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If I Had a Jackhammer ...

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By Gwendolyn Bounds

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Easier-to-Use Machines

As the home-construction market struggles, overall tool rentals in North America have declined -- to $8.4 billion last year from $8.8 billion in 2007. But the do-it-yourself crowd is helping to offset the decline in demand from professionals, says Ken Hughes, vice president of communications for the American Rental Association, which represents equipment-rental companies. He notes a widespread trend of stores stocking smaller, easier-to-use machines that increasingly entice homeowners. "The machines have come down to meet the DIY level and the DIYers' confidence has come up to meet the equipment," says Mr. Hughes.

There are some signs that consumers' independent streak might last even after their financial fortunes turn around. For instance, manufacturers and retailers say sales of midprice to high-end home tools have been rising unexpectedly in many categories. Home Depot reports higher-than-normal sales of large tillers and tractors. And at MTD Products Inc. in Valley City, Ohio, sales of heavy-duty snowthrowers this winter rose almost 45%, while sales of gasoline-powered log splitters are up 5% to 10% so far this year; such purchases can cost $1,000 to $2,500 or more. Meanwhile, with U.S. consumers' appetite for vegetable gardening on the rise, and recent scares of salmonella outbreaks in certain foods, the market for garden cultivators has "exploded," says Jim Bednar, senior product marketing manager for MTD, which owns brands including Troy-Bilt, Cub Cadet and Yard Machines.

"What people are doing is investing," Mr. Bednar says. They are purchasing higher-end tools that they believe "will continue to help" recoup their overall losses after the economy recovers, he says.

Of all the hard-core tools finding their way into homeowners' hands, the most telling of the times is perhaps the wood splitter. Many consumers began turning to old-fashioned wood heat after last summer's rising fuel prices seemed to presage fierce winter heating bills. Shipments of wood stoves and fireplace inserts jumped 81% in 2008, according to the Hearth Patio & Barbecue Association. That triggered a run on firewood last summer and fall: Prices on a ready-to-burn cord of wood (about two full-size pickup truck loads) climbed to over $200 in many parts of the country and upward of $300 in high-demand spots like Maine.

Dennis Duda, a 65-year-old retired school psychologist, has been using a small splitting machine called the Mini Splitter to make firewood around his property in Phoenix, Md. The machine, made All American Log Splitters Inc., is powered either manually with a hand/foot pump or an air compressor. It's easy to use and doesn't take up much room in the garage, he says. "I see other people around and they wind up with these bills that are astronomical because they can't do anything themselves," he says.

Splitting Wood

Sales were up 35% in 2008 at logsplitter.com , making it the biggest year to date for the 10-year-old site. At Lowe's, receding fuel prices in recent months has done nothing to abate robust sales of splitters. And this year, sales of splitters are up 11% for Timberwolf Manufacturing Corp. in Rutland, Vt., which makes high-end models for homeowner and commercial use.

"If you are a person faced with a possible layoff, you aren't going to buy a boat, but you might buy a log splitter," says David Therrien, Timberwolf's chief executive.

Write to Gwendolyn Bounds at wendy.bounds@wsj.com

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