Handmade Tools From Nature: A DIY Challenge

Put your DIY skills to the test by crafting handmade tools from items found in nature. Here are some examples of how I found that simple, natural tools can be quite handy.

by J. Keeler Johnson
PHOTO: Daniel Johnson

Once upon a time, on a farm in Northern Wisconsin, I was out in the middle of a field installing a new electric fence line when I realized that I was short of one necessary tool. Given the quantity of tools and supplies I had with me—virtually everything one could want for fence installation and repairs—it seemed impossible that I could have overlooked anything. However, when I went to unwind the wire, I realized that I didn’t have an easy means to do so. The wire was wound around a hollow cardboard tube, meaning that the tube could be slipped over a short rod where it could unwind freely, similar to the way a dowel is put through a roll of kite string.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a rod, and there was nothing in my toolbox that could have doubled as such a tool. I could have walked back to the tool shed and found something, but it was a busy day, the project was running behind schedule, and the tool shed was a long way from the field.

That’s when my DIY spirit took over. Through the years, I’ve fashioned all kinds of simple tools using the abundant supplies that nature provides. I’ve even used rocks as hammers, which isn’t something I recommend, though in a pinch it can work well enough.

In this case, there happened to be a small, deformed apple tree growing on the edge of the field, with plenty of short and sturdy branches. Seeing one of appropriate length and diameter, I plucked it off the tree (not too difficult if you bend it straight down away from the trunk), plucked all the leaves, removed any short twigs—and in a matter of minutes, I had an apple branch exactly the right size for use with the reel of electric wire.

Even though the reel was heavy, the tough apple branch worked well, giving me a couple of handles for holding the reel while I strung out the wire. As a result, the project progressed quickly after that, and the wire was up quickly.

This is hardly the only time that I’ve fashioned simple tools from trees and similar items. I’ve used the roots of Virginia Creeper vines (which pull up easily) as rope to tie down loads of tree clippings. I’ve cut down ash tree saplings—lightweight but strong—and fashioned crude hooks and forks from their upper branches to create long tools for extending my reach. Need to position a tarp over the top of a tall haystack? An ash tree branch might just be the tool you need.

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I could go on, but I think the point is clear. Whether you realize it or not, there are useful materials all around us in nature that can be quickly put to use with a little bit of innovative DIY thinking. Challenge yourself to think creatively and come up with ways to put the trees, rocks and plants on your farm to use. Just be sure to exercise caution while using homemade tools, and be sure to know your plants before diving in. Don’t go cutting down that valuable young walnut tree, for example, and make sure that vine isn’t poison ivy before you pull it down.

Have fun DIY-ing!

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