Front Tine vs Rear Tine Tiller: Best Uses for Each

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A photo showing a front tine vs rear tine tiller side-by-side.

As a home gardener, you know how important it is to use the right kinds of tools for the jobs you need to do.  You’re probably looking to create a new garden at your home and know you need a tiller for the job, but what’s better- front tine or rear tine?

Front tine vs rear tine tiller- which one is better?

  • Front tine tillers are smaller, easier to maneuver in tight spaces and produce a fine soil texture. They also tend to be less expensive, and they’re ideal for yearly garden soil prep.
  • Rear tine tillers have bigger, more powerful engines that are perfect for tilling up unbroken ground for new gardens, preparing large plots of ground or working compacted, stony soil. As large pieces of garden equipment, a rear tine tiller is usually more expensive.

In this article, you’ll learn the differences between front tine and rear tine tillers and where each one has strengths and weaknesses. We’ll also go over some points that can help you decide which tiller type is best for your garden situation.

So let’s get you ready to get your garden in shape with confidence!

RELATED: Ever wondered if tillers and cultivators are the same thing? They’re not! Stop by our post outlining the differences between cultivators and tillers to learn more.

Front Tine

Rear Tine

Tilling depth

Up to 8 inches

Up to 14 inches

Tilling width

12 to 22 inches

12 to 24 inches

Soil condition

Moderately loose soil,

small roots and stones

Difficult soil (hard, clay, rocky), moderate to large roots

Power source

Electric or gas

Gas

Breaking new ground

Yes

Yes

Annual garden soil prep

Yes

Yes

Garden square footage

 Up to 5,000 

Over 5,000

Price

$$-$$$

$$$ - $$$$$

How a Tiller Works

All tillers use a motor or engine to power a group of rotating tines, which are essentially long metal “teeth” that dig into the ground. Each tine has an angled edge and a curved tip that allow it to efficiently slice into and turn over soil.

The tiller rolls along on wheels, and as the user, you control the direction and speed. Some tillers also have more advanced settings that you can select based on your task.

While all tillers have the same basic goal of creating a fine texture for planting, there are significant differences in how different types of tillers operate.

Front Tine Tiller: Overview

Let’s take a look at the key characteristics of a front tine tiller, where you’d likely use one and the pros/cons it carries.

How a Front Tine Tiller Works

Tine placement. The primary characteristic of a front tine tiller is the tine placement. Front tine tillers have tines placed in front of the wheels, typically under or just in front of the motor or engine. You can see the construction in this photo:

Earthquake 20015 Versa Front Tine Tiller

Earthquake 20015 Versa Front Tine Tiller

Tine rotation. The tines on a front tine tiller rotate forward. As the tines dig into the ground, they pull the tiller along. A front-wheel-drive car is a good illustration of how this tine operation creates forward movement.

While you won’t usually have to manually push your front tine tiller forward thanks to the automatic forward pull, you will definitely have to have work to keep your tiller on the right path. The forward motion often creates bumps and jolts for you as the operator, especially if you’re working with compacted or otherwise challenging soil.

Tilling capability. The tines can dig between 6 and 8 inches deep, and tilling width is usually between 12 and 22 inches. 

Roots and stones are common obstacles when you’re working the soil. Electric tillers should have no problem tearing through fine, shallow roots, like grass or weeds. For a gas tiller, the root size you can cut through will vary based on the horsepower of your particular model. Some models may be able to cut through roots up to 1/2 inch thick.

Stones can present more of a problem. Front tine tillers already have a tendency to bounce and “buck,” and hitting a large enough stone could create a safety hazard. Make sure to take a careful walk-through of your tilling site before firing up your machine, removing stones or other obstructions.

Power source. You’ll find front-tine tillers in both electric and gas-engine power options.

Electric tillers are a great choice if you’re working with a relatively small plot of ground, typically up to about 500 square feet. These tillers tend to be very lightweight, and they deliver a surprising amount of power. There are corded electric and battery models on the market.

Gas-powered tillers are more powerful than their electric counterparts, and they’re ideal for working soil in gardens up to about 5,000 square feet. Since they’re designed for more intense work, tillers with gas engines are usually heavier than electric models.

Many gas-powered front tine tillers use engines that range between 32cc and 208cc. This yields a horsepower (HP) of about 4.5 to 6.

Where to Use a Front Tine Tiller

Front tine tillers are “generally smaller and lighter than rear tine tillers, they require a little more effort on the users part, and they don’t till quite as far down,” says Jeremy Yamaguchi of Lawn Love. “Because of those reasons, they are better suited for small, tight areas where the ground has already been previously worked on and only shallow tilling is needed.”

Consider reaching for a front tine tiller if you have a small-to-medium sized, established vegetable garden. Thanks primarily to their small turn radius and maneuverability, you’ll have an easier time getting your garden in shape in spring or putting it to bed in the fall.

The forward-spinning tine rotation is also perfect for producing a fine, even soil texture for planting. And if you have any soil amendments to work in (compost, leaf mold, manure, etc), a front-tine tiller is the tool for the job.

With their compact size and better maneuverability, you can also use a front tine model between plant rows for de-weeding.

What about if you want to make a new garden from unbroken ground? For small gardens in suburban or urban settings, an electric front tine tiller should get the job done. If you’re willing to invest the time and effort, a gas-powered front tine tiller should be able to handle up to 5,000 square feet that is free of large obstructions.

RELATED: Get a closer look at our top picks for front tine tillers.

