Monday, January 26, 2009

Making the Gulland Broadfork

When I started this blog, I really wanted it to be about the broadfork. So far it's been about pears, intermodal logistics, chickens, and Chernobyl. Today, I'm going to talk a little bit about the broadfork.

I want you to know that I make each one by hand, one at a time in my shop. I pay attention to details during this process to make sure that each tool is as good as it can be. I go to great lengths to insure that things are done the right way, ultimately for you, but also for me and for all of us. By that I mean that I am very careful in the manufacturing process to think about the details that will make this tool useful, durable, repairable, environmentally reasonable to produce, and actually profitable, so that I can make a living by doing this. With proper care, the Gulland Broadfork should never get to the point to where it should end up in a landfill.

First, I want to introduce the process of fitting the handles to my broadfork. The select ash handles are really half the tool and deserve to be treated as such.  My handles come from a small producer located about 30 miles from me in Tennessee who gives me the best he has to offer. He uses ash that is native to the Tennessee Valley, and the wood travels very minimally from where it is harvested to my shop. Mike runs a 4 person operation, and most of his employees are family members. I consider him a partner in my business, and I have the utmost respect for what he does. It has been an absolute pleasure to work with him.

I start by matching each pair of handles by grain density so both will have about the same amount of 'spring' which is what gives my broadfork such a great feel when in use. Some handled tools feel like pry bars, but these contoured ash handles have a dynamic feel when in use. All the handles are straight grained, and the grain runs the full length of the handle with no run-outs.  I drill each one with the hole in line with the strongest orientation of the grain. 

The drilled hole is carefully whittled out before the final handle sizing is done.

The steel handle sockets are seamless DOM tubing, and are sized just a bit smaller than the handles I get from Mike. The wood comes to me at 1.5" diameter, and the tube is 1.482" inside diameter. That leaves me with a little fitting to do as you can see from the scratches on the end of the wood handle shown here. I choose to do it this way to insure that the handle and socket are fitted very closely to each other. The wood changes size ever so slightly with changes in moisture, so it can never be perfect, but I like it to be as close as possible when it leaves my shop. The first step in sizing the handle is to see approximately how much wood needs to be removed. The handle is pressed by hand into the socket, and the resulting line gives me the exact depth of cut I need.

The sizing process is one I have decided to do the hard way. In the first few broadforks I made, I used a sander to size the handles to fit the sockets. For production, I wanted to minimize the amount of 'consumables' I had to purchase and throw away. Sanding discs wear out quickly on the rock-hard ash wood, and all that sandpaper would just go to the landfill, so I decided to buy a hand tool to do the job. I went straight to the top, and bought a bronze Lie-Neilsen low angle block plane. I'd like to thank my brother for turning me on to this exceptional tool. After I borrowed his, I went out and got one for myself. It is a joy to use, and though it may be a bit slower to use than a power sander, it works beautifully, and at a human pace. It's silent, doesn't create that fine dust that gets everywhere, and has no throw away 'consumables'. By doing it this way, I don't have to use electricity for a sander or for a vacuum system. Clean up is simple with a broom and a dustpan and I use the shavings to make fire starters and garden mulch. 

I set up a simple jig to rotate the handle as I size it to fit, from time to time checking the handle socket as I slide the razor sharp blade through the wood pulling off paper thin curls. Doing this for an hour or two is quite relaxing, really, and I am always amazed at how much time passes while I am doing this very pleasant task. Yesterday I enjoyed Holst's 'Hammersmith' while I fitted a couple dozen handles. You can get much worse work.

The last step in fitting is to actually line up the holes in the wood with the holes in the metal. This is a nice, tight fit and everything lines up perfectly. The square punched hole in the handle socket is another detail I add. The handle is attached to the broadfork with a single stainless steel carriage bolt with a thin locking jam nut. The square hot punched hole holds the square shank of the carriage bolt making the fit-up as neat and clean as possible. 

We're not through with the handles yet. Next time we'll take a look at the last step in making the handles as good as they can be. If you couldn't tell, I just love these tool handles. Having been a blacksmith for all these years, I feel like I am learning something new with this exposure to woodworking, and I'm looking forward to doing more of it.

