My efforts to muck the deep bedding out of the sheep stall came to an abrupt halt when, prying and heaving at the heavy manure pack, I snapped the haft of my pick-axe completely in half.
The pick-axe is the key to meaningful progress on this job. Though it was late in the day, I immediately drove the fifteen miles round trip to the hardware store to buy a new handle.
“This is an easy fix, right?” I’d said on the phone to Damon.
“Sure. Just drive the old handle out, drive a new one in.”
I was secretly looking forward to the project. A simple repair! Something I could mend! Usually all my contributions to a job are on the other end of the equation. Allen, Damon, and Mike answer my telephone calls with, “What’d’ja break now?” Unfortunately the only broken thing I have any talent to fix is broken English.
Just drive the old handle out! This would be fun. I looked forward to feeling happy and competent. On my list I allotted a generous half hour to the task.
I’d brought the head of the broken pick-axe home and in the kitchen I hit at the handle stump with a hammer. The hammer bounced off uselessly.
“You know, the head is made to stay on, right?” said DH, trying to be helpful as he made himself lunch.
“Yes, thanks.” I smiled through gritted teeth. DH means well but he doesn’t have a clue about tools.
I drove back to the farm and got my sledgehammer. I figured I needed a bench vise to hold the awkwardly shaped head while I pounded. I don’t own a vise, but the school does. I drove to the shop. After two small taps with the sledgehammer I realized I would break the bench vise before I made any progress on the handle stump.
Leaving the shop, I stopped my truck at a pile of firewood in the snow. I fashioned a simple crib of firewood to hold the pick head upright while I slammed the handle with my sledgehammer. The whole caboodle fell to the ground. I re-stacked the firewood and tried again. And again.
Suddenly to my horror I realized a group was watching me flail mysteriously at logs in the snow. The head of the group was a man who decided about ten years ago that I was a perfect fool. The man nodded at me with cool politeness. I slunk into my truck and drove home.
None of my pounding with a sledgehammer had moved the broken handle at all. The stump was simply splintering across the top.
I decided I needed to cut off the handle to give the hammer blows a solid surface.
I set up another small crib, right outside our door. By now I had an hour invested.
For the next fifteen minutes, I swung the heavy sledgehammer, ignoring the pain in my bad elbow. The pick head rocked and jumped. Each time, I repositioned it and swung again.
OK. Now what? Again I used a handsaw to saw off the mess.
Maybe I could weaken the last wedge of the handle and break it into pieces to get it out.
Many years ago my late father-in-law presented me with a Black and Decker drill he had been given for Christmas and never used. (DH gets his lack of tool knowledge honestly.) I drilled about thirty holes in the stuck block of handle.
Then I drilled holes from the other side. Then I tried hammering a chisel all the way around the edges on both sides, to free the hangle. Then I tried using the sledgehammer to drive a crow bar to pop it out. Zero movement. Nothing.
Now I had a couple of hours invested and I was getting irritable.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to buy a new one?” ventured DH.
Of course that solution had crossed my mind, but not only would that mean admitting defeat by a simple repair, but this type of double-ended pick-axe (bought at a garage sale years ago) is actually not easy to find. Most hardware stores carry garden mattocks, which have a pick on one side of the head and an adze on the other. The pick on a mattock is too short for leverage. A true pick (the double-ended pick-axes like mine are often called just picks) is apparently designed to break up concrete. You can see why they are perfect for deep bedding.
In my next attack I decided to try a spade drill bit. The remaining piece of handle was rotten yet so tough that it seemed I would have a bow-drill fire long before the bit made it through. I had to stop occasionally to cool the drill and let the smoke in the hole dissipate. I thought of Tom Hanks in Castaway.
Finally I had a hole all the way through the belly of the old handle. You won’t be surprised to learn this didn’t appear to weaken it at all. I was beginning to wonder if the old handle was a strange mixture of rotted hickory and epoxy.
More chiseling and prying.
I pounded some more with the sledgehammer. Nothing.
I think DH was beginning to worry for my mental health.
Next I got a piece of scrap iron, set it in the large hole, and slammed the scrap iron with the sledgehammer. To my astonishment, it worked.
Success! The old handle was out!
I discovered there had been a collar of non-slip rubber, lining the inside of the pick head. Over the decades the rubber had melted to adhere both to the wood and to the steel. I cleaned the remnants out.
It took only a few minutes to drive the new handle in. It is “American hardwood” — made in Mexico. I doubt it will last as long as the old one.
My simple repair accomplished, I’m ready to work.