A leading figure in the 19th-century arts and crafts movement once advised against having anything in your home not known to be useful or believed to be beautiful. For modern garden consumers, that philosophy extends to their garden tools. With gardening elevated beyond hobby status to a richly layered lifestyle, gardeners seek and expect more. Handcrafted tools represent one additional way your customers express individuality and appreciation for function, quality and beauty.
Artisan garden tools don’t constitute a large category for independent garden centers, but media coverage of artisan toolmakers reflects a burgeoning interest in heirloom-quality tools. Page through leading print and digital publications in the U.S. or Europe, and you’ll find tool-centric stories alongside spreads on plants and garden design. Recognition of artisan garden tool makers isn’t limited to garden publications. In the U.S. alone, media as diverse as Men’s Journal, ELLE Decor and Forbes Life join Garden Design and Horticulture in highlighting this work.
Garden Design Editor-in-Chief Thad Orr suggests that tools are no different than the other garden-related crafts and arts the magazine celebrates. “I think gardeners appreciate the craft and art side of things, including tool-making, and people who dedicate their life to that craft,” Orr says. “Gardeners appreciate that and see that as something they’re willing to pay for, from a durability perspective and an appreciation of the art.”
As the following profiles of two artisan tool makers reflect, these aren’t vanity tools, though they’re well suited to being displayed alongside gifts or designer apparel. Made for serious gardeners, by craftsmen who appreciate the art and craft of gardening, they’re tough tools that stand up to repeated use and stay beautiful doing it.
Editor’s Note: These profiles are not meant to be endorsements, but to provide readers with examples of artisan toolmakers who have appeared in consumer magazines.
Fisher Blacksmithing of Bozeman, Montana
THE STORY: Before becoming a full-time garden tool maker, Tuli Fisher owned a full-time horseshoeing business for 12 years. His first garden tool designs, developed in 2003, were three pieces inspired by tools brought to him for repair. “The large trowel and the pointed hand hoe were the first and most obvious choices,” Fisher recalls. “The design and creation of the three-tined rake proved to be more difficult, since I only use rivets for my joinery.” He tested the tools for a full year before offering them for sale. “I wanted to be sure they were durable and would hold up to real use,” he says.
A gardener himself, Fisher’s passion for developing and using high-quality hand tools comes from years of horseshoeing and specialized and custom tools of that trade. “I learned that high-quality tools make even the hardest jobs easier and more pleasurable,” Fisher explains. “I thought it was senseless that woodworkers, blacksmiths and lots of other artisans have access to really high-quality tools but gardeners have very limited options.”
THE PROCESS: Fisher’s hand-forged tools start with steel heated to 1700 degrees Fahrenheit, then shaped over an anvil, joined with solid steel rivets, and set into wood handles. The original collection uses hand-turned black walnut, while new long-handled additions use shagbark hickory. The steel is hand-stamped with Fisher’s name, with an intricate floral design on some, resulting in one of-a-kind pieces winning praise for their balance, durability and beauty.
THE TOOLS: Fisher describes his tools as made to be passed down from generation to generation, along with the love of gardening. His favorite tool is his narrow trowel. “Personally, I plant in a lot of containers, use a bench for a lot of transplanting, and I weed a lot,” Fisher says. “I find the narrow trowel is great for all these uses, and it is also very handy for working with perennials, which is what this shape trowel is traditionally used for.”
Fisher offers his tools wholesale to the trade and retails the collection on his website (www.fisherblacksmithing.com). Retail prices vary widely between boutique shops and garden retailers, but $50 to $80 for single tools and $200 to $300 for three- and five-piece sets is typical. Fisher’s best-selling item is a set of the original three: trowel, hand hoe and hand rake.
Grafa Artisan Garden Tools of Melbourne, Australia
THE STORY: As an avid gardener with a tooling and mechanical background, Travis Blandford’s progression to artisan toolmaker might have been expected. In 2011, Blandford made his first tool from recycled copper tubing, a prototype of his signature Tube tool. “The very original designs were put together out of scrap sheet metal, to get the design right, even before recycled copper tube was used,” Blandford says.
Blandford’s work took inspiration from the Austrian naturalist movement, which held that copper tools could benefit gardens in several ways. After finding a supply of copper headed for recycling, he set to work. Grafa’s strong, elegant copper and bronze tools were the result. He names mid-century and early industrial design as significant influences as well.
THE PROCESS: Grafa tools start with the cutting and shaping of metal by hammer or press. All-copper pieces are cold worked, using recycled copper tubing whenever possible. The extra-tough heads on wood-handled designs are bronze, of which copper is a primary component. The pieces are smoothed, finished, riveted as needed, and stamped with the Grafa name and logo.
Using readily available, recycled and recyclable materials is particularly important to Blandford, as is the beauty of copper and its potential benefits. He explains that even new copper contains a high percentage of previously used copper. Blandford sources the hardwood used for Grafa handles from sustainably managed forests.
THE TOOLS: Blandford describes his artisan garden tools as strong enough to last a lifetime in the garden. He doesn’t mince words when asked which tool he favors. “Tube,” he replies. While the single-piece all-copper Tube is popular, Grafa’s top-seller is the Truella, a handmade trowel fashioned from bronze with a copper band and kiln-dried spotted gum handle. Two promotional installations at London’s Chelsea Flower Show in 2015 brought Grafa tools to an international audience.
The tools are offered wholesale to the trade worldwide and retailed on the Grafa website (www.grafa.com.au). Retail prices vary dramatically between U.S. specialty retailers and garden shops that carry Grafa, but $65 to $85 per tool is typical. The tools can be kept polished or allowed to take on patina with use.
Jolene is a freelance writer and former hort professional based in Madison, Wis. She is a frequent contributor to GIE Media Horticulture Group publications.