Saturday, February 15, 2020

Some of our favorite homestead tools

The following is an article rejected by Backwoods Home Magazine. I thought readers might find it interesting.

Homestead Tools: Some of our Favorites

Sometimes it seems successful homesteading is little more than the acquisition of the necessary tools to get a job done. Everywhere we turn on our little farm, we trip over some sort of tool, big or small.

That's why it's unlikely you'll ever find a true homesteader who lives in a "tiny house" or has an extreme minimalist lifestyle devoid of personal possessions. The fact is, to live a self-reliant lifestyle requires the necessary tools to manage livestock, raise a garden, preserve the bounty, cut firewood, build infrastructure, and endless other tasks.

After more than 25 years in the business (nearly 17 years at our current location), we've accumulated a lot of tools. The best tools are the ones that make our lives easier, safer, and which save wear and tear on our bodies. The worst tools are the ones that tattle every deed to Google in the form of "smart" technology. (We avoid those like the plague.) Whenever practical, we opt for a low-tech hand-powered version of a tool. Whenever that isn't practical, we opt for the best quality we can afford.

It's important to remember we are on-grid. Our choice of tools would be somewhat different if we were off-grid. However we strive to have low-tech hand-powered options for every on-grid mechanical tool we own. (What can I say, we're preppers.)

Which tools are worthwhile? Here are some of our favorites.

Big tools

• Tractor + implements. For the first 12 years on our Idaho homestead, we didn't have a working tractor (unfortunately we did have a non-working tractor). Whenever we needed a beast of burden, we borrowed one from friends or neighbors, then returned it as quickly as possible. The rest of the time, we simply worked hard – sometimes too hard, hurting ourselves in the process. But no matter how much we pushed our bodies, there are some things that are impossible to do without a force multiplier. Finally we took the plunge, borrowed money, and bought a tractor of our own. If there is one thing I recommend buying early in one's homesteading adventures, it's a mechanical beast to do the heavy lifting for you.

Along with the tractor, we've acquired useful implements through the years: brush hog, rototiller, auger, rock rake, back blade, spring harrow, plow, sub-soiler/trench digger, bucket spikes, and seed spreader. Needless to say, these all have their purpose on a homestead. While we bought the tractor new (which minimized pre-existing mechanical problems), most of our implements are second-hand. After all, if it doesn't have moving parts, most second-hand versions are just as sturdy and efficient as their brand-new counterparts (and considerably less expensive).

• Log splitter. Since we heat our home exclusively with firewood, and since we need about six cords of wood to see us through a winter, a lot splitter saves a tremendous amount of wear and tear on our bodies. This is particularly true since we live in conifer country with no hardwoods. Splitting softwoods such as tamarack or red fir is (we found out) notoriously difficult with a maul. Using a log splitter not only saves on labor, it saves on time. Autumn is when we're preserving the garden, battening down the farm for winter, filling orders with our woodcraft business, and other critical tasks. Trying to split six cords of firewood by hand on top all that would be impossible. We do, however, have all the tools we need for splitting wood by hand (mauls, sledges, wedges, etc.) which we use on occasion for small tasks. If the log splitter should die, or if we couldn't get fuel for it, then hand tools are critical.

• Wood cookstove. We spent the first 12 years here in Idaho heating our home with a small antique parlor stove. This stove, as much as we love it, was inconveniently located in a far corner of the house (rendering the rest of the house cold) and was not efficient in terms of wood usage. We finally purchased a brand-new Amish-made Baker's Choice wood cookstove and situated it in a more central location. This was by far one of our better purchases and a game-changer in making our home more comfortable. The stove is air-tight, efficient, and heats our entire home (sometimes too well). We can cook, bake, heat water, and dehydrate foods with it. It allows us to stay warm and fed when the power is out. It also cut our wood usage per year by about one-third. It's more than paid for itself.

• Chest freezers. We have three freezers, though one is generally not in use except as a backup. Chest freezers are more efficient than upright freezers, and we primarily use them to store the beef we raise, as well as garden produce in the intermediate stage before canning (such as blueberries or tomato purée). Besides overflow storage, the "spare" (backup) freezer offers peace of mind, since nothing is more worrisome than a malfunctioning freezer on a hot summer's day (been there done that). We also keep enough canning jars in reserve in case it becomes necessary to preserve the meat in the event of a long-term power outage.

• Utility trailer. This is another tool we spent too long without. We now own a small lightweight trailer (4x8 feet) and a heavier dually trailer (8 x 16 feet). Endless uses for both.

