In Search of the Best Gardening Tools:
Spades & the Demise of Smith & Hawken.

by Eric Shalit | May 12th, 2010

The author in one of his bamboo groves with a King of Spades long handled spade.

As a longtime serious gardener I know the value of good tools and the pain and suffering caused by bad tools. Whether you’re breaking new ground to plant a tree, taking out a dead shrub, or that mother of all digging jobs, digging out bamboo, having quality tools makes an enormous difference. A great tool can multiply your work force exponentially, making your work a pleasure and saving your back. A cheap poorly made tool can make digging a misery, and injure your back, arms, or feet. When a cheap tool breaks the force is suddenly transferred to your body and can easily send you to the ER. After my 2-year old Smith & Hawken border spade broke (at the blade, not the handle!) I began a dedicated search to find THE BEST spade, one that would save my aging back in years to come.

When I first began gardening more than 20 years ago, a friend in Boston encouraged me to buy a Smith & Hawken Border Spade and Fork. Smith & Hawken was a new company (founded in 1979), importing high quality gardening tools from England to the US where they were unavailable. Although relatively expensive when compared to American made shovels sold at hardware stores, the Smith & Hawken spade was a veritable Samurai Sword of garden tools. They were handmade by Bulldog of England at a 200-year old forge. The Smith & Hawken catalog featured the lengthy process by which the steel was rolled and forged into a tool that easily wore the lifetime guarantee.

Here’s how tough that original Smith & Hawken (Bulldog) spade was. Amongst many other things, I grow about 15 kinds of bamboo. To divide bamboo I would sharpen my spade on a grinder and hit the spade on the treads with a sledgehammer, thus cutting the rhizomes. Eventually I knocked a tread off but a friend of mine welded new ones on. Neither the handle nor blade ever broke or even complained. I still have the Smith & Hawken (Bulldog) tools I bought back in 1984, but have retired the spade as an heirloom to be used only for light digging.

I bought a new replacement Smith & Hawken spade a few years ago. It looked very similar to the Bulldog spade but did not feel as heavy. This Spring, while digging out a small Pampas Grass, the blade snapped vertically down the middle. Not the wooden handle as you might expect, but the steel blade! I knew this could not be a genuine Bulldog-made spade but one made from cheap inferior steel.

I was in communication with Smith & Hawken’s corporate office for this article, when they suddenly announced they were shutting down after 30 years of business. I immediately went to one of their Seattle stores and “exchanged” the broken spade for their current and final model, which is very much a toy when compared to their original product. It reminded me of the “Where’s the beef?” commercial where it’s all bun and no meat. Their final model has a pretty patina, but is miniscule in proportion to the already small border spade. Suitable for a child to dig at the beach with but not for the serious gardener.

I see the evolution of this product as analogous to Smith & Hawken’s demise and perhaps a parable for American business. They started out with a simple great idea, grew it into a world-renowned business, sold it to a large corporation, which then sold it to another large corporation, that turned it into a purveyor of over-priced things that people don’t need (waterproof large screen TVs that you can keep next to your pool). To increase profit margin they made cheap knock-offs of their own garden tools. When that wasn’t enough they made the garden tools smaller, but more prettily packaged. In the end, the tools that were at the core of their original business became useless vestiges, like hind limbs on whales. Then they went out of business. So much for the lifetime guarantee! I plan to give the replacement spade to a young child as a birthday present.

King_spade_I

Left to right: Vintage 1984 Smith & Hawken (Bulldog) spade, 2009 Smith & Hawken faux spade, King of Spades 15" straight edge blade with cushioned rubber treads.

So, what’s a serious gardener to do? As a lifetime do-it yourselfer I’ve realized that you are already saving lots of money on labor, so you might as well buy professional quality tools to make the job easier. How many times have you bought a cheap tool, only to replace it after it broke? “Buy cheap, buy twice” the saying goes.

While taking photos for a recent project for Dunn Gardens, I watched the professional groundskeepers digging out some shrubs. They were using a heavy duty all-steel long handled spade with big rubber treads. I realized that I needed to get my hands on one of these and run it through its paces. After searching the internet and finding a variety of similar looking tools (of different weights) I discovered  the genuine article, The King of Spades, made by a small family-owned company in New Jersey (W.W. Manufacturing). They make a wide range of shovels and spades including something they call a Ground Shark with a serrated edge on the side of the blade. These industrial grade tools are made from aircraft-quality steel to suit the needs of professional landscapers and nurserymen. You won’t find them in your local hardware store but you can purchase them directly from W.W. Manufacturing. Their simple catalog is a compendium of digging tools, each engineered for a specific purpose. I counted 32 different styles of serious digging tools, with and without handles, diamond point and straight edged — no pretty packaging or faux patinas. I only preach about Made in America when the quality is worth the price, and that is the case here.

The spade I am reviewing has a very long (50″) handle and (15″) blade for tackling digs requiring a lot of leverage that would break most spades and shovels. It’s the most expensive in the King of Spades line, selling for about $120 with a foot pad for heavy stomping. Most of their digging tools cost in the area of $70-$100 depending on the style. When comparing price to value I figure one visit to the chiropractor or several days of missed work or lost sleep due to an injured back make this a good value. That’s if it truly makes a tough job easier and safer. In a field test dividing and digging out a Pampas Grass I found that I could use all my strength and weight on the handle of this spade and it showed zero signs of bending or stress. The sharp blade and foot pad allowed me to comfortably cut through roots and hard soil. It’s a fearsome weapon for those of us who consider digging a sport. Now, when friends ask me for clumps of some of the rare bamboos I grow I’ll let them borrow the King of Spades. I won’t have to worry about them breaking my heirloom wooden handle tools.

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One Response to “In Search of the Best Gardening Tools:
Spades & the Demise of Smith & Hawken.”

  1. Regina in Olympia says:

    Eric –

    You gave me permission to use this article in my rose society newsletter, and I sent you a copy of it when I published it. Did you get that newsletter?

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