May 10, 2010

New Hand Tools

Our 2 new hoes, workhorses, both"The right tool for the job."

I don't know who first said that, but ain't it the truth. The right tool can make all the difference in the world. Take garden hoes for example. Who loves to hoe, raise your hand. Let's face it, hoeing is work, backbreaking work, especially with an ordinary garden hoe.

Back in my commune days, we had different hoes; heavy, large bladed hoes that made the job so much easier. Since we' moved to our five acre homestead, I've been looking for one. The problem was, I didn't know what they are called. The only name I'd heard was a rather rude one, and I knew they weren't sold under that.

I finally found what I was looking for when I read this post over at Farm Folly. Not only did Lee and Robin have the hoes, but gave a link to where they bought them ( I found out that what I was looking for is an Italian Grape hoe. I ordered one immediately, and a 6" grub hoe as well.

Heavy duty heads of the 2 new hoes.That's the grape hoe blade on the left. It makes productive weeding and cultivating so much easier. The one on the right is the grub hoe. It's perfect for trenching, turning soil, and making new garden beds. They are both heavy duty and reasonably priced.

The other thing we bought, which DH wanted, was a snath and scythe.

A snath & scytheUsually, the entire tool is referred to as a scythe but technically, the scythe is just the blade. This one is a 30" grass scythe. The long wood handle is called the snath. This is an American type, though there are European ones as well. The European models have straighter snaths.

Why did he want one? Well, we love hand tools. Not that we don't have battery and gas powered ones which we use regularly. There's just something peacefully quite and calming about using hand tools. Something that seems to connect the tool user with the material being worked on. With something like scything, it's almost like a meditation. Handspinners, you know what I mean.

Slower? Maybe. However, it seems that the more sophisticated and technically complicated a tool becomes, the costlier it becomes to operate and maintain in terms of both time and money. If we calculated all the time DH spends fixing the lawn mower including running to the store to buy parts, then definitely the scythe does a faster job. Add to that trying to get replacement parts at a reasonable cost and rising fuel prices. It all adds up in the end.

Using it is an art and takes lots of practice, as you can imagine.

Dan practicing the technique.We found a couple of really good videos on YouTube, along with some not so good ones.

American Style Scythe

Mowing with a Swiss snath & Austrian scythe
Mowing Technique 2: Summer

DH will be the first to tell you he doesn't have the technique perfected yet, but he did manage this...

The resultsUnderstandably, the neighbors think we're a little nuts. No, we haven't gotten rid of the lawn mowers, because each tool has it's place. The tall grass would bog a lawn mower down, while a snath and scythe wouldn't do on short grass as for a weekly mowing of the front lawn.

Actually the end goal is to eventually have no or very little lawn. Over the next several years I plant to turn our front yard into an extensive herb garden, starting with the first two small beds this summer. We won't need a riding mower then, and can probably replace the gas powered push mower with a reel mower for the side yard recreational area.

The field you see in the above photos will eventually be fenced and used to grow feed, maybe hay. Obviously we aren't ready for that yet, but it's the plan. Until then, we just keep taking one step at a time.

New Hand Tools text & photos copyright May 2010 


Susan said...

I got a scyth last year. took a long time to get here, so didn't get much practice with it last year. Used it for the first time this year this morning while waiting for the kids to come get me for Mother's Day lunch.

It takes some getting used to, and I am by no means an expert, but I do enjoy it. I can listen to the world around me, and my sheep (Romeldale/CVMs) get to eat the results, which they couldn't when we ran the lawn mower. A little extra exercise for me, which can't hurt either!

Woolly Bits said...

we have a scythe too and once you learn the right "swing", you can mow large areas without too much strain. you couldn't have flower meadows etc. without a scythe - no mower would be able to cut that down! the downside - we don't have large free areas anymore and once you plant tree and shrubs everywhere, using a scythe is extremely difficult! no space, no swing = power tools work better:(( unfortunately - because I don't only hate the noise, the smell of petrol is revolting too! on the other hand: if you had to replace quite a few shrubs with serious scythe damage, you appreciate the differences:))

katrien said...

Wonderful! I've always wanted a scythe, but we have no lawn, no grass to speak off. Looks therapeutic, swinging one.

