The winter break draws to a close, and I’ve begun to prepare for the year ahead. Being a creature of habit, new year’s day – or as soon thereafter as makes no difference – customarily sees me closeted in the garden shed, rendering well-deserved ministrations to an assembly of ill-used hand tools – a touch of the sharpening stone here, a embrocation of linseed oil or a mist of WD-40 there. As I write, I still have several pairs of secateurs to service, numerous wooden handles to oil, and the odd loose rivet requiring attention. It’s a peaceful occupation, and it seems not merely prudent, but in a sense also fitting to give these moments of unhurried, concentrated attention to a collection of objects on which I depend every day, for each of which I will reach unthinkingly hundreds of times over the next twelve months.
It’s cold in the shed – the sight of the breath in front of my face would tell me that, if my toes hadn’t already alerted me to the conditions. It’s also a little more crowded than usual, owing to the presence of a large cardboard box full of brand new tools which arrived a week or so before Christmas, and which the festivities have prevented me from getting to grips with until now. I did, I confess, peer into the box as soon as it arrived, removing the packaging only so far as necessary to allow a photograph to be taken and posted on Facebook as a thank you to the sender. But the full, joyful unboxing experience I have left until now, when the chaos and bustle is behind us, and each item can be lifted out in turn, freed from its wrapping and given the attention it deserves.
And before you think I’ve gone loopy or might be over-egging this point a little, let's address it straight on. For it’s my contention that any tool you intend using, from the simplest toothpick to the snazziest smartphone, deserves a few moments of your time. Long enough for you to turn it over in your hands, to look at it from every angle, to feel its weight and heft, to gauge its balance, to discover how comfortably it will become an extension of your own body. And then to form an impression of how fit the thing will be for its intended task. For me, the particular joy of the well designed hand tool is second to none.
But these aren’t just any tools. These are Burgon & Ball tools, endorsed by the RHS and worthy of a degree of attention for that fact alone. However, notwithstanding the warrant of that august body, my own experience of this brand is that they consistently produce well designed, beautifully finished, rugged tools at a reasonable – if not rock bottom – price point (a tenner for a hand fork, for example), with some fancier pieces in their Sophie Conran range, the kind of thing you might buy for yourself as a treat, or for someone else as a present.
Having been in the enviable position of being asked which tools from their catalogue I’d like to feature on the blog, it’s now my great pleasure to give you my first impressions of one border fork, one digging spade, and a pair hand forks. Let’s take a look at the two long handled tools first.
These are the Border Fork, and the Mens Groundbreaker Spade. Also available are a larger Garden Fork, and a smaller Ladies Groundbreaker Spade (apostrophes have gone AWOL on the labels. Messy things.) I’ve no notion why the spades are gendered, considering gardeners come in all shapes and sizes. I know several gardeners of a female persuasion who will opt for longer and larger tools, while I favour the lighter border fork, finding that a garden fork tends to aggravate my tennis elbow, and is a little less agile in a tightly planted border. And if you’ve been sniggering while reading this paragraph, shame on you.
Both tools have handles made from ash certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council, with neatly tooled YD handles and shafts double-riveted into deep sockets. A kind of lug extends up the shaft at the front and back, reminiscent of the kind of strapped handle you see on many a vintage garden tool at boot fairs every weekend. It’s a method devised to give both strength and a certain degree of flex when using a fork or spade, though whether the lugs on these tools are long enough to perform any such practical function I’m not entirely convinced. It makes for an attractive joint at any rate, particularly with the deeply etched brand name which is featured at this point.
The top-most of the two blade-to-shaft rivets passes through the top of the lugs, with the second rivet turned laterally through ninety degrees to this just below the point where the lugs meet and the socket begins to encompass the full stem of the shaft.
The blades are made of heat-treated, high carbon stainless steel, and shine with a polished mirror finish, from which it will be a pleasure to clean the sticky clay soil with which I work. The spade has a pointed blade and treads to make prolonged use less of a strain on the instep. One other issue with my local soil is that the clay tends to be over flint, chunks of which are particularly adept at bending the tines of lesser quality stainless steel forks. This being the state of things, it’s of especial interest to me to see how well hardened these tools are (there is a trade off between softness and brittleness when tempering metal, and finding the sweet spot is the key to the manufacture of a quality tool), and how long they keep their shape in my hands. Keep an eye out on the blog in a few months for a longer term review.
My clay soils are behind the choice of one of the other tools, the Round Tine Fork, a hand fork with, as the name suggests, tines constructed from thick, circular-profile wire rod, sharply pointed at the end, rather than the more usual flat tines. I’m eager to see whether this iteration of one of my favourite and most used garden tools makes a noticeable difference.
Finally, another hand fork, this time from the FloraBrite range - a more traditionally shaped tool, but with a dayglo yellow handle. I have a habit of leaving hand forks in my client’s borders at the end of a session, so I’m very much hoping this could be a solution!
With thanks to Burgon & Ball for providing the tools for this ‘first impressions’ blog post. I’ll be giving everything mentioned here a good work out over the next few months, and look forward to reporting back on how everything fares under regular use.