To clean up a yard covered with dead leaves, pine needles, grass clippings, or any other mess, we’d turn to Ames’s $18 Jackson 1923700 Steel-Tine Leaf Rake. It’s a solid take on your basic rake, with a tough hardwood handle and a 24-inch span of metal tines flexible enough to sweep leaves and stiff enough to stand up to twigs. The weight is comfortable for most people, the balance and length feel natural, the price is reasonable, and it can work like new for years. No rake is perfect, but if you want something sturdy and dependable to hang in your shed, the Jackson is as good as it gets.
For this update, we didn’t automatically stick with a Jackson rake. But eight additional hours of research turned up no new contenders that met our criteria. So the Jackson rake remains the winner—not by default, but because it earned the top spot in 2013’s rigorous test. Working on that guide, we conducted more than 27 hours of research, investigated 42 different rake models, consulted with five professional landscapers from around the country, and tested five samples with members of the seasoned volunteer landscaping crew (aged 16 through over 70) at a tree-stuffed Audubon sanctuary. We found that the Jackson made the best leaf rake available: its handle was sturdier and more firmly attached, and its tines were springier than the competition’s.
Our test Jackson rake has now survived eight seasons of yard work with its tines, head, and handle intact. This year’s updated pick, although officially a new model, is virtually the same tool. We expect that it will be just as functional and durable as its predecessor.
I’ve been gardening in the Boston area for two decades, so I know my way around autumn leaves. I earned a certificate in field botany from the New England Wild Flower Society in 2007, and I co-founded the Lexington Community Farm Coalition, which is devoted to preserving working agricultural land. In 2010 I published Boston’s Gardens and Green Spaces, a Boston Globe Local Bestseller. I have appeared on NPR’s Radio Boston and WCVB’s Chronicle discussing Boston’s open space, and my work has been featured in the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix, Boston Magazine, and the Time Out Boston guide.
In addition to my own experience and research, I got in-depth advice from five professional landscapers—each of whom often prefers a rake to a (far more typical) leaf blower when cleaning up clients’ lawns.
Finally, I put our test rakes in the hands of regular folks—seven volunteers at a leaf-strewn Audubon Society preserve—and recorded their impressions and preferences.
That’s largely a matter of yard-size and tolerance for drudge work. As we said in our guide to leaf blowers:
“If you live on less than a quarter acre, only clean up after one or two trees, and you don’t mind a workout, a rake will be your best option. If raking takes over an hour and it’s more work than you’re willing to deal with, a leaf blower is a better choice.”
There’s also an alternative to both: using a mulching lawnmower to shred fallen leaves and grass clippings in place, rather than removing them. We’ve got a recommendation for that, too.
Fundamentally, leaf rakes are a bunch of sticks tied to another stick. They’re different from bow rakes, which have short, stiff tines and shallow heads meant to move dense materials like soil and gravel. Leaf rakes, which you probably envision when you think of the word rake, have long tines and large heads to catch large volumes of lightweight, bulky material.
Unfortunately, the details that make leaf rakes work so well also make them flimsy and prone to breakage—especially if you try to scoop and lift anything with a leaf rake. Don’t do that.
There isn’t too much to rake technology; you need to make sure that the little sticks—the tines—are attached securely to the handle and that none of the tines are so brittle that they break or so floppy that they bend instead of moving leaves. The tines should be a bit springy so they can stretch out and gather leaves under pressure.
Why? We’ll get to that in a second.
To find the best rake, we interviewed a select group of landscapers who will, if requested, not use any leaf blowers on a client’s lawn. They weren’t easy to find—most landscapers believe that it’s faster and easier to use leaf blowers than to rake.
However, throughout the country, various quiet-loving locales have been demanding alternatives to “mow and blow” lawn maintenance. My five expert rake pros are Trevor Smith of Land Escapes in Arlington, MA; Jackson Jones in Madison, WI; Jeff Monchamp in Ann Arbor, MI: Steven Zien of Biological Urban Garden Services (BUGS) in Sacramento, CA; and Mike Swan of Pro Scape N.W. in Milwaukie, OR.
My sources didn’t agree on much, but there was general consensus on one thing: Plastic doesn’t hold up. “Plastic rakes tend to break, especially in the cold weather, and come with a handle that will often snap in two. There is enough plastic floating around the planet, so I stay clear of it when I can,” wrote Monchamp, the Michigan landscaper, who uses no gas-fueled equipment at all for his work. Smith agreed, citing the cracks plastic rakes get on the tines and the body.
