Which pickaxe is best?
If you’ve got to break up hard ground — concrete, asphalt, hard-packed dirt, etc. — nothing does the job better than a pickaxe. It’s a straightforward tool, and at first glance looks much the same today as it did a hundred years ago, but over time it has been developed.
Today’s pickaxes are made from a variety of materials, and have numerous variations, so we’ve put together a quick guide to help you find the best. We’ve also made a few recommendations at the end. Our favorite, Truper Railroad Pickaxe, is a tough, all-surface tool equally popular with DIY enthusiasts and contractors.
What to know before you buy a pickaxe
Let’s start with the business end — the head. Traditionally, a pickaxe had a point on one side and a narrow blade on the other. They are all about breaking surfaces open and leverage. The railroad pick is a good example of the latter, because it could be used to lever the rail into position. Trench digging was done with a separate tool, after the surface had been broken.
Now, hybrid tools are common, with a wider blade (often several inches across) on one side of the head capable of a certain amount of digging. So you need to think about the kind of work you want to do before you purchase. Do you need to do a lot of breaking and levering? Or is digging through rough dirt and rocks involved?
Heads are invariably steel, either cast or drop forged. The former is very strong, but can have a tendency to chip. It’s not a major problem because it can be sharpened out. However, the latter is equally strong, but more resistant to damage. That said, it is an extra manufacturing process, so usually adds to the cost.
You’ll also want to think about the weight of the head. A 5- or 6-pound model can generate a lot of destructive force, but wielding will tire you more quickly than a lighter model. Again, it depends on the task. A heavy-duty pickaxe might look impressive, but you’re just expending more energy than necessary if you only have light-duty tasks.
What to look for in a quality pickaxe
Handles were wooden for hundreds of years. They’re cheap and easy to make, but while replacement is easy, they are more likely to break and aren’t very resistant to weather. A polyethylene coating helps, but it’s still a weakness. The alternative is fiberglass, which is virtually unaffected by heat, cold or wet, and very strong. A section is often encased in rubber for better grip. Not the whole handle, because the usual technique when using a pickaxe is to hold firmly with the lower hand, but let the upper hand slide down the shaft as you swing. This creates greatest leverage.
The only drawback with fiberglass is that it can feel “dead.” It has no natural flex like wood, so impacts are transmitted through the user’s hands and arms, increasing fatigue. The best fiberglass-handled pickaxes counteract the problem by incorporating a shock-absorbing mechanism — often at the head, and within the rubber grip area. On rare occasions under heavy duress a fiberglass handle can shatter. Very few are designed to be repaired or replaced, so a new pickaxe would be required.
The other consideration with the handle is length. Short tools, 10 or 12 inches long, are great for one-handed use. If you need plenty of swing, then a 36-inch handle is common — though other sizes are available to suit shorter or taller users.
How much you can expect to spend on a pickaxe
A good pickaxe is a very affordable tool, starting at around $20 for a small, one-handed model. You’ll find full-size pickaxes that will do a good job of digging or demolition around the home and garden for around $30-$40. Heavy-duty contractor models can be $50 or more. These are excellent tools, but tiring if you’re not accustomed to them.
What’s the difference between a pickaxe and a mattock?
A. A pickaxe is primarily a tool for breaking up hard surfaces. A mattock has a wider blade for digging trenches, etc. However, today there are lots of hybrids with different blade combinations, so names like pick mattock are common.
Is one type of wood better than another for the pickaxe handle?
A. Ash and hickory are top choices. They are hardwoods with a relatively close grain so they have lots of strength, but also a small amount of natural flex that helps absorb the shock of impact, thus reducing muscle fatigue.
What pickaxes are best to buy?
Our take: This is a high-quality example of probably the most popular general-purpose pickaxe size.
What we like: This has a 6-pound head in a classic pickaxe pattern for all kinds of ground breaking. A 36-inch fiberglass handle gives plenty of leverage with shock-absorbing design and overstrike protection (wood handle also available).
What you should consider: There have been rare instances of the head coming loose.
Where to buy: Sold at Amazon
Top pickaxe for the money
Our take: This is a compact, one-handed tool ideal for tough garden tasks, camping, etc.
What we like: The steel head is drop-forged and heat-treated, giving strength and impact resistance, so the blade won’t chip easily. It has a comfortable, rubberized fiberglass handle. It’s a good value for the money.
What you should consider: This is a relatively small, lightweight pickaxe.
Where to buy: Sold at Amazon
Worth checking out
Our take: If you want a wider blade than a standard pickaxe, this tool is almost flawless.
What we like: It has a very hard, forged-steel head. It has a narrow pick on one side, and adze-style blade on the other. It is permanently bonded to the fiberglass handle with an area that goes tacky when wet for improved grip.
What you should consider: The blade may need occasional sharpening. It’s a little heavier than specified.
Where to buy: Sold at Amazon
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Bob Beacham writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.
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