As ever my task along with my sturdy troupe of voluntary testers was to try and find out if all rakes are equal or whether by dint of construction or design work, some are more effective tools than others.
As well as the standard garden rakes, there are a number of other manual tools that are intended for soil preparation, so I took the opportunity to take a look at a couple of three-pronged cultivators and two of the more elaborate 'tiller' devices.
Having said wet soils are not ideal, season and weather conspired to give us a pretty damp day for the trial and as our allotments are on heavy land it has to be said that soil conditions were not ideal for
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raking. It is quite possible that some rakes found wanting on the day could well perform much better given drier conditions and a lighter soil.
Given the simplicity of a rake it is no surprise that none of our contenders was incapable of doing the job and I'm sure my old rake meister could have turned out tip top results with any of them. However, the testers did have definite preferences, and identified the best performers from the pack.
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In general even the shorter members of the party found longer handles an advantage as it allows a larger area to be worked from one position. The 11 'standard' rakes we looked at averaged around the 150cm (5ft) mark in total length. The longest was the Sneeboer from Harrod Horticultural at 168cm (5ft 6in) and the shortest was the Focus at 132cm (4ft 4in). Taller users found the latter and the Bulldog Evergreen rather too short to be very efficient. The two multi-change tools - the Wolf and Gardena - have the advantage that you can select from a range of different handles.
Users had mixed feelings over handle materials, some preferring the lightness of tubular metal - Wolf, Yeoman, Gardena, Bulldog Evergreen and Wilkinson - while others preferred the warmth and traditional comfort of wood. The Sneeboer was rather too thick for some smaller hands, and others found the Gardena handle rather slippery. In contrast, the cranked foam grip of the Yeoman elicited several positive comments. Most people remarked that the slightly swollen end found on the Wilkinson Sword and Sneeboer made the rake easier to pull back when fully extended. In contrast the pointed end of the Wolf was distinctly uncomfortable in the palm.
Moving to the business end of the rake, it soon became apparent that variations in tine shape, angle and spacing had a marked effect on the effectiveness or otherwise of the performance. Most of the standard rakes have a head around 30cm (1 2in) wide, the exception being the Spear and Jackson at 40cm (1 6in) wide (though it is also available in a standard width.) The obvious advantage of wider heads is you can, at least in theory, do the job quicker. However, as our testers found, there is inevitably a trade off in terms of weight and manageability and most people found the Spear and Jackson too heavy for comfort. The Faithfull landscape rake was an altogether bigger beast with a massive 70cm (2ft 4in) wide head and significantly deeper tines as well as a much longer handle. The head is made of aluminium rather than the more usual and significantly heavier steel and even the less hefty testers found it surprisingly practical to handle. Several people pointed out that it would be better suited to tackling large open areas and there would inevitably be times a smaller rake would be needed.
Tine shape varied from the narrower 'pegs' of the Wolf, Gardena and Bulldog Premier, to the broader flattened teeth of the Spear and Jackson, Yeoman and Wilkinson Sword. The particularly sharp tines of the Sneeboer meant it cut well even into quite compacted soil. Spaces between the tines also varied considerably and at 32mm (11/4in) the gaps of the Sneeboer were double that of the Draper. Most people found that wider spaced tines, when coupled with narrower teeth did mean the rake tended to clag up less frequently, which perhaps inevitably on such damp heavy soil, was a recurrent problem.
Less predictably, the testers did not necessarily find that the stainless steel heads - Sneeboer, Wilkinson Sword, Senator - were any less likely to end up stuck up with soil than the carbon steel. The round pegs and wide spacing of the Faithfull rake made it one of the least liable to clog.
As I suggested earlier on drier and/or sandier soils it might well be that rakes with narrow teeth would be less effective and the broader tined rakes would then come into their own.
Most of the tines were straight in profile but the Wolf, Gardena and to a lesser extent the Sneeboer had a significant curve. Most people liked this, finding it aided the pulling back of lumps and clods and did not make them any less effective than the straighter heads when it came to bashing down the clods. This was not the case with the Draper as the angle of the head - closer to 60 degrees to the shaft as opposed to the usual 90 - made it difficult to work effectively.
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