Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Scythe Work (w/pic)


Dad's scythe - click image to enlarge.

Having gotten the light lawn trimming work done with my little antique garden sickle in recent days, I now have some heavier work that needs done with the scythe. I grew up using Dad’s scythe and still have it. He replaced the original Austrian blade on it with another not too many years before he passed away in ‘84. Even though he had an American snath, I never saw him use an American-style blade. He never peened it, though, just whetted it with a straight whetstone. I now have both the traditional anvils and hammer and the peening jig that some folks use to sharpen their blade, but I haven’t yet begun using any of them. For those unfamiliar with the idea of peening a scythe blade, it’s a method of cold-forging the very edge of the blade to make it thinner. Then you just barely touch it up with a specially-shaped whetstone. I DO NOT have one of those stones yet, but hope to order one soon.

We always just used a straight-sided whetstone, beginning at the heel (back) of the blade in descending arcs toward the toe (point) of the blade. Each stroke on one side of the blade is matched with a stroke on the other, and each stroke (for me) is about 16” long, at which point the stone falls from the edge. Each succeeding set of strokes is begun and ended about an inch closer the toe of the blade until you reach the very end of the blade. Then, you feel the blade to see if needs another round of whetting. Sometimes, the toe needs a little extra work, since it’s the most likely to catch a gravel or stone if mowing close to the ground.

Even the Amish have mostly given up using scythes in favor of weed-whackers, with their noise, fumes and (at times) difficult starting. I, on the other hand, grew tired of the aggravation of the weed-whacker, sold it to my neighbor and went back to the scythe.

There’s a rhythm and sound to whetting a scythe that sounds like nothing else. If I heard that sound coming across the hill from some great distance, I’d still know in a heart-beat just what I was hearing. Dad and I may well have been the last two fellows in the valley whetting a scythe, so it’s a sound rarely heard anymore. It’s a cross between a click, a rasping sound, and a ring, but not quite like the ringing of a bell.

Many years ago, my great aunt, who lived just over the hill, was being visited by her half-sister (my great half-aunt). I was working down there doing some trimming around her yard and the pasture fence. As my aunt’s sister began to leave, I was whetting my scythe and she stopped to watch and listen. After a minute, she commented that she didn’t know how many years it had been since she’d heard that sound. My guess would have been when her older half-brother last mowed on the family farm, possibly two decades earlier.

Before I started this post, I tried to find a video showing someone whetting a blade in the customary fashion, but all I could find was guy doing the final whetting on a peened blade and another guy sharpening an American blade on a grindstone. Even Robert Frost has written about sharpening a scythe on a grindstone, but I can’t imagine ever letting a blade get so dull that it would require that. A few strokes every 5-10 minutes usually keeps an Austrian blade top shape. I guess it’s a different animal, though. Copyright 2018


Lady Locust said...

I just told hubby to read this too. He has been blacksmithing and all those terms are right up his alley. Also, not sure if it's just what you're after, but am attaching the scythe vs weed whacked video. This doesn't really have to do with the blade, but the wood of the handle is beautiful. I love the color of the old wood worn smooth. New handles are so jagged, I'd like to have the maker use them for a few hours just to get those deserved blisters.

Gorges Smythe said...

Thanks, LL.

Sunnybrook Farm said...

That is a beautiful blade that will cut grass well but stay away from large stuff. You can probably find an American brush blade for a couple dollars as there are a lot of them around. I use a long flat stone and can't imagine using a grinding wheel on one, that is a sign that someone doesn't know what they are doing or are just putting on a show. It is harder to find the stones than the scythes, I have bought the last stone from several old hardware stores, those European stones don't seem right for the American blades but look neat in the horn carrying case with water in the horn. I just spit on mine if the grass is dry but when I cut early in the morning there was enough dew on the blade to wet the stone.

Gorges Smythe said...

Neither blades nor stones are common around here, considering our agrarian past. I suspect they don't bring enough for the dealers to even fool with them. I've read that in Europe, the serfs began mowing just before dawn and only mowed until the dew was gone, and then moved on to other work.

Ralph Goff said...

Gorges, you will have to make a video of scythe sharpening to put on youtube since nobody else seems to have done it. My grandfather's scythe does not get much sharpening since I don't use it . Just a piece of the farm history that I like to keep around.

Gorges Smythe said...

I'd like too, but don't have the equipment, Ralph.