Thanks for reading along, and check back soon for more broadfork information.



  1. Good morning Gulland .. fascinating stuff and thank you for posting it. I have read the broadfork description on your other site ( and sent a few people to it. Nice to see a real craftsman at work too :)

    This is the sort of thing we should be thinking about when we want to do low-impact tilling (to minimize topsoil damage) and when there won't be any more gasoline or spare parts for those mechanized rototillers that most people use.

    There is something fairly fresh on my blog about the whole issue of small-scale home industry operations. (I know you are already there with respect to your shop and your tools and your experience as a blacksmith & fabricator.) I would like to do the same sort of thing (eventually) by adding the weaving and spinning components to what I can do in my own little textiles shop. Already our country's fabric weaving work has been outsourced to places like Pakistan and India, and now even those companies are going under. So I figure we all have maybe 2 years before the cheap imported clothes we've been buying start falling apart. The holes in them will not be decorative. Folks are gonna need warm stuff and sturdy work wear. I already have the stuff for the sewing end, but need to upgrade the serger to an industrial model.

    At the rate things are going, “business investment” is a dead thing if you are talking about IPO's, stock offers, venture capital, etc. The only businesses that can make it through the bottleneck are very small family- or household-scale operations where the equipment can be owned outright (no debt), where the expenses can be kept very low (think survival), and where work hours can be flexible as needed. We are all going to have to be a lot more familiar with our own gardens, but still, there's going to be time in there for all the other little things that people will make for each other.

  2. Great info, Gulland. Are you still making scythes, too?

    I have an inkling of what you mean by how important handles are… I've used some tools where the handle just didn't feel right, and others that were shaped to fit not only hands, but provided a comfortable angle for the arms. The few people who use hand tools for a living would know these things, of course.

    That plane looks nice, where do you find top-shelf tools like that? I also wondered if you considered using a lathe to taper the handles… yeah, back to electric again, but (like the plane) requires no consumables and makes shavings instead of dust. Not as fun though!

  3. Hi Nudge,

    You're right; the whole scale of manufacturing has gotten too big and won't be able to support itself. I'm trying to find a niche market for my tools and supply that relatively small crowd with the best they can get.
    It's nice that I can do this manufacturing in my own home and not have to support another set of utilities, rent, insurance, etc, and have to travel back and forth.

    For all these years I have had a big shop and every tool available and lots of space to work in. I have made gates that weighed thousands of pounds and all kind of crazy one of a kind architectural pieces. I gave all that up to make tools and I'm really happy about that. My business investment in this new venture has so far been a hand plane, and most of that was a Christmas gift card from my brother and his wife.

    Nudge, note the ends of my sleeves in the photos above. They're a little too frayed to work around the forge because the strings ignite very easily, but they're fine for woodworking. It's a wonderful canvas work shirt and probably 6-7 years old. I buy several good ones at a time when I can find them and they are my 'uniform' until they wear out. It makes dressing simple, particularly for a colorblind guy like myself, but I think Karen is tired of seeing the same old shirts all the time.

    Hi FAR,

    I have never actually made a scythe. It's one of the most complex tools to forge that I have ever seen. It takes a real special touch to do it well, and I have not even had the guts to try yet.

    Handles make the hand tools. The right handle on a broadfork almost turns the tool into a good dance partner. I have no tolerance for bad tool handles, and when doing the prototype broadforks last year, I went to every store in town that sold tool handles, and that was 2 Home Depots, 3 Farm & Fleets, and probably 10 various hardware stores, and only found 2 post hole digger handles that I would even consider purchasing.

    That little plane is a model 102 from Lie-Nielsen: They're about the most expensive block plane on Earth, but you really do get what you pay for. I whittled a 5 gallon bucket of ash wood shavings with it the other day, polished the edge on a 4000, then an 8000 grit waterstone, and in 5 minutes the edge was like a mirror again.

    There is a foot powered treadle lathe that I considered, but it's just another machine to keep around, and that little plane works sooo well. Here's a treadle lathe video if you've never seen one before: If the business grows to where I can't keep up with production using a plane, I'll build a treadle lathe.

    Thanks for the comments, and keep an eye out for a lot more broadforking.


