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john smith
Posts: 70
Location: western u.s.
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I've been having a discussion with a friend about hand tools vs machines.  I am satisfied that a scythe is as fast or faster than a mower, and more versatile, and that my maul can split wood as faster or faster than a splitter.  I use a small cross cut saw on old braches, and feel a larger one would be as good as a chain saw for logs, though I've not used one for that purpose yet. 

However, the main thing is that my friend feels a tractor is a necessity (though she doesn't know how to use one) for fixing roads and moving dirt, because that's what she was told by a neighbor.  I've only used a maul and hoe for moving around dirt.  So I'm curious about this for my personal purposes.

How do hand tools, such as a maul and hoe, compare with a tractor in the fixing of roads and moving around dirt?  I'm looking for some encouragement in this regard.  Thanks.
 
Paul Cereghino
gardener
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I manage one acre by scythe.  I worked in landscape for a decade and always preferred hand tools when I could, and care for and teach about the beauty of good hand tools.  However...

If your divisor is time, the machines win.
 
john smith
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Location: western u.s.
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Okay I'd like some responses by people who use hand tools if possible.

Thanks.
 
                        
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Location: North East Scotland
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I wouldn't know about tractors and scythes, but as far as the domestic sphere is concerned, I've always felt that machines are fine for saving time and elbow grease, but you need to know how to do the job without them - the traditional way, if you like - so that you have the basic skills to fall back on when the power goes down or the machine breaks.
 
Chris Fitt
Posts: 115
Location: Eastern Shore VA
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johnlvs2run wrote:
However, the main thing is that my friend feels a tractor is a necessity (though she doesn't know how to use one) for fixing roads and moving dirt, because that's what she was told by a neighbor.  I've only used a maul and hoe for moving around dirt.  So I'm curious about this for my personal purposes.

How do hand tools, such as a maul and hoe, compare with a tractor in the fixing of roads and moving around dirt?  I'm looking for some encouragement in this regard.  Thanks.

Hand tools work just fine in moving dirt.  I worked on a farm over the summer where we dug out raised beds.  We used shovels and garden rakes and occasionally a hoe.  Never a maul though.  I don't really know about  fixing roads.  I would say a tractor is not necessary although, the hand tools were not as fast as a tractor would have been.  This was prepping about a half acre and took use several days of solid dirt work.  With a tractor it would have been a fraction of that time.  I guess it is a matter of scale though. 
What size project are you talking about?
It makes sense that a tractor would beat out a shovel or hoe over a large area because the bucket attachment covers so much more ground than a shovel or hoe could.  So over a larger area it is just that much more.  With scythe the blade is comparable in length to a mower. 
That being said I would say that it is totally possible and definitely rewarding to use hand tools.  I know you are looking for encouragement on this subject.  The fact that it uses only human power and no gas is a huge plus.  I agree with hervor that machines break and power isn't forever...
 
                              
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what about draft animals?
 
Matt Ferrall
Posts: 555
Location: Western WA,usda zone 6/7,80inches of rain,250feet elevation
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When it comes to wood cutting,I have pretty extensive experience in both.For me it depends on the size of the task.A small job will be faster if you can avoid prepping a power tool(chain saw)and putting it back.If its a bunch of trees,the chainsaw will be faster but only because the entire industrial civilization is there and cheep oil will allow you to drive to a repair shop and allow them to fix it for a low economic cost.When you account for all the calories that are used,the more basic the hand tool wins.Yes tractors make roads faster but who needs roads without cars.Machine reality helps out machine reality but is that faster?
 
Jack Shawburn
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I have a very sharp Bypass Lopper - it can cut 1 1/2" Green branches in less time than you can say "chainsaw"...
 
