Homemade Garden Tools from Recycled Materials

Make these handy homemade garden tools using recycled saw blades and wooden handles.
By John Vivian
January/February 1985
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Drilling the end-slotted ash handle.
JOHN VIVIAN
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Saw blades don't last very long on a self-reliant country place. A hacksaw blade can lose its bite on one hardened bolt; a staple buried in a fence post will reduce a bow saw to gumming soft pine; and handsaw teeth just naturally get bent out of shape after being set and filed repeatedly. However, all that's gone is a smitter of steel from their cutting edges; 99 percent of the metal is still good, and fairly begs to be recycled. Well, with a little time and a few common tools (a power circular saw, an electric drill, a vise, a propane torch, hammers, pliers, files and such), you can turn saw steel into homemade garden tools that aren't sold in any store.

The BrushWhacker

Once, I thought I needed a scythe, a Scandinavian bow saw, a scissors-style hedge clipper and a limb lopper to take on the woody vines, weeds and saplings of all sorts that join in a continual march from the woods to our vegetable garden. But now I've got a single tool home-fashioned from an old handsaw blade that handles them all: a curve-edged scimitar machete, or harvest knife, with a long saw on the top, which I call the BrushWhacker. I made one in a couple of hours, and so can you.

To start, first pull that old handsaw off the barn wall and flex it hard a couple of times to make sure the surface rust hasn't penetrated so deeply that the steel will break on you at first use.

Then remove the handle from the handsaw blade. The one in the accompanying photos was fastened with four brass bolts and came off easily. On some newer saws you'll have to remove rivets. To do so, grind or cold-chisel the head off on one side and pound the shank through the other with a punch or a big nail.

On the blade (which I'll refer to as a blank in the working stages), outline a harvest-knife design that appeals to you. The inner handle should go at the tip, or narrow end, of the saw so you can incorporate the wider rear section into the flat of the blade. (This way, the sawback on the tool will cut on the toward-you pull, as Japanese woodworking saws do.) Size and shape the tang to fit your hand comfortably, because that thin bar, covered with a set of grips, is the only connection that'll exist between you and nearly a pound of sharp, swinging metal.

Now you have to cut your blade-and-tang blank from your handsaw. Wood-saw steel is hard, so don't bother trying conventional hacksaw blades. The Super Tough bimetal blades manufactured by Milwaukee Electric Tool Company (Models No. 48-00-1183 and 48-00-1185) for their reciprocating saws are the only hardware store items that'll even come close to cutting saw steel. I've found that abrasive cutters — tungsten-carbide-tipped hack blades or aluminum oxide circular grinding wheels — are priced reasonably, last a long time and work fast. Rather than sawing with jagged teeth, these tools chisel little chips off the work. A rod-type blade for a conventional hacksaw frame (a 10-inch Remington "Grit Edge" tungsten-carbide rod saw) does a fine job of cutting the curved pans of the blades I make, and it could do the entire job. You can save time, however, by making the straight cuts with an electric circular saw that's fitted with a carbide cutoff wheel (Master Mechanic 7-inch Metal, IBM No. 123 554).

By the way, be sure to follow the manufacturer's directions when working with carbide-matrix cutting blades. Like any grinding wheels, they can fly apart if used improperly. Also, the use of safety glasses and tough, hot-splinter-proof clothing is highly recommended for working with any metal-cutting tools — grinders in particular.

Once the blank is roughed out, you can use a grinder to smooth the saw cuts, to make various notches and grooves for the handle and even to bevel the cutting edge, if you don't get it too hot. I have a little electric bench model, but a Carborundum grinding wheel for your electric drill would do as well (maybe better!), and with careful cutting in the first place, the edge can be finished entirely with a hand file and a stone.

