But there was one aspect of work round the homestead that I failed to fully appreciate – working single-handed. While we had a few neighbors within walking distance, they were busy working on their own homesteads, and I was reluctant to ask for help for all but the most challenging tasks. I think it’s a point of pride among those who favor independent living to be, well, independent.
The main challenges I experienced usually had to do with moving, lifting, or positioning large and heavy objects. Logs needed to be rolled or blocked up for bucking or chainsaw milling, boulders needed to be moved from new garden plots, a cast iron cook stove and various wood heaters over the years had to be lifted from our boat and brought up the 60’ hill to our place. Construction tasks were done alone, with no one to hold the other end of the beam being lifted, to help set posts or help raise a flat of shakes to the roof. And since our place only has water access, one boat or another always needed to be hauled out for maintenance and then put back in over the rocky shoreline.
The main challenges usually had to do with moving, lifting, or positioning large and heavy objects.
There are also safety issues associated with many homestead jobs that are taken on alone. A serious injury can mean the end of the independent lifestyle. Over the years I learned, by observing neighbors and seasoned old-timers, how to use some simple tools and practices that I had not been familiar with but which made all the difference in accomplishing challenging tasks without help from others.
Every homesteader will have his or her own suggestions for tools that made their lives easier. Here are a few that I learned about which have become indispensable in getting jobs done on the homestead.
1. Block and Tackle (or a Come-Along)
Pulling and lifting heavy objects are frequent challenges and my choice for these tasks is often a block and tackle. A traditional tool in use for 2000 years, the block and tackle is still in common use today – just look at any crane, fishing or sailing boat and you’ll see this elegant tool in action. It consists of two pulleys (blocks) with rope or cable threaded through them. They typically come in one to four ‘purchases,’ or sheaves, with each purchase adding more pulling strength. The one pictured here is a wooden threefold-purchase. For best advantage, hook the block that the line starts from to the object to be moved.
Another more commonly used tool designed for pulling is the ‘come-along’ winch and cable puller, a handheld device that works by ratcheting a cable (or nylon webbing or rope) over a drum to give the operator a mechanical advantage for moving heavy objects. Come-alongs are available in various capacities, typically from ¾ ton to 5 ton, and cost usually under $100.
For lifting, a ratchet lever hoist is similar to the come-along. A chain hoist can also be used for similar purpose, although the ‘throw’ (length of pull) is relatively short which limits the length of pull without resetting.
Come-alongs are lighter than comparable block and tackles, fast to set up, can be operated one-handed, and are less expensive. The block and tackle, however, is unmatched for its simplicity and reliability – no metal parts to wear out, weaken, or break—a concern when the tool is under stress during a heavy load.
2. Pry Bar
I was too cheap to buy a pry bar and thought I could make do with poles or ‘what-have-you’ to lift or move heavy objects. After finally relenting and buying a 6’ pry bar, I soon realized how indispensible this tool really is. There is simply no substitute for a good pry bar for many tasks around the property. You need one.
These simple steel bars, with one end chiselled flat, are essential tools for so many tasks around the homestead. Available in 4’, 6’, and 8’ lengths, these heavy steel bars are made to withstand the toughest applications without bending or breaking. Typically used as levers, you can use a pry bar to move or roll a heavy object by yourself. Just work the fine end under the object to be moved and lift while pushing. If the piece is too heavy, try putting a block of wood or a large rock down as a fulcrum and bear down on the pry bar. Bit by bit, you can move big things without help.
We get the most use of our pry bar when setting posts, preparing new ground for garden beds, or when digging into areas for footings for a new structure. Our yard has its share of boulders beneath the surface, and the only way we can remove them is to dig around them and use the pry bar to lever the boulder up and out of its hole. Once on the surface, we use the bar to lift one end so a length of pipe can be set under and used as a roller to move the boulder to a new location.
When digging holes for fence posts and other purposes, we often run into hardpan – dense solid clay that cannot be penetrated by a shovel. The pry bar is used to chisel into and break up the clay, inch by inch, until it can then be shovelled out.
If you buy a pry bar, paint the top end bright orange or apply some bright tape – they can be easy to lose in the bush.