Robert Ray
gardener
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Location: Cascades of Oregon
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I love tools, if there was a twelve step program for tool addiction I should probably attend.
Of all the power tools I have, I have the equivalent ability to accomplish the task with hand tools either new or a linseed infused antiques with a patina of use.
Time unfortunately makes me lean to power tools in most cases outside the garden. Bookshelves or a any piece of furniture has to be accomplished during time off from work.
Welding repairs in most cases just has to be done with modern technology rather than firing up the forge. Cutting down a large tree is safer for me when I use a chain saw and everyone else too. But nothing is more pleasant than making sparks fly at the anvil or watching a curl of wood zzzzt out of a hand plane. There is a connectivity when there is no electricity helping, for me I guess.
In the garden though shovel, an old hand forged grape hoe, old japanese sugar cane knife and a pair of sharp scissors are just about all I carry about.
 
Matthew Fallon
Posts: 308
Location: long island, ny Z-7a
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Robert Ray wrote:
"I love tools" , "Time unfortunately makes me lean to power tools in most cases outside the garden",
"nothing is more pleasant than making sparks fly at the anvil or watching a curl of wood zzzzt out of a hand plane. There is a connectivity when there is no electricity helping,"


Ditto to all that~ 

hand tools are sometimes faster like mt.goat pointed out. and more enjoyable usually i find.
powers quicker/easier for heavy/repetitious stuff. all depends on the task.

 
                            
Posts: 16
Location: New Zealand
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For myself, the escilation is

Hand tools
Drawn tools
Mechanical

for this I mean, that if the use of hand tools is practical, use them. They are just nicer and arguablely cheaper to operatate ( however I note, not cheaper to aquire, we have lost the economies of scale there, bulk lazyness perhaps)
If the scope of the project is such that it would take too long with hand tools, and/or they are available ( where it makes sense) then animal drawn is the next to concider. Indeed it is one of my long term goals to end up with horses for this, and other tasks. a couple of Percheron cross Arab for example, which would hopefully leave a nice medium build draft animal, with huge stamina.
The only time, imo, that I would willingly go mechanical is where either hadn of animal drawn tools don't make sense.

saddly ani draft animals are possible where I am currently, although the sooner that changes, the better
 
Franklin Stone
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If a job becomes too large for hand tools, consider renting, borrowing or paying a neighbor for use of a machine. Ownership should be only be considered if it becomes significantly cheaper than those options.

Ownership entails a large outlay of money up front, or worse, purchasing on credit. There are ongoing fuel and maintenance costs. If it is a valuable piece of equipment, it should be insured. A large piece of equipment is a target for thieves and vandals as well.

A backhoe or a bulldozer can move astounding amounts of earth in mere hours, tasks that would take a single man and a wheelbarrow months to accomplish. While this is obviously a good thing, it is also a bad thing. When it becomes easier to move earth than to think about it, a lot of poor decisions can be made rather quickly. With only a shovel and a your own muscles to work with a lot more thought will go into your decisions.
 
Paul Cereghino
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I think Mt Goat's analysis is most pointed.  I was suggesting that given the goal of creating a "road" and valuing "time" above other values, then you end up with "machine".  The only way out is to question your assumptions about "road" or "time".  I know there are numerous situations where hand tools are MUCH superior to their gas-fueled alternatives--but I'd propose that without questioning deeper to the root... road building is not one of them.
 
                                
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Location: Ontario, Canada
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frankenstoen wrote:
If a job becomes too large for hand tools, consider renting, borrowing or paying a neighbor for use of a machine. Ownership should be only be considered if it becomes significantly cheaper than those options.

Ownership entails a large outlay of money up front, or worse, purchasing on credit. There are ongoing fuel and maintenance costs. If it is a valuable piece of equipment, it should be insured. A large piece of equipment is a target for thieves and vandals as well.

A backhoe or a bulldozer can move astounding amounts of earth in mere hours, tasks that would take a single man and a wheelbarrow months to accomplish. While this is obviously a good thing, it is also a bad thing. When it becomes easier to move earth than to think about it, a lot of poor decisions can be made rather quickly. With only a shovel and a your own muscles to work with a lot more thought will go into your decisions.



