Forged Ingenuity 

In a remote town in Sonora, the Langford family crafts durable hand tools of rare quality.

November 1, 2013

ArtisanIssue 3: November/December 2013

My love affair with Langford Tools began three years ago on a rainwater cistern installation. In 2009, Lincoln Perino, co-founder of Ethos Rainwater Harvesting, showed up to help build a culvert cistern at Manzo Elementary with a Langford rock rake in hand. I noticed it immediately. From the heft of the handle to the individually welded rake tines, I could tell it was a handmade tool built for farm use. “The Langford rock rake is one of the tools that always comes off the truck. We use the rake for everything from spreading and tamping concrete to transferring mulch. With mulch, it’s the perfect pitchfork counterpart,” says Perino.

“Professional grade” is a term thrown around loosely in the tool industry, but as someone who has worked with both kids and professionals, I have found kids to be ten times harder on tools than professionals—especially when it comes to gardening tools. During the first few years of our gardening program at Manzo Elementary, we amassed a pile of cracked shovel handles and detached rake and hoe heads. Professionals understand the proper use and limitations of their tools—kids do not. They love prying and whacking; while mass-produced gardening tools are not built to stand up to that kind of abuse, Langford Tools are.

Handcrafted in the town of La Morita, Sonora, Langford Tools are designed and built by the Langford family, who use their tools to farm the fertile Bavispe River Valley. The craftsmanship in the welds, hand sharpened blades, and hand-dipped handles are an expression of the Langford family’s ingenuity and agricultural heritage, part of a cottage industry reminiscent of times gone by.

Indeed, Langford tools have more in common with pre-Industrial Revolution tools than they do with mass-produced tools of today. In the 1900s, tools were hand built, heirloom quality, and, although gardening tools were of vital importance, they were fairly scarce. Rural agricultural communities, not unlike La Morita, depended on their tools for economic survival and sustenance.

Today, mass production and mass transportation have redefined tool construction, cost, and availability. A wealth of gardening tools can be purchased low-cost at big box stores or ordered online and delivered to your doorstep within a few days. But affordability and availability come at a price, as mass produced gardening tools verge on disposable and often fail within a season or two.

For the Langfords, failure-prone tools are not an option. “We live three hours southeast of Agua Prieta on a rough dirt road. To buy a tool and have it break is no good, so we started making our own,” says Taylor Langford, 21. Taylor learned to weld tools at age 14 and started learning the tool business at 17.

Taylor’s father, Lafe Langford, says, “Living in a remote community we have to improvise, manufacture, build, and fix our own equipment. Besides being skilled builders as a trade, we are farmers, welders, machine operators, and mechanics.”

Soon after they started farming in northeastern Sonora in 1970, the rock rake and six-inch cotton hoe were the first tools the Langford family designed and fabricated. “The tools worked so well we decided to see if we could sell them to the farming communities in southern Arizona. Most stores we introduced them to didn’t need any more convincing than just seeing the tools—it was an instant success,” says Lafe. In the early 1980s, the first Langford Tools became commercially available in Willcox and Safford, where Lafe’s grandmother grew up.

The Langford family’s agricultural heritage and tool line are inseparable; working the soil for more than 40 years has inspired Langford Tool design and construction. In 1970, at age 5, Lafe moved with his parents from Las Vegas to La Morita, Sonora and began farming 60 acres of potatoes. But as American potato imports increased, potato prices in Mexico dropped and the Langford family began converting potato fields to pecan groves. At almost 3,000 feet elevation, with sky islands to the east and west of La Morita, the weather is cool enough for growing pecans, which require low winter temperatures to flower.

Over time the Langford family began ranching cattle and adjusting crop selection to suit the microclimate of the Bavispe River Valley. Although the winters are cool, the climate in La Morita is warm enough for growing citrus, pomegranates, and for cultivating the traditionally wild-harvested—and elusive—chiltepin pepper. “Wild chiltepin does grow in this area, but is very scarce and mostly grows south of here in much hotter and lower climate,” says Lafe. “For reasons unknown to us, commercial attempts to grow chiltepin in the same area as it grows wild have been unsuccessful.” But the Langfords are able to purchase wild chiltepin seedlings grown in the warmer-climate of Hermosillo; last year, they produced more than 1,600 pounds of the pea-sized fiery red fruit and this season, expect to harvest about 2,000 pounds.

 

Soon after stumbling upon Perino’s rock rake, Manzo amassed a small collection of Langford hoes and rakes. At Manzo, students use both Langford rock rakes and cotton hoes daily to aerate compost, till soil, and to transfer soil and mulch. Aerating and tilling requires that a tool be swung hard towards the ground driving the tines or blade deep into the compost or soil—an action that spells death for most rakes and hoes.