I've only one hoe, a thin, "scratchy" European one. I do love weeding with it, just scratching the surface to kill the weeds there and not to bring up new weed seeds. It can't slash through the acorn sprouts, though. Maybe needs a good sharpening!

Leigh said...

Susan, it's interesting that scythes seem to be making a comeback. I gave it a try but found it wasn't easy! Still, like you say, it's good exercise and a good way to enjoy the sounds of nature. We plan to use the cuttings DH made as either hay (if the goats will eat it) or straw (if they won't.)

Bettina, I can see how it isn't suitable for small areas. And I agree about the smell of the fuel fumes. yuk!

Katrien, it's true, there is something satisfying about hoeing those weeds. I never realized hoes could be sharpened until we got our two new ones. They sent us a complimentary file simply for ordering two tools.

Susan said...

My goats (3 angora does) are always upset if they don't get some of the cuttings too, but they aren't as loud and demanding as the ewes!

I haven't had too many problems cutting around obstacles, just change my direction and/or length of swing. Just watched a you tube video where the guy mowed around all sorts of stuff.

I have a bad back, so I can't use it all day long, but it's the standing that gets to me, not the motion of cutting. I worked out a deal with my daughter while she was home from college last summer. I would cut for an hour or so in the morning before work, and she'd take all the cuttings out to the animals in the afternoon (which was much harder on my back)

Leigh said...

Dan and I can both relate to your bad problems. He from surgery, me just because standing too long makes it ache. Is your snath an American or European one? Dan is thinking he'd like to try one of those Austrian ones, like they show in most of the YouTube videos. He learned a lot from watching those alone.

Nina said...

Not enough space to effectively need or use a scythe. Mainly lawn, though it might be useful to keep the ditch grass down.. that's a pain to mow. I've been using the push mower, still powered, to bag up the clippings for green mulch.. much easier than raking.
Still nothing to hoe here yet! I'm turning the soil to keep weeds down, but it won't really be safe to plant much for another couple of weeks. It's weird how early cool weather crops do germinate and start to grow, albeit slowly and seeds planted a month later, catch up in just a few days.. is hardly worth it sometimes to try for an early crop. This year I tried under cover no less!

bspinner said...

So true. I'm so glad you found the hoes and scyth you wanted. I must admite I haven't used a hoe much since living on the farm and hoeing row after row of sugar beets. YUK!!!!

Flower said...

Your hoe and scyth account reads so true to the farmers heart! Good tools are a must and it's really great that someone actually shares where they get them! I'm going straight over to check out the hoes! We use a scyth, too. There are so many times that a machine can't do the job...too big...unbelievable underbrush etc. We have blackberries to contend with and it's not safe using a mower.

Leigh said...

Nina, we have a mulching mower too, but no bag attachment. You've got me thinking that I really need to get one. Every little bit helps when it comes to mulch and compost.

I've been noticing what you say about me seeds too. Not to sure how to get the best and earliest crops for some things yet. I need to experiment more!

Barb, I don't mind hoeing short rows, but something like those sugar beets would really take the fun out of it!

Flower, those hoes are the best. Heavy, but oh so effective. I'm thinking I need to learn how to use the scythe too. It is a handy tool.

Sara said...

Hey, it would not let me comment on the post about the, I came here

They are cute - actually they are rather pretty. Congratulations on getting them.

Benita said...

I grew up with a scythe and my brother and I used it on areas that were too steep to get a tractor or lawn mower. Once you get into the rhythm, they are pretty comfortable to use, really. Of course, we were young then...

I agree that the right tools for the job makes the job easier.

Robin said...

Ha, you fell in love with the hoes too huh? LOL Lee still really likes the ones he got. I am very impressed with the amount of land that was cleared with the Scythe. Lee has one old one he got at a garage sale. He really got into researching scythes and watched tons of videos online also. One of these days I expect him to buy a European model. lol

Leigh said...

Sara, not sure what's up with that, but I'm glad Blogger let you comment somewhere! Thank you about the goats! We think they're rather pretty too.

Benita, that would be the perfect place to use a scythe. We're not so young, but hopefully with routine use, there won't be any sore muscles after scything!