I agree on renting rather then ownership.  A surprising amount can be done with just hand power but sometimes with bigger jobs motor power can be a time and back saver.  My husband dreams about getting this small machine with a mini backhoe and blade on it.  You can get a whole lot of different attachments which would be useful but it costs a lot.  I also know that he would be out there 'playing' with the durn thing and who knows what he'd get up to without thinking.   
  However we did rent a mini backhoe when we had to did a deep trench for a new well.  We ended up keeping in an extra day to do a lot of small jobs that I had already planned to do anyways.  So suddenly planting 20 trees and shrubs went from a couple of days of digging holes to 45 mins with a backhoe.  I just led him around the property and pointed, 'a hole here please, one here and one there'.  Three scoops and each hole was done.'

  I would have dug those holes by hand but now the next time I want to do a lot of planting like that we will be renting again.  It's well worth the money just in terms of time saved.  So what I'm doing is planning out things in advance of what I will do with the backhoe.  We do need to do some work on the driveway and couple of other small heavy jobs.  I figure two days of rental to save a couple of weeks of work.  One a farm time is precious. 

I had a similar experience with mowing.  In my long term plan there will be very little grass to mow.  However it's going to take time to get it that way and right now there is a lot.  In the beginning I wanted to avoid a gas powered mower, both for ecological and cost reasons.  So I got a rechargeable electric push mower.  It worked fine but it took 3-4 hours and two charges to do all of the grass.  In the spring it needed to be done every week.    It ended up not be a labor issue I don't mind the exercise but a time one.  I ended up breaking down and getting a lawn riding mower.  Now it takes less then an hour and that's time I can spend doing one of the zillion other things that have to be done.  I also found it very useful for other jobs.  I got a small trailer with it.  So now if I'm moving rocks or bags of chicken feed that I can barely lift I can cart them in that.    I've also used it to carry straw bales and numerous other things.  It saves me time and energy and lets me accomplish more.  In the case of the bales 3 trips out to the garden turns into one. 

I still don't like it's function in terms of ecological soundness but at this point it is a trade off I've made.  Right now the time it saves me lets me work on the other projects which are all about making my home more ecologically sound in the long term. 
 
Paula Edwards
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What is a cross cut saw and what is a maul?
I think a chainsaw would be awfully good for our wood fire but I have great respect, you easily cut your finger off. And you would need a car big enough for a trailer or you won't transport very much. In the end it is cheaper buying the stuff.
If your lawn is big enough, get sheep. Eat them in winter.
Gardening with power tools is just awful, that's not gardening. It is noisy and stinks. And then there are motors which always stop top work and you have to look after them or pay someone.
I really want to get a scythe because sheep actually prefer short grass.
And there should be a non power tool which cuts easily twigs wither in chips or in 20 cm pieces for building raised beds.
 
                                
Posts: 34
Location: Pacific Northwest
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A tractor might be a good thing to build a road with but unless you want your

farm/garden soil to be as compacted as a road they aren't much good for growing

plots.

It also depends on scale...and labor. If one person has to work 400 acres they will

need machines...which is why, imo, no one person should take on more than a few

acres.

I use hand tools. Better connection to the soil/project and less sloppy - less likely

to make a mistake.
 
                      
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In terms of compaction, what needs to be taken into consideration is the ground pressure of your specific tractor, moisture content of the soils, and how prone to compaction your soils are (and did I mention moisture content, because that is HUGE). If every use of a tractor resulted in compaction equal to a roadbed, then commercial no-till agriculture would be impossible. Yes, a tractor will result in some compaction but proper use lowers that issue. I know of fields around here that have been in continuous no-till corn and soybeans for better than 15 years. The issue of compaction is actually overcome at the 5 year mark, that's when the earthworm population rebounds enough to make a difference (it also increases the drainage capacity for flat land to that of a well tiled field).

I enjoy using hand tools whenever possible, but there are times when they just don't cut the mustard. I would consider road building one of these times. To build a good roadbed by hand just seems unnecessary, and probably prohibitively expensive (if you consider your time worth at least that of a day laborer, about $10/hour lets say). I built a small gravel road by hand once, and it was no fun. We had several people working all day with a pickup to haul the gravel from the pile to the site. By the time we loaded the truck, unloaded the truck, spread and compacted the gravel, and did it all over again, I think anyone there would have paid for the rental of a bobcat. I think there were 8 of us, so if you figure 8 people at $10/hour for 8 hours, the labor value is over $600.