3. Hydraulic Jack
Also called ‘bottle jacks’, these compact jacks are available in different capacities, e.g. 1 ton, 5 ton, 10 ton, etc. They are small and light enough to easily move to a work site, yet have the needed potential to lift and help move very heavy objects. Bottle jacks have many uses around the homestead, from supporting large construction projects, lifting logs that need to be shifted or blocked up for bucking, and can even be used in controlling the fall direction of problem trees that need to come down. More typically, these jacks are used for lifting cars when changing tires, but their useful application broadens in the homestead environment.
I borrowed a 10-ton tank jack from a neighbor to lift the front of my cabin to bring the floor up to level – it came up with a few easy cranks of the lever. Lowering it back down onto the new foundation was simple, just by turning the lever gradually counter-clockwise.
One word of caution – a load should not be left on the jack for lengths of time. It may gradually compress the piston, which will settle the load.
I didn’t know what a mattock was when first moving off-grid, but this versatile, two-sided tool has become indispensable for many homestead chores. The blade side of a mattock is ideal for rough landscaping, smoothing uneven ground, for levering up heavy items like logs or rocks, or for chopping out hard to move shrubs and large plants. The pick (pointed) end is ideal for breaking into new hard ground, and for levering up subsoil rocks and boulders. You can swing the mattock like an axe to get more penetration than when using a pry bar, although this only works for shallow depths if the holes are narrow, like postholes. For postholes you can switch to using the shovel and pry bar once the hole is deeper than 12” or so.
We use the mattock to clear heavy brush and surface roots from the fence line or when establishing a new area for planting or building. Most large projects around the homestead begin with mattock work – clearing space, levelling ground and removing obstructions before the new work gets underway.
5. Brush Hook
Clearing brush is a constant job around the homestead. The forest keeps coming back as it tries to press against the fence and overrun our clear garden space. Over the years we’ve tried cutting back the bushes, weeds, and branches using a variety of tools such as hedge clippers, pruning shears, chainsaws, a weedeater, and a brush cutter (bladed weedeater). But the brush hook is the go-to tool we use today – it is easier, more effective and safer to use than any of the others.
A timeless design, the brush hook blade is similar to a machete but with a curved edge at the top of the blade. The curve provides more contact through the stroke than a machete, and is very effective at cutting weeds and brush by hand.
The hedge clippers and pruning shears can do the job, but take longer and can be tiring after a while since they have long handles with the weight at the tip. Using a chainsaw or a weedeater to cut brush makes the work go faster, but these tools are not designed for the purpose and are basically unsafe to use. The chainsaw grabs long stringy vines and branches and is difficult to manage safely. Also when cutting brush your visibility is hampered and it’s easy to accidentally strike a rock, log or other concealed object. The weedeater has a ‘brush cutter’ steel blade attachment, but when my friend cut off a few toes using a gas powered brush cutter I lost interest in the tool. Plus it is gas powered, another negative.
By contrast, the brush hook is simple and easy to use, lightweight so you don’t tire easily, can be used with one hand or two, and can cut overhead weeds as well as shorter brush. Clearing our fenceline can be done surprisingly fast. I often work with my back to the brush being cut, swinging the tool along my side so the actual cutting is done just behind me. This is for safety, so I’m not in the way of the follow-through of the stroke. The main hazard is other people – make sure no one is near you when swinging this bladed tool in a brushy thicket!
Bonus Tool: Tweezers!
This sounds like a silly inclusion to this list, but I’m serious. A good splinter can stop you in your tracks when trying to get a job done. And living off-grid is a hands-on lifestyle—splinters are a common, almost daily occurrence with me. A quality pair of tweezers will get you back to work quickly with minimal fuss. Get several of the best pairs of tweezers you can find and keep one in your pocket when doing carpentry work, stacking firewood, moving lumber and especially when handling plywood.
We have three or four tweezers in the first aid bag, but only one really works. Available at Lee Valley Tools, it’s called the ‘sliver-gripper’. The tips are very fine, enabling you to grab the smallest stub from the wound without having to first poke around with a needle to expose more of the splinter. There’s one model that has a magnifying glass set into the handle. This looks useful although I haven’t tried them yet.
A Word of Caution
The best advice when using tools that drag, lift, pull or otherwise move heavy objects is to assume the worst will happen and be positioned to avoid injury. Ask yourself, where will the log end up if the come-a-long cable snaps? What if the pry bar slips out from under the boulder being lifted? Is my foot out of the way? What if the load shifts off the hydraulic jack? Block the load up for backup support if the jack fails. Try to have a secondary backup in place whenever working with heavy loads. Ensure your safety by using the right tools for the job!