The Tradition of Hand Tools

This is part two of a three part series of blogs I’ll be sharing with you over the coming weeks. Part three will be out next week. Enjoy!

The use of hand tools is one of the definitive characteristics of our species. We even go so far as to define our preindustrial past by ages of hand tool technology: stone, bronze and iron. Each age reflects our growth in understanding and the ability to manipulate the environment around us. We’ve reached a point now where a single person operating a machine can do the work of hundreds in a matter of hours. This increased leverage in our ability to alter our physical surroundings forms the foundation of modern civilization. That power comes with a cost, however, most commonly found in the byproducts of the industrial modes of production. In certain contexts, then, perhaps we can explore older methods of production that are no less sophisticated. Intensive organic gardening and food forestry, as examples, can be accomplished quite readily with just hand tools. I’d like to share an excellent video by Geoff Lawton that speaks to this:

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Hand tools. Appropriate little hands tools. They’re so accurate and so selective that you don’t make many mistakes. You cut it in your right hand and hold it in your left hand. It’s not like a motorized tool that’s so easy to make mistakes and as soon as you’ve been using a motorized tool for an hour or two your nervous system’s all shaky, your judgment starts getting very inaccurate. You start making mistakes, you start killing trees, you start chopping the wrong things, you start cutting the wrong things.

This is a Japanese rice knife with a serrated edge. There’s also a Japanese knife called a kama which is very traditional. All over the world there are little tiny hooks and little tiny knives that people use to selectively weed diverse systems, to work in amongst intricately placed plants. And a lot of the hand tools are actually dying out and becoming extinct as everyone modernizes.

So, it’s very important for us to realize how energy efficient they are. The energy order on a knife like that, the pollution of manufacture spread over the lifetime of the product is incredibly good. It’s way in front of anything that’s a motorized tool.

And people look at this and “oh you do a lot of work and it’s very physical.” Yeah, but the work we’re doing is aimed towards developing a sustainable and permanent system. It doesn’t matter that you do a little bit of extra work to establish permanence because it goes on forever. That little bit of work extends over the lifetime of the system so it’s a similar order to using a motorized machine or an accurate little hand tool. A little bit of extra work, a little bit of extra design, you end up with permanence that goes on forever.


Hand tools have the advantage of vastly greater accuracy, reflecting the skill of the user, as well as efficiency of manufacture when considering the energy that goes into the tool spread over its lifetime. This is another reason why I source reclaimed materials and create tools that can last generations. Finally, there are the aesthetic qualities hand tools possess that power tools never will: they’re quiet, non-jarring on our nervous systems, they have elegance to their shape and design, and can be made to appeal to our sense of beauty. It’s wonderful to work quietly and efficiently in the garden, hearing the birds, the insects, and all the animals that call that garden home.

If you’re interested in commissioning a tool, use the contact form to get in touch with me.

Happy gardening!

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