Next you'll want to put fastening holes in the tang. A set of three brass through-rivets is traditional, and better machetes also have an added hole in the butt end of the handle for attaching a thong. I'd put the three rivet holes in a full-dress tool, but since drilling holes in saw steel is difficult, I rely mainly on that modern wonder, epoxy cement. All you need is one hole in the center of the tang to provide a through-hold for an epoxy "rivet" between handle halves. However, I always use a wrist thong when flailing around with a machete to keep it from sailing from a tired and sweaty palm, so I put in a tangend hole as well.

To penetrate saw steel, use a hardened center punch to make dimples for starting your drill bit, or the tip will wander all over the surface and never bite in. Then heat the drill spots with the white-hot tip of your propane torch's flame until a dime-size area is glowing as red as you can get it. Let it cool at its own pace...this will partially anneal, or remove the hardening temper from, the Steel. Use a high-speed metal-cutting bit in your electric drill, and take your time drilling, lest you overheat the bit and ruin it. I use a 5/16-inch standard high-speed bit that cost $2.99 new and can be resharpened for all eternity on the grinder.

To get through the saw steel (even though it's annealed), you'll have to kind of revolve your hand drill in a big cone around the drill hole. This will give an area other than the very tip of the bit a chance to bite into the steel, and the tool will penetrate quicker. I like to get just through with the drill, and then finish opening the hole with an old chain-saw file.

Once cut, drilled and trimmed, the BrushWhacker blank should be wire-brushed to remove old rust and crud. Shine it up bright with metal polish and steel wool, if you like. Saw steel is not a high-chrome "stainless" alloy, but you can make it rust-resistant with commercial gun bluing, available at any sporting goods shop, or with a brown-staining compound such as the trap dye sold by Cronk Outdoor Supplies.

I always make my knife handles of wood, because that material is truly pleasant to form and to touch. Using honest red oak grips gleaned from the sawmill slabs we cut up for firewood each fall, I cut out clear billets of nicely grained slabs, allow them to dry under cover for a year or more, then keep them in the house for months before use. Always use well-dried wood for handles, or they'll shrink and pull away from the tang in no time, no matter how well fastened they are.

Trace the tang outline on a pair of billets as thick as you like to hold when the steel is sandwiched between them. Rough-cut these blanks with a keyhole saw or jigsaw. Then, using the steel tang as a template, carefully drill the matching holes in each piece of wood. If you want a more attractive tool, relieve the inner surface of each handle piece with shallow wood-chisel cuts to surround the tang so the edges of the wood will meet in a margin around the metal, making the grip appear to be one piece.

Bevel and sand the exposed front end of each handle half to a final finish, then clean the tang well with a wire brush or solvent to remove all grease. Next, mix up your epoxy cement. Smooth a thin layer of cement on the inside of the handle halves, then align them so that the holes line up perfectly, put in bolts or rivets if you want, and clamp the whole affair until the cement is set. Finally, grind any bolt heads or nut ends down flat.

At this point, you might want to take an extra step by filing finger notches or any custom design you fancy into the grip. Try kneading a chunk of clay till it fits your hand well to discover what your personal grip should look like (it may surprise you). A comfortable grip combines grooves on each side of the handle top for the first joints of thumb and forefinger, but any grip should have a knob hilt up front to keep your working hand from slipping forward onto the blade. I also carve in a simple butt cap to provide an effective palm stop and add a wrist thong for extra insurance. After fine-sanding, a good furniture oil or boiled linseed oil is the best final finish for a BrushWhacker handle.

In clearing underbrush, the machete blade is traditionally slashed back and forth, low to the ground and with a good upward wrist twist to pop off larger stems. Always keep the BrushWhacker blade well in front of you, with your arm extended. Like any machete, the tool carries enough weight to exert a will of its own: If you're tired or your aim is bad, it can bounce off stout saplings in unanticipated directions. Use the wrist thong, and watch your instep and shins!

Machete work is an art that requires practice — and the built-in sawback is a bit of science to help when art doesn't do the trick. (Don't forget, the saw cuts with the pull stroke, not the familiar push.)

