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Dad’s Shovel

very old shovel

I grabbed this shovel from my dad’s garage when I needed to dig in his yard. Using it brought back memories and gave me respect for the value of being able to “do it yourself.”

Last week I needed a shovel to dig some holes at my dad’s house. As I had as a child, I found what I needed in the garage and went to work.

Through an hour or so of digging, I put a huge load on the shovel’s handle. Repeatedly, I dug deep and pulled to pry soil and stones loose. The handle bent but it never cracked. It bent more than handles on my own shovels and garden forks when I dig in my vegetable garden… and I’ve broken at least six of those in the last ten years.

Grow your own repair crew

My father always expressed his depression era mentality through maintenance and preservation: he cleaned and oiled what needed lubrication, and he repaired what broke. He involved his kids in these chores, and we learned to remove rust, paint metal to preserve it, grease bearings, oil joints, polish leather, clean spark plugs, sharpen knives and axes, glaze windows, calk, glue stuff, repair damaged wiring, remove and replace cotter pins, mix concrete, and otherwise keep stuff operational.

When I was eleven, my parents bought a weekend farm. This was the foundation of a strategy to keep their kids from becoming hippies. Whether it worked is fodder for another post, but the farm certainly changed us all.

knotty shovel handle

There aren’t a lot of shovel handles like this one in the United States. Smooth, well-worn bark covers most of the wood, though knots show where the handle’s maker removed branches from the main shaft.

At the farm we learned about sharpening and lubricating chain saws, cleaning and oiling leather, cutting black locust trees into fence posts, stringing barbed wire and electric fences, clearing brush, replacing rotted barn boards and beams, cementing washed-out foundations, and planting stream banks with willow to hold the soil in place.

And, of course, there was the shovel. (Remember? This is a post about a shovel. But first, a confession: I wrote this post a week ago and told a story about my brother and his handiwork. Before I posted the story, I mentioned it to my dad who told a very different story; a better story. So, here’s the amendmended version to reflect my dad’s revelations.)

well-worn shovel handle

The end of my dad’s shovel handle has a lot of character. Some bark is missing, revealing a crack in the wood, and the remaining bark is shinier here.

Dad’s Shovel

The shovel predates my memories, but I know it lived at our house and later at the farm. I have a vague notion that it had a machined wooden handle painted red, but the paint was well-worn. The handle also was well-worn, and one day under load at the farm the handle broke. (Knowing my dad, that was the second, third, or fourth handle to break on that shovel.)

Normally, we’d have bought a commercially machined shovel handle to replace the broken one—over the years we’d done as much for axe handles, sledge hammer handles, and shovel handles. But this time around, my dad went a different route: he created a new handle from raw materials in the forest.

And so, last week I held that home-crafted shovel handle in my hands. It flexed without cracking; without complaining and I mused as to the wood my dad might have used. For the legendary strength of the tree’s wood, I wanted to guess Hickory (people used to call baseball bats “hickory sticks” because hickory was the default material back in the day). The bark’s texture suggested Ash or Oak, and its color seemed okier rather than ashier. So, I guessed Oak.

My dad’s shovel handle has been in service for at least 20 years—and probably much closer to 30. As I empty out the house and garage to make way for renters (my dad moved out in January), I’m inclined to throw the shovel in my car so I can enjoy the handle in my own garden. But aside from the question of what wood my dad used, the shovel handle held a second mystery: someone carved my brother Kris’s name in the wood. The name being there had me thinking Kris had repaired the shovel and it seemed when I wrote this blog post that the shovel should go to Kris when my dad is done with it.

shovel handle for kris

Not the name of a treasured sled that represents happy, simpler days of childhood; this is the name of the craftsman’s son. Dad’s shovel handles are one-of-a-kind creations and impressively durable.

The Truth about Dad’s Shovel

Last week when I mentioned the shovel to my dad, he said, “I put that handle on. Didn’t I do one for you? I did one for Eric. I thought I did one for each of you boys.” Eric confirmed that HE has a shovel with a homemade handle having HIS name carved in it. I never had such a shovel.

I’m not bitter. Actually, it’s a sweet story to know my dad repaired these tools so spectacularly for my brothers. It’ll be a pleasure to make sure Kris eventually gets this shovel to use on his own farm.

My dad identified the wood: these are Ash tool handles. If ever you have the opportunity to repair a broken shovel handle, make your own from a branch of an ash tree. And carve someone’s name in the wood; you’ll create a story to tell.


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