A Firefighting Rake and Broadfork

Posted: November 1, 2014 in metalwork, the shop, toolmaking
Tags: , , ,

Wildland firefighting – an iron-age culture of backcountry ditch-diggers – has folklore borne of 50,000,000 hours of tool time. Young rookies must learn to keep their tool sharp and swing it safely all summer. Tool maintenance is reliable winter work for the fulltimers, many of whom learn to grind and weld. Wildfire stations usually have a metal shop, and over time, crews in each region have developed custom tools that work well in their particular fuel-type. Losing your tool is a serious ‘crew-foul’.

The clearest memories I have of seasonal work with the Forest Service all include tools: The sense of LOOT! upon seeing a jumble of beat-up, hand-me-down fire tools in the forestry cache at Bogard, Larry Vogan giving us hell for sharpening our Pulaskis without gloves on, Cedric accidentally throwing his machete at me, sharpening my Pulaski every 10 minutes while chopping ceanothus and on rocks along the Deerheart trail, or the public shaming I got when I stuck my Pulaski into a stump, sharp-end up, thinking it a clever way to hold it for sharpening.

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I just got back from 10 days on the Klamath River Prescribed Fire Training Exchange (TREX), where about 40 of us practiced putting good fire on the ground, reducing hazardous wildfire fuels and restoring oak and conifer forests with a torch. Half the group were new firefighters. We were too busy lighting the woods on fire to talk much about tools, so it was kind of a free-for-all – we just grabbed tools off of the fire engines, or from the back of a pickup, but few of us had our own tools. I loaned out a nice McLeod and someone tried to use it as an axe, broke the handle.

The intention of the TREX program is to build local capacity for using fire to manage forested landscapes (how did the government come to own fire on the ground)? A decentralization of fire management empowers local communities to engage with fire on their own terms, but it also requires a level of thrift not common in our current fire culture. A set of personal protective equipment (fireproof clothes, a fire shelter, hardhat, and boots) can easily cost $1,000. A good radio can cost over $1,000, a fire rake costs over $100, a Pulaski fire axe is $80.

Luckily the Nature Conservancy showed up with a big stash of loot for us to use, but part of building a sustainable fire stewardship culture must include a means to equip a large number of backwoods restorationists with the tools that they need to do the work.

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Tools are also important for leaning on.

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This unit was so steep that most of the time I was using my McLeod as an ice-axe or a crampon.

A 20 person fire crew is a machine, designed to chop fireline 12 hours a day. Each person takes a whack at the ground and steps forward – ‘bump and lick’ – repeat. On our burning projects, smaller groups of people worked on a wide variety of tasks. A day’s work might include chopping fireline, putting in a hoselay, pruning branches, scraping moss off of an oak tree, running a drip torch, throwing some dirt on a hot spot, pulling back litter from the base of a large tree, scratching line around a slop-over, or mopping up a smouldering snag. There is a lot of solo work.

Working on the Klamath I had a few complaints about the different tools I was using.

  • Pulaski axe is great for chopping branches and grubbing brush, but the handle is too short for a long guy like me to use for very long.
  • A shovel is good for throwing dirt or cleaning up after a bunch of line-builders with Pulaskis, but not very effective for chopping fireline in rocky oak litter.
  • A normal McLeod fire rake is great for moving leaf litter, but lacks the heft to chop out brush or limb small trees, and the handle could be longer.
  • I got to use a Rogue Hoe for a while, but it also has a short handle, is pretty heavy, and is not very well balanced.
  • Combi-tools are great for mop-up, but not much else.

Now that fire season is finally on hiatus, I got back into the shop this week with a notion to prototype a multi-purpose fire tool that works for my body, and the Klamath mixed evergreen/conifer forests. Here is a first prototype of a mini-McLeod fire rake. Made from recycled tractor plow disc (which is actually high-quality ‘1080’ tool steel), it is designed to rake, scrape, limb, and grub.

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I was hoping to find a shape that would yield 4 blanks from a single disc, but this design only yields 2. After layout, I cut the rough shape with a plasma cutter and cleaned it up with a grinder.

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My favorite toolmaking projects require making more toolmaking tools. This jig is a bottom die for crimping the teeth of the rake. It goes under a 65# treadle hammer – you place the yellow-hot tool blank onto this, center each rake tooth on the jig, and then drive a fuller hammer down onto it.

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The initial blank seemed much too heavy – the disc is pretty thick – so I chopped the top half way down, then got it yellow-hot in the forge and crimped the teeth using the tool above.

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The hole is for the handle/socket to go thru for welding on both sides. The top edge is sharpened for whacking branches and chopping brush. The sides are ground for scraping.

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Heating a piece of pipe in the gas forge to use in making the handle socket.

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Tapering the handle socket on another custom tool made for this particular job – a cone mandrel made from lengths of round bar and old bolts. The cone mandrel has a 1″ solid shank on it that plugs into the hardie hole on the anvil.

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Finished tool with handle installed and thru-bolted. The blade is 1080 tool steel while the collar is plain/mild steel. When you weld tool steel, you have to preheat it to a cherry-red color either with a forge or torch. I tacked the collar into place, and then got both blade and collar red hot, and used 6011 rod in an arc welder to weld both sides of the joint. It is also good practice to draw a blue temper on the tines and cutting edge.

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The handle is an off-the-shelf hoe handle, with a tapered end – you could substitute local hardwood if you have it.

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Back it down, nice and easy. ^This is good McLeod ground. I am looking forward to trying this thing out.

The Broadfork

This is a non-forged, toolmaking project that I did a few years ago for some local farmer friends. Farming is another tool culture, and though I have less of a personal connection to farming, we like getting ‘custom’ for our homies, and they paid us in good food.

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Broadforks are used for turning garden beds. You use the weight of your body to drive them into the ground and pull the handles back to turn the soil over.

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While both the fire tool and broadfork projects used 100% salvaged steel and plasma cutting, the creative process was much different, and this one felt a lot less organic. Where the layout for the fire tool project used soapstone and a ruler, I designed the tines for the broadfork in Adobe Illustrator and had them cut locally on a robotic plasma table. The hardest part of the fire tool project was tapering a chunk of red hot metal with a hammer and a hokey homemade jig; the hardest part of this project was converting an Illustrator file to a DXF format that the robotic-cutter could understand. Many hours wasted, with little to show for it. I don’t believe that any time spent working with red hot metal is ever wasted. If I had to do this project again, I wouldn’t remember the file conversion steps, and it would cost me another day at the computer. No muscle-memory to be built behind a keyboard…

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Tines cut, ready to weld.

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Jigging up the tines for MIG welding.

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Ready for handles. I used ash 2×2’s, and rounded them with drawknife and block plane.

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The finished tool. It worked alright, but since we didn’t use tool steel for the tines, they are prone to bending, and it isn’t very good for hard packed or rocky soil. There is another tool company in town that makes nice broadforks. They have a nice shop and a steady crew. Theirs cost $200 – they are pretty nice. I don’t think we’ll be building a broadfork factory any time soon.

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