Handles: Metal or Wood

We make broad forks, and many of them each year. Sometimes a client will ask if we can make the handles out of metal instead of wood, in the hopes that they can avoid breaking a handle if too much force is applied to the tool. Some believe that a breakable handle is a design flaw, but our decision to use wooden handles for all of our tools is a deliberate feature. Today I’m going to share our reasoning for that decision.

Wooden handles are lighter.

An average 4′ ash handle with 1.5″ diameter comes in at about 1.5 pounds in weight. The same length of schedule 40 black pipe with an outside diameter of about 1″ weighs 4.5 lbs! Two handles per broad fork means we’ve just added an extra 6 lbs of weight to a 12 lb tool, increasing its weight by 50%. Heavy tools are harder to use and bring on exhaustion that much faster.

Wooden handles are more comfortable.

Ever held a piece of metal pipe or rod in the cold? It’s not pleasant. The conductivity of heat in steel is a lot higher than compared to wood. That means cold, stiff hands when working in inclement weather. The inverse is true when working in the sun. Steel soaks up all that heat, again making the handle comfortable. Metal handles feel awful in wet, cold, sunny or hot weather which pretty much means all the time. No thanks!

Wooden handles are easily replaced.

There’s a reason why hardware stores stock wooden handles. They break with age, but more often break from misuse. Thankfully, a broken handle is not especially difficult to fix. Almost anyone with simple tools can replace a handle at home. As a matter of deliberate choice, we’ve designed our broad forks to use standard 4′ Garant brand shovel handles. These are stocked in many hardware stores and they take about ten or fifteen minutes to adapt to the fork’s steel socket.

This quality is the main argument for metal handles: they never break and never need to be replaced! But this must be weighed against the considerations above and against this last consideration which is that

Wooden handles reduce the chance of breaking the tool.

I’m not sure why it happens to be the case, and perhaps it’s always been this way, but it seems that it’s ok to push a tool to its breaking point time and time again until it finally breaks. Our modern throwaway culture certainly encourages a wasteful attitude, even when it comes to tools that could last many long years if they are treated with respect. In any case, when a tool is pushed beyond its limits a wooden handle, being the “weakest” part of the tool, means that it’s also the most likely part to break. This is a good thing.

Imagine a broad fork with metal handles. The tines are now the weakest part of the tool, and since the attitude of pushing a tool until it breaks is still firmly in place, that means it’s very likely that a tine will bend or snap off. Which is easier to repair: a wooden handle that can be picked up at the hardware store, or a piece of steel that needs welding equipment and expertise?

I hope that sharing our design considerations helps future customers, gardeners and tool enthusiasts alike realize that there are advantages when it comes to using wooden handles rather than their metal counterparts. A gentler attitude towards tool use, and perhaps work in general, may be of benefit as well. Hand tools speak to us through our use of them. It takes a sensitive “ear” to hear that communication, when we’re starting to push a tool too far. Next time you’re out in the garden or the workshop, slow down a little and see if you can “hear” what your hand tool is trying to tell you. It just might save you a trip to the hardware store.

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