How (Not) to Repair Your Wheelbarrow
Do you have a wheelbarrow with rusty bucket or crumbling handles? We did—it had spent too much time outside, assaulted by rain and sun. Did it make sense to replace it? Or could it be repaired?
Judging by the selection on offer at the local big box stores, wheelbarrow technology hasn’t changed much in the last couple of decades—several models similar to our old one were there to be seen: sheet metal 'bucket', metal frame, wooden handles. They were retailing for prices between $50 and $130 or so—definitely enough to inspire some repair efforts.
This Hub shows what the project looked like for me.
First, let’s consider cost. Of course, it depends what is wrong with your wheelbarrow. But the biggest vulnerability on these barrows is the handles. They are not well-finished, which means that they are not well-protected from weathering. Assuming that your wheelbarrow’s handles, like mine, are the main issue, then the main cost will be that of the wood you need to fashion new handles.
Ash and hickory are the woods of choice, but are prohibitively expensive, unless you have an ‘in’ of some sort—your own woodlot, perhaps?
But oak is a reasonable substitute for this purpose. I used two 10-foot 1 x 2 inch pieces, laminated together, to build my replacement handles. The cost was $20. I also replaced almost all the old hardware, which cost another $10 or so. I was fortunate enough to have most of a quart of rust paint, and so was spared that expense. But if you need to buy paint, too, a quart of rust paint will cost less than $10.
The process was fairly straightforward: first, dismantle the wheelbarrow. The old handles will be used as templates for the new ones, and can best be measured separately!
But, unless your wheelbarrow is exactly like mine, I recommend that you photograph your old one carefully to document how it was assembled. I neglected this step, naively imagining that it would be trivial to reassemble it again when the time came. But that turned out not to be true, resulting in quite a lot of unnecessary head-scratching! (More on that later.)
On an unrelated visit to my local Big Box Home Store (Inc.), I was somewhat chagrined to find that they now sell wood wheelbarrow handles for around $13 apiece.
I was not able to identify the wood, but it was considerably less dense than my laminated oak handles, and will probably be less rugged and durable. Certainly it is not as attractive!
But just as certainly, the hassle and time factors are much more favorable--all you have to do is drill holes for the hardware. And they are considerably cheaper, which surely makes them worth considering as an option for your wheelbarrow 'R & R' project.
Construction began with the new handles. The 10-foot 1 x 2s were cut in half to match the (approximate) 5-foot length of the original handles. The resulting pieces were ‘buttered’ with wood glue using a putty knife and then clamped and screwed together, as shown in the photos. If you are used to working with soft woods like pine, be aware that when working in oak, pilot holes and countersink holes need to be more carefully made. Oak is hard enough that an undersized pilot hole can result in you breaking a screw as you try to tighten it. Nor will a screw deepen an undersized countersink hole in oak.
When the glue has finished setting, shape the ends of the handles. I did this with a table saw set to a 45-degree angle, followed by smoothing with a small surform plane and sandpaper. As always, exercise extreme care in using a table saw.
Holes for hardware should be drilled according to their placement in the original handles. If you don’t have a drill press, it is a good idea to drill from both sides of the work piece; otherwise, holes are apt to ‘wander’ away from their correct location. It is surprisingly hard to drill a true 90-degree hole by hand.
Once the piece is completely shaped, it can be sanded and varnished. I used polyurethane, and applied multiple coats to create as durable a finish as possible.
Many wheelbarrows, like mine, require a set of ‘wedges’—wooden pieces resting upon the handles and supporting the ‘bucket.’ I cut mine from a scrap piece of pressure-treated 2 x 2 inch lumber, using the table saw. To cut the correct angle, I tacked the work piece to one of the old ‘wedges,’ taking extreme care that the metal not fall in the line of the saw cut. That would be dangerous indeed!
A single rip cut served to define the angle cut for both wedges; they merely needed to be trimmed to length.
Meanwhile, the ‘bucket’ of the wheelbarrow, as well as the other assorted metal pieces, must be cleaned up and painted. I pressure-washed them, dried them, and scrubbed them with steel wool as long and as vigorously as I could, and wiped them down. Then I painted them with multiple coats of rust paint.
When all the finishing is complete and everything is thoroughly dry, it’s time to assemble the pieces. This is harder than I had expected, because apparently everything is meant to be under stress when correctly assembled. That is, the metal pieces must be bent slightly into their places; they do not fit ‘passively’ into place. That makes it harder to discern just how they are meant to fit together. But if you have documented the original appearance, you will be saved some puzzlement.
Begin by connecting the handles to the front bracket. Use the old handles to accurately locate the holes for the bolts, as suggested by the photo above.
Assembling the legs and the braces is the most challenging, as the parts don't align naturally. But if your holes are pre-drilled correctly and if you have documented the assembly, you shouldn't have too much trouble.
It’s important to get the wheel brackets reasonably straight, since the wheelbarrow won’t track correctly otherwise.
As the photos above suggest, this can take some 'fiddling.'
All in all, this project was somewhat time-consuming, due to all the finishing involved: there were multiple coats of paint to the bucket and other metal parts, and multiple coats of poly to the handles. Each had to be applied, which was a relatively quick process, but then had to dry, which was not.
And of course, there was lots and lots of surface preparation first: time with sander and with steel wool.
Even the assembly took longer than expected, due to my failure to document the assembly adequately. But you won't make that mistake!
But the result was satisfying: a wheelbarrow that probably looks better than it did when new, and which should be good for many more years of service.
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