  4. Hey Gulland! You're broadfork is very interesting! I don't remember it being apart of the vast collection of primitive tools (if I can call them that)of my family's farm. They did have assortment of thine and disc harrows that were driven by oxen.

    When the cranberry operation was reconstructed back in 1989, I read somewhere that if the vines were planted by hand they would come up 50% faster, halving the time needed in realizing a full crop.

    So, I made a very simaliar tool with two blades, about a foot in lenght, that was attached to a single handle, very crude. After vines were broadcasted over the area, I'd spud them in the required 2 inches of earth. Mind you, by the time I had finished planting the 10 acres, I wish my hands look like yours!

    Anyway, very interesting! I'm thinking of making hand pickers fashioned from those made in the late 1800's.

    To add to a little bit on Nudge's thought above. I think that it's very possible that replacement parts to maintain the machinery of today will verly likely be lost well before fuels such as gasoline and fuel oil are gone from the scene...

    Thanks, yooper

  5. Gulland, question: can something like this be made with longer handles for taller folks?

  6. Yooper,

    Yes, the availability fuel and of parts is going to be a big concern as we push deeper into the fog. One of the reasons I began making the broadfork instead of making axes (as I really wanted to) was that when I started making my first fork and had all the pieces set out on my work table ready to assemble, a neighbor showed up with a roto-tiller repair job.

    Terry said some welds had broken on the shaft and his tiller tines were spinning freely and not digging. He brought in the right side of his tiller shaft and when I put it up on the table to weld, I found it ironic that there were more individual pieces on this one little part of his tiller than on my entire broadfork. The real irony was that those pieces were completely useless without the motor and the belts and the clutch and the carburetor, and the cables, and the tires, etc, etc. If any one of those things goes down, he was dead in the water. Nothing works unless it all works.

    I finished his tiller repair, built my first broadfork, and never looked back. I'll get to making axes soon, though.


    Leave it to a tall person to think about that! I am 6 feet tall and the tool works perfectly for me. The handles are 48", and there's about 10" of tool below that. At 58" my arms are exactly straight out when I start stepping on the crossbar. If the handles were longer, they wouldn't be comfortable.

    I'll get a few handles made for the 6' 6" sized folks out there when I get my next batch from Mike, but the 48" ones aren't back breakers, even for the really tall folks that have tried them. Shorter users can kind of 'choke up' on the handles and they're fine.

    There will be pictures up soon of the broadfork in use, so stay tuned!


  7. Heh! heh! Gulland, I've thought, we're just now coming out of the fog! As this fog lifts it tools like the broadfork, that have been there all the time, only now being realized once again!

    I'll just bet, the farm once had a broadfork and maybe a few of them (over the years they probably just walked off). Everything from cant hooks, scythes to ax/hammers. Just about everything a small community would need to have back in the late 1800's.

    Heh! Had a little giggle about Nudge wanting a larger size! Back then people, were very small in stature. In the "old house" the staircase was made quite different than the standard ones most common today. The height being perhaps 9 or 10 inches and the step being 5 or 6. Do you know anything about this?

    Perhaps the times, as well as the things, are about to get much more "simple"? I don't know...I have mixed feelings where all this complexity has taken us.

    thanks, yooper

  8. Yooper, Sometimes everything old is new again. From research I did, the concept of the broadfork is maybe 500 years old. I love it when an old idea still works as well as it always did. It's like blacksmithing itself... nothing has changed really in forging metal. There are heavy automatic hammers and all, but basic hand forging will always be the same.

    Your old staircase was built to get people up and down. It didn't matter if it was a little steep, folks just dealt with it. Codes now make everything even and nice so it's the same coast to coast. In the old days, they just stuck some stairs in where they wanted to and dealt with the steps being different heights. Eventually, I think there will be job cuts in the county code enforcement offices, and folks will be back to building as they see fit, whether it's better or worse won't matter.

    It's got to get more simple. We have added layers of complexity on things, and people feel as if they have to hire someone to do everything for them. Drippy faucet? Call a plumber. Light switch not working? Call an electrician. Those days will over very soon as we re-learn to take care of ourselves, I believe.


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