5 Traditional Hand Tools to Help you Cultivate Abundance
Traditional hand tools can be a great help on your property. These simple tools are easy to repair, and they don’t take gas or electricity to run. You can just grab them and go. Let’s take a look at 5 traditional hand tools—the scythe, bill hook, sickle, hori hori, and machete.
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As a whole, people in the United States and other developed countries have forgotten a lot of the older ways of working on the land.
But when you're cultivating abundance for people, plants and wildlife, sometimes you’ve just got to use some elbow grease to get the job done.
For many tasks, traditional hand tools are your best bet. All 5 of the tools covered in this post are ones that I own and use at my own place.
A couple, like the hori hori and the scythe, get used a fair bit. While others, like the sickle and bill hook, are reserved for specific tasks that don’t come up all the time. But when they do come up, I’m glad I have these tools.
Let’s dive into 5 traditional hand tools and look at what tasks each is best-suited for.
But before we do, make sure to grab your free and easy-to-print cheat-sheet which summarizes all the info covered in this post.
The Scythe – An Excellent Traditional Hand Tool for Pasture Management
I love my scythe—it really is an excellent traditional hand tool. A scythe was traditionally used for managing fields for hay production and for harvesting crops. But it can also be effective at mowing ditches and controlling shrubs and trees that get out of hand.
On my own property, I find a scythe is effective against invasive blackberries in addition to cutting grass in my fields.
One reason I love using a scythe instead of a weed whacker or mower is that it’s so much quieter. I can listen to birds and just enjoy being out on my land without having to listen to the roar of a mower.
Using a scythe also prevents soil compaction compared to using a riding mower or tractor. And the resulting cut material is perfect for hay, composting, or even mulching.
A scythe can also cut around plants you want to keep. Just put the back of the blade against the plant you want to keep and then start your cutting stroke. Done right, this is an easy way to keep from cutting plants you want.
But using a scythe is a lot more physical work than a riding mower or tractor, and it does take time to learn. Several years in, and I’m still learning new things about how to use mine. I just realized I was sharpening the blade incorrectly. And I had to get a shorter blade, since I’m mowing a lot of blackberries.
Long blades are best for mowing green grass, while short blades are better for brush.
But if you’re willing to learn how to use a scythe, it really is a fantastic traditional hand tool. I love mine and I hope you will consider trying one out.
More About Scythes
- This is the one I use: This is the type of scythe I use and you can purchase the same type by following that link. It’s a European style of scythe.
- Another style: Another type of scythe is the American one—it’s a bit heavier and sharpening is very different than the European style. I prefer the European style, but the American one is a good option too.
- Why use this tool in the modern world: A nice list of ways people use scythes today.
The Bill Hook – A Traditional Hand Tool for Coppicing
The first time I got to use a bill hook was when I was volunteering in England. Before then, I had never even heard of this traditional hand tool.
We were coppicing hazelnuts and part of that work involved getting all the small stems off the long skinny trunks we were harvesting.
There were dozens and dozens of these trunks to clean up. Just imagine trying to go through and clip all those with clippers or loppers!
But a bill hook is a tool that is designed to do this job. Here is a video showing the bill hook in action.
Bill hooks were also used in laying traditional hedgerows.
For basic woodland management—and especially if you’re actively coppicing or pollarding trees/shrubs—this is a fantastic traditional hand tool.
The Sickle – A Great Tool for Gardening
In some ways, a sickle could be thought of as a hand scythe. This simple tool is used in a very similar way as a scythe, but on a much smaller scale.
Traditionally, a sickle was used for harvesting wheat and other grains and for collecting forage for livestock. But this traditional hand tool is also a great help in the garden.
I’ve found my sickle to be a great tool for cutting down cover crops that are growing around vegetables that I want to prioritize.
Just be careful and use gloves when doing this! It’s easy to cut yourself when using this tool.
For relatively small cutting jobs around the garden, this is a great option and I’m very happy I have this in my tool shed.
The Hori Hori – A Fantastic All-Purpose Hand Tool
I think I use my hori hori more than any other tool on this list. Though I have switched to my sickle for cutting non-woody plants.
From the Japanese word for hori, meaning “to dig,” the hori hori is basically a cross between a garden trowel and a knife. One side is shaped like a regular sharp knife and the other tends to be serrated.
This makes the hori hori excellent for planting, since it goes into the soil easily and you can cut roots out of the way if needed. It’s also great for harvesting, since it can be used for cutting.
All in all, you could think of the hori hori as a Swiss army knife for the garden. I often keep it with me since it can handle so many small jobs.
Even if there is a better specific tool for the job, the hori hori is still my go-to since it can do so many different jobs. I often just keep it in a deep pocket as I’m working so I’m ready for any small tasks that come up.
And the hori hori is my go-to tool for planting. All my vegetable starts, most of my bareroot plants, and any other small plants get planted with it.
The hori hori really is a great all-around traditional hand tool.
The Machete – A Great Traditional Hand Tool for Brush Clearing
Machetes are a great traditional hand tool when you have a bunch of brush to clear. I’ve used mine to hack away at large blackberry canes.
But it does tend to be a bit more of a rough implement and should be used for clearing areas of vegetation you don’t want anymore.
Don’t use a machete to prune your fruit trees!
A good sharp machete can also be used like a bill hook to clear branches off a log. But a machete is a much lighter tool and won’t be able to clear as large of branches as a bill hook.
And while a machete is often used to clear brush, it can be used as a multi-use tool for all sorts of tasks from cutting vegetables or fruit to small wood carving. In areas of the world where machetes are more common, they’re often used in this way on a day-to-day basis.
More About Machetes
- This is very similar to mine. There are loads of machetes for sale, but I prefer simple designs. These simple machetes are very similar to the ones used every day around the world for agricultural tasks.
- Don’t forget to sharpen your new machete. Regardless of which machete you end up buying, you will need to sharpen it.
Benefits of Using Traditional Hand Tools
All these traditional hand tools are practical tools that have long histories of use by people around the world who have worked the land for their livelihood.
These tools wouldn’t have this long history of use if they weren’t effective tools. And using them today still provides a number of benefits.
Like I said before, I really love how I can go out and use these tools and enjoy the sounds of nature while I work, rather than the roar of a machine. I can savor my time out there rather than just trying to power through it.
Another great benefit of these tools is that they’re all fairly easy to maintain and repair at home. The main task for maintaining these tools is just to sharpen them.
But if they do break, it’s much more likely that you can repair them yourself, using material from your land, than you could with a gas-powered machine.
Since these tools are mostly made from metal, wood, and leather, (some will have plastic handles,) they’re also easier to recycle or dispose of than most modern tools. It also takes less materials to make them in the first place.
Overall, these traditional hand tools have a much lower environmental impact from their creation to their eventual disposal than our modern tools.
Another benefit of these traditional hand tools is that they will help you build strength and flexibility—you won’t need a gym membership!
These tools are all very efficient at their job—it doesn’t take brute force to get the job done. But if you do have physical limitations, then some of these tools may not be the best fit for you.
Though regardless of how strong you are, clearing brush or cutting an acre is always going to be hard work when done with any small tool.
These tools also have a much lower impact on your land than big equipment. Using a scythe won’t compact your soil. Plus, you’re likely only going to cut what you really need to if using a hand tool compared to a gas-powered tool.
Finally, these tools also cost a lot less than most mechanized tools.
I really love using these traditional hand tools for tasks on my property. They save me money, I can maintain and repair them myself, they keep me in good physical shape, and they help me be better connected with my land.
I hope you will give them a go!
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