Which Tools for Autonomy?

I’ve come to realise over time that having the right tool for the right job makes a hell of a difference. It saves time and effort, prevents injuries and saves money in the long run. As a relative beginner to countryside living, I’ve been curious to know which power tools are essential, which ones are not so important but good to have and which ones to avoid at all cost. And luckily we found a Workaway host Sebastién who has been renovating an old barn in the mountains with a good knowledge and a wide selection of tools. He was super generous to share his successes as well as mistakes and we learned so much while we were there.

Power or Not

The first important thing to consider is the use of power = energy. Each of these power tools uses large amounts of fossil fuel to extract the metal, manufacture, transport, to use and to dispose of at the end of its life. Quality products that will last a long time will cost a fair bit of money initially and you have additional costs of fuel, maintenance and upkeep. Money = your time = your life, so it’s best to think about the expenditure vs benefit ratio.

For example, we met someone who had carried 80 wheel barrows full of heavy, wet firewood 300m up a steep, slippery hill last autumn. It’s definitely possible to do by hand but I think most would agree that in such a context, a little use of fossil fuel is justified. Though, I have met people who’ve gone back to the most sustainable option of using animals and it seems using horses to extract logs or to pull farming equipment is slowly becoming more common again in this region. However, it is a large commitment and I’m currently debating on the viability of it.

It seems to me that the best way to go about it, in the context of increasing self-sufficiency, is to do everything at just the right size where you could do most things with hand tools. They are cheap, not much can go wrong, and super easy to fix. I now have a selection of hand tools in my mind that I will invest in but that’s for another post.

Context

Another important factor to take into account is what kind of landscape and tasks we are using the power tools for. My aim is to create a simple homestead based on Permaculture principles of about 1 hectare of veg garden and an orchard, with 2 to 3 hectares of forest for firewood and biomass collection. We will hopefully have similarly minded neighbours whom we could set up a tool sharing scheme and reduce our expenditure and our environmental impact but this post will assume that we are alone. I’m considering closer to the Pyrenees mountains for its higher rainfall and abundance of water which will likely mean a fairly large elevation difference within the land. House building and/or renovation is more than likely, with firewood collection a must.

Essential: Chainsaw

I’ve written about my ideal chainsaw setup before here. So instead I’m sharing with you the tricks I’ve learnt about how to sharpen the blades and other peripheral tools. I’ve stayed at a place where our host Simon ran a sustainable forestry business and worked with chainsaws all day long.

In his case, he carried 10 spare chains with him and swapped them as soon as they became blunt. He had a chainsaw sharpener similar to the one pictured with which he sharpened all the chains in one go once at home.

For a modest user who uses it for a few months a year for firewood and other minor tasks, I think a simple chain sharpener like the one pictured below is far cheaper, takes up less space and is portable.

Sebastién recommended buying a couple of bars (the white protruding metal in the above picture on which the chain runs on) and spare chains, since moving trees biting into your saw and locking it can happen more often than you think. The only way out might be detaching the motor, putting on the spares and cutting the tree from the other side.

One of the things he mentioned that I had not thought about was a wire hand winch such as the one pictured. When you’re alone or dealing with a large tree that’s bending towards something you’d rather it didn’t fall on to – such as your house – this winch with a length of steel cable can provide tension and control the direction. It can pull vehicles out of slippery situations too.

I’m also curious to know how Japanese chainsaws compare to German and Nordic brands. Let me know in the comments if you’ve used both.

Good for Big Builds and Firewood: Power Carrier

This was a bit of a revelation for me. It’s pretty expensive at 3500 to 5000 Euros depending on the capacity, but if you’re building a house by yourself in a remote mountain area and need to transport heavy materials over uneven grounds, this is a godsend. Or if your forest is downhill from your house and need to transport large amount of firewood, this is the tool to have.

The HP400 model that I’ve used here is capable of carrying 400kg on a flat or 250kg on a slope. A single load a man can carry without risking back injury is 20 to 25kg at waist height. Say you take the lower end of 20kg to take into account repetitive carrying over uneven ground, a single carrier full can cover 12 times the human capacity on a slope and 20 times on a flat terrain. Include the extra time you’ll need to recover from carrying several tons of materials on a daily basis and the value of this machine starts to become clear.

Depending on the Context: Brush Cutter

My view is that any form of farming or gardening is, by nature, unnatural. You are creating an artificial environment conducive to growth of certain types of beneficial plants. And in a fertile area it will be an ongoing battle against non-beneficial plants that are trying to reclaim the space.

