A Homesteader’s Tool Kit | Life in the Kingdom

In rural Vermont, happiness can be found in hard work with a trusty friend.

By Ben Hewitt

May 02 2022


A Homesteader’s
Tool Kit

Photo Credit : Illustration by Tom Haugomat
A Homesteader’s
Tool Kit
Photo Credit : Illustration by Tom Haugomat

My favorite tool is a six-foot-long rock bar that our family has owned for better than a quarter century. It’s made of solid steel, about an inch and a half in diameter, and has a chisel tip for dislodging rocks and busting through soil that’s a bit frozen. The latter is important, because busting through soil that’s a bit frozen is exactly what happens when one procrastinates on one’s digging projects until the eve of a snowstorm in the middle of December. (Not that I’ve ever done that, mind you, but it’s good to be prepared.) I’ve used that rock bar to assist in digging holes for concrete piers, to loosen the soil for sharpened fence posts, and to chisel ice from the wide, flat rock that serves as the front step to our home.

Actually, my favorite tool is the 12-pound sledgehammer we’ve owned for almost as long as we’ve had that rock bar. I think it’s on its third handle, but I might be wrong about that. Could be the fourth. I’ve used the sledge for driving sharpened fence posts into the soil I’ve loosened with my beloved rock bar (now relegated to my second-favorite tool). I’ve also used it for slamming the ends of walls I’m trying to knock into square, and for freeing rims that have rusted onto the hub assemblies that hold them. Like the rock bar, our sledge is a good, honest piece of equipment: no moving parts, not much to break other than the handle, which is easily replaced at modest cost and effort. Plus, you can’t use a sledge without using your body in ways that will in short order result in the beading of sweat upon your brow, and in slightly longer order result in delayed-onset muscle soreness. Like I said, an honest tool.

Wait. Scratch that. Because my favorite tool might be our right-angle grinder, which I’ve pressed into service for cutting rebar and roofing metal, as well as for putting a crude edge on the battered blade of our bush hog. I used it to cut the spare tire down from underneath the bed of our truck (in what galaxy do those assemblies actually work when you most need them?!? Certainly not the one I live in), and I used it to cut the length of flat steel stock that I then used to construct a mount for the new seat I bought for the tractor, which I was vexed to discover didn’t fit the stock mount. I’ve used it for about half a million other things, too, but we’ve got only so much time together, so I’ll stop now.

Hmm… come to think of it, I suppose my favorite tool is our Fiskars spade. I like the Fiskars because it’s got a metal handle that’s honestly not much fun to hold but which is guaranteed for life—a guarantee that I have yet to test, because the darn thing has proven indestructible. In addition to using our spade (actually, we own two matching ones) for digging holes, I’ve also used it to roll logs, scoop cat poop out of the yard come spring (disgusting, but true), and shovel ungodly quantities of crushed stone for the betterment of our driveway. Again: a good, honest tool that can quickly raise beaded sweat and a blister or two.

Now that I’ve got that spade on my mind, I’m realizing that my favorite tool is probably my Fiskars X27 splitting axe. (If all this mention of Fiskars causes you to think that perhaps I’m getting kickbacks, I assure that I’m not. However, should anyone from Fiskars be reading this and would like to open negotiations with my agent, please do let me know, so I can get an agent for you to negotiate with.) Like the spade, my X27 has a lifetime guarantee, which, like the spade, I’ve yet to test, despite having used it to split upward of 75 cords of hardwood over the past dozen years or so, and running over the handle with the tractor at least twice. Yeah. I love that axe.

Wait! The tractor! Ours is a Kubota, with a 51-horsepower, five-cylinder motor (arguably the best motor Kubota ever made, according to me) and a loader fitted with a high-capacity bucket that’s just the ticket for moving snow and firewood, which is handy because I use the tractor primarily for snow removal and firewood logging. That said, my most favorite tractor-related task by a long shot is the extraction of hapless vehicles from the ditches and snowbanks surrounding our home. Unless it’s our hapless vehicle.

It just occurred to me that perhaps our wood stove could be considered a tool, and so, there’s little question but that would be my most favorite tool ever. Most used, too. Our wood stove is a Heartland Oval cookstove. It’s the primary (OK, only) source of heat for our small home, as well as the primary (OK, only) cooking surface in our house. So it gets fired pretty much every day, except during the doggiest dog days of summer, when we cook outdoors using one of those two-burner propane camp stoves upon which achieving a reliable simmer is something approaching high art. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without our cookstove (other than be cold and hungry, I mean). I love every bit of it, and every bit of the process of using it, and (crucially) even the process of harvesting the wood necessary to feed its insatiable appetite.

My chainsaw! Oh. Now that has to be my favorite tool, embodying as it does an almost sublime medley of risk, skill, noise, exertion, and unparalleled productivity. I own two saws, which is about two saws shy of what I’d like to own, but hey: Sometimes you just have to make do. My primary saw is a Dolmar 6400; it’s a bit big and unwieldy, but it compensates with gobs of power and an overall sense of invincibility. I bought it used about a decade ago, and I’ve had to fix essentially nothing in the intervening years. Our small saw is a Husqvarna 346xp, which belongs in the dictionary under the phrase They don’t make ’em like they used to. It’s light and powerful, and if I’m working a long day in the woods, I’ll take it along and fire it up after I’ve already run the much heavier Dolmar for a few hours and I’m dragging a bit. Yeah. I love that little Husky. Plus, it’s orange, and everyone knows that orange power equipment is at least 17 percent better than any other color.

I suppose the only honest conclusion is that it’s impossible to have a favorite tool. In this way, they’re a bit like children: You love them each in different ways, according to their particular qualities and quirks, and perhaps even your mood. Crucially, you realize that your affection for one does not diminish your affection for the others; as with humans, a love of tools has no bounds. This is good, because I’ve got my eyes open for a used air compressor big enough to run an impact driver. Once I get it, I’m sure it’ll be my favorite tool ever.