• Generator. We have a power-takeoff (PTO) 6000-watt generator with one purpose, and one purpose only: to power our well pump in the case of a long-term power outage. Our well is far too deep for hand-pumping options (610 feet deep with a static water level of 450 feet). This generator will not be used to power the house in any way, so we are fully prepared to live without electricity in every respect except water.

Medium tools

• Chainsaws. We own both a gas chainsaw and an electric chainsaw. The benefits of a gas chainsaw are self-evident. But an electric chainsaw?

Every three years or so, we order a logging truck of salvage logs for our firewood needs. We have a cleared area near the house for yarding the logs. Because the yard is within 100 feet of the house, one year my husband bought an electric chainsaw as an experimental purchase. He became an instant convert.

An electric chainsaw is like a Sawzall on steroids. It's powerful and efficient enough to cut logs into rounds, but it turns on and off at the push of a button and it vibrates far, far less than its gas counterpart. It has plenty of power, but is much more lightweight.

Using a gas chainsaw for several hours is exhausting simply from the vibration and the weight. An electric chainsaw is much easier on the body. It also is more cost-efficient, because the cost of the electricity to run it is far less than the blended fuel required by a gas-powered chainsaw. Of course, its primary limitation is the distance of the power cord. We've found its effective lifespan is less than a gas chainsaw as well (about three years is average). But considering it cost four or five times less than a quality gas-powered chainsaw, it's well worth the expense.

• Back-up woodcutting tools. We have all the tools necessary to lay in firewood without electricity or gas. This includes a two-person bucksaw, bow saws, axes, mauls, and wedges. Obviously we prefer the labor-saving versions, but can revert to our back-ups if necessary.

• Wheelbarrows. First we got one. Then a second. Then a third. Then a fourth. All four are constantly in use – in our woodshop, toting manure to the compost pile, cleaning the chicken coop, harvesting the garden, transporting fencing tools … you name it, and it's been in a wheelbarrow. We also own a two-wheel garden cart and sturdy yard wagon. Being able to move things easily without using our backs is absolutely necessary.

• Dolly/handtruck. A sturdy hand truck is convenient to move awkward and heavy loads without killing your back. We have two, and there have been times when we've needed both of them at the same time. Dollys are used not just for moving boxes or appliances; we also use them as powerful levers to lift and support the ends of things, such as logs for firewood cutting or to pull fence posts.

• Peevee. This logger's tool helps turn large logs during the process of cutting them into rounds.

• Breaker bar. This heavy iron ramming tool has a pry on one side and a ram on the other. Endless uses, especially when it comes to fencing.

• Ladders. My goodness, who doesn't need ladders? We have everything from stepstools for household use to tall extension ladders for accessing roofs. Ladders also make great temporary emergency fences and gates (such as keeping errant cattle out of the chicken coop when we allow them to graze the driveway area).

• Clamshell post-hole digger. It's hard to substitute the uses of this tool with anything else. While my husband uses the tractor-mounted auger most of the time, if he needs to put in a post somewhere the tractor can't go, the clamshell works best. And even if he drills a fence post hole with the tractor, usually the only way to clean out the loose dirt that falls back into the hole is by using the clamshell digger.

• Food-grade barrels. We own a dozen of these and use them either for storing grain (outside) or emergency water (inside). They are surprisingly handy. You can also partially fill them with water, secure the lid, and use them as a roller/packer on fresh gravel.

Small tools

There are so many small tools we use on the homestead that it's almost an exercise in futility to try and list them all, but here are some of our favorites.

• Garden tools. One time while attending a gardening seminar, I was given a massive catalog – at least half an inch thick – filled front to back with "essential" gardening tools to increase productivity and make life easier. Frankly if you're one of those people who believes all these tools are necessary, then the best "tool" you might as well buy is a gardener to do all the work for you.

People have gardened for thousands of years without all the fancy-dancy tools listed in this catalog. That said, there are certainly some necessary tools every gardener should have. These include the usual suspects (shovels, rakes, hoes, pitch forks). I'm also inordinately fond of my hand-weeder, which is a simple implement that looks like a notched screwdriver. I've found it to be the perfect weeding tool. Ninety percent of the time, this is the tool I reach for.

• Gardening gloves. I used to trash my hands every summer until I started using gardening gloves. Duh, what took me so long?

• Fruit-picker. This clawed basket-at-the-end-of-a-stick is wonderful for plucking fruit off tall trees. We have two of them, mounted on different-length poles.