Jackson Jones was the lone dissenter, saying that he hadn’t broken his plastic rake in a year and a half. His secret: Don’t use the rakes as scoops for leaves. Plastic rakes simply aren’t designed to hold weight when they’re held horizontally. Instead, Jones said, “you can just use a snow shovel instead of a rake.” Jones says that once he convinced his landscaping employers to use snow shovels, “We reduced rakes breaking by 90 percent.”
Bamboo rakes also weren’t popular. As Zien put it, “Bamboo rakes work pretty well but they just don’t hold up.” Jones agreed. “I don’t trust them,” he said. Monchamp had a more charitable view of them, but, he said, “The leaves cannot be wet”—bamboo rakes can’t handle the weight.
A rake head that’s 22 to 24 inches wide seems to be the best size for picking up a lot of leaves in a sweep without getting too heavy and unwieldy for most users. Although rake heads can be curved or straight in all sorts of pleasing designs, I and my testers couldn’t detect much correlation of the head shape to performance as long as the tines all made contact with the ground. It’s still a bunch of little sticks tied to a big stick.
On handles, everyone agreed that hardwood handles are best. Metal tubes bend, and fiberglass cracks and shatters. Just make sure that the wood mechanically connects to the head via a screw or bracket and not just glue, which can lose its grip with no warning. And be aware that a wood handle probably isn’t hardwood unless the manufacturer specifies it, preferably by stating a wood species.
Settling on a head and handle type helped eliminate most rakes with plastic or bamboo heads and ones with flimsy metal or brittle fiberglass handles. I also cut the no-name rakes with mixed or nonexistent reviews. That left a list of five rakes that were praised by more than one source and were credited with good performance and durability. For my 2014 update, I also looked at the rakes available at my local Home Depot and Ace Hardware for comparison.
Then, I tested. Let’s face it: it’s hard to get too technical with a rake. I did not run lab tests, per se.
Instead, I wanted to get a feel for how regular rakers—not pro landscapers—felt about using the tools to tackle some fall leaves. I found my testers at the Habitat Intergenerational Program, where a group of volunteers ranging in age from middle-school students to long-time retirees meets to take care of the Massachusetts Audubon Habitat Education Center and Wildlife Sanctuary in Belmont, Massachusetts.
It was a cool fall day, and there were plenty of leaves and pine needles to rake up. We had seven different volunteers try each of our rakes on lawn, pavement, and gravel, providing an excellent opportunity to test the rakes’ performance on different surfaces.
Here’s what we wrote of its predecessor:
The Ames True Temper Jackson Kodiak Spring-Brace Leaf Rake is a solid tool that landscapers and homeowners alike can trust to work well and outlast other rakes. It’s well-balanced, it grabs plenty of leaves, and the weight of the rake head is easy to swing around by a firmly attached, sturdy hardwood handle. In use, it feels like an extension of your arm—your mighty arm of leaf destruction!
Our testers appreciated the 22-inch-wide head, which felt easier to control than some of the massive plastic and bamboo rakes with heads up 32″ wide, and both adult and teen volunteers felt comfortable with the rake’s 55-inch height as well. The shipping weight is listed at three pounds, but it came in at two pounds, three ounces on an EatSmart bathroom scale.
We’re not the only ones who’ve had this tool for multiple seasons. Among the landscapers who sing its praises on Lawnsite.com, one wrote, “I bought a couple of metal tined rakes about three years ago. They have been used heavily, from leaf cleanup to trimming cleanup, and other assorted activities. The tips of the tines are about half worn off…but the handles are still good. A few of the tines are a bit worse for wear, but the rakes still work pretty well. I would recommend these rakes.”
At $16, the Kodiak not much of a splurge. And to be honest, even if you got a plastic tool at half the price, you probably wouldn’t notice an immediate, huge difference in raking performance—nothing like the leap in quality when you upgrade from a $5 pair of pruners to $40 ARS pruning shears. Both will move leaves around.
But with this rake, you’ll spend less time cleaning up broken tines and replacing cracked and bent handles over the years thanks to its hardwood handle and secure, strong metal bracket attachment. In fact, you might have one as long as Jeff Monchamp, the human/solar-powered landscaper—his favorite rake is so old, he couldn’t remember what it was called, so he sent a picture. It turned out to be a Jackson Kodiak Spring Brace rake.
Even though the Kodiak is the best choice out there, it isn’t everything you could ask for in a rake. It’s slightly heavier than bamboo and plastic models, for one thing—but we feel the added durability is worth the weight. And don’t assume this will be the last rake you’ll ever buy. Sure, it’ll last longer than other rakes, but it still could break eventually.