I’ve cleared large swathes of vicious brambles with a hand held brush cutter/strimmer like the one pictured. It is easy to use, fairly simple mechanically and can be used effectively to clear steep uneven grounds over 45 degrees. But it can take a long time to clear large open spaces. I think in my future Permaculture garden, the beneficial and edible plants and trees will over shadow most of the weeds and a brush cutter like this, or a scythe will most likely be plenty to control what does pop up around a perimeter fencing etc.

However, if you have a large relatively flat meadow, with powerful ash tree shoots and heinous brambles trying to invade back constantly, the tool below is absolutely incredible. Sebastién is thinking about introducing sheep into this field where he used to grow lots of veg for market garden but he says that even with animals controlling the growth, he still needs to run through the field two to three times a year to clear weeds that animals don’t like to eat.

Upon further research, I realised that this machine uses a Honda GCV190 engine but is not manufactured by Honda.

Non-Essential But Worth Having: Wood Chipper

I once visited an incredible permaculture garden in Aude where the owner used a wood chipper extensively to breakdown biomass from his large adjoining forest. 30 to 50cm thickness of chipped material (deciduous and conifers alike and anything else that could be mauled) was then placed on top of veg patches made along the contour of his land every year. This enormous amount of biomass decomposed to a thickness of 3 to 5cm by spring and it’s ready for summer of vigorous growth like I’ve never seen before. In super dry hot summers in Aude, he never needs to water his beds that have grown in height to about 70cm or more from years of accumulating organic matter.

Since then, I’ve considered a wood chipper as more of a necessity than a luxury. Sure, it’s possible to slowly decompose the wood but the branches in question are too small for mushrooms logs, not very useful for heating and normally comes in huge quantities. They can take a fair bit of time to decompose naturally and although I’ve used it as mulch around fruit trees, I think a chipper can vastly speed up the availability of organic materials.

It is one of those machines that could be useful to own collectively as a shared tool since the number of days that you might use this tool over the year might be limited, but incredibly useful to have. At about 1000 to 2000 Euros for a similar sized chippers as above, it’s a fair bit of investment but I’ve been told that anything smaller than this only takes tiny branches, and with a smaller mouth, it won’t take anything bent either. This particular model can chip up 6 to 7cm diameter branches. The spare blades are affordable and they’re relatively easy to take off and sharpen if needed too.

Though this chipper in the video looks fairly light, it required two adults to just about manoeuvre manually on a flat ground. You really need a power carrier mentioned above to pull this thing around to places where you need to chip. Sebastién also mentioned that the ground clearance on this model is not that high and it often struggles to go up or down rugged terrain. There are similar powered wood chippers with higher ground clearance, or ones with caterpillar carrier attached to it.

Conclusion

Which tools you’ll need depends so much on the individual context but the common thread is that these tools are expensive to buy and will probably become increasingly expensive to run. It’s easy to over extend our reach but as I’ve mentioned at the beginning of the post, doing things small but really well, at just the right size where most things can be done with hand tools is a path worth examining in more detail.

Communal tool sharing between trusted friends based on a strict code of conduct and chipping in an agreed amount per use for maintenance, repairs and new purchases makes a lot of sense financially, since it reduces the need for, say, 5 families to purchase the same set of tools. As long as a standard of use is communicated and agreed between people and each individual sticks to it as a sacred rule, I can’t see why it can’t work. Especially if the consequence of not following the rules is a loss of access to those essential tools.

There are some superb electric power tools available now and there are people who’ve built houses with tools powered by the sun. With solar panels becoming cheaper and more efficient, it’s certainly worth investigating into this possibility. Buying 5 more panels that lasts for at least 25 years will most likely work out cheaper than purchasing petrol for the same number of years. But apart from hand power tools, I’ve not come across something like a power carrier or a wood chipper of similar calibre with an electric motor. I can’t see why not though when they can out-compete petrol vehicles on track. I would imagine they will start to pop up more in the next few years.

I focused on landscaping tools and avoided power hand tools since it would have made this post way too long. But I intend to do a post on it at a later stage. Check back again soon or subscribe to get a weekly post.

Further Reading

For reference to setting up solar systems and hacking power tools to run on solar, I would recommend this book. I found it useful as a source of inspiration and an introduction when building my solar set up. Perhaps slightly lacking in denser information for people beginning to design a system. But well worth the price.

For someone who’s really mastered small scale, financially lucrative market gardening model based on hand tools and only a few power tools, this book by Jean-Martin Fortier really blew my mind. It really opened my mind to the possibility of doing small and doing it really well. The ideas presented here are not only for market gardeners but for people like me, who likes to steal great ideas that pros have figured out through years of experimentation, and use it for my own garden.

Once again, if you find these post useful and valuable, please consider buying me a coffee.

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