A “Break” in the Mucking


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.

I decided to use the smaller bit again and this time drill a hole every quarter inch around the edge on both sides.

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!

It only took me a little over four hours.

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.


3 Responses to A “Break” in the Mucking

  1. Jack says:

    If you ever have trouble getting a wood handle like that out again try putting it in a fire. Presto its done.

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