In an ideal world, the Kodiak rake would be slightly springier and feel like it had a little more action in the tines as they flex. If you drag it across pavement, it will make that SKREEEEITCH noise dreaded by sensitive souls and sharp-eared dogs. Leaves will stick in its tines, as happens with every other metal-tine rake. But for all its shortcomings, with the Kodiak, you’ll spend more time raking and less time buying new rakes.
The Corona Clipper 19-inch Shrub Rake ($30) is one of the top-rated rakes on Amazon. A little bit narrower than the Jackson 1923700 at 19 inches wide, and also longer-handled (63 in.), the Corona is also solidly built and easy to control. It was also the lightest of the bunch, weighing in at one pound, six ounces (two pounds of shipping weight). Unlike the Jackson, the Corona isn’t a spring rake—it uses “tempered spring steel,” which is less springy than the Jackson and more like a solid lump of steel. For most testers, the lighter weight was worth giving up the flexible tines. Where the Corona falls short is at the handle.
It’s a vinyl-coated aluminum tube, not wood—which our landscapers say will bend and break with rough treatment. (It was so well-reviewed, though, with people on Amazon and Lawnsite claiming the handles last “a few years” to four years plus, that we had to give it a try anyway.) You can get a version of this rake with a wood handle, but it’s not easy to find: Amazon doesn’t stock them, though Aubuchon Hardware sometimes does ($14 plus shipping).
One rake we tried fresh for the 2014 update goes by different names depending on where you shop—you might find it called a Rugged Steel-Tine Rake ($30, Lehman’s) or a 22-inch Steel Rake For Leaves ($25, Gempler’s). They’re the retail siblings of the Noble American Fire Rake 48-inch Steel Handle.
These rakes are made of metal, but their heads are attached with stiff braces, not springs. And guess what? They’re not springy! They feel like dead weight. They’re heavier than the Jackson, and their tines don’t spread and grab leaves like a spring rake when they’re under pressure. Using one feels like trying to sweep leaves with a broom—the leaves don’t stay bundled together well enough to move a significant number at a time, and they tend to blow and drift away. Although it might be an intriguing alternative to a kettlebell for swinging weight training, a Fire Rake will not make your leaf-clearing life easier.
The Midwest Rake ProGrade Heavy Duty Spring Rake ought to be a decent alternative to the Jackson rake. It’s another brace rake with a steel head held on by two screws, and it’s almost the same weight (two pounds, six ounces), almost the same length (62 inches tall), with the same-width head (24 inches). Unfortunately, it’s expensive at $40, and it also requires assembly. Despite repeated attempts with pliers, I could not manage to attach the brace tightly enough to keep the handle from sliding and wobbling during use—thanks in part to the overly-large screw holes in the handle. And after a half-hour of use, the metal tines were noticeably bent out of their proper plane.
The Wolf-Garten Garden Rake ($35) is really only a rake head, and it’s part of Wolf-Garten’s Interlocken interchangeable handle and tool system. To use it (as more than a whisk broom) you need to also purchase a Wolf-Garten Multi-Star Aluminum Handle. That will set you back another $11 and assemble into a rake that’s more than 6.5 feet long. That’s a bit long, unwieldy, and heavy for most adults, given that the top of a rake handle is supposed to reach the bridge of your nose. (As an alternative, you can get a shorter 46.5-inch handle from BlueStone Garden.) Length aside, the handle didn’t fit well into its interchangeable slot. It wobbled and clicked continuously during use, felt bottom-heavy, and was difficult for shorter testers to use. The Multi-Star handle gets no stars from me.
The Clarington Wizard Rubber Rake ($60) is a bit of a wild card. Enthusiastically praised by North Coast Gardening’s proprietor, Genevieve, the Clarington rake’s head isn’t made of steel, bamboo, or plastic. It’s a replaceable set of hard rubber teeth, so it doesn’t make the SKREEEEITCH sound on pavement and decking that metal rakes do. That said, the rake gets clogged with pine needles pretty much instantly and doesn’t really have the surface area for raking leaves. But if you’re clearing mulch off beds in the spring, the smooth rubber tines are less likely to snag and rip seedlings than sharp-edged metal rakes. The soft rubber can also rake moss off roofs without damaging asphalt shingles. The other thing to know about the Clarington is the high price—at $60, it was the most expensive rake in my sample.
I also looked over the rake selection at my local Home Depot. I could bend back the tines of the metal-tined spring-brace Ames Razor-Back 24-Tine Steel Rake ($20) with one finger, and they stayed bent. Combine that with a fiberglass handle, which the experts said will snap, and you have a high-maintenance rake. So skip the Razor-Back and go for the Jackson—which, by the way, was not available in-store on our visits. And don’t go to the local hardware store assuming that all rakes—even the Ames ones—are equivalent to the one we chose.
