Picks and Mattocks

Picks and mattocks are designed to work in ground that is too hard, rocky, or root-filled for a shovel, spade, or fork. Picks are for loosening soil that is very hard and very rocky. One end is usually pointed to do the initial breaking of hard ground; the other end has a narrow (about 1-inch-wide), chisel-like tip for scraping an area or working somewhat softer ground.

Mattocks are for loosening soil that is hard but not rock-hard, that is laced with roots, or to grub out stumps. Two sizes are available: the lightweight garden mattocks (about 2 1/2 pounds), and the heavy-duty mattock (5 pounds).

One side of the mattock blade resembles a small but thick axe head and is used for cutting large roots; the other side has a flat, hoe-like head for moving soil and cutting small or medium-size roots. Mattocks are also handy for digging narrow ditches. Because the head is only 4 inches wide and because mattocks have a lot of chopping power, you can dig a ditch as narrow as 6 inches wide and as deep as 1 or 2 feet.

Picks and mattocks vary in terms of the weight of steel used in the head and in the length of the handle. If you are tall and hefty and are working on a big job, choose a tool with a long handle and a heavy head. If either you or the job are smaller, get something more in proportion to your needs.

The heads of picks and mattocks are attached to their handles by an eye. The wooden handle is fitted tightly in a hole—the “eye”—in the metal head and held in place by friction. When you select these tools, be sure that this fitting is secure; during use, check regularly for any loosening.

The styles of picks and mattocks vary primarily on the basis of the weight of the material from which they are made. In addition, other tools that are similar to mattocks are available. To be sure that some of these tools fit your needs and are made of good-quality materials, ask the salespeople to carefully explain the tools’ design and purpose.

Using a Pick or Mattock

There are two ways to use these tools. One is to put your left hand close to the tool’s head and your right hand close to the end of the handle. (If you’re left handed, do the reverse.) Stand with your feet planted apart, raise the pick straight up, and push it into the air directly over your head. Let it fall without forcing it, until it reaches its target. Tighten your grip as the tool enters the soil. Then, with a small snap or uplift, pop it loose from the soil. If your rhythm is regular, you can keep up this motion for quite a while, especially if you learn to alternate hands.

The other method is to put your right hand close to the tool’s head and your left hand close to the end of the handle. Plant your feet apart and swing the pick back past your legs on your right side and then over your head and down into the ground in one smooth arc. Your right hand will slide back to the end of the handle where your left hand is gripping.

Alternate hands and trade sides with your swing to avoid straining one side of you r body.

Whichever method you use, the most important factor is safety. Those who favor the second method say that the centrifugal force prevents the head from slipping down and hitting you. Those who favor the first method say that a properly seated head should not slip at all and that this method limits the danger of missing your target. Caution is advised for both.

Maintenance, Cleaning, and Storage

Since mattocks and picks tend to be used only infrequently, storage is particularly important. Be sure to remove all dirt and to wipe the tools with an oily rag before putting them away. If the handle gets wet, knock the head loose and remove it so that the handle can dry. To do this, hold onto the head with both hands, and drop the other end of the handle on a hard surface. This will knock the handle loose so that you can pull it through the eye of the mattock. If the tool is stored wet, the head of the handle can develop dry rot inside.


It’s possible to go for years without having to put a new edge on a pick. However, when it is time to touch up the ends, place the head in a vise and sand it with a belt sander fitted with an abrasive belt—or do it the hard way using a 14-inch coarse file. Leave at least 1/8 inch of metal near the edge so it will not chip or bend.

Mattocks are sharpened like picks—instead of making the blade very sharp, maintain the original bevel angle (in this case, about 45 degrees). A too-sharp edge will become deformed as soon as it hits the first rock.

To sharpen a mattock properly, remove the head and place it in a vise. Start with a coarse file, then switch to a bastard mill file. Then use any of the following: A belt or disc sander with an aluminum oxide abrasive belt, a 40-60 grit carborundum belt, or a grindstone. Move your sharpening tool back and forth across the blade of the pick, matching the angle at which you hone it to its original bevel angle to prevent any rounding of the bevel or any cupping of the blade.

Replacing Handles

Both picks and mattocks need a handle that fits properly. Wooden handles that become cracked or broken must be replaced with new handles.

New handles for these or any other eyed tools are purposely made oversize; this allows you to fit them by hand and make sure that the friction fit is as tight as need be. For the friction fit to work properly, the wood should touch as much of the metal on the inside of the eye as possible. Most handles don’t require any adjustment; however, if yours does, the following steps will ensure a good fit:

  1. Using lubricating graphite or a graphite pencil, smear graphite on the inside of the eye.
  2. Seat the new handle firmly in the head.
  3. Remove the handle.
  4. Remove all graphite smudges left from where the wood came into contact with the metal. Use a wood rasp for the removal. Repeat this process until the graphite shows that the wood is in contact with the metal over almost the entire surface of the inside of the eye.
  5. At this point the handle probably is still protruding past the head a few inches. Saw it down so that it protrudes only about 1/2 inch from the head. Then, holding the handle at the other end, drop the mattock on a hard surface (e.g., a sidewalk or driveway) so that the 1/2-inch protrusion hits the surface. Do this a couple of times. The head will then fit very tightly, but you will still be able to remove it for storage or sharpening.