I would also be worried about the prepared road base. Depending on your soil type, and the use the road will see, you need to prepare a stable base (otherwise your road will settle and heave in certain spots, and your road will be bumpy and potholed). A tractor will greatly aid in building a solid, level, and long lasting road; BUT you certainly could do it by hand. I suppose it's a matter of personal preference, and how much time you're willing to spend on the road.
 
Walter Jeffries
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Location: Mountains of Vermont, USDA Zone 3
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I personally like hand tools. My wife likes power tools. If we're cutting a lot of boards for construction she's faster with the tablesaw or skillsaw. If it's just a couple of quick boards I'm far faster with a handsaw.

However, with our tractor I can do things I wouldn't even try to do by hand like move mountains, build terraces, feed out 800 lb and larger round bales, move a dead 1,600 lb pig to the compost, turn said compost (100'x10'x10', etc.

We also have a chainsaw which I and my son use more than my wife despite her being the power tool fiend. The issue is the chainsaw weighs close over 30 lbs and that's a lot of weight for one hand. For what it does it is the right tool. But if I can just use loppers I prefer those.

Screwdrills are also wonderful when you have thousands of screws to set - e.g., metal roofing, building a structure, forms, etc.

There is a place for hand tools and a place for powertools.

Cheers

-Walter
Sugar Mountain Farm
Pastured Pigs, Sheep & Kids
in the mountains of Vermont
Read about our on-farm butcher shop project:
http://SugarMtnFarm.com/butchershop
http://SugarMtnFarm.com/csa
 
paul wheaton
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bee chicken hugelkultur trees wofati woodworking
 
Aljaz Plankl
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i'm sorry, but he should gain more experineces before showing others how to do it.
 
                                
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Location: Eastern Colorado, USA
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Matthew wrote:

It also depends on scale...and labor. If one person has to work 400 acres they will

need machines...which is why, imo, no one person should take on more than a few

acres.



If everyone had a quarter acre garden, and no one ate beef or mutton... that could hold true.  But it'll never be true.  There are going to be people with other jobs, which means someone has to take up the slack in food production.

I daresay no one would accuse Joel Salatin of managing his 500 acres improperly, just for one example. 


Wish I knew where some folks got the idea that permaculture means we have to be Luddites.
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
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TheDirtSurgeon wrote:

If everyone had a quarter acre garden, and no one ate beef or mutton... that could hold true.  But it'll never be true. 


And it's not like everyone is clamoring to work a few acres, even.    Most folks seem to want to live in town where the jobs are.

Personally I think there is a place for machinery, even large earth-moving machines, in permaculture (see Mollison, Holzer).  I could sure use them!   
 
                                
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H Ludi Tyler wrote:
Personally I think there is a place for machinery, even large earth-moving machines, in permaculture (see Mollison, Holzer). 


Yep.

Sadly, I have seen people attack Holzer for it -- even some well-known permaculture authors who should know better.  But not one of them has volunteered to grab a shovel and wheelbarrow to go replace that machine. 

We already have the machines.  I see no conflict in using them to repair the damage we've done with the same machines.  I don't think we have the luxury of repairing a planetary ecosystem with pointy sticks while we let the machines rust.  So we can feel good about living post-industrial?  I guess we can pat ourselves on the back about it, posting online over our BlackBerries, while the deserts expand.

We're building cleaner machines, too.  Modern emissions standards for heavy equipment are getting stricter.  Caterpillar now manufactures a diesel-electric hybrid bulldozer that consumes 30% less fuel than its predecessor.  And of course, any diesel engine can be fueled renewably. 