The Fiskars 9660 24-inch Leaf Rake is popular and well-reviewed on Amazon, but it has a plastic head, which is a deal- and rake-breaker. It’s also a little too lightweight. More than one reviewer said something along the lines of, “TINES: are VERY sturdy and durable but you will need your garden rake to move big and/or damp piles of leaves,” and, “it’s pretty flimsy….you will get better result from a sturdier rake. You will have to make multiple passes and I felt like you honestly end up working more.” The Kodiak is heavier, but it will move big damp piles of leaves. If you don’t want to buy two rakes, stick with the Kodiak.
I excluded several other bestselling name-brand rakes for similar reasons as the Fiskars—easy-break plastic or bamboo heads, flimsy handles made of plastic or aluminum, or both. Models that didn’t make the cut included the Ames True Temper Greensweeper Poly Rake With 48-inch Wood Handle 1920000, the Flexrake 1A Lawn Rake 19-inch Steel Head with 48-inch Aluminum Handle, and the Flexrake CFP18 18-inch Bamboo Rake with 48-inch Wood Handle.
Although Amazon reviewers appreciate The Groundskeeper II 21-inch Head Leaf Rake, it inspires furious debate on arborists’ chat sites: Half the pros love it; half hate it, complaining that it will “tear the ground up.” You don’t need that kind of headache when you’re trying to rake leaves. Choose a rake that’s easier on your lawn. And even the Amazon reviewers who like the Groundskeeper II for raking thatch and gravel complain that leaves clog it easily, thanks to its thin, shallow tines.
The Bond Contractor Grade Springback Rake looked promising. Its fiberglass handle has a wood core, which could mean strength without potential splinters. However, several Amazon reviewers complained about the single Phillips-head bolt that secures the head to the handle, saying that it needed to be repeatedly tightened or replaced.
Although the Barnel B999 Adjustable Width Aluminum Telescoping Handle Steel Head Fan Rake is well-rated overall, some Amazon reviewers reported that the telescoping handle collapsed or broke during use—and none of my experts or other sources could verify its performance over the long term.
The same was true of the Backyard Inventors Snake Rake, which has a handle that might make raking easier for some users with lower back pain or arthritis. However, while it has plenty of “Gee, look at this new rake!” press coverage, it has no long-term record of durability.
The Sneeboer Leaf Rake 20-tine ($65) is manufactured by a reputable company that makes excellent, expensive tools. But it’s difficult to justify purchasing a rake that costs more than three times as much as the Jackson. You are not going to be able to rake leaves three time faster with this rake. If you’re looking for ways to spend money, get a Sneeboer trowel instead and plant some flower bulbs after you’re done raking.
The A.M. Leonard Metal Spring Rake ($20) could be a wonderful rake, but it’s hard to tell. None of the landscapers I spoke to had any experience with it, there are no reviews on Amazon, and there are only a dozen reviews of it on the A.M. Leonard site. Rather than cast my readers into a leaf-clogged maelstrom of uncertainty, I chose to stick to brands that my sources believed would last for the long term.
A reader recommended that we look at Lowe’s Kobalt brand spring rakes, praising their long-lasting metal handles and sturdy build. When we consulted with Lowe’s staff, though we were told that the Lowe’s Kobalt rakes now feature fiberglass handles, not metal handles. None of the experts we interviewed liked fiberglass handles, which are more fragile than wood or metal handles. Due to the handle material, we feel that we cannot recommend the Lowe’s Kobalt spring rake.
After you’ve raked your leaves, you need to put them somewhere (if you’re not going to have a bonfire). Do not use your rake to hoist leaves into a trash barrel; the head won’t support the weight. Rakes are built for sweeping, not lifting.
The best technique for moving leaves around is to rake your leaves onto a large tarp, then drag the tarp to the leaves’ final destination. Popular Mechanics suggests that rakers work with the wind, wait until the leaves are dry, and be careful of their backs. If you’re a mathematically-minded type driven to perfectly optimize your raking experience, a LifeHacker commenter suggested employing an Euler walk formula to calculate the shortest raking route that will reach every point in a given area.
When you’re done working, a metal rake should be cleaned and dried before you put it away just like any other garden tool. A simple wipe with a rag should take care of it.
Counterpoint: You don’t really even have to rake leaves if you don’t want to—and there are several organizations that will support your decision. Many landscapers advocate leaving leaves in place and grinding them with a mulching mower. This lets the leaf bits break down, enriching the soil with nutrients and organic matter. You can read Leave Leaves Alone for more practical tips. And if you’re in the market for a new mower, check out the leaf-mulching picks in our lawnmower review.
Originally published: September 21, 2015