Breathing New Life Into an Old Shovel

The derelict shovel next to some axe handles I recently rejuvinated.

When we bought our house over 10 years ago, I didn’t notice it right away. In the backyard, just a few steps outside the door was a clump of 3 tree trunks and in the space in the middle was stashed a shovel. It seemed odd, like the previous owner may have forgotten it there, but it’s use (I think) eventually became clear. The previous owner was had a dog too and I think he used it for yard cleanup.

Since then, I’ve used it for the same, but also as a general purpose shovel. The shovel has been stuck in that space, in between the trees, outside and exposed to the elements, 365 days a year, for over 10 years. It’s been frozen in by snow and rained on, and yet the other day it occurred to me just how solid it was. In rough shape, for sure, but the handle still felt sure your hand and amazingly the shovel head was still firmly attached – not the slightest wobble or sign of loosening. This was where I got all retrogrouchy and said, “they just don’t make things like they used to.”

There’s no distinguishing marks on the shovel, so I have no idea of it’s origin. I don’t know what kind of wood the handle is (bombproof – apparently) and the head has no tell tale markings other that a ‘HEAT-TREATED STEEL’ stamp. The tool weirdo in me would like to know who made it and where it came from.

A few months back, I refurbished a few old axes I had. The handles were drying out and the heads were rusted and dull. I did the best I could to clean them up and put a decent edge on them with what I had, basically a file, sandpaper and steel wool. I decided to give this shovel a go.

Before and After: Shovel handle originally, and after several sandings and an application of linseed oil.

I started by washing the whole thing and scrubbing with a brush to remove the surface dirt. There was still a lot of stuff hardened on. I worked first on the shovel head removing what rust I could with steel wool and sand paper. Then I hit the handle with several sandings, going with a finer grit each time. The handle was very dry and cracked, and starting to split in some spots. I opted to not try any sort of ‘filling’ of the cracks and just leave them be. I thought the sanding dust would fill them some and then get sealed in a bit during the last step when I hit the wood with linseed oil. I finished the whole process by coating the head and the handle with a few coats of linseed oil, sanding the handle lightly between coats.

In-Process – Here I’d already started to hit the shovel head with steel wool and one pass of sanding on the handle.

What I was consistently amazed by was the method that the head was attached to the handle. It appears to be some sort of pass-through metal rod that was then welded on both sides – it hasn’t budged or loosened a bit over the years – amazing when you think the wood has probably expanded and contracted with the elements over time. I’ve seen ‘modern day’ shovels with screws and bolts and other attachment methods that have all come loose in short order. I actually have another shovel I bought with a fiberglass handle that the head is coming loose on.

Before and After: shovel head. This was as good as I could get it with mere elbow grease. I saw some videos on YouTube of guys using grinders and other power tools to basically strip the metal back to a mirror-like finish. I don’t have a grinder and frankly I like a little bit of patina, so I’m ok with how this turned out. I could have worked indefinitely at it with steel wool and maybe some naval jelly, but I just wanted to get the thing back in rotation.

Overall, I’m really happy with how it turned out. I have a bunch of other wood-handled garden tools I plan to refurbish one at a time. When you sand the handles and clean them up, then add the linseed oil, they really feel great in the hand.

Before and After: Top of shovel handle. I probably could have sanded more and gotten rid of more of the blackened, seasoned wood grain, but at some point I would have taken considerable dimension out of the handle so decided to leave it.

I like the notion that by treating these tools as what they are – a valuable and helpful object to have around – and taking care of them accordingly, not only am I ensuring they’re safe and ready to perform for years to come, but I’m also combating the sort of ‘disposable’ mindset that I find is prevalent these days – one that even I had fallen victim to. Particularly with things like garden tools, I’d started to think of them as ‘one-offs’ – items to be bought and used until broken and discarded – and more often than not it seems they only last a season or two, I think in part due to cost-cutting assembly methods and materials. I like the idea that I’m going to have these things around awhile to develop character. Is it possible to have an emotional attachment to a shovel?

Before and After: Back out to it’s spot in the tree to be of service hopefully for years to come. I won’t wait as long next time to give it some TLC.

The Seasonal Changeover

The garage is a gong show at the moment.

That time when everything has to be moved around to accommodate the coming and passing season. There are generally only two of these each year, one in Fall to Winter and one in Spring to Summer.

