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The best mattock

Mattock heads can work loose over time — especially those on wooden handles, which swell and shrink with the seasons. Give it a quick check before you start work to avoid accidents.
Mattock heads can work loose over time — especially those on wooden handles, which swell and shrink with the seasons. Give it a quick check before you start work to avoid accidents.(BestReviews)

A mattock is an often-overlooked garden tool that provides great versatility. Besides using it as a hoe, you can also use one to chop through stubborn roots when you're clearing ground, break hard-packed clay, dig a ditch, and more.

There are several sizes, head configurations, and handle materials, so we've put together a concise buying guide to help you choose. We've also picked a few favorites and included reviews at the end. Our top choice, Fiskars' 5-Pound Garden IsoCore Pick, has the excellent quality you expect from a top brand and offers a unique shock-absorbing handle that can dramatically reduce arm fatigue.

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Considerations when choosing mattocks

Heads

There are two sides to the mattock head. Commonly, the front has a wide horizontal blade (often called an adze) used for chopping through dirt and buried roots. Even when not particularly sharp, it's a very effective tool. The back is usually a point similar to a pickaxe used for breaking up tough surfaces or levering out rocks. There can be a couple variations with heads -- sometimes the rear blade is a small axe, and occasionally, on one-handed mattocks, it can be made up of three or four tines for tilling.

Heads usually weigh around 1 to 1.5 pounds on small mattocks and almost always 5 pounds on full-size models. This provides the optimum combination of easy swing and high-impact force, thus getting the best out of your physical input.

Handle size and material

Handles are either short (15 inches) for one-handed use or long (36 inches) for two-handed use. There can be some slight variation, but there's no practical benefit in having a "medium" size.

The other consideration is material, and wooden handles have long been a favorite. They're comfortable, inexpensive, and easy to replace. The drawback is their lack of weather resistance. While they have good flex -- which reduces impact shock -- it's possible to split one if you aren't being careful (in the event of an overstrike, for example).

Fiberglass is the popular alternative. It's very strong along its length and unaffected by weather. It can be slippery, so at least part of the handle is encased in rubber to provide better grip. The disadvantage is that although breaks are rare, these handles can't be changed like with a wooden model -- you have to replace the whole mattock.

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A basic fiberglass handle is more rigid than wood, so some people find them less comfortable. However, some manufacturers engineer them with additional layers so they act like a shock absorber. These actually outperform their traditional wooden rivals, though they cost more.

Price

Mattocks are very affordable tools, so you don't have to worry about buying an inexpensive mattock and sacrificing quality. Prices for good one-handed versions start at around $15. Even the best full-size models are little more than $40.

FAQ

Q. What's the difference between a mattock and a pickaxe?

A. A pickaxe has a point on one side (pick) and a narrow chisel on the other (axe). A mattock has a wide horizontal blade on one side and usually a pick on the other, though this varies. Even so, mattocks often get called pickaxes. They can also be called adze picks, pick mattocks, and mattock hoes. It can be confusing, so check the head shape.

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Q. Is a mattock easy to use?

A. Mattocks vary from small, one-handed models that are very easy to use to full-size ones that take a bit of practice. You can quickly get the hang of it. Like with an axe, don't force it and let the momentum of the head do the work.

Mattocks we recommend

Our take: Effective and superbly made all-around model from a market leader.

What we like: High-quality hardened steel head. Clever patented handle design soaks up impact shock so you can work comfortably for longer. Great balance. Lifetime warranty.

What we dislike: Almost nothing. Very rare reports of handle breaking.

Best bang for your buck: Hart's 1.5-Pound Mini Mattock

Our take: Good quality one-handed tool offers great versatility.

What we like: Blade and point are both sharp for easy root cutting, breaking up hard soil, and hole making. Offers good control at close quarters. Excellent value.

What we dislike: Nothing really. Some thought the head was too light or handle too short. Others said the opposite.

Our take: Well-balanced and durable general-purpose tool.

What we like: Classic head style for numerous tasks. Tough 36-inch fiberglass handle with rubber grip makes for good control. Shock-absorbing guard reduces damage if you overreach.

What we dislike: Occasional problems with head fixing.

Bob Beacham is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.

BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. BestReviews and its newspaper partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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