Usually, the part of the tool that fails first is the head-handle connection, or shank. The shank is often a focal point of stress when a tool is in use. The industry standard shank for rakes and hoes, even expensive rakes and hoes, is known as tang and ferrule. The tang is the metal stem protruding from the tool head that plugs into the hollow end of a tool handle. The ferrule is the metal collar that slips over the handle pinching the tang in place. Tang and ferrule construction lends itself well to mass production but is inherently weak. The hollow section of the handle cracks easily and the thin gauge metal ferrule does little to prevent the tang from loosening and ferrule slipping out.

“We solved the handle problem by hydraulically pressing the handle into an eye [a solid steel collar welded to the tool head] with just a minimal amount of conical shape to it,” explains Lafe. The collar is slightly tapered to allow the handle to fit tightly as the handle is inserted using a hydraulic press. The taper of the eye is subtle and causes the eye to maintain contact with the handle from top to bottom. Typical eyes have a more severe angle and pinch the handle tight at the closed end but offer little resistance towards the open end. Thus the tool head seems tight at first but comes loose with minimal use.

Langford handles are lathed in-house from American Ash stock, hand-dipped in varnish, and are longer and more substantial than the industry standard. Over the three years Manzo kids have been beating these tools into the ground, not a single handle has broken.

Handles and shanks are not the only remarkable features of the Langford Tool line. The tines, blades, and handles are equally impressive. The tines on the Langford rock rake are constructed from individually welded 3.5-inch steel-cut masonry nails and are incredibly strong. “Since we didn’t have the finances to purchase huge forging machines to make this tool, we had to come up with something simple and cost effective but also produce a high quality product that worked well,” says Lafe. The Langford tool shop contains a set of rock rake jigs, which hold the individual masonry nails in place for welding one at a time to the rake heads.

“Tell me how you can bend or break a steel cut masonry nail. They’re made to be hammered into concrete,” says Tom Ormes, of Unicoa Industrial Supply, which sells Langford Tools in Tucson. “About 12 years ago, Dan Langford came in to buy a chainsaw and had some gardening tools on the truck,” recounts Tom. Unicoa has been proudly selling Langford Tools ever since.
The blades for Langford gardening hoes are yet another expression of Langford resourcefulness. Langford hoe blades are repurposed from case-hardened discs taken from worn out disk harrows. A disk harrow, or disc plow, is a farm implement consisting of a series of concave disks pulled behind a tractor to cultivate the soil. “Most major brands have two specific problems: The handle would eventually fall off and the steel isn’t hard enough,” says Lafe. “We solved this by using disc steel, which is extremely hard and readily available.”

When disk harrows wear out, the Langfords hand cut and hand sharpen the discs into hoe blades. The result is a slightly concave hoe blade, originally forged to withstand years of tractor use through rocky soil. When upcycled as a hand tool, Langford hoe blades are virtually indestructible.

All Langford four- and six-inch cotton hoes, as well as it’s weeding blade, utilize hand-cut disc plow blades. The Langford weeding hoe is made of a single sharpened blade, designed to run parallel to the ground while chopping weed roots just below the soil surface. The Langford weeding hoe functions like a hula hoe, but with its forged sharpened steel blade, it has the ability to sever small saplings without much effort.

Another ingenious tool conceived of and fabricated by Langford Tools is the hole shark, a combination digging bar and drain spade. At seven feet long, with a heft of 15 pounds, the hole shark comes in right under the jackhammer on the serious business scale. The tool consists of an inch-and-a-half diameter rubber-coated steel handle with a tempered, sharpened steel spade on one end and a digging bar point on the other. The wide, soft handle makes the tool more comfortable to use than a traditional digging bar and it’s more versatile with the addition of a spade—the perfect tool for breaking through tough turf, trenching for irrigation, or prying out rocks and stumps.

Although they aren’t planning to expand their supply significantly, you might see a few more Langford Tools around. “We have had many requests for a pitchfork lately and are currently designing one since it is not a difficult tool to build,” says Lafe. For the Langfords it makes sense, as pitchforks, another tang and ferrule tool, can be constructed in a similar manner to their rock rake and don’t require additional heavy equipment to fabricate.

Like many hand-built tools of the past, Langford Tools are both high quality and scarce. But make no mistake: Langford Tools are not artisan tools priced for the gentleman farmer. Langford Tools and built for tradespeople and priced competitively with lower quality mass-produced gardening tools. Langford rakes and hoes cost between $25 and $30; the Langford Hole Shark costs about $80.

You’d be hard pressed to find La Morita on a map and you won;t find Langford Tools in Home Depot or Lowes—but they’re worth seeking out. Word of mouth, quality, and hand dipped orange tool heads are the only marketing tools Langford employs. The only promotional material Langford prints are small orange stickers found on their tool handles printed with a Douglas P.O. box. As Lafe explains, “We are a very small company and hope to stay that way and always produce the best product available.” Langford Tools can be found in Tucson at Unicoa Industrial Supply, Horizon, and Sprinkler World. They can also be found at Ace Hardware stores in Benson, Bisbee, Safford, and Sierra Vista. ✜

Moses Thompson started the school gardening program at Manzo Elementary in 2006. The initial focus was on native plants but over the last few years has shifted towards food production.


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