I have a two car garage that has only ever had one car in it. Lyn gets to keep her car in it in the winter time so she doesn’t have to clean it off. The other 3 seasons it’s left to bikes and other stuff. The garage primarily holds stuff relevant to the current season. The Garage is Central Processing.

Central Processing.

The changeover is slow. It can sometimes take a period of several weeks, worked on in chunks of hours at a time here and there, hence the state of disarray. I generally try and get it done as quickly and cleanly as possible.

Currently Central Processing is filled with stuff on it’s way out. Winter tires for the cars that have been removed. The Snowblower. Some bags of salt/ice melt. These will be transported to Storage and Waste Management. There are also other items to be processed. Bins of Lyn’s plant pots and potting materials that need to be established in some new location. A dollhouse, foosball table, miscellaneous toys, a drill press and random Thule rack pieces that need to be re-homed. The backlog is growing.

Non-relevant seasonal items need to be moved from Central Processing to Storage and Waste Management. This is often done with the aid of a re-puposed Radio Flyer wagon. Storage and Waste Management is a ‘shed’ at the rear of The Fack Ranch property where items are either stored during their respective ‘off’ season or sorted and distributed either to be trashed/taken to the dump, recycled, or burned.

Storage and Waste Management.

Currently, Storage and Waste Management has quite a few items to be rotated to Central Processing. The lawn mower. All the garden hand tools. The steps that go into the pool (also as yet to be opened for the season) and various pool accessories.

Storage and Waste Management – as it’s name implies – also permanently stores many things. The lean-to next to it covers my main stockpile of firewood that feeds the smaller stockpile I keep in the garage. Inside the barn is my ‘collection’ of far too much ‘reclaimed’ wood. Leftovers from various projects that may be of use some day, miscellaneous pieces retrieved when disassembling various items/structures, etc. Some of it, if too warped, bent or rotten simply gets burned, but if it’s moderately useable it will be kept, at least temporarily.

Storage and Waste Management, mid-seasonal changeover, looking pretty worse for wear. And in it’s case, that’s saying something.

Other items currently in storage are a non-functional 4-wheeler that I partially disassembled in hopes of ‘restoring’ but then realized I was in over my head. When it comes to small engines, I am a cyclist. It’s future remains a mystery. There’s a small garden trailer. There’s several items that were put here for ‘later use’, but now have languished so long that they are no longer salvageable and are now considered ‘waste’. These include remnants of flooring, several old baseboard heaters and some random light fixtures as well as an old shower enclosure (don’t ask).

The one drawback of Storage and Waste Management is that it is not – ahem – ‘weather tight’. It sits on an old (failing) fieldstone foundation and as such there is a great deal of daylight in spots at the base of the structure as well as points throughout. In other words, it’s a wildlife habitat. Often times the best intentions of saving something for later use are foiled by something deciding it makes great nesting material. Oh well. Them’s the breaks. ‘Country Living’ I believe it’s called.

There is a second story to Storage and Waste Management, but it’s only accessible via a rather questionable ladder at the inside rear of the structure so not much is kept up there, as it’s difficult to get bigger/heavier stuff up top.

On the Waste Management side, this is where things go to be stockpiled for eventual removal to the landfill or recycling depot. Landfill trips usually only occur 2-3 times a year so this can sometimes mean a backlog of materials awaiting extrication, lending only further to the ‘Backcountry’ Aesthetic. (See box spring and derelict hockey goals to the right in ‘Figure 37A’)

Figure 37A

Where the Hell is Everything

Although I’m pretty fastidious with systems and labelling, in an operation of this size there is still some product loss issues. After 6 months I sometimes don’t remember where I’ve put shit. During the Seasonal Changeover there is also the process of Inventory Repair and Replacement. Often times at the end of a season, if something is broken beyond repair it is discarded and a ‘mental note’ is made to ‘replace next year’. If it’s repairable, a note is made to ‘repair next year’, so these items need to be sorted as well. Often, due to filing inaccuracies or clerical error, these mental notes get lost or filed incorrectly and this can lead to delays in the Seasonal Changeover process. In addition, Inventory is sometimes not accurate and things are indeed, not where the hell you thought they were.

