, trowel, fork or even cultivator, don’t automatically rush to the local garden centre. Have a day out at a plant fair and see the lovely old tools on display, talk to the enthusiast selling them and think “old tools for new”. 

 Anna Pavord, Tool Story : Heard the one about the couple who set up a company repairing beautiful old trowels and spades?  The Independent, 11December 2010. 

If you enjoy old tools and garden ephemera (thank you for the word Anna) then plan a visit to the garden museum in the new year

If you enjoy recreated historic gardens visit The Geffrye museum

Despite my being snooty about scarifying the soil surface I sent down a request to Peter to take a picture of the tool in his story. Fortunately he again was unable to find the said implement! He did send me this image of this more delicate relation. Regular readers may wish to look away.

Psst.... this is more like it!


  1. Admittedly, I have not read the whole post as, contrary to what you said at the start of the post (that we have nothing better to do on this Christmas Day), I have a train to catch in about half an hour's time, travelling to my love for a couple of days.
    But I really like the second picture from the top, "somewhere in the Howardian Hills" - I do have a thing for neglected, abandoned places, and this one definitely has not seen much human activity for... quite some time, I should think.

    Anyway, a very Merry Christmas to you and yours!

    1. Nice comment librarian. My remark was tongue in cheek but perhaps some folk might have a gap in their celebrations over the next few days.
      May you and your love have a wonderful holiday time

  2. Well, Roger I guess it comes as no surprise that I am a soil fluffer. Didn't have time to read your post on Christmas day, glad I dropped by today though. Wishing you a happy and healthy 2018.

    1. Thanks Alistair.Good wishes to you too.
      Must do a post about what Peter might do with that wretched thing!


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