• Drip irrigation system. The benefits of installing drip irrigation in our large garden are enormous. It saves water, it saves time, it's efficient, and the plants thrive. Because our garden is so large, we divvied it up into watering "zones" and water one zone at a time. During hot summer months, we drip-irrigate the garden daily, which takes about three hours to cycle through all the zones.

• Stock tank heater. Even when it dips to -15F (thankfully, a rare occurrence), this submersible wonder keeps our stock water tanks ice-free, which is essential for the winter needs of our livestock. It tends to suck up a lot of electricity, though, so be prepared for an extra jolt to your power bill. Also, the heating element cannot be exposed to air or it fries the unit, so the tank must be deep enough to keep the element submerged at all times.

• Float valve. This inexpensive addition to stock water tanks means your water tanks never run dry. It connects to a hose and the faucet is left on, and the tank automatically refills whenever it dips below the level of the float valve. These cannot be used in colder weather, however, as the hose and faucet will freeze. (Combining it with a stock tank heater doesn't work.)

• Hoses. We have many hoses ranging from short to long, thin to sturdy. You can never have too many hoses. Worn-out hoses can be shortened with new fittings added.

• Crowbars. We have several, ranging from small to large.

• Come-along. This is a ratcheting tool for hoisting large, heavy, or reluctant (yes I'm talking to you, cows) objects closer.

• Extension cords. As with hoses, we have many lengths and many gauges.

• Sawzall. Very handy for fast cuts in difficult material. We have two beefy electric ones and a lighter battery one.

• Ratchet straps. Essential for securing loads. We have lighter ratchet straps for everyday use, and heavy straps for securing vehicles or other heavy items.

• Shop tools. This is an exhaustive category and contains all the usual suspects: screwdrivers, chisels, hammers, saws, drills, clamps, pliers, wrenches, fasteners (nails, screws, bolts, etc.), staple gun, tape measures, levels, vice, and on and on. You name it, we have it. Every one of these tools is instrumental in maintaining our homestead.

• Heated chicken waterer. This is a fairly recent addition to our homestead, and my goodness what a relief not to be bringing the chicken waterer into the house twice a day during subfreezing weather to de-ice and refill. It greatly contributes to the comfort of the chickens as well. The drawback is these waterers only last a winter or two (mostly because the power cord separates from the unit), but they can be used as regular waterers in warmer weather without being plugged in.

• Kerosene lamps and fuel. I love the beauty and practicality of kerosene lamps, and have at least a dozen. I keep three filled and on standby for immediate lighting during a power outage, and the remaining lamps can be brought in and filled if necessary. I often light lamps just for ambience as well.

• Ear/eye protection. With all the varied tasks we do, protecting our eyes and ears as needed is vital. This protection is cheap in price, but the injuries they prevent are priceless.

• Breathing protection. We have paper masks, N-95 valved masks, and cartridge respirator masks as needed for shop work, or any spray applications.

• Pressure canner + other accouterments. Canning is my preferred food preservation method, and my faithful All American canner has processed literally thousands of jars of food in the 29 years I've owned it. Additionally, we have all the other accouterments needed for canning: jar lifter, Tattler lids, pots and racks for water-bath canning, etc.

• Dehydrator. This was a late addition to our tool repertoire. Over the years we flirted with dehydrators, usually because we found a cheap one at a thrift store (which was in a thrift store for a reason). We finally bit the bullet and purchased a new Presto Digital Electric Dehydrator (model 06301) along with its extra accessories (nonstick mesh screens and extra fruit roll sheets). This little machine has been worth every penny for how it has expanded our food preservation repertoire. There are many dehydrators on the market, and nearly every one of them is worth the price (depending on how much you'll use it). Since canning is still my preferred food preservation method and dehydrating is secondary, a smaller and less expensive unit is fine for us. For those who prefer dehydrating as their primary method, a larger and more expensive unit is recommended.

• Food strainer. This hand-cranked mechanical strainer makes processing garden produce a zillion times easier. Anytime something needs puréeing, this is the gadget to use. The amount of work it saves is tremendous, and it produces beautiful and consistent results. Once you've puréed 150 lbs. of tomatoes with this contraption, you'll never go back to slipping tomato skins in boiling water. Trust me.

• Grain grinder. Having started with a cheaper model, we upgraded to a sturdy Country Living grain mill. Believe me, processing wheat into flour or corn into cornmeal is a whole lot easier with a grain grinder.

• Pitch forks, hay forks. These tools are not the same thing. A pitch fork is a short, sturdy tool used for digging in soil, pitching manure, or other heavier tasks. A hay fork is for pitching hay to livestock or other lightweight work. Both are essential and we have several of each.

