Forging Permaculture Hand Tools

SOURCE: Katherine Muzik PHD (
UBHEAD: Tim Wickstrom is making garden hand tools in Alberta with recycled material.

By Rob Avis on 18 January 2017 for Verge Permaculture - (

Image above: A trowel forged by Tim Wickstrom should last you a lifetime. From (

Tim Wickstrom is a former Verge grad who has started his own forge business to make permaculture and garden hand tools (Check out his Alumni Profile here). Here is the final piece of his three-part guest blog series.

PART I: Craftmanship • Materials • Waste

My name is Tim Wickstrom and I’m a blacksmith in southern Alberta. My focus is forging permaculture and garden hand tools for others who love to work with their hands. I love to be out in my garden and young food forest working with hand tools.

My partner Lorinda enthusiastically agrees to test my creations and if you were to visit our home during the growing season, you’d very likely find us working away in our yard. Last October, I founded Reforged Ironworks with the intent of sharing with others the tools I create and why I make them the way I do.

The Forge

The magic of fire and hammer is truly transformative and I am marvelled by it every day that I work at the forge. An abandoned railroad spike is reborn as a hori hori and a truck’s leaf spring becomes a heavy duty trowel. This marvellous process has been around for millennia and it still appeals to many.

My particular process, like many things in permaculture, goes back to traditional techniques.

Modern blacksmiths often use forges fueled by propane, metallurgical coal, or coke. All of these are non-renewable resources. I want to use something that is sustainable in the long term, a fuel source that can be replenished and managed over many generations, and so I use charcoal. This is the fuel that all blacksmiths used until fossil fuels became widely available.

Since we live in a time of abundant waste (i.e. unused resources) I can make charcoal from leftover construction timber such as untreated spruce. There’s no shortage of this material, it can be found in my neighbourhood, diverting waste from the landfill to create tools that will last for years to come.

The Steel
Image above: Scrap steel in the form of railroad tie nails, coil springs and vehicle leaf springs used for forging habd tools. From original article.

Here again, because we live in a world with large amounts of waste, I can source automotive suspension steel, like leaf and coil springs, railroad spikes, spring harrows, plow discs and all sorts of scrap metal for free.

Some of this metal is especially good for tools because it’s high carbon steel. This type of steel can be hardened, giving my tools lots of toughness and durability. There’s a bit of experimentation that goes into each piece of steel that I use since it’s all reclaimed; I never know quite exactly what the scrap metal is like until I play around with it a bit.

It does take me extra time to find, sort, and experiment with the metal I find, but it’s worth the effort because I can upcycle it and divert it from the waste stream. It’s important to me to minimize the ecological footprint of myself and my business.

The Result

It’s rare these days, but there are moments when I see a truly amazing piece of workmanship and it speaks directly to my heart. A perfect example of this was an artisan broom-making shop in Crawford Bay, BC that I visited last summer. I was confident that the broom I purchased would last for many years; that confidence is the foundation of craftsmanship.

Built upon that are the aesthetic details and the method of construction that combine to create something that is both memorable and wonderful to use.

I get a very positive vibe when I know exactly where my money’s going and who it’s supporting. My visit to Crawford Bay cemented in my mind the kind of experience I want my customers to have: Confidence in the quality of my tools, appreciation for their aesthetics, and an understanding that they’re directly supporting a sustainable business.

We often forget that beauty is a form of yield. For the sake of efficiency, it’s often first to be sacrificed. I choose to create within the limitations of the mediums of reclaimed steel, charcoal forge and hammer and anvil, creating tools of lasting beauty and function, informed by a tradition of hand tools that’s been with us for as long as we can recall.

Part II: The Tradition of Hand Tools

By Rob Avis on 7 February 2017 for Verge Permaculture -


Image above: Tines for hand tools made from steel coil springs. From original article.

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 the ability to understand and 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:

Why Hand Tools? Geoff Lawton’s Take

Video above: Geoff Laughton explains the virtue of a durable simple hand tool. From (

“Hand tools. Appropriate little hand 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 manufacturing efficiency when considering that the energy going into the tool is spread over its lifetime. This is another reason why I source reclaimed materials and create tools that can last generations.

