Blaming my tools

The list of my personal faults is long and varied. I could give you that list, but it’s always been my policy to let people figure it out for themselves. No point in handing out a roadmap. But even those who have plumbed the list’s depths (my husband, my mother, and anyone who’s ever employed me), would not accuse me of blaming my failures on others.

I’m generally quick to take full credit for my mistakes, but it’s not because I’m particularly virtuous. It’s just that it makes for a better story. Nobody wants to hear about how other people screwed you, but a story in which you’re the goat, well that’s riveting.

So it is with some trepidation that I take keyboard in hand to share the blame.

In the last three years, since we moved to Cape Cod, I’ve done many jobs I’d never done before. In doing so, I’ve had close encounters with many tools, some of which – like the power washer – I hadn’t even known existed. Many of those tools, particularly the ones powered by fossil fuels, are excellent labor-saving devices. A few of them, though, just plain suck.

Usually, the inadequacy comes in the execution, as with the cheap metal rake with the tines that opened and closed. They opened, they closed, and then they broke. With the gas-powered tools, the failures are more mysterious. The thing works, and then it doesn’t, and you’re damned if you can figure out why.

Sometimes, though, the failure is more fundamental. Despite being the industry standard, the Langstroth beehive seems to me to have some serious design flaws. And don’t get me started on the controls of our boat.

Today, though, I’m taking issue with a simple machine, a gardening staple, a fixture in every suburban garage in the country. I hate wheelbarrows.

The wheelbarrow has been with us for almost two thousand years, having been invented in China some time in the second or third century AD. It is not without serious consideration that I dis an invention of the Chinese, since I’m convinced they’re smarter than the rest of us and are headed for world domination as soon as they all have the Internet. But the wheelbarrow just isn’t up there with gunpowder, the compass, or paper.

The fundamental problem with the wheelbarrow is that it has only one wheel. I mean, really, We all know that, in order for a structure to be stable, it needs three points on the ground. When the wheelbarrow is idle, it has those three points. But as soon as you pick up the handles, it’s only got two: the wheel is one, and you’re the other. Oh, sure, you have two feet, but they’re not far enough apart to provide stability, even if you’re Yosemite Sam. Besides, they’re both on the ground only when you’re standing still, and most work that involves a wheelbarrow requires going from one place to another.

The point of the one-wheel design, I’ve been led to believe, is maneuverability. But we all know that “maneuverable” is a euphemism for “capsizable,” which is what the wheelbarrow is. You pick up the handles, you start rolling the thing up a rocky slope. You find it requires considerable upper-body strength to keep it more-or-less level, and you work hard to fight both gravity and instability. Then you trip on a root, and the whole thing goes over.

It’s not so difficult if you have a light load, but if you have a light load you might as well just carry it. The point of a wheelbarrow is to let you transport things that are heavy.

I wasn’t willing to launch into a full-scale condemnation of the wheelbarrow until I checked in with Kevin. He often understands the rationale of what seem to me to be design flaws.

“So what’s the advantage of the one wheel?” I asked.

He considered. “You can only get one flat tire,” he said. And then added, “at a time.”

Well, there’s a ringing endorsement.

There are wheelbarrows with two wheels. I’ve never used one, but I suspect they’re much more stable, if less “maneuverable.” When I get one, I’m sure my garden will be greener, my property will be cleaner, and all my heavy stuff – stones, wood, dirt – will be in its proper place.

26 people are having a conversation about “Blaming my tools

  1. Ha! My wheelbarrow was a “found item” at a house we bought over 10 years ago. Rusty and abandoned then, ten years later it’s not better. Every year I tighten the bolts shower it in WD-40 and use it again. I just can’t stand to buy a new one if I already have a tool that works..albeit poorly.

    My husband pointed out to me that I finally have a rust through spot the size of a silver dollar and the wheelbarrow (which he finds and embarrassment) might need need to be put down. While he wasn’t looking I went out and siliconed a patch onto the underside.

    It’s ugly, but good for another year.

  2. I most hardily endorse two wheel wheelbarrows. We have one and are about to get a second. Get one where the load is ballanced over the wheels so it *doesn’t take upper body strength to lift. This is the one we have: We’re going to get a second small size one. There are other alternatives however that are cheaper. Some have plastic buckets that are lighter and so easier to push.

  3. My wheelbarrow, a cast-off, has two wheels. It definitely has the stability thing in its favor. But in order to use it in the garden, no pathway can be narrower than the wide stance of its two wheels. I know it’s ridiculous, but the optimal thing would be to have one of each kind. Two-wheeled for dragging heavy loads of stuff around, and one-wheeled for winding through the garden proper. Heck, that’s something I might even talk myself into someday. Maybe.

  4. So get a 4-wheel cart! The load is also spread out over 4 wheels so it doesn’t bog down.

    But you have to pull rather than push, and it’s (relatively) heavy. I tried using ours as a wheelbarrow, but gave up. It now only gets used for firewood, and occasional lightweight jobs. If you really want to move a bunch of soil/rocks/gravel give me a high-quality builders barrow any day.

