Design & DIY

How to pick the right wheelbarrow for every job

Wheelbarrows are amazingly useful cottage tools, but beware of buying too small and too cheap. There are many light-duty, homeowner wheelbarrows that look decent in the store, but won’t hold up to rolling over the rocks and roots of cottage country. Expect to pay around $100 for a decent wheelbarrow, with some great models well over $300.

If you’re looking for a wheelbarrow that can help you bring stuff in from the car, is great for mixing concrete, and can haul a hundred pounds of firewood, you’ll love a heavy-duty contractor’s wheelbarrow. These have a single wheel, long handles, and a large pan. Pans come in round- or blunt-nose designs, but I’ve never found the shape makes much difference. What does matter is the pan material. Metal and structural foam work well and last long; plastic is prone to cracking. I’ve owned all three types, and the two with plastic pans both cracked shortly after I got them. 

Only need a compact, easy-to-store wheelbarrow? Folding, fabric-type models work well for small, dry loads. But, if you’re into gardening, there are better options. While a contractor wheelbarrow does work for hauling around plants and soil, a two-wheeled, garden cart-type wheelbarrow is even better. Its generous capacity, flat bottom, and stability are its biggest advantages. At our rural home, we use a large cart with a plywood body and two spoked bicycle wheels for all yard work. Garden cart designs roll easily, but aren’t good for mixing concrete or handling liquids.

There are three types of wheelbarrow tires: air-filled (pneumatic), solid rubber, or flat-free (semi-pneumatic). Solid rubber is the most common for small, homeowner-grade wheelbarrows, but their tiny diameter and lack of compressibility make them hard to roll over rocks and bumps. Air-filled tires are the traditional option for heavy-duty wheelbarrows and most large, two-wheel garden carts. They work well except for one thing: all air-filled tires go flat in time. Especially, it seems, the first time you need the wheelbarrow after storing it in the woodshed all winter. Avoiding this hassle is why flat-free wheels were invented. Made of solid, high-density foam, flat-free tires have no air to lose, yet they still retain enough squishability to roll easily over obstacles. I’ve found that sunlight, however, can make them crack and disintegrate. Store your wheelbarrow under cover for maximum tire life.

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