Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Tooling Up for Spring

It is wonderful to have a winter apprentice this year!

Right now we're working together for an hour or so every morning, doing a lot of orientation-type stuff--where things are (and where they are supposed to be...), what they are called, routines, procedures, etc. He's learning to do the sheep and chicken chores so that when his college classes start again next week, and he only has time in the afternoons, he can work independently doing evening chores. When lambing time looms, I will appreciate knowing that someone is checking in on the ewes and lambs by daylight in the then there will BE daylight in the evening. Already I can tell the lengthening days by the changing light on my bus route.

We're also getting ready for gardening. Yesterday, and for many pleasant "outside" days to come, the tomato cage roundup. Today, due to "inclement weather" (not sure what to call it--rain/sleet/snow alternating as they pleased, which didn't please me), we had an "indoor day".

The first day of a new tradition I hope to establish for the farm: rejuvenating the garden tools. Starting with some that were left muddy when the weather changed suddenly and we had to abandon work on digging the new outhouse, we're cleaning all the shovels, rakes, etc., smoothing any rusty or splintery parts, dressing the metal with tallow and the handles with linseed oil, and sharpening as appropriate. It's a good way for a newcomer to get to know each tool, and a good way for me to take stock and see what repair are needed when we can do it at leisure, before we start gardening.

As we talked about the characteristics of wear and tear on various tools, we ended up in a discussion of levers. How?

Broken handles are our most common tool malfunction, and many factors contribute to them. General exposure to the weather (i.e. leaving them lay in the garden rather than putting them in the shed) is a big one. The finish wears off, and the wood gets dry and splinters and cracks. But some tools seem to have unusual rates of handle breakage, even though we try to take good care of them because they are our favorite and most-used tools. Most specifically, the tools that get stood in the ground and left there have the worst breakage problems, especially the really well-made ones that are forged steel rather than stamped sheet metal. The forged "sharpshooter" shovel and the stainless steel digging fork are notorious for frequent handle replacements.

Last summer, I realized a key factor in that breakage pattern. They tend to break right at the top of the socket. Unlike their stamped counterparts, the forged tools' sockets have no means to drain water when stood upright in the ground, as we are likely to do with these often-used tools. Even if we put them in the shed each time we use them, so often we are out using them in the rain, and they are wet when we bring them in. So the wood inside the socket--where we can't easily dress it with linseed oil from time to time--stays damp, and eventually rots and weakens even though the rest of the handle seems ok. So from now on we'll tape over the joint between socket and handle with electrical tape or some such, to shed water away from this critical joint. Hopefully that will reduce the need to replace handles so frequently. Not only are the handles expensive, but getting the fragments of the old one out of a solid socket can be very frustrating, and getting the new handle to fit properly in the socket can be a challenge as well.

But also, the very thing we love about these forged tools--their strength--is a factor in the increased handle breakage. Because these forged tools ARE so strong...the metal neck doesn't give, so the stress is all on the wood. And we put a lot of force on these tools that are our digging workhorses", because we use them as powerful levers every time we turn over a bit of soil with them. The fulcrum is the solid earth behind the tool, usually on the mid- to upper part of the blade/tines. The harder and more stationary the fulcrum, the more force we are going to have to use to turn over that sun-baked clod we're trying to separate from the fulcrum! The breaking point--the socket joint--is midway on the lever. When I throw the bulk of my 130 lbs. on the very outer end of that handle, busting out a hill of potatoes in droughty ground, it's not surprising that something "gives".

The only solution for that aspect of the problem is awareness of our own strength, and our tools' limitations. "Easy does it"...Doing things in smaller "bites" is more sustainable not just for our aching backs but also for our tools, which don't mend themselves or increase in strength the way our bodies do.

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