At the Forge with Sneeboer Tools
As we head into the garden this year, we're taking along a set of newly-arrived garden tools from Sneeboer. Considered the gold standard in Dutch garden tools, every Sneeboer creation has been hand-forged and individually shaped, sharpened, and polished since 1913. Founder Arie Sneeboer said, "One who once has held a Sneeboer tool in his hands never wants anything else." These days, we're inclined to agree! We recently chatted with owner and third-generation craftsman Jaap Sneeboer to learn more about the roots of these heritage tools.
terrain: Can you tell us a bit about the history of Sneeboer?
Jaap: In 1911, my granddad, Arie Sneeboer, came from Amsterdam to Grootebroek, a small place in northern Holland. In 1913, he founded his own company, producing carbon steel tools for gardeners in the area. This region has always had lots of farms and greenhouses growing tulips and vegetables. Just a year later, he had to leave the company to fight in World War I. When he returned to the forge, he had the idea to sell semi-manufactured tools to other blacksmiths in the villages nearby.
His business flourished, and his family grew as 10 children were born! My father and uncle joined the company in 1938. After World War II, they began experimenting with stainless steel, working to find the right alloys and techniques for our tools. After a long period of testing, Sneeboer became the first company to produce hand-forged, stainless garden tools that offered the same quality as those made of carbon.
My wife, Wilma, and I took over in the eighties, and we began visiting garden fairs across Holland to spread the word about our tools. At one of the fairs I met Rosie Atkins, the editor of Gardens Illustrated. They featured our tools, and that was the beginning of our export business. When I began working at Sneeboer we sold just 10% of our tools outside of Holland. Today, that number is 80%!
terrain: How does more than a century of heritage influence the company today?
Jaap: In 2013, we celebrated the company’s 100th anniversary. To mark the occasion, we were appointed by the Queen and are now allowed to add “Royal” to our name. We still make every tool in the same way that my grandfather did, and we’re still guided by his philosophy: “If you produce a tool, make sure it’s a good one.” Durability and sustainability are buzzwords today, and while the market has changed, our process has not. We still make every tool with coal fires, sledge hammers, anvils, and a lot of sweat. Why change the process when it has been a proven success for so long?
terrain: How are your tools designed and made?
Jaap: From scratch! We use our own molds as often as we can, so most ideas come from private gardeners in combination with my own designs. When we do private shows and meet customers, they’ll come to us with a specific garden problem. My goal is to solve those problems, even if I have to make just a single tool. In Holland, every village has its own blacksmith, who makes garden tools suited to a specific purpose, soil condition, etc. I ask them to show me these tools, and also receive the occasional letter with an image and the note, “Please make me this tool?” In these ways, we're able to design tools that meet the needs of gardeners.
In making our tools, we work to be as green as possible, since our products are made for a “green” industry. We switched from acid to ultrasonic, and reduced waste materials with a water cutting jet. Our sand is re-used by other companies, we’ve installed special lighting, and air in the factory is filtered to remove dust from grinding, polishing, and welding damps. 95% of our handles are made with FSC-certified wood. I’m always conscious of the environment and the health of everyone who works in our forge.
terrain: What materials and crafting techniques make Sneeboer tools unique?
Jaap: Our tools take shape thanks to a special combination of the right materials, old-fashioned techniques, and the skills of our employees. We specially create a tempered stainless steel using the correct alloy in combination with coal fires, sledge hammers, and hammers. We also work with different alloys to best fit the task; for example, a spade might have a tempered blade but a socket made from a more flexible steel to absorb the action of the gardener. Finally, we have to select the right handles to combine with the blades for strong, special construction.
terrain: What are the most essential tools a gardener can own?
Images courtesy of Sneeboer.
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