    Maybe you just need practice. Next time you go for a run, push it along. Get Kevin to sit in it too.

  5. I have a theory about this sort of thing: Motors and modernity have made us stupid.

    Modern wheelbarrows and carts are an example of technology that was once relatively advanced. Instead of moving forward, we’ve often moved backward in terms of design, quality, and skills. So many hand-powered tools are not nearly as well-designed or well-made as they once were. What’s more, their skilled use is often a lost art.

    Wheelbarrows? They don’t make ’em like they used to. Same with saws, hoes, and too many other tools. Lumberjacks from 150 years ago cut wood faster than most of us could now with a chainsaw. Small motorboats with square, sawed-off sterns are less hydrodynamic than their counterparts from a century ago. But it’s OK, because we never row them. We have motors.

    I file an edge on my hoes; my grandpa taught me that they’re supposed to be an edged tool, not a blunt, weed-mashing instrument. But I’m not old enough to have more than an inkling of all this.

    Still, I have to say… Go ahead and blame your tools. Hummmppfff!

    • Al C.

      Motors and modernity have made us stupid.. I dunno. I think it is somewhat simpler – that there is a craft to using any tool.

      Use a screwdriver, not gouge up the screw head, the surrounding work, not injure yourself or damage the blade of the screwdriver? It takes technique, specific muscle strengths, and practice. Drive a nail with a hammer, drive a car (stick shift, no a/c, no radio, and no power steering, hah! show that to your kids!)? There are usually several ways to get the job done well – and each often needs to adapt to the task at hand. I don’t think we are stupid, just not learning the mechanical lessons that people my age would have learned, 150 years ago.

  6. We inherited our wheelbarrow from the previous owner too, and I have a love/hate relationship with it. I love brining all the crap I’m going to need for a given project out to the backyard in it because it saves so much time. I also love throwing weeds in it because when it’s full, I can say, okay, that’s it- my back is officially toast- and run the whole thing over to the green barrel and come inside for a glass of wine.

    I can just manage a barrow-load of pathway bark, but anything heavier and I have to get my big hairy husband to pick the damn thing up. And forget trying maneuver to where you want it, much less actually dump it where you want it.

    In reference to Al’s comment, maybe where we went wrong with the wheelbarrow is when we enclosed the sides. Used to be the wheelbarrow looked like a hod on wheels- there was a flat bottom, and then an end piece to keep stuff from sliding off the front when you picked it up. I’d wager that back when the standard looked like that, you could carry much around in them and they were relatively easy to get around. Where we screwed up was tacking on sides so that we could cart around a lot more, and that’s when they got unwieldy.

    All suppositions aside though, I’m sticking to what I have because free is free, and it’s doing its job. That, and it just fits in between the planter boxes.

  7. I look at my wheelbarrow, two-wheels, as a form of crazy hard exercise equipment. Last fall I moved 50 loads of compost in order to extend my garden. Between lifting, pushing, backing up and pushing again over the mole-hole, and trying to keep the whole thing from tipping, I got the best work out ever! I couldn’t lift my arms for a couple hours and it took two days for my hamstrings to stop aching. We’ll do another round of wheelbarrow-olympics this springs. Should be fun 😉

  8. You’re right, what makes it maneuverable also makes it capsizable. Like so many things in life and tools – one hand giveth, one hand taketh away.

    And there’s nothing so heart sinking as watching a full wheelbarrow tip over and empty its contents. It’s not a big deal, but it’s one of those disheartening moments.

    Have you seen the smart carts? It was designed by a brigadier-cum-wheelbarrow improver. That in itself makes me want one.

    Al – I have to respectfully disagree with you about modern tools (and I’ve always agreed with your comments!). For someone like me with no staff and little upper body strength, I can fell a tree or dig a trench by myself, if I use a chainsaw or a small digger. But we agree about hoes: do love my hoe, and I sharpen it regularly. Have you tried the Swiss oscillating hoes? I’m a convert.

    • Yes, for all my idealistic grumbling about how “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” there’s something to be said for modern power tools. I certainly am glad for our rototiller every spring and fall.

      Swiss oscillating hoes? Must Google….

  9. I’m relieved to not find a slew of comments about how useful and functional wheelbarrows are. It seems the feelings about them run the gamut from mild appreciation to mild dislike — with me anchoring that dislike end.

    We’ve gone through a couple of those square garden carts; the primary problem is with the tires, which keep going flat. Jen, I love those smart carts (do they have solid rubber tires?), and I’m with you on loving anything designed by a brigadier-cum-wheelbarrow improver.

    Al, although I hate my wheelbarrow, I don’t think I take issue with modern tools in general. I’d be very surprised if any lumberjack with a manual saw could take down a tree faster than even an amateur with a big hairy Husqvarna, and I count myself lucky to be doing this whole homesteady thing in an era of power tools. I might have issues with my rototiller, but I’ll take it over a couple of horses.

    And, Kingsley, I appreciate your exercise program suggestions.

