Larry Cooper generally describes himself as a “professional blacksmith,” but the title seems somewhat incomplete. Rather, Larry contains equal parts skilled tradesman, artist, teacher, storyteller and showman, with a half measure of hand tool revolutionary.
A longtime supporter of The Midwest Ox Drovers Association, Larry has built stoneboats, logging lizards, yoke hardware, and carts for the annual MODA raffle, but it is his love of hand tools for garden and field work that really sparks his passion. He builds and markets broadforks through his business, Gulland Forge (http://gullandforge. com/), and also markets European-style scythes, offering training to new users.
At the 2016 MODA Gathering, after everyone had left on Sunday, Larry helped me load my Shorthorn oxen, Brutus and Cassius, and we took the opportunity to talk scythes in the process.
Rob Collins: The Austrian scythe, is it an old tool or a new tool, in your estimation?
Larry Cooper: Well, the scythe is one of the earliest tools we ever had when we started doing fixed agriculture and growing our food in one place and growing grains.
Rob: So when you say “we . . .?”
Larry: Just “we people.” Probably what happened was someone dropped a handful of seeds and wondered where they went, and the next year some wheat came up and they thought, “Well, let's try that again.” I don't know when that was exactly. Nobody does, but harvesting those grains and those food materials was done better with a blade than it was by just grabbing handfuls.
Probably the earliest form of a scythe, or a sickle, was the jawbone of an animal, sharpened, or a shoulder blade. But when we started making blades out of metal, the scythe as we know it became possible.
The lighter blades of the type that I sell came along much later. The finesse involved in making a blade like that is just incredible. It takes a tremendous load of skill to do it.
Rob: Are they hand-hammered?
Larry: They’re hammered by people and heavy machinery. They used to be made by hand, but now it’s large-scale trip hammers.
The blades have gotten more and more refined as time has gone on. To perfect the metallurgy and the forging techniques is a marvel of engineering, relative to what the old blades were.
Rob: So for someone who hasn't seen one, the Austrian scythe has more of a straight …
Larry: Snath. The wooden portion of a scythe is called a “snath.”
Rob: Comparing the straight snath to the more traditional curved one, is it a cosmetic difference or a substantive one?
Larry: Definitely substantive. What we call the American style scythe, the ones you see hanging in antique stores everywhere, is much heavier at the bottom end. They swing much like a baseball bat, and you can't get the finesse that you can with a much lighter blade. You can’t get them as sharp either.
Rob: Is that because the blade is thicker?
Larry: Right, the thickness of the blades is many times that of the lighter, European versions.
Rob: What would be your break point in terms of scale? Where would a scythe start to lose out to a mower for someone just planning on mowing hay?
Larry: I kept an acre cut around the house one time just for prairie fire control and I had a third of an acre that I kept in hay production just for chicken bedding and for garden mulch. I stacked it in haystacks.
I would cut a third of that and then two weeks later cut the next third and so on.
Rob: So about a ninth of an acre at once?
Larry: Yeah, so I would use just what I needed, and if I needed it all I would cut it all. I would try to let it go to seed as much as possible, and then I would throw that in the chicken house in the winter so the chickens could scratch around and pick out the seeds.
Rob: So, that’s for an open area. Are there other tasks where a scythe has an advantage?
Larry: If you're out by your pond and you are cutting with a string trimmer; you've got this noise going out across the water, you've got this gas engine belching fumes and spewing plastic all across the landscape …
I think the thing that turned me off most about the string trimmer is that if you go through poison ivy, it will literally atomize poison ivy and, after a really bad experience … Look, when my string trimmer died, it was just an easy choice to back up. You know a century in technology -- or decades at least -- and to re-apply something that works at least as well, if not better.
It’s an older technology, in linear time, but for me it was a huge step forward. There’s a scythe company in Austria that has been making blades, a scythe factory in business, since 1540. And they’re made all over Europe. I sell blades made in Italy. We say the “Austrian scythe,” which is about like saying “Kleenex.” We don’t really have anyone making blades in this country.
Rob: Is that because it’s hard enough to do and small enough in scale that the big guys have just avoided doing it?
Larry: There's one company that sells 60,000 blades a year to Iran, for example. That's a lot of blades. People still use these blades. Clearly.
The European blades, they vary somewhat, but they're designed with three curves: There's the long crescent-shape. It also has a bit of a rocker curve to it, so along the length of it, the tip rises like a ski tip. Not as exaggerated, but it helps it not dig into the ground. And then it also has a bit of a belly curve along the width of it, and that little bit of curve allows for a “sweet spot,” so to speak, for that blade to ride along the ground. The old American-style blades, they would be flat and have a curve: a single crest curve.
Rob: You’ve described the three curves of a European scythe blade. Talk to me about the fourth curve: the learning curve. Is it hard to pick up the motion?
Larry: I tell people that when you get a scythe, it’s like someone handing you a violin and saying, “Play this,” when it comes to the finesse. Anyone can put their finger to a string and draw a bow across it and make a sound, but doing it accurately and repeatedly, it takes some time to develop that skill.
The scythe is not a hard tool to use — physically hard — but there are a lot of things that have to it like trying to slice a tomato: If you’re trying to slice a tomato with an axe, it’s just not going to cut that cleanly. Instead, if you draw a blade through that tomato, it just falls in half perfectly, when you have that shearing stroke. And that’s the thing that people really have the hardest time learning, to create a motion with your body that will shear that grass cleanly.
You just need some practice, some instruction. It really helps to have someone show you how to use the tool. By keeping that blade on the ground and rotating about you in somewhat of a circle, it allows that blade to shear that grass so effortlessly. It’s sharp as a razor, quite literally. (Larry takes a second to show off a couple of clean scars on his thumb and hand.) I reach into boxes often, digging scythe blades out.
Rob: What’s the one scythe job that would make a believer out of someone?
Larry: It’s a question of scale. If I’ve got 40 acres of hay to pull in, I’m not going to go out there with a scythe. If you have a quarter acre and you go buy a big old John Deere … you can’t turn it around in a quarter acre.
Using the tool in scale is the critical element. If you have a larger area to cut and have a machine to cut it, you can always use a scythe to get the corners and under the fence lines. You never outgrow the use of a good hand tool. Even with a walk-behind tractor, they really don’t have a good attachment for cutting under fences, so it has fallen to the string trimmer. But I can outrun a string trimmer on that fence line easily.
When I discovered scything, I was living in Wisconsin and just having another machine … I just backed up and asked, “Well, how did we do this before the string trimmer? How did the world turn? (laughs)”
In the 60s and 70s there was this big, bound paperback book called “The Whole Earth Catalog,” essentially the Internet in print, which is where I rediscovered the broadfork and the scythe. So I ordered one and discovered, “This is easy!”
It’s just light work. Back and forth, back and forth. I’ve said often, “A good tool should feel more like a good dance partner than like work.”.
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