 
Tyler Ludens
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Well, I was personally going the pick-and-shovel route and to be frank, I gave up.  I'm not especially butch, and I'm pushing 50.  Digging rocks for hours a day using hand tools just wasn't possible for me anymore, so I've asked my husband to rent a backhoe to dig the rocks out of the gardens for me.  I will make up for this evil by not commuting to work (I work at home). I'm guessing the "no machines in permaculture!" folks work at home or walk to their jobs. ( :lol

 
John Polk
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I think that scale and personal age have a lot to do with it.  I have done years of back-breaking labor, and think it is both invigorating, and a part of what farming is all about.  On an established food forest, the labor diminishes, and is no longer a major factor.

I am now old enough that I cannot do days on end of the kind of labor needed to establish a perpetual farm by shovels, pick-axes and wheel barrows.  With the proper equipment, I could convert a 40 acre parcel into a perpetual farm that could support my grand children  forever, regardless of what happens to fuel prices, or government services.  Without fuel-driven tools, I would be stuck with a kitchen garden, which could, at best, supplement the annual expenditure of groceries.

While a good hoe and shovel may be a gardener's best friends, it would be a tough challenge to build a food forest without a little more horsepower.  My opinion is to use the diesel/gas horses as long as the fuel is still cheap, and hopefully, you will have moved beyond them once they "cost too much to feed".  If I can use 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel to make my children/grandchildren independent of motor fuels, I feel that I have improved my carbon footprint.
 
Benjamin Burchall
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I don't see the problem with using machines. I would just use them as little as possible to get the job done. I'd love to get my hands on a machine that could make deep holes in the ground instead of tilling. That would be of immense help in starting farms in my area. Oh and a renewably powered chipper would be great to chip that material up for faster decomposition. The faster we can turn that stuff into soil the better! 
 
                                
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Location: Eastern Colorado, USA
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BenjaminBurchall wrote:
I'd love to get my hands on a machine that could make deep holes in the ground instead of tilling. That would be of immense help in starting farms in my area. Oh and a renewably powered chipper would be great to chip that material up for faster decomposition.


I can hook you up with both. 
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
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TheDirtSurgeon wrote:
I can hook you up with both. 


Is it a secret? 

 
Benjamin Burchall
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TheDirtSurgeon wrote:
I can hook you up with both. 


Do tell! 
 
John Polk
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Here is a way for perpetual chipper.  One pound of wood chips will allow you to run an electric chainsaw and chipper long enough to produce 8 pounds of wood chips, which is enough to run the 2.5 kw generator for another hour!

http://woodgasifier.org/
 
Tyler Ludens
pollinator
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Has anyone here bought the plans and built the thing?

 
John Polk
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I am also curious to hear feedback from anybody experienced with the design (or similar).  It seems like a good way to convert waste into usable energy.
 
Richard Nurac
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I enjoy manually demanding work but sometimes, especially with hard clay in Georgia in summer, a machine is the way to go.  I don't have the means to haul rental equipment and so my route is to buy old equipment, ugly looking to some (but not to me since beauty is in the eye etc.) and maintain it myself.  The "ugly" requirement is to dissuade would be takers.

I use my old bobcat (actually it is a Takeuchi) to cut contour ditches (it has a tree stump/ditcher attachment), make roads and general earth moving,  and I have various attachments for my rusty old yellow (formerly DOT owned) tractor - it slips and slides around when it is wet and has very little traction (bust diff lock), hence I was able to convince myself to buy the old bobcat.  Some pics at www.nutrac.info.
 
kent smith
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Location: Pennsylvania
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NuTrac, I agree! There is a good feeling from doing physical work, it is healthy. If I need to trim the weeds the cows wont eat in the pasture or to clear weeds from under the electric fence it does not pay to use a weed eater, but a weed whip works well. Same with smaller jobs in and around the garden, we have a tiller but a hoe, garden fork and shovel does a better job and I benifit from the work. I am not a young man anymore and part of me want to not do the physical labor, but when I do I never need to watch how much I eat, I sleep better at night, and it keeps me younger than a lot of my peers. One of the biggest advantages is the time in the pasture or garden to observe and to think. Doing work that you love is what we were made for!
kent
 
                                
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Location: Eastern Colorado, USA
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H Ludi Tyler wrote:
Is it a secret?   