Robin, Dan wants to try the European one too. Somehow it doesn't seem as though the Seymour American model is made for actual use. Without being able to adjust the handles, it's hard to get the correct angle of the blade. Still, there's both an art as well as a science to it.

Lee said...

Nice to see my post was useful to someone! I hope the hoes perform well for you. I'm really in love with ours. I've been using the grape hoe to cut out sod (in the garden) and the grub hoes for digging, killing blackberries, and lots of other tasks. I have a lighter (hardware store) hoe for careful weeding, and now my sights are set on a scuffle hoe I've seen at our local seed company. :)

Yes, hoes should be very sharp! I think this is the number one reason people hate them. The awful hardware store hoes require extensive work with a grinding wheel to get a decent edge. Then I keep them sharp with a minute or less of filing each time I take them out.

Tell your husband I'm very impressed with his scythe work. I've tried to use the estate sale scythe we bought, but it was pretty awkward and still not sharp enough. I almost bought a scythe this year (something from here) but it's been sidelined by other projects. My hope is to eventually be able to put up hay completely with hand tools. That will really make the neighbors scratch their heads! :)

Jo said...

A scythe is something that's been on our shopping list for awhile. What recommendations do you have for a newbie shopper? (Where to get, what to look for, etc.) Thank you for all the great info!

Leigh said...

Lee, yes, you blog lots of helpful stuff! Dan hasn't been too happy with that American style snath & scythe, so we have just ordered a European model from Mystic Prairie. They are the ones with all the good scything videos on YouTube. I'll have to let you know what he thinks after he's given it a try.

Jo, what I can tell you about the snath & scythe, is to not get the American style. In order to cut properly, the blade angle has to be parallel to the ground. That can't be done with an American snath unless one is very short. Dan is 5'9" and since the handles aren't adjustable, he can't get the blade at the proper angle. The ones from Mystic Prairie (link above) are sized according to one's height, have a straighter snath, and adjustable handles. He really enjoys doing it, so I hope this one does the trick.

FortyTwoBlades said...

I know this is an old post but I'd like to comment that the use of the American scythe is very different from a European one. I have plenty of tips for you if you're interested--it's really an excellent tool once set up properly and you get the technique down, which isn't intuitive. Learn to use it from watching videos for a totally different style of scythe and you're sure to be disappointed!

Part of the problem is that modern American-pattern grass blades don't have any "set" or angle to the tang like they should. A straight set is normal on a bush/ditch blade because the stroke is an upward pulling one almost like pulling the woody plant out of the ground and the blade angle allows it to cut at 45 degrees to the grain of growth, which is where it's most efficient. But you want the edge pretty close to parallel with a grass blade. You can solve that problem by wrapping the blade with a wet towel (to protect the heat treatment of the edge) and heating the tang carefully with a torch and bending it to the right angle. Or better yet find a vintage blade with the angle already set properly.

The handles (nibs) ARE adjustable on American scythes. The threads are reversed, so it's lefty TIGHTY, righty LOOSEY. This is so the nibs do not work loose during the swing of the cutting stroke. Also snaths used to be made in a range of weights for different tasks. Heavy snaths like the present production Seymour ones were usually intended for use with bush blades and/or cutting resistant targets. Lighter snaths were made for mowing grasses and lush plants. Keep your eyes peeled in antique shops and barns and you may find one or two nicely preserved examples.

Again, the American scythe is an impressive tool if well-learned. The modern ones just take some DIY tweaking and aren't of the same calibre as they once were, and many of the old ones were workhorses that were either used up or damaged through misuse by later generations that stumbled across nice examples but did not know how to appropriately use and care for the tool and did it irreparable harm. <:-)

Leigh said...

FortyTwoBlades, very interesting comment, very helpful. I have to tell you that Dan got a European scythe not too long after. This was made to size and he found it much more comfortable to use and got better results. Thank you for taking the time to pass on this excellent information

FortyTwoBlades said...

