Selecting Garden Tools

Some new tools for the yard guru on your holiday shopping list? When you shop for garden tools, keep two rules in mind:

Buy the best you can afford

Before you do anything else, determine the tool’s quality. A truly excellent tool is made by skilled craftspeople out of superior materials. This usually means it is more expensive. Initially it may hurt to pay a lot for a tool when you could buy others more cheaply, but it will hurt even more when the cheap tool breaks and you have to buy another one.

Don’t buy what you don’t need

A 20×20-foot garden doesn’t need a large rotary tiller. And even if you do need a tool that’s large or that has a special function, you may need it only once or twice a year. If so, your best bet is to rent it, particularly when dealing with large and expensive machinery (e.g., rotary tillers, ditch diggers, or powered tree-spraying equipment). The rental cost is only a fraction of the purchase price; in addition, you don’t have to maintain, repair, or store that piece of equipment while it sits idle for most out of the year. If you visit several rental agencies in your area and browse through their selection before you need something urgently you will save time later by already knowing what you want.

Next, consult garden supply catalogs and internet sites to survey quality and price ranges. This will familiarize you with the options and general costs, helping you make more informed decisions when you buy.

Consult Local Experts

This section has guidelines for determining the quality of each tool described. Read them before you start shopping. Then, early in your shopping survey, stop in at a rental store or a saw-sharpening shop to talk about tool quality. Rental-equipment owners have a good sense of what equipment they do or don’t like and why. Rental tools and equipment must be strong enough to withstand the beating they have to take; otherwise the owners would constantly have to repair or replace the equipment.

The other tradespeople who know tools well are the owners of saw-sharpening shops. These people don’t sharpen just saws; they handle anything that might need sharpening, from chainsaws to pruning shears. This makes them more familiar than the average person with the quality of steel and workmanship in a wide variety of tools.

Where to Buy Garden Equipment

When you are ready to buy, make a survey of tool prices and quality among several different hardware or garden equipment stores. Since most of these stores probably carry only two or three brands of garden equipment each, visit several stores to get a wide selection. Ask a salesperson to describe the advantages of the brands carried by that store. After several such talks, you will begin to have a clear idea of the variety of tools available, the prices, and the quality.

What to Look for in Tools

What is quality workmanship? One way to answer this question is in terms of what it isn’t. Watch out for anything that looks sloppily made, such as screws or bolts that seem to have been placed hurriedly or that are crooked. If the tool has moving parts, work them to see that the action is smooth. Check for burrs or other irregularities on cutting edges.

Does the tool feel comfortable to hold? It should fit your hand; if it is spring-activated, it shouldn’t require more strength than you actually have. Handle the shovels, hoes, and other tools. They should make you feel like working: A too-heavy tool won’t make you want to use it; a too-light tool may not hold up under strenuous use.

Most manufacturers offer both high-quality and low-quality tools. Many produce “promo” (promotional) tools—a line of tools that is intended to be sold for about half the price of their other tools. For long-term use, these are not worth purchasing.

One guideline is the weight of the tool. Since a heavier weight usually comes from heavier, better-quality material, a heavier shovel generally means that the blade is made of a higher-quality metal than the lightweight ones. This is true of power equipment, as well. Look for heavy metal frames and cowling. In some cases, however, don’t overlook plastics—they are no longer necessarily inferior materials. Those tools for which plastics are perfectly acceptable, and even superior to metals, are noted throughout the book.

Once you know the quality and price ranges of the tools or equipment you need, you can shop at two surprisingly excellent sources of these materials—flea markets and garage sales. Tools made 40 or more years ago were often made with more care than they are today. If the tool you want looks slightly damaged, don’t immediately cast it aside. Inspect it carefully—a little sharpening or cleaning might make it as good as new. Prices will be much lower than for new tools, and the quality may even be better. However, make sure that any used power equipment you buy has a three-prong plug. The third prong—a grounding wire—is an important safety feature.

Power Equipment

When you shop for power equipment, you’ll find that electrical tools are generally less expensive and quieter than their gasoline-powered counterparts. However, they have a major limitation: They must be plugged into a power source. But for tools that will always be used within reach of an electrical outlet, you may well prefer the electrical equipment.

An electrical motor is apt to be more efficient, more trouble-free, and easier to take care of than a gasoline engine. However, there is some power loss as the electricity runs through the cord, particularly if you have a 50- or 100-foot cord. Lightweight cords lose more electricity and heavyweight cords lose less. The heavier the gauge of the wire in an electrical cord, the longer it can be without losing too much power. You’ll need to determine how much power loss is acceptable and determine the length of cord accordingly.

But before you buy any power equipment, you may want to rent both gas and electrical versions of the same tool to decide which one is more suited to your needs.