Pretty simple, actually.  Wood chippers are either gas or diesel powered, and thus can be fueled with ethanol or biodiesel, respectively.  The larger ones, like the tree companies have, are more efficient in terms of wood chipped to fuel used.

The other tool sought... is the Yeomans plow.  It breaks up hardpan and aerates soil without turning over the topsoil. 

http://www.yeomansplow.com.au/yeomans-plows.htm

Darren Doherty has some video on YouTube of one in action.
 
Erik Lee
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I would say that the best thing about machines is also the worst: they empower a person to turn ideas into reality, regardless of how good or bad those ideas might be.  If that person has given a lot of though and effort to a good design, with the aim of improving water, energy, and mineral cycles for example, then I think the influence can be extremely beneficial and rapid.  On the other hand, if they are just pushing over some trees to expand the monoculture to a few thousand more acres, the results are disastrous.  Maybe the real thing with hand tools is that they make things difficult enough and slow enough that it encourages a better design phase...

I actually prefer hand tools for any situation in which I can reasonably use them.  I make things out of wood (furniture,toys,etc.) and strongly prefer my old slow hand tools, mostly for the feeling they give of being close to my work.  Same thing with the garden.  I'd love to try animal power for anything that involves dragging an implement around, but I think machines will always dominate when it comes to big digging or lifting jobs.  A couple gallons of diesel or vegetable oil in a backhoe can do the same amount of work it would take a dozen strong guys a week to finish.
 
Tyler Ludens
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TheDirtSurgeon wrote:
Pretty simple, actually.  Wood chippers are either gas or diesel powered, and thus can be fueled with ethanol or biodiesel, respectively.  The larger ones, like the tree companies have, are more efficient in terms of wood chipped to fuel used.


Thanks!  I have yet to meet anyone who has built a renewable chipper system like the one mentioned above.  I hope eventually someone will build one and show us the process, instead of everyone always talking about how "simple" it is, but never doing it!     I'm not mechanical by nature, so it would not be "simple" for me. 
 
Martin Hart
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I've got mixed opinions on the subject.  I've split hundreds of cords of wood by hand, and enjoyed it, but at various times my father would get his hands on some very gnarly Manitoba Maple.  Splitting a single, large piece of that particular kind of wood could literally take an hour, using a maul / sledghammer and a whole set of metal splitting wedges.  I finally gave up and asked to have a splitter rented, as it would have taken me weeks to split the same amount of the Manitoba maple wood, that I could normally have worked through in a couple of afternoons with 'normal' wood.  Otherwise, for most purposes, I've enjoyed using hand tools over power tools in yard maintenance and wood heating preparation.  While chainsaws are fast as heck, it's an ever-present thought when using them that if a chain breaks or some other worst-case scenario unfolds, it may be your last time using any tool whatsoever.

Same goes with tractors.  I don't think it makes sense to say that on a small property, one necessarily 'needs' a tractor, but it's something I wouldn't want to do without, on a multi-acre property.  For the few gallons of fuel burnt per year, and yes, with a diesel that might just be veggie oil, the amount of work that can be accomplished is astonishing.  I'm not afraid of hard work, but with a bad back, shovelling tons of compost to heat water, etc, or digging dozens of post holes, is simply not going to happen at this stage in my game without some power assistance. 

And earth moving work?  Seriously...  All you need to do to answer this one for yourself is move about 50 or so cubic yards of dirt around with a shovel and wheelbarrow, over the course of a week.  Then watch someone do the same thing with a one thousand dollar, 50 year old tractor or dozer in less than an hour. 

I'd rather use that time improving my gardens, marketing my business, or reading a book, thanks...  Mind you, to anyone who wants to pick up a shovel for 50 hours, I say, be my guest...

PS - most of my friends who own heavy equipment such as tractors and dozers, etc, purchased them very old and used, find them cheap and easy to maintain, don't use them very often,  yet find them indispensable a few times a year and barter their time on these machines with neighbors, for things like homemade wine, pies, preserves, or what have you, or that same old, worn-out $50 dollar bill that keeps circulating around the neighborhood... 

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