Generally speaking for mowing light grasses on even ground (i.e. without bumps--inclines aren't a problem) the Austrian style of scythe is definitely the weapon of choice, as that's the kind of mowing it evolved for. Anything coarser, like reedy stemmed grasses and other thick lush targets are what the American scythe eats for lunch, especially if dealing with rocky or uneven ground where you run a high risk of hitting hidden objects. :)

FortyTwoBlades said...

Below is an excerpt from a user's primer I'm writing. It does not cover the actual cutting stroke as I haven't gotten that far yet, but it goes over proper setup:

Fitting the scythe to the body: The first important step to ensure success with the American scythe is to test-fit the snath to your body. Modern snaths produced by Seymour Manufacturing are sized to the average modern man, but many vintage snaths will be on the small side for the taller American of today. Fortunately, the first step of tuning your scythe is very simple and can be performed in the store from which you intend to make your purchase.

Adjusting the Nibs: First, check the nibs to make sure they may turn freely. The nut at the top of the nib runs on a left-directional thread, so rather than the old adage “lefty loosey, righty tighty” it’s “lefty TIGHTY, righty LOOSEY.” This is important as you don’t want to make an already tight nib even tighter--especially when rust may be involved. Once the nibs have been freed you may adjust them to their proper position for your height. Stand relaxed with your feet shoulder width apart and the scythe standing upright on its head next to you (blade end on the ground.) While standing thus, bring the lower nib to the level of your hip joint (NOT the highest point of your hips!) and tighten it gently in place. Now rest your elbow on the nib with your fingers outstretched. This marks the position of the upper nib.

Now, re-assume the relaxed stance you employed to find the first nib, but now hold the scythe by its nibs at the three o-clock position with the blade resting on its spine. adjust the rotation of the lower nib until you achieve balance in the “rock” of the blade’s spine--i.e. the point where the spine is resting on the floor should be equidistant from the point and the beard. It is important to note that this point DOES NOT correlate with the height of the point and the beard from the ground, as the nose of American scythe blades commonly lift slightly to avoid burying the blade in the dirt on bad swings and to assist with the scooping motion used at the start of the cut.

Once this balance is achieved, adjust the rotation of the upper nib to where you are most comfortably able to lift the blade off the ground by pushing down on the upper nib and allowing the lower nib to roll in your hand as a pivot. This initial adjustment is all simply to get you in the ballpark for your particular scythe configuration, and you will likely find yourself making further adjustments while using the scythe for extended periods. Listen to the tool and it will tell you how it wants to be used. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your adjustments!

FortyTwoBlades said...

Selecting a Blade: The blade you choose is the next most important thing for you to consider after snath selection, and they generally come in variations on the following styles:

Grass blades: The most common variety. Typically long, thin, and light as a feather. The “run” of the blade (or the set of the web) tends to be either parallel to the ground or only slightly lifted. A blade of this style in medium length will usually be capable of handling everything from fine lush grasses to (with practice) heavier woody plants like goldenrod, but they are more prone to damage than other varieties due to their light build and long blades, which can compound the leverage of a bad cut and damage either the blade or the snath. They are, however, both the most commonly available blade style as well as the most versatile.
Bush or Brush blades: These blades are shorter and heavier, with a much broader blade, and are intended for clearing young woody growth ranging from goldenrod, burdock, and thistles up through very young saplings. They are robust in the spine and have a steep upward set to the web to allow the edge to cut with an upward shearing stroke along the grain of growth.

Ditch blades: These blades are the shortest and heaviest of the lot with the steepest run of the blade--many times simply having the web set in the same plane as the tang! These work best for the task implied by their name--clearing ditch overgrowth. They are not recommended for anyone not performing a similar task, as they are completely inappropriate for general mowing duties.

Once a blade is selected, the mounting process will depend on the collar system used by the snath, but most make use of a loop bolt through which the tang is passed, and a series of holes for receiving the bent end of the tang. These are used for adjusting the hafting angle of the blade, allowing you to make the angle more open or closed. A more closed angle is generally recommended as it minimizes strain on the blade and snath and cuts more aggressively though it narrows the swath of the cut. An open angle is used in fine grasses and clear ground, and is advantageous when clearing a large area as it maximizes the reach of the blade. A heavy patch of oiled leather or rubber may be inserted between the loop bolt of the snath collar and the blade tang to provide a more secure fit and prevent wear on the parts.