One side-effect of this is often thinking when you can’t find something that it must have been broken last year, deemed ‘irreparable’ by Facilities Management and disposed of. You end up purchasing a new item, only to find the fully-functioning old item later on, which, due to an error in Inventory – usually the loss of a ‘mental note’ – had been right where you put it leading to an instance of redundancy, which is not always desirable, but often times is sorted naturally, when you get mad and break one of the redundant items, usually by trying to use it for something other than it’s intended purpose – also known as the Everything is Not Necessarily a Hammer Principle.

This year the changeover is going reasonably well. The issue of finding the component to house all Lyn’s potting/plant stuff has led to a bit of a logjam in Central Processing, but with roughly one and a half days worth of Man-hours into the process, I’m feeling pretty confident. Folly for sure, as I’ve added to the docket this year my intention to remove all that reclaimed wood I mentioned earlier, lay it out in the yard, and sort it for easier retrieval when needed. That may have to break out into a work docket all it’s own due to the complexity and time requirements of such a project. I’ll have to consult with Project Scheduling and Management on that. I anticipate a breakout workgroup session to strategize on on implementation of wood sorting best practices and optimization of metrics to determine maximum ROI.

And I’ll probably end up burning some stuff.

Snow, Covered

Was listening to CBC Information Morning Fredericton (yep, good old-fashioned terrestrial radio) a few weeks back and there was a gentleman who emailed in reporting that he had tracked ‘days of snow cover’ in New Brunswick for several years. By ‘days of snow cover’ he meant days after the first snow that sticks, and doesn’t melt away. Unfortunately I can’t find if/where he posts any of this info on the Internet so I’ll summarize what he said.

We usually get our first snow sometime as early as October, but it seldom sticks and melts away. Usually it’s at least November or December before we get snow that sticks around, sometimes not even by the first of the year. By his calculations, once the snow sticks, we average around 128 days of ‘snow cover’ each year.

This year he noted that our first snow that stuck was early November and that if the trend continued – no doubt it will – that we are set to break the record of days of snow cover, which I think he said was around 138. Given all the factors, his estimate was that we’d probably hit the 150-155 day mark this year – a new record – and one that would mean we were under snow for roughly 48% of the year.

Friends, relatives and acquaintances often ask how I can manage to live up here with the winters we have. I regularly point out several things:

  • I prefer seeing 4 distinct seasons. I’ve lived in places where the weather is pretty much the same year-round and it gets boring.
  • Given proper preparation and attitude, winter activities are actually awesome and living someplace like New Brunswick means that everyone embraces them enthusiastically, if only because there’s no other choice but to do so.
  • I guarantee that those of us who live in places that see ‘true’ winter appreciate our days of spring, summer and fall far more than those who have a steady climate year round. When you get a limited number of specific kinds of days, you make the most of them.
  • I’ve noticed that amongst people who live regions with harsh or long winters, there is a sense of community and tolerance that is not found it other places. Rather unscientifically I’ve been observing it for some years now and chalk it up to the notion that when you have to possibly rely on the assistance of strangers or neighbors to just survive the winter, there is generally more willingness to set aside differences and an increase in basic good will for your fellow man/woman/person. I enjoy this sense of camaraderie, even if it is futile in a sense of resisting the will of a planet that could easily end us all. It’s fun to persevere.

In the milder months, I can step barefoot right out my back door onto nice green grass. Yesterday, I had to construct a bit of a staircase so Crash could get out to do his thing. If you look close at the top of the photos, you can see our clothesline, which normally is at about 7′ off the ground and that now hits me in the chest and I have to duck under. We’ve been here over 10 years and I’m not sure if this a record-breaking year in terms of quantity of snowfall, but it definitely seems like it will set a new record for being around the longest. I think buddy said probably mid-to-late April. Then Mud Season starts.

If I had a hammer…

I’d bash in some drywall with it.

Pretty much finished the deconstruction of what I had dubbed the ‘Man Lair’ this weekend. There was some nice black mold that was growing along the bottoms of most of the drywall. Mmmmmm. Loooooove damp dark basements.

Soon to be no more. Facelift to follow. The crack in the foundation has been fixed. New hearth in (foreground) for new high-efficiency wood stove. New floor, walls, ceiling (and vapor barriers) to come.


I dunno.

I’ll letcha know.