Aug. 1 2005 12:00 AM

In a world where everything seems to be super-sized, and the bigger-is-better mantra is shouted from the highest mountain, it’s easy to forget about hand tools. Sure, they’re not glamorous, nor do they rev high with all the latest bells and whistles.

Yet without a spade, or a shovel, or pruning shears, just imagine how hard your job would be. And let’s face it, there are times when all those fancy do-dads just won’t cut it, or are an exercise in overkill. As any mechanic will tell you, you need the right tool for the job. When the job calls for a simple handsaw, see what happens if you pull out a chain saw!

Even though you might think that there’s nothing new going on in the world of the non-powered hand tool, you might be surprised. There have been changes; subtle changes to be sure, but changes nonetheless.

“Some of the advances in tools are things such as fiberglass handles on shovels, and extruded handles on loppers,” says Phil Stevens of Horizon, in Phoenix, Arizona. “Wood is still very durable and a forgiving material, but it’s becoming a scarcity, and the quality of wood you build tools from probably isn’t the same as it once was. So you see a lot of things going to fiberglass, which can be easier for an operator due to the fact that the weight is reduced. So if a guy is using the tool eight to ten hours a day, it’s not wearing him out.”

Photo courtesy: Horizon

“As far as tools go, a shovel is a shovel is a shovel,” says Stevens. “But some of the things that have changed with tools over the years have to do with repetitive stress injuries. You see more things designed with ergonomics in mind; a hand position is changed when something calls for bigger muscles and less repetitive stress on those muscles.”

Some hand pruners now feature ergonomic handles designed to fit the hand, far more comfortably. The thumb position is situated so it doesn’t stretch the hand out so wide.
Even push broom and rakes now feature handles with improved angles so there is less effort put into the stroke.

The materials being used to make many hand tools have also undergone some changes. More durable and better alloys are being used in the metal parts, often making the tool lighter and more durable.

Yet despite these changes, it’s so easy to take hand tools for granted. They’re usually not that expensive. They’re easily thrown in the back of a truck or a tool box without a second thought. And when broken or lost, you just pick up some more the next time you’re at the supply house.

But that pay-as-you-go philosophy is losing you money. By managing your hand tools the same way you manage the more expensive power tools, you will not only increase their longevity, but also increase your profits. And in the final analysis, that’s the bottom line.

A good way to manage your tools begins with knowing what you have and what you need. At the beginning of the year, go over your inventory. Then assess what your projected work load will be for the year or season. Now head to your supply house and do some shopping.

More than likely, they’ll be happy to create a spread sheet of your tool usage. And from that base order, they can help you determine what tools you’re going to need. Then throughout the year, they can serve as a resource, checking on your needs. That initial order will be in their system, and they can reference it for as long as you are a customer.

“It’s always best for us to start with a customer and assess his needs going into the year,” says Stevens, “and then help him maintain those needs throughout the year. We’ll be as aggressive and competitive as we need to be at any given point during the year, but it’s always nice to sit down with a customer at the beginning of the year and say ‘Let’s assess your needs to outfit your organization or outfit your truck,’ no matter what the size is and then go from there to help you manage that inventory.”

Photo courtesy: Horizon

Once you’ve decided what tools to buy, the next step involves deciding how much you want to spend. The range of price for something as simple as a hand pruner can nearly double as you move up the scale from cheapest to most expensive. Which do you buy? In this instance, the old adage of being pennywise and pound foolish holds true.

“Less expensive, typically in a lot of tools,” says Stevens, “is stuff that’s not necessarily the branded names like a Corona or Union or Felco. And when you buy less expensive, you’re buying something that’s made overseas and has less quality.”

Often the trade-off with cheaper tools is a decrease in quality. Since these tools are the life blood of your trade, it is important they remain in service, keeping the productivity and efficiency of your crews high.

“If you’re a smaller owner-operator, and you’ve got four guys out on a jobsite, and all four of them are doing trenching, if two shovels break, you’re out of business for that day,” says Stevens. “Not only for the time it takes to get new tools, but you’re not being productive, in terms of the money those folks could be making for you. In the long run it’s not about less expensive; it’s about buying the tools that are going to be the most durable, and give you the output that you need on a regular basis.”

There’s also the cost to replace the tool to consider. You may have spent $15 on the cheaper shovel instead of $20 on the more expensive, thinking you saved five bucks. But when it breaks and you have to buy another one, you have saved nothing and in fact, experienced a net loss. When it comes to hand tools, you get what you pay for.

Just as important as deciding what tools to buy, you should take special care in how you manage those tools. “I’ve sat through a lot of seminars that the trades have put on to help contractors be profitable,” says Stevens. “One of the key points in every one of those seminars is to keep track of your tools. You know they add up. All of a sudden, a couple hundred bucks are missing. That’s pure profit that’s being eaten up. The good owner/operators keep track of that stuff.”

And it’s an unnecessary loss. Tools break from use and wear; that happens. But tools disappearing because of negligence or carelessness can be avoided.

A good way to manage your tools is a checklist for the trucks in your fleet. It can be as elaborate as a computerized inventory complete with bars codes on each tool, to a simple clipboard and legal pad with a checklist of what’s on each truck and numbers painted on the tools to correspond with the truck from which they came.

Know what tools you have and how many are on each truck. Have a checklist with what was on that truck or trailer when it left your yard, and what was on it when it came back.

The maintenance of hand tools is another way to ensure that you get the most out of them. As with any cutting tool, the main thing is keeping those tools clean and keeping them sharp. Regular maintenance and seasonal sharpening will increase the longevity of any cutting tool immensely.

It’s as simple as wiping down the tools to keep them from getting rusty and applying WD-40 to keep them well-lubricated. And wiping off any excess bark and sap will help keep the blades from getting dull.

Protecting tools from rattling around in the back of a truck or in a tool box is another way to lengthen their life. Hand pruners and saws should be stored in scabbards that will protect the blades and help keep them from getting dull.

Photo courtesy: Husqvarna

And scabbards are also good safety items. Storing a sharp tool in a scabbard on your belt while climbing a ladder to prune a fruit tree, as opposed to your carrying it your hands, is just common sense -- like not running with scissors. And they’re not in your pocket. A scabbard keeps them in a safe position on your belt, yet accessible. And it helps protect the integrity of the blades when the tools are being transported.

If a tool has a blade, that blade should be protected. We don’t mean to abuse them, we’re just in a rush. But inadvertently, an unprotected blade will shorten the lifespan of a tool. Those few extra seconds that it takes to properly handle and protect those hand tools will add hours to their working life.

At this point, after all this work, it would be a crime to transport or store your carefully maintained tools in a haphazard manner. Just throwing those tools in the back of a truck, trailer or tool box will degrade the integrity of the tool. That’s why it’s best to employ a racking system, whether it’s on your trucks, trailers or in your shop. It will keep your tools dry, clean, and separate.

Sometimes in our haste, it’s easy to take these hand tools for granted. After all, it’s just a broom or rake. Yet by taking just a little extra time and care, the shovels, pruners and hedging shears that are essential tools of the trade will last a lot longer than you ever expected, saving you time and money.