Scythes ("Swythes") and Sweeders

Those inexpensive, long-fanged but short-lived strip-steel blades that fit cordwood-cutting bow saws are made in Sweden, for the most part, so someone dubbed the one-hand scythes I make from old ones Swythes. Sweeders is an equally silly name for weeding tools made from the same saws and from regular hacksaw blades (which also come from Sweden these days). The heating, bending and handle-making process is the same for all of them, but the hacksaw blades, being of harder and more brittle steel, need a little more heat and care than the wood cutters.

To begin, decide on a specific gardening function for the tool and come up with a thin-bladed pattern to fit that use. Don't restrict yourself to the one or two designs you see in stores or be tempted to copy the overpriced "Gucci garden tool" imports offered in those gardening "boo-tique" mail-order catalogs. Instead, custom-design your tools, just as you custom-plan your garden! Several patterns I like are shown in the image gallery and need no further explanation. Be sure to make a paper model of your blades before you work on the steel to get the bends and angles correct in advance.

Bending thin saw steel takes heat and patience. Put the blade in a steel-jaw vise, and heat your target with a propane or MAPP gas torch until the metal is red-hot. Then use pliers to make a round curve, or hammer the band gently over the vise top to create a sharp bend. Don't force the metal and break it; heat it until it almost flops over of its own accord.

Torch-anneal the hole spots as you did for the BrushWhacker tang, and drill out as many holes as you think you'll need. Hacksaw blades won't extend far enough into the handle to supply a good glue-only purchase, so installing a pair of small through-bolts or rivets is a good idea. I use inexpensive No. 6-32-by-1-inch flathead steel machine screws in most of these tools.

To join your wood handles and steel, saw a slit in the end of the handle, drill holes (in the metal first, to provide a template for drilling the wood, as before), and set the blade with bolts and epoxy. (You might want to install strip-steel shoulders at the joint to give it additional strength.) Glop the tangs well with cement, slide the blade into the slits, insert and tighten the bolts, and let the glue set. Then file or grind down those protruding bolt ends, nuts and heads to make a smooth-looking neck. By the way, don't be tempted to countersink the fasteners...the handle stock isn't very thick to begin with, and its strength is already compromised by the slit and bolt holes. Considering this, you might want to strengthen this stress point by binding it with wire.

Each tool should be used according to its design. The working surface of my Goose-Face Swythe has one toothed and one beveled business edge, like its namesake. Swung lazily back and forth, it cuts small patches of medium-tall weed or grass better than any other tool I've tried. The toothed face mows down goldenrod and milkweed faster than all the hand-peened scythes in Austria, and you can sharpen it with a couple of swipes of a kitchen honing tool. Plus, it works from a full standing position if the handle is long enough (no scythe-swoop backache with this Goose!). The knife edge is a lovely grass cutter and also weeds loose garden soil. Then the tool can be turned over with its toothed edge down to rake out weeds and scarify the soil up to an inch deep as it goes.

The two-pronged Sweeder with its twin hacksaw blade does a fast job of in-row carrot weeding, clearing soil on both sides of the tiny seedlings in one stroke. My dad swears he couldn't grow his prize-winning salsify without it. You can use the notched tips (where the ends of the hacksaw blades are ground down to the mounting holes at the blade ends) to thin carrots, salsify or any other tall, row-planted seedlings in one nip if you get them when they're young.

And I've never found a weeding device that works so exquisitely close to a crop as the little diamond-head Sweeder. It's not particularly fast, but it's sweet. You can set one of the blade points right next to an onion stem and wrist-twist down and away...and out come the weeds.

The steel-strip-strengthened stirrup-blade Sweeder is made from a small bow-saw blade. With the fangs pointing toward the rear, it can remove weeds from the hardest soil, slicing them off just below ground level and right where they live in one quick and almost effortless stroke. Make it with teeth facing forward, and it's a weed pusher.

Well, those are my ideas. They all work great, but I bet you'll come up with your own styles and patterns. If you make one that pleases you, let MOTHER know. Maybe she'll pass it on to the rest of us!


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