Front Tine Tiller Pros and Cons

Let’s look at some pros and cons of front tine tillers:

Pros:

  • Perfect for small gardens or soil prep in suburban or urban settings
  • Available in both electric and gas-powered options
  • Can easily cut through shallow, fine roots
  • Ideal for annual garden soil turning
  • Forward tine rotation produces a loose, fine soil texture
  • Small turn radius is easy to maneuver around obstacles and tight spaces
  • Smaller size is easier to store during the off-season
  • Affordable

Cons:

  • Less powerful than a rear tine tiller
  • Can pull the operator and be challenging to control
  • Can’t cut through roots over 1/2 inch in diameter
  • Not ideal for tilling up very challenging ground or large (5,000+ sq ft) gardens

RELATED: Thinking about starting a new garden or tilling up your yard for new grass? Visit our post on tillers for breaking fresh ground to get ideas for projects of all sizes!

Rear Tine Tiller: Overview

Now here’s a closer look at the details of rear tine tillers:

How a Rear Tine Tiller Works

Tine placement. As the name would lead you to assume, rear tine tillers have their tines located behind the engine and wheels. You can see the construction here:

Earthquake 37037 Pioneer Dual-Direction Rear Tine Tiller

Earthquake 37037 Pioneer Dual-Direction Rear Tine Tiller

Tine rotation. Rear tine tillers often use counter-rotating tines, which means that the tines rotate in the direction opposite that of the wheels. So if the wheels are rolling forward, the tines are spinning backward. This counter-directional pull provides excellent traction that lets your tiller’s tines dig deeply and powerfully into the soil.

Some rear tine tillers offer dual-direction tine rotation, which lets you switch the tines to either counter-rotation or standard (forward) rotation. Dual-direction tillers usually offer the best, most versatile function, but they also tend to be among the more expensive options.

Tilling capability. Rear tine tillers have between 4 and 10 tines on average, with a tilling depth of anywhere from 6 to 14 inches depending on the specific model. Tiling width is often between 12 and 24 inches. 

When it comes to roots and stones, rear tine tillers are more adept thanks to their larger engine size and powerful tine action. Tillers that have 8-10 HP should be able to slice through roots up to 1 inch thick, and those with lower HP can usually make short work smaller roots.

The counter-rotating tines help unearth stones and other obstructions for easier manual removal. However, large rocks could jam in the tiller tines, causing damage to your machine or a safety risk to yourself. Manually remove as many stones and other objects as possible from your garden before tilling.

Power source. Almost all rear tine tillers use a gas engine as their power source. Engine sizes are typically between 99cc and 350cc and offer between 5 to 10 HP.

Where to Use a Rear Tine Tiller

Rear tine tillers are powerful machines built for tough, large-scale jobs.

Jeremy says that on a rear tine tiller, the tines “have more power, can till deeper, and can move the machine in any direction (whereas front tine tillers can only move forward). Because the wheels are directly powered by the engine, it takes much less effort to maneuver around, making rear tine tillers better suited for larger projects and untouched earth.”

Square footage for a rear tine tiller is usually over 5,000 square feet, or about a tenth of an acre (residential yards in the US are about a quarter of an acre to give you an idea). 

However, if you’re looking to convert any size of very challenging ground (full of large roots, stones, heavily compacted clay or sod) into a garden, you’ll thank yourself for investing in a rear tine tiller. Hard, uncultivated ground is usually no match for rear tine tillers.

Most small farmers or commercial gardeners rely on rear tine tillers to work the soil in their large gardens or fields.

RELATED: Want to break that stubborn ground without breaking the bank? See our list of awesome rear tine tillers that cost under $1000 to get some inspiration!

Rear Tine Tiller Pros and Cons

Here’s a rundown of the pros and cons of rear tine tillers:

Pros:

  • Great for areas of 5,000 square feet or more
  • Perfect for hard, difficult soil of any type
  • Large models can handle roots up to 1 inch in diameter
  • Self-propelled
  • Wider tilling path for faster results
  • Best in power
  • Many models work in forward and reverse
  • Easy to control
  • Some models allow you to adjust the tines to rotate with or opposite the wheels

Cons:

  • Large and bulky
  • Complex engine maintenance
  • Expensive
  • Hard to maneuver in small spaces
Infographic showing the key differences in a front tine vs rear tine tiller.

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Frequently Asked Questions about Front Tine vs Rear Tine Tiller

If you’ve got a small plot of soil to work that is free of large roots and stones, a small tiller should be able to complete the job well. Suburban and urban settings are most ideal for small tillers.

This depends on what type of tiller you’ve got. Some front-tine models work best when they’re pulled in reverse, while others are designed to be pushed forward. Since they often have forward-rolling self-propelled wheels, most rear tine tillers are best used in a forward direction.

Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions for using your specific model safety and effectively.

Most gardeners agree that mid tine tillers are the easiest to control and maneuver. This is due to the fact that the tines sit directly below the engine, so the weight is balanced centrally.

Rear tine tillers typically come in second place in the ease of use category. They typically have a lower center of gravity than most front tine tillers, and the self-propelled wheels relieve do most of the work of moving forward.

Front tine tillers are lighter, more compact and have a tighter turn radius, so they’re more maneuverable in a small area. However, you do have to put in some effort to control and steer a front tine model.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to front tine vs rear tine tiller, both types have a lot to offer. Your specific needs are really the determining factor to deciding which one is better for you.

For small spaces and annual garden soil prep, front tine tillers are a great choice. If you’re working with a large garden plot or very difficult soil conditions, a rear tine tiller is your best bet. Either way, you’ve got excellent options to choose from, and a perfectly-tilled garden is in your near future.

We’d love to hear from you! Do you have any other questions about rear tine and front tine tillers? What’s your experience with tilling been like, and do you have any other pointers or tips to share?

Your thoughts could be the answer someone else is looking for, so please share in the comments!

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