• Carpentry hand tools. Since Don is a woodworker, he has all the tools necessary not just for our home woodcraft business (table saw, band saw, belt sander, etc.) but also for projects and infrastructure improvements on the homestead (cordless drills, hand belt sanders, circular saw, jigsaw, etc.). But since all these tools are powered by electricity, over the years he has collected non-electric versions of various critical tools, such as planers, draw knifes, chisels, rasps, brace drills, hand saws, hammers, etc.

• Scythes. Yes, we use them. They're wonderful for harvesting wheat, taking down tall weeds, and otherwise conquering vegetation.

• T-post pounder. Noisy and heavy, but still the best way for a small homestead to sink T-posts into the ground.

• Wire stretcher/splicer. The ultimate tool for stretching wire fences. It's moderately priced and makes fencing immensely easier. It also makes a great clamp for holding heavy things, like posts or beams together while drilling or nailing.

• Sharpening tools. Keeping various blades sharp (everything from kitchen knives to axes to scythes) is essential for efficient tool usage. Having the necessary specialized sharpeners is important. We have an electric grinder sharpener, a manual crank sharpener, and numerous sharpening stones.

• Leatherman multi-tools. None of the attachments on a Leatherman are superior to their stand-alone counterparts, but the Leatherman has the advantage of being pocket-sized. An excellent tool in a pinch. My husband usually carries two with him.

• Rope/wire/chain. Believe it or not, the humble string was one of the game-changing inventions of early man that eventually led to endless inventions, everything from fine cloth to heavy anchor ropes. Today rope (in all its forms) is just as important on the homestead. We keep a good selection on hand, ranging from thin string to baling twine to heavy winching ropes. Into this category I'll also slip wire and chains. We have many thicknesses and lengths.

• Reference books. We are voracious readers with a personal home library of nearly 5000 volumes. Within that collection is a large repertoire of homesteading reference books covering everything from making soap to butchering livestock to preserving food to building fences to constructing a root cellar. While we use the internet just as much as the next person, we also have all the (low-tech, non-electric) necessary information at our fingertips when we need it. We have books not only to reinforce current projects, but to give us ideas for future projects.

Tools We'd Like to Acquire

No one can ever have too many tools, right? However, after all these years we have most of what we want – with two notable exceptions:

• ATV. We do not own an All-Terrain Vehicle, but it's a purchase we would like to make in the future. Especially for those with larger acreage and with livestock, an ATV is much nicer than chasing cows on foot (news flash: cows can run faster than you). Coupled with a small pull-behind trailer (or even a small push-ahead snowplow), this machine can provide a lot of bang for the buck.

• Root cellar. This is another big "tool" we do not own, but desperately want. Along with canning and dehydrating, a root cellar offers a vast expansion of food storage possibilities. Hopefully in our next home.

Intangible tools

No discussion of homesteading implements would be complete without a brief mention of intangible but critical tools. Ready for a lecture?

• Attitude. A positive attitude will buoy you over the most difficult times. No homestead is built without a lot of blood, sweat, and tears – and that's literal. Homesteaders must be willing to learn new things and push past failure. Keep your eyes on the prize and know you're doing a great thing by becoming more self-sufficient. Enjoy the journey as well as the destination.

• Patience. Many things take a lot time to come to fruition (fruit trees). Other things take a lot of serene hand-work (shelling dry beans). Yet other things take a slow-but-steady approach (fencing). In all instances, don't lose your patience. Don't rush. Enjoy the process.

• Humor. If you approach homesteading tasks with grim determination and sense of long-suffering, where's the joy in life? Look at the funny side of things. When you sink your new shoes into a wet cow patty, feel free to curse all you want – and then laugh.

• Frugality. Very few homesteaders are rich, but with patience and perseverance – and a huge amount of frugality – their homestead can gradually transform from an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan. Just don't put yourself into debt to rush the process – or at least, if you're going to go into debt, make sure it's worth it (such as purchasing a tractor).

Even a bull is a tool!

You're Seeing a Snapshot

This impressive list of tools is a snapshot of our current inventory. I need to make it clear we didn't have these at the beginning of our homesteading adventure – we acquired them, slowly, through many years, and as we could afford them and as we determined the need.

The last thing I recommend is to rush out and purchase every tool listed in this article. The best gauge to determine what tools to get is to first gauge the need. We never bothered to get a lathe for our woodshop, for example, because we don't need one. Sure, it would be fun; but since we don't require a lathe for the manufacture of our woodcraft items, we prefer to put our money into tools we genuinely need. Your needs may be different.

