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A Handcrafted Broadfork

Guest Article: © The material on this page is copyright by Larry Cooper, October 27, 2008.

(Intro by Harvey) Earlier this year, Larry Cooper—a “country blacksmith” since 1986—contacted me via the site, inquiring about the design specifics of the broadfork I use. I sent him photos and measurements, and within a couple of days—pow! he had made a beautiful handcrafted version.

We hear a lot these days about the need for “local food”—I believe we should be thinking about “local tools”as well, fabricated by local craftsmen keeping the traditional tool-making crafts alive. That's why I was so excited when Larry told me he wanted to start offering his version of the broadfork to homesteaders seeking high-quality hand tools.

Read Larry's story of his broadfork below—its history, design, and construction. Check out his blog for even more design and fabrication details. (He blogs on sustainability issues as well.) If you are interested in buying a Gulland Broadfork, you can order or get more information at Gulland Forge.

This page was added to the site October 27, 2008.

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Larry with His Broadfork
(Photo by Karen Stack)

Finding our way to a better tillage tool

A few years ago, after one of the big U.S. produce recalls, my wife and I started a small vegetable garden at our home. That first year, we did what most people do and we borrowed a gas engine tiller from a friend to get the ground in shape for planting.

The borrowed tiller was big and unwieldy, and was held together with a lot of ‘quick fixes’ that had never been properly repaired. Due to a faulty clutch, it pushed one fence post down, and wound another piece of fence wire up in its churning 10-horsepower tines. The whole time it was running I was on edge, only guessing what it might destroy next.

The very next spring saw us in the same situation. We thought we had to till the soil of our now established garden bed to get it to produce. We borrowed a tiller from a different friend that said there was a wire that had been chewed through by a mouse, and if the wire was repaired, the tiller would run like a champ. After a complete work over of the fuel and electrical systems, it still sputtered and coughed so badly I decided to take it back unused, but in much better shape than when we got it.

That was the year that I discovered that power tools were not needed at all for our 30x70-ft garden. With the gas engine tiller gone, I took matters into my own hands, quite literally, and worked the garden rows with shovel and hoe. That also happened to be the year that I discovered the magic of the Austrian scythe. I harvested grass with the scythe that was used as mulch between the rows with great success.

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Harvey's Broadfork

As I searched, I began to find that others held disdain for power tillers and their tendency to disrupt the naturally occurring living layers in the soil. I stumbled across Harvey Ussery’s web site TheModernHomestead.US and gained a great deal of soil knowledge there. It was also there where I discovered the broadfork.

About the broadfork

The origin of the tool dates back several centuries, and thus it was perfected at a time when tools were powered either by humans or animals. Toolmakers in those days worked hard to design tools that fit the dynamics of the human body, and the broadfork exemplifies a high water mark in human powered tool technology.

In just a few seconds, by stepping on the crossbar, one side then the other and using only body weight, the tines are set completely into the soil. Using the tremendous leverage of the pair of 48-inch long handles, the soil is loosened by working the handles back and forth in a kind of rowing motion. As is the case of most old, well designed human powered tools, the broadfork requires minimal effort for the work it produces. It’s the kind of tool that almost anyone can use effectively. It doesn’t require brute force, rather it provides a rhythmic, almost aerobic workout when used properly.

What a broadfork IS:

In mature soils and garden beds, the broadfork is used to loosen soil to prepare for planting or for adding soil amendments such as compost, fertilizer or mulches. It will open and loosen soil while minimizing damage to its living strata of flora and fauna that provide the nutrients for the garden bed. The broadfork is also a great tool to choose for harvesting potatoes, beets, carrots, etc.

What a broadfork ISN’T:

Though it is a tough, durable tool, it’s not supposed to replace a tiller in compacted, dense, or rocky soils. Picks and spades are best for initial groundbreaking and once the sod busting is done, the broadfork makes quick work of further improving the texture of the soil, providing deep aeration. The tool can be damaged if it is used improperly.

About the Gulland Broadfork

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The Working End

I have been a blacksmith since 1986, and this year decided to design and produce a broadfork. I have always appreciated good quality, efficient hand tools and I wanted mine to be the best available. My blacksmith shop is just a few feet from our garden, so design experimentation was easy.

Beautiful in its simplicity, there’s not much room to improve a broadfork in design, but I attempted to weed out all the potential trouble spots that I found in some others. I discovered that some designs are very difficult to repair, for example, and in this throw away world, I wanted my broadfork to be one that could be used for years, and be easily repaired if repair was ever needed.

The handles are 48-inch long select ash made for me by a tool handle manufacturer in the Tennessee River Valley; a small four-person family business, and they have been wonderful to work with. They understand my need for the highest quality wood available, and have agreed to supply me with their finest locally harvested ash. The handles are finished with a coat of hand rubbed wax.

Ash is incredibly strong, tough wood, and each handle is selected for density and grain quality. I install each one with the grain set in the proper direction for maximum strength and durability. Ash is far superior to metal handles with its dynamic “feel” when worked. It’s also warm to the touch, and the ends are contoured to better fit the hand. The handles are attached to the sockets with a stainless steel carriage bolt and locking nut, making it a simple task if a handle replacement is ever needed.

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Curved Tines

The business end of the broadfork is made of very heavy walled 1-½ square tubing, comfortable under foot, and on either end is welded a handle socket. The tines are attached in a way that makes them repairable should one ever be damaged. The bend of the tine is a constant radius curve which allows easier soil penetration by allowing the “tail to follow the head” as the hand forged tapered tips are inserted into the soil.

The penetration depth of the tines of my broadfork is 9 inches. This is a little less than in some other designs. (For example, Harvey's broadfork—which I started with as a working model—has 10-inch tines.) While researching steels that I could use to make my broadfork, I decided to use the low tech option so that it could be easily repaired should it become damaged. (Higher tech steels, along with being far more costly—perhaps ten times more—are far more difficult to weld should a broken tine need to be re-attached.)

My goal, in every aspect of the Gulland Broadfork design and fabrication, is that it be simple, maintainable, repairable, and of the highest quality available, with no compromises.

You can order a Gulland Broadfork at my website.