As I have yet to write the section on use, I'll just leave a few quick pointers and a couple of links to some limited resources.

The motion is a little difficult to describe. The right hand mostly does the holding, supporting the weight of the scythe and acting as a pivot point while the left hand does the "opening" and "closing" of the "door" created by the space between your hands. The key is to focus on the tip of the blade as it enters the grass at the start of the stroke, and the heel of the blade at the end of the stroke. Reach forward while opening the "door" and bring the tip into the cut as you pull back with the left hand and draw both hands back and to the left, pulling much more with the left hand than the right to "close the door."

But enough chatter. Here are a couple of demonstrations of good technique--the video especially. There are some slight notes I disagree with in the blog post I'm linking, but it points you in the right direction. :)

A video of Nova Scotia Hand Mowing Champion Perry Veinot:

A blog post from with photographs and description of technique:

In the event that you ever want to get rid of that American for cheap I'd gladly take it off your hands. :D

Leigh said...

FortyTwoBlades, when you finish your book, please let me know. We didn't find very many good resources out there when Dan bought his first scythe. I know what you mean about describing actions, and it's true videos help. I admit I've never tried it; this is something Dan enjoys doing. It's a shame the tool has been abandoned in favor of modern, smelly, noisy, gas-driven machines. :)

Thank you for the information and links. Most helpful!

FortyTwoBlades said...

My pleasure! I had started off researching scythes years ago and found the same handful of retailers that most have seen singing the praises of the Austrian models and dissing the American pattern. I swallowed the information whole at first...until I started doing a little more research and realizing that Austrian scythes were just the most widely available and had suffered the least from quality downgrades over the years. After all, if the American scythe didn't work well they wouldn't be hanging in every old barn across the nation!

Just used my American yesterday to clear about of a third of an acre in the back pasture that had been overrun with buttercups, which the horses won't eat. It was in muddy ground that would have only been able to be reached by a weed whacker, and the scythe was lighter, quieter, and faster. Definitely still a place for them today, so I just do what I can to spread the word. :)

Leigh said...

I get a lot of readers interested in these kinds of skills. I'll be happy to do my part by doing do a review to publish on my blog!

FortyTwoBlades said...

Very good! I'll send along the final document when I finish it. Between a 2-year-old, running an online business, my day job doing environmental compliance work, and farm chores I don't have as much time to work on it as I'd like! :D

FortyTwoBlades said...

One final comment--my other half was able to snap a few videos and pics of me mowing today. I posted them to the following thread on Bladeforums:

Leigh said...

Good grief, that buttercup is indeed out of control.

My husband says your youthful wide swing would wear him out, LOL. He prefers shorter swipes, with little hip movement and utilizing mostly arm and shoulder muscles. Your vids are graceful things to watch.

FortyTwoBlades said...

You'll notice that I only make super broad swings in one of the video for demonstration purposes. I usually use a shorter stroke myself! Video #4 shows my usual stroke quite nicely:

The key is that the stroke and the step are linked as part of the rhythm--as I step forward with my right leg I open the swing. My weight is almost all on the right leg at the start, and as I close the stroke I bring my left foot up to square with my right as I almost let my weight "fall" onto the left leg. It's like the right leg acts as a pivot for your weight and you fall forward and back, anchored to that pivot. Almost all of the muscle I use (other than the forearms which support the weight of the scythe) is in my shoulders, hips, and a bit in the biceps.

Thanks for the kind words! :) I've sent an email to Seymour seeing if they're at all interested in working with me to tweak the performance of their scythes so they can take advantage of the upswing in the market--hopefully they'll respond favorably!

You may find this interesting--it's an image from the patent documents for the fastening system my scythe uses. Quite elegant if you ask me!

Leigh said...

I hope Seymour is responsive to you. There is definitely a renewed interest in the slower paced skills that are on the verge of being lost.

Interesting about the patent. Very nice that you could find it. :)

FortyTwoBlades said...

Thanks! Getting the ear of companies isn't easy, but as an edged tool designer who's active in multiple major online communities it's starting to get a little easier to make my voice heard! It's amazing what being stubborn can get you if you combine it with also being polite! :D