Manufacture This

The blog of the Alliance for American Manufacturing

The materials for the handcrafted tools are sourced in the United States.

More than 100 million Americans anxiously await the coming of spring each year, when the cold weather and barren land gives way to sunny skies, green landscapes and the flora of summer.

Fisher adds details on every handcrafted product.

You can call them hobbyists or nature lovers, but their motivations are not for scrutiny. They are gardeners.

Nearly one-third of the population of the United States will be planting gardens of flowers, vegetables and various plants this month for reasons ranging from the beatification of their homes and communities to growing the freshest foods for the dinner table.

In most of America, gardening is a seasonal endeavor, a spring to autumn pastime much like baseball. And, as in baseball, the equipment being used can often determine a successful season.

If you search the aisles of hardware or big box stores, you will most likely find gardening tools that were manufactured overseas, where the emphasis is on low prices rather than quality tools.

But if you are looking for top-quality, 100 percent Made in America gardening equipment that will last as long as Babe Ruth’s baseball career, you can find it being made by Fisher Blacksmithing in Bozeman, Mont.

Tuli Fisher (pronounced two-lee) is an experienced blacksmith and metalsmith who changed his craft from horse farrier to gardening tools manufacturer in 2009 so he could spend more time at home with his newborn daughter.

“When I was shoeing horses I was making garden tools on the side,” Fisher said. “But when my daughter was about to be born, I said, ‘You know what, I want to spend more time at home, so I am going to try and do this garden tool thing full time.’ I was going to give it a try for two years and thought the worst thing that could happen is that I would go broke and go back to shoeing horses.

“After about six months it became pretty obvious I was never going to keep up with all the garden tool orders. I thought it was going to be a struggle with advertising and marketing, but I went to some of these flower garden shows in Seattle, San Francisco and Portland and the vendors liked my tools and started buying them. They passed them on to their customers.”

One look at Fisher’s hand-forged tools and an experienced gardener can tell they are something special. Not only are the tools sturdy and reliable, they have such an exquisite hand-made antique look you might want to use them for home decorating rather than plow them through the soil.

“I have heard that before, but I hope it’s not true,” Fisher said. “I take my tool building pretty seriously. I put a lot of thought into the design, and I want people to use them. It was obvious that there are a lot of gardeners out there and the competition for quality tools is weak. I think there is something about folks being able to use a garden tool that somebody has hand made that makes it more enjoyable.”

Mike Dutton of Victory Seed, a small, family-operated organization that works to keep old heirloom and open-pollinated seed varieties available to home gardeners, started carrying Fisher’s tool line in 2005 when it was just a side business for the blacksmith.

“Tuli’s garden tool line has filled that niche very well,” Dutton said. “We wanted to offer our customers a higher-end, hand-made product that was an alternative to the cheap, disposable-grade garbage from China that has permeated the market. If I can buy from a craftsman like Tuli for a little higher cost, I’ll choose that over a cheap import every day.”

Fisher sources all his tool-making materials in the United States. The steel he uses is milled by Nucor Steel in Salt Lake City and is delivered to him by a distributor from Billings, Mont. about every two weeks. The wood he uses for the handles is sourced from Urban Lumber Company in Oregon.

Fisher does not weld pieces together, but instead uses the pre-electricity method of riveting. He initially made his own metal rivets but now sources them from the Hanson Rivet & Supply Company in California.

When he started making tools, he used a coal forge but now has upgraded to a gas forge made by NC Tool in North Carolina.  It is much more efficient and less time consuming for heating the volume of metal he now needs daily.

At present, Fisher is producing 14 different gardening tools which includes his standard set of five – a large planting trowel, a narrow perennial trowel, two hand hoes one of which is square the other is pointed and a three-tined rake. He also makes these same tools with longer, two-foot handles to make it easier for gardeners to get to those hard to reach places of the garden or vegetable bed.

Fisher uses his immense toolmaking experience to ensure a top-quality product that is designed not to fail. One example is how he joins the metal tool to the wooden handle. He takes great pains in making sure the steel is deeply embedded into the wood using a square connection rather than a round hole so the handle won’t rotate upon use. He drives the hot metal deep into the wooden handle and it scorches the wood for a super tight fit.

Fisher is certainly a man who loves to work with his hands and takes great pride in his work.

“I think I owe a lot of my success to the fact that there is a lot of interest in American-made products after we’ve gone through decades of importing stuff as fast as we could,” said the 46-year-old Indiana native. “I don’t really like all these Chinese products that much, but they are making it easier for me because when you go to the hardware store to look for garden tools, they are all manufactured in China.

“And man, they are cheap. I look at them and I can’t believe somebody would buy that tool. The first rule of toolmaking is that it has to work. So, I look at this Chinese stuff, and you can immediately tell that it sure is not going to work. Or it isn’t going to work for long.

“On the other hand, I grew up in Indiana and there were factories everywhere making some sort of auto part or machine shop that was making some sort of manufacturing part. Anybody that was able and willing could go in there and get a job making really good wages. Those days are gone now. It was hard on the Midwest.”

While in his early 20s living in Indiana, Fisher knew he wanted to work with horses and did some part-time work helping a horseshoer. The farrier told Fisher if he was serious about shoeing horses he should enroll at Montana State University where they had a first-class horse program.

“I take my tool building pretty seriously. I put a lot of thought into the design, and I want people to use them. It was obvious that there are a lot of gardeners out there and the competition for quality tools is weak. I think there is something about folks being able to use a garden tool that somebody has hand made that makes it more enjoyable.” Tuli Fisher

Fisher paid his way through college shoeing horses and after earning his bachelor’s degree he travelled the vast Montana countryside for 12 years with his own horse farrier business.

But just as the changes in Indiana sent him to Montana, the birth of his daughter altered his course in blacksmithing.

After his initial success selling his tools at farmer’s markets and flower and gardening shows, Fisher created a website so that customers from all over America could purchase his tools. Then he began to wholesale his products to a select number of stores and that’s when he realized he needed some help to increase production.

He hired Amanda Garant as his first (and currently only) employee. She worked at one of the local farms but was laid off each winter, so Fisher brought her on board to learn the art of blacksmithing and metalsmithing.

“She thought she had died and gone to heaven because they were paying her minimum wage at the farm and I said in metalworking prevailing wages starts at $15 an hour,” Fisher said.

Garant loves the work and with nearly five years working with Fisher, pay increases have given her a generous wage for a small Montana business.

“It’s a lot of money here but she’s worth it,” Fisher said. “If you want to make a quality product and keep good people, you’ve got to pay them.”

Fisher goes the extra mile to manufacture a functional tool that could also be considered a piece of artwork. The metal on his tools has a bronze and purple patina that he creates for an authentic appearance.

“I wire brush them and I just heat them back up to about 450 degrees and that takes the shiny steel and draws that color into it just to make them look a little prettier,” he said. “It’s all about the finish work. A little bit of extra work goes a long way.”

Visit Fisher Blacksmithing.