Friday, June 22, 2012

The summer of the scythe

The scythe is a very old tool. It probably evolved from the sickle. Egyptian pictures show people using sickles to cut grass or grain. Some genius figured out later that if you put a long handle on it you don't have to bend over. I do not know if the Romans had it (you can always consult Wiki) but by the middle ages it was well established. In the US it was used to cut wheat well into the 20th century, being eventually displaced by machinery. Scythes are now making a comeback, I am happy to report. Lots of scythe blogs and websites on the Internet.

There are two broad designs of scythes. The European and the American models. In my opinion the European scythe is much better. Maybe at one point, a hundred years ago, we made decent scythes. Not any more. Only Austria does in Europe, for that matter. The handle you can make yourself; it is not exactly rocket science and I intend to do just that any day now. The handle must be custom-fit. But I bought mine from ScytheSupply, a US supplier, as a kit, and I am glad I did. It cost no more than a midrange lawnmower. It included everything I needed.

Here's Maximilian the Scythe. Max has a brush blade. When I acquired it there was brush all over the place. Most of it is gone, thanks to Max, so I am thinking of acquiring a grass blade to supplement Max. I'll make the handle myself.
Maximilian is going into the shop for sharpening. This is, you see, really a sharpening post. A (European) scythe is sharpened like no other tool. It first must be peened. Strange? Read on. You peen once or at most twice in very heavy use. Attached to the scythe is my scything belt. It consists of a water bottle and two important implements. One is the square 6mm key used to get the blade off the handle. The other is the Steinfass. This is a tin swimming pool for a waterstone; it hangs diagonally from the belt. It is filled with water, and in it the sharpening stone is enjoying its bath. It is hot! 25C. The word Steinfass is German or Swiss-German, I got it from Drew Langsner's Handmade. It obviously means "barrel for a stone" and no Swiss farmer would be caught dead with a tin Steinfass. He would make his own out of wood, elaborately carved in the dead of winter. A nice project, by the way. Anyway, we ply our key, get the blade off the handle, and walk into the shop. We walk up to the peening station.
This is a stump of log with three things on it. The big round thing is the anvil. The two other things are collars. One of them has one groove cut into it, the other two grooves. One and two. Get collar number one. Squirt some WD-40 over everything. Slip the collar over the anvil. Find your trusty hammer. Any old hammer will do. Slip the stump between your knees. Hold it tight. Do not sweat how tight. This is not brain surgery. Just keep it steady.
Now slip the blade in between collar and anvil. The factory logo should be up. The edge should just kiss the center post of the anvil. Keep the blade perfectly flat on the anvil. Whack the collar with the hammer. If you did it right you will get a nice sharp ring. If it goes clunk, you were holding the blade off the anvil. If it went clunk, play it again, Sam. Now slide the blade over about 2mm. Repeat. Eventually you will get to the end of the blade. It takes me far less to do this than it does to write about it! About two minutes.

You are at the end of the blade, the tang end. Remove collar number one. Put on collar number two. Work your way back to the narrow end of the blade. Remember, listen for the nice clear ring. Anything that does not go ting! (but does go clunk!) means you were not holding the edge flat on the anvil. First time you do it you will have to tune your ear. By now I am on automatic.

The real pros do this with a hammer, freehand, on an old stump. Good on them. They are pros. I am not! I use the jig. That is why we have jigs. Four mintes flat; less if I am using the scythe frequently and am really movin' metal. And that is exactly what you are doing. As the scythe cuts the edge is worn away. The edge is very, very thin. You are moving metal from the unworn parts of the blade into the edge.

We are almost through. Not quite. Go outside. With your key, put the blade back on the handle. Now buckle on the belt. Extract your stone from the steinfass. Not doubt the stone is annoyed at having to go to work on a hot day.
The stone is natural sandstone. It is used to hone the scythe. Holding the stone flat on the bevel, take about four passes. You will do this many, many times as you scythe, so pay careful attention now. You hone every five minutes or so. Four passes is ample. Now to work, Hi ho, hi ho....
My target is this dandelion-rich field. If not cut off now they will spread. It isn't very big. You might say I could drive Achilles the mower over it. But it is irregular. Mower will stall on irregular terrain. Not made for this kind of stuff; mowers are made for suburbanites. Much more fun to scythe it. So now we get into how to actually use the scythe. This is beyond the scope of this post. Later. Or go to YouTube. You will find a lot of videos of 12-year old girls and 80-year old grandfathers scything hay. But we did it.
With a scythe, you cut a semicircular arc. You swing right to left. Even I, a lefty, swing that way. At your left, end of swing, you pile up a windrow of mown stuff. This bit of field took far too long. But it happens every summer. I start mowing and it seems to take forever. It does. That is because I am not out of shape but out of practice. In winter a scythe is totally useless. So it takes me a few hours to get the rhythm. Why am I such a klutz? I am not. I just need to scythe some more. Never hurry when scything. Just enjoy it. Total Zen. Hint: if it seems like an effort you are doing it wrong.

I am almost ready to get a grass blade for the scythe, because I have cleared the brush out. Mostly. A grass blade cuts a wider swath than my 45 cm brush blade. Grass blades are typically 65 cm long, and much narrower than brush blades. But my 45 cm brush blade has served me well. I will make a new handle for the new blade and Max will enjoy his honored place of Senior Scythe.

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