For me, there are the aesthetic qualities hand tools possess that power tools never will: they’re quiet to use and 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, to hear the birds, the insects, and all the animals that call that garden home.

PART III: My Three Favorite Garden Hand Tools

By Rob Avis on 7 February 2017 for Verge Permaculture


I’d like to share with you my three favorite tools to use in the garden. These tools are used the most often and get the most work done in the shortest time. Generally I prefer hand tools to powered ones because they’re quiet, they don’t emit noxious fumes, and I can work up a sweat.

1. The Broadfork

Image above: Tines from coil springs welded to rugged steel broadfork. To break soil jump on and off crossbar and pull back and forth on two handles. From original article .

This is the workhorse of our garden. It loosens and aerates the soil without inverting or mixing the soil layers, minimizing disturbance to the soil and the microorganisms within. One pass in spring and another in fall is all we need to maintain our garden’s health. It also makes an excellent tool for digging up potatoes and other root vegetables when the soil is tight.

Clay also has a tendency to form into hardpan, an impermeable layer of subsoil that traps water above it, causing stress to plants. A broadfork can be used (and indeed is designed) to break up this layer of hardpan as the pointed tines are between 8 to 11 inches long. They reach into the subsoil to pierce the hardened layer and break it apart.

The broadforks I forge are about two feet wide, with five tines made from automotive coil springs. I forge the tines to a slightly curved shape to aid in penetrating the soil and to break it up more readily. I prefer to use wooden ash handles because they’re lighter than metal, they’re easy to replace should they ever break, and I find the feel of wooden handles is superior to metal in how it fits the hand and how it bends during use.

2. The Hoe

Image above: Heavy duty hoe head from plate steel and forged steel bar. From original article.

This humble tool is an important addition to weed management in an organic garden. Mulch, chop and drop, intensive planting, and hoeing are all used together to control weed growth. There are many hoe designs available, but my favourite is the D-hoe with a goose-style neck.

It’s quick, accurate, and can handle weed sprouts as easily as more mature plants. The sharp corners are great for cultivating, forming furrows for seeds while the neck keeps the handle clear, giving it a good working angle.

I forge the hoe’s neck from reclaimed steel found in scrap yards. I like to add a decorative touch where the blade meets the neck. The blade itself is also reclaimed sheet steel, cut to shape and sharpened.

The handles are Canadian ash: lightweight and durable. They are either made with a ferrule to insert the neck into, or a collar in which the handle is securely riveted. Either style makes repairs easy.

3. The Hori Hori

Image above: Hori hori hand tools for sale manufactured by Tim Wilkenson's Reforging Ironworks. From original article.

The multipurpose sidearm of the gardener: Small, lightweight, yet robust enough to handle heavy clay soils. It’s designed to dig holes for bulbs, bed out plants, and remove some of the more stubborn interlopers in the garden (thistle, I’m looking at you). It can cut roots and woody stems up to the thickness of a finger.

The original purpose of the hori hori was to manage satoyama, the edge where mountain forest met cultivated field in 13th century Japan. The design hasn’t changed much since, which speaks to its effectiveness and proven design. Applied to our context here in Alberta, it’s an ideal tool for food forests and gardens.

The hori hori I make currently are forged from abandoned railroad spikes and are water-quenched to achieve about the same hardness as an axe. That means it can hold an edge fairly well, and since it’s also used to dig, it won’t break when leverage is applied to the handle. I forge the blades to achieve a balance between robustness and weight.

The handles are made from reclaimed wood, most commonly old hockey sticks which are light and durable. I rivet the handles to the full tang blade with copper rivets, once again making replacement of the handles easy if it’s ever needed.

With these three tools, I can accomplish the majority of my work in the garden. While shovels and garden forks certainly come in handy, they didn’t quite make my top three. Every tool I make is informed by traditional design and from the experiences of my clients and myself.

~ For more information about what Tim’s doing, check out his website at or


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