How to Choose a Great Wheelbarrow

how to choose a wheelbarrow group shot
This is one group of wheelbarrows I’ve tested. The unit on the left is actually a gas-powered wheelbarrow capable of handling hundreds of pounds without making you sweat.
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If you’re considering buying a wheelbarrow, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve been using and testing all kinds of wheelbarrows for 30+ years, and contrary to what’s usually true in life, occasionally you really can get something for nothing. Wheelbarrows are a case in point. Without fuel or electrical inputs of any kind, a good wheelbarrow easily triples or quadruples the amount of stuff you can move with your body alone. Wheelbarrows have always offered advantages like this, but some designs are definitely better than others, depending on the work you have to do.

I have an unusually close relationship with wheelbarrows. I used one particular wheelbarrow at least several times a week for twenty years moving things I never could have budged without one. For a three-year stint in the late 1980’s a wheelbarrow served as my only bathtub while I built my backwoods country home. Every so often manufacturers send me different wheelbarrows to test, whichever ones I want. If you have any specific questions about choosing a wheelbarrow after reading this article, send me an email at [email protected]

Four Types of Wheelbarrows

Generally speaking, wheelbarrow designs fall into one of four categories:

  • Double- and single-wheel contractor models: That’s a double wheeled barrow second from the left in the photo above.
  • Garden carts: The one we like the best is on the far right, above. They have big wheels and a large carrying volume.
  • Poly-tub builder wheelbarrows: Pretty good, but you need to know which plastic to avoid.
  • Motorized wheelbarrows: Yes, motorized. That’s a self propelled wheelbarrow on the left of the group above.

Garden Carts

For gardening work, I really like high capacity garden carts. These won’t stand up well to concrete, rocks, firewood and other hard items, but garden carts are terrific for moving the kind of large volumes of fluffy material that gardening often involves. A company called “Carts Vermont” invented this kind of large capacity gardening wheelbarrow decades ago, and they still do an excellent job. That’s ours below, in front of one of our gardens.

how to choose a wheelbarrow garden cart
If your yard work is mostly about gardening, then a cart may serve you better than a traditional wheelbarrow. You can’t mix a load of mortar in this one, but it is first-rate for carrying bulky gardening supplies, prunings and topsoil.

If you ever visit a place called Mackinac Island, Michigan (a terrific spot by the way), you’ll see hundreds of carts just like this kind all over the place. Motorized vehicles have been outlawed on Mackinac since 1898, so people use garden carts all the time behind bicycles or pushed by hand to move groceries, tools, luggage and supplies of all kinds. Every so often you’ll even see a Mackinac plumber or electrician riding to a job on a bicycle pulling a cart like this loaded with tools.

Contractor Wheelbarrows

The dual-wheel barrow on the right is more stable than the single wheel model, but it’s also less maneuverable.

These are my favourite general purpose wheelbarrow. They’re meant for use with concrete, sand and stone, and they’re the toughest, longest-lasting wheelbarrows around. The best I’ve used generally have a steel pan, one-piece handles and a flat-free tire. That said, one type of plastic-type pan is excellent, too.

Rubbermaid offers a number of items made of what they call “structural foam. This sounds weak, but it’s actually amazingly strong. Almost indestructible, a structural foam wheelbarrow pan won’t even crack if it’s filled with water and left to freeze solid in winter. The wheelbarrow pan you see below has been serving us well for more than 20 years. It’s still perfect. Don’t confuse structural foam with regular plastic wheelbarrow pans that often do crack in short order. They’re very different. Structural foam is amazingly tough. That’s what you can see below. Stay away from plastic wheelbarrow pans.

how to choose a wheelbarrow structural foam pan
This wheelbarrow pan is made from a material called “structural foam”. It’s tough (much tougher than plastic), and it never rusts. It can even freeze solid in winter full of water and it won’t crack. I don’t recommend you store wheelbarrows outside, but if you forget, winter won’t cause damage.

Think About Tires

If you’re looking to buy a new wheelbarrow, start by kicking the tires. Literally. There are lots of models out there that use rock-hard, solid rubber tires, but I’ve never found they work well, except for the lightest duty jobs. If you think you need a wheelbarrow, you probably need a better than basic model, and this means an air-filled tire or a flat-free tire. The semi-squishy consistency helps even out rough ground, making it much easier to push a load over bumps and hollows.

Just about the only thing better is a semi-squishy tire that never goes flat. One of the smartest innovations in the wheelbarrow world is flat-proof tires. They offer all the performance and grip of regular air-filled tires, except they never let you down. They can’t because they hold no air. Instead of a standard, tubeless design, flat-proof wheelbarrow tires are made of semi-solid foam all the way through. Today’s best commercial-duty wheelbarrows roll off the factory floor with flat-proof tires as standard equipment. You can also get them as aftermarket add-ons for older wheelbarrows, too. Beware the cheap flat-free tires because they split and crack in the sun.

The best leak-proof wheelbarrow tires are made from a semi-rigid, high density foam. These tires aren’t hollow, so they can’t leak air. Flat-free tires are squishy enough to make it easy to move loads over uneven terrain.

You might be able to improve your home or tend a garden without a wheelbarrow, but why would you want to? After all, wheelbarrows offer the only free lunch you’re likely to find these days. Just be sure the neighbours aren’t looking if you use one to take a backyard bath.

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– Steve Maxwell