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 as I’ve discovered, some designs are definitely better than others. I know because 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 by myself. 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. You can see a typical line-up of models for testing above. I write about the good ones and ignore the rest.
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, above.
- High-capacity garden carts. The one we like the best is on the far right, above.
- 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.
So, which do I recommend? For gardening work I really like the high capacity garden carts around our place. These won’t stand up well to concrete, rocks and firewood, but they 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 there to the left, in front of one of our gardens.
If you ever visit a place called Mackinac Island, you’ll see hundreds of carts just like this kind all over the place. Motorized vehicles have been outlawed on Mackinac in 1898, and people use garden carts all the time behind bicycles or pushed by hand to move groceries, tools, luggage and supplies of all kinds.
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 pan is excellent, too. Rubbermaid offers a number of items made with what they call “structural foam”. This sounds weak, but it’s actually amazingly strong. Almost indestructible, a structural foam pan won’t even crack if it’s filled with water and left to freeze in winter. The wheelbarrow pan you see to the left has been serving us well for more than 15 years. It’s still perfect. Don’t confuse structural foam with regular plastic wheelbarrow pans that often do crack in short order.
Think About Tires
If you’re looking to buy a new wheelbarrow, start by kicking the tires. 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. 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 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.
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.