    • Tamar – If flat tyres are a problem, there’s something we use in ATV tyres which the boys have nicknamed ‘tyre sperm’. Unfortunate name, but good product (I think it’s trademarked as Tyre Weld). It’s a thick gunk which you pump into the tyre via the valve. It makes the tyre hard, so a bumpier ride, but stops those constant annoying punctures, especially from thorns. Not recommended for road use vehicles, but perfect for temperamental wheelbarrows.

      BTW I realised that Kevin and I share the same hairstyle…

      • We know that stuff. Over here it’s called Slime. Not sure whether that’s better or worse than Tyre Sperm.

    • OK, so maybe I was a little grumpy and negative last night. And Brad K. was right, we have lost some skills. It’s not just about the tools.

      I still maintain, however, that many of our tools aren’t made to the same standards as they once were. And I still think our love of motors is part of the reason we’re less discerning about their lack of refinement.

      Apart from a lack of pneumatic tires like we have now, some of those Chinese wheelbarrows from a thousand years ago looked like pretty nifty designs. But I guess I was especially thinking of tools like hoes, axes, and crosscut saws that were once made to level of quality you just don’t find these days down at the Home Depot. Still possible to find, but it’s pricey specialized stuff.

      In a town near here, they hold lumberjack competitions every summer. Some events are old-style, and the one and two-person crosscut racing saws are pretty amazing. Very shiny, pointy, and expensive. And then there are the premium racing axes… Pretty amazing to see what the lumberjacks and jills can do with those kind of non-motorized tools.

      Still, I have to admit I do like my power tools. And I think Holly is on to something. I’d like to see a wheelbarrow with a big orange ball in the front, just like the Dyson vacuum cleaners. Now that would be something!

  10. I think you’re right. I think Al’s right, too. I think we need to get the Dyson vacuum cleaner inventor working on this right away!

    Our wheelbarrow, btw, is useless because it’s had a flat for five years and it just sits in one spot, getting rustier every day. Make that my mom’s wheelbarrow. That’ll teach her to loan us stuff!

  11. James Dyson marketed the “Ballbarrow” in 1974………… he needed finance and lost control of the design. By 1990 it was off the market in the UK – time to reinvent the wheel(barrow)!

  12. I have neither good nor bad feelings about my single tire wheelbarrow. It simply “is.” As it is, i use it all the time for everything from compost or mulch hauling, to carrying feed, to holding my beekeeping tool bucket, smoker(hangs on the side), spare deep and frames, etc. when in a beeyard. I have also used it to get deer out of the woods with a much lower amount of effort than “dragging”a large, dead animal, without resorting to motorized transport the Afrika Corps could also have used. Like Bro. Al, I too, find most of the hand tools made today to be made for selling, not for using. Some wheelbarrows are also made for selling, not for using. I found out the tires on my wheelbarrow and two-wheeled dolly were not made for using, but made them suitable for my uses by installinga Slime Inner Tube. No leaks, no flats, no hassle. The only way I can see improvement in this area around here is to import someone’s teenager needing money.

  13. Denise Landis says:

    I have a suggestion for you. This amazing foldable wheelbarrow:–Utility/dp/B00006LPPJ/ref=sr_1_8?ie=UTF8&qid=1302279063&sr=8-8

    It may seem expensive, but is very much worth the cost. It is stable, sturdy, very lightweight (it’s aluminum), folds up in seconds, and if needed can be transported easily in any car trunk. You can get it dirty (filled with soil,for example), and then hose it down. Its flat bottom lets you fill it with pots or use it as a stable work surface (for light work). The only thing it may not be good for is transporting wood, since it will dent if you throw logs in it. I have used mine for rolling a picnic into the woods, taking to a wholesale garden center where carts are in short supply, toting plants and pots around the garden for spring planting, and as a temporary home for plants in early spring that need to be moved between garage and garden until it is warm enough to plant. I’ve had mine for years and even bought a second one for our camp.

  14. Now, I have a two-wheeled barrow that I inherited with this house. It is the most ridiculous invention ever, and has given me a greater appreciation for my standard wheelbarrow. The two-wheeled version is all but impossible to turn on any kind of slope. The wheels take you forward in a straight line, no room for maneuvering corners. Of course, the single wheeled version is harder to stand steady on a slope, but at least I can move it once it’s full.

    • Denise Landis says:

      I do not have any trouble turning my two-wheeled barrow even on slopes, but that may be because it is very light unless loaded with something extremely heavy. It’s true, though, that you cannot turn on a dime as with a single-wheeled barrow.

  15. If you don’t use a wheelbarrow for a cart’s job you’ll always be happy with your wheelbarrow.

  16. Speaking of tools… that book you recommended… Gardening in Hard Times… has changed my outlook on shovels. I have never ever heard of sharpening garden tools. Holy Cow! What a difference it makes! Cut through roots and sod and packed down soil like butter. This little tip is one to share!

    • Melissa — The credit for the book recommendation goes to Paula. In fact, much of what’s most useful here comes from other readers — so keep it coming!

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