Remember that: Your needs may be different. Use that as your yardstick to build your tool stock. And don't forget to enjoy the process – it's all part of the fun of homesteading.


  1. Thorough and well-written! I'm amazed it was rejected.

    1. I'm amazed too - great article and it would have been so helpful when beginning this lifestyle.

  2. I'll offer a suggestion for the hand trucks ...

    As I've become older, I've had to deal with various stress injuries, and so I have found ways to make some of those less awful.

    The top grip sections of the hand trucks could benefit from wrapping a section of foam rubber pipe insulation around them that's secured with some electrical tape suitable for wide temperature variations.

    I've used the 1" black foam pipe wrap sold at Home Depot and Lowe's with some 3M Super 88 electrical tape for that. I tightly wrap the pipe wrap with an overlapping diagonal tape wrap that's then overlapped in the other direction at an opposing angle and secured on both ends with overlapping end wraps, all as a single length of tape without cuts except on the ends.

    When you're moving refrigerators and gun safes on your own, this little bit of extra padding goes a long way toward keeping your hands from hurting.

    The padded wraps also help keep my vehicles from being scratched when I have to rest the top end of the hand truck while fiddling around in search for my keys.

    I suppose the lesson from this is that if you're not improvising improvements to your tools to make them easier to use, all you're doing is prolonging any pain you have with using them.

  3. Great list of implements. We Have almost all of the tools that you have plus various jacks ie: farm jack and bottle jacks. We also use(a lot)what I call bungee cords or rubber cords.

  4. Binoculars.

    Do I really need walk through the mud to check on something?

  5. Tarps. Plenty of tarps. Use it to protect stuff from weather. A farming and ranching picnic blanket. Fold it up. Fits anywhere with little fuss. Make sure it has some grommet me.

    Use it underneath when working on equipment. Never lose a dropped nut or bolt again. Better than laying in the slush or ant pile when working under a broken piece of equipment.

    Handy when you might need to carry an animal, mulch, manure, whatever.

    Throw it in the bed of your pickup before you get a load of anything. It makes it much easier and quicker to get everything out and to keep the truck tidier.

    Solar Garment Dryer AKA--clothes line.

  6. Rope. If you don't have a good piece of rope you're gonna want it. (Said by Sam in the Lord of the Rings.)

    A long sturdy stick (like a shepherds staff). If you hold it out at arm's length animals don't know that's not your arms. You can block them from going around you, and nudge them in the furry butt to encourage them to move along a bit faster. (Or even use it to whack a rattle snake from safe distance.)

    A sturdy short stick. All sorts of handy. Drag a shallow furrow to plant seeds in. Smack on the fence to get the attention of critters that are doing something they shouldn't (cats or dogs fighting, raccoons trying to get into the feed bin, chickens who won't get out of the way, etc). For the dog to play fetch.

    1. YES! I've had two shepherd's staffs that have seen heavy use over the past 25 - 30 years (where did the time go?) and they are still in use. Great defensive weapon and rattlesnake poker to annoy a basking rattlesnake into moving on.

  7. Homesteading? How difficult can it be? Said the city boy.
    Montana Guy

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  9. Yes an ATV would be a great addition. I have had to chase a cow down and plowing snow off our long driveway makes getting out much safer. I, too, would love a root cellar. Oh well, wish in one hand...

  10. Please tell me how often you clean your woodstove pipes thru the winter? We're trying to figure out a schedule. Thanks.

  11. Thanks for posting. It's a very good inventory. I'm glad to see someone else saying something nice about electric chainsaws (mine's battery-driven, but I like anything non-gas-powered). For small tools I don't use often, I try to avoid gasoline engines because of the problems with fuel that gets old.

    When all of this is added up, it's a lot of money over the decades, but these things improve productivity. It seems to be a lot better use of funds than a 60" OLED TV.

  12. And here I thought I was the only one that kept a scythe and used it frequently! I concur with the tools listed. I would LOVE to have a wood stove to use some of our excess wood from the hurricanes that periodically ravage the maple and oaks but, alas, it is just too darned warm.

  13. Yes... Tractor.. I would have a hard time getting along with out my little green buddy, JD.. For us, a 3 point hitch snow blower has been a real help.. All manor of tractor implements are useful. I have even made some homemade tillage and logging implements for our needs.

    We also use non working chest freezers to store feed rodent proof. One in each barn.

    Bush life is work, but wonderful... eh..