Sharpening and strickles

As every mower soon learns keeping ones blade sharp is one of the key elements to success with a scythe.  After four years of practice I can make a reasonable job of sharpening, but I am not yet satisfied that I have found the best combination of peening and whetting.  The feeling that I could do a better and more efficient job of honing which has lead me to revisit techniques and equipment including buying one each of the stones Simon Fairlie sells to experiment with.  As a sideline to this experimentation I have wondered about how mowers in the past managed to keep their blade sharp with a ‘strickle’ made from wood?
strickle scytheman

In the past a four-sided wooden strickle was commonly used to hone blades in the field.  It was made of green oak or sometimes lime wood.  Swine fat, soap or resin was smeared onto the strickle which was then coated with sand.  Two opposite sides were sanded at a time so that there were two newly-sanded coarse sides to start on and two finer used ones to finish with.
The strickle was fixed to the top end of the snath when not in use.  Being quite heavy and the snath longer to accommodate its fixing I think it must have also functioned as a counter balance to the typical heavy forged blade of the time – something I will try out sometime with my English ‘fensman’ scythe.  The mower in the field would carry a supply of fat and sand in a sandhorn slung by a string over his shoulder.  Sand could be poured from an opening in the narrow end and the fat was held in the wide end.

Tommy mowman

Not content to just read about it I have now made myself an oak and a limewood strickle using one of a pair of antique strickles (ebay!) as a pattern.  I have got a good supply of local ‘egg timer’ fine sand, but I am unsure from the descriptions I have read how the grease/sand coating works.  Does it work like a soft grinding paste, or is hard fat/tallow likely to be better?  I will have to experiment, but if anyone has any theories or historical sources I would be interested to hear them.

Tommy mowman


About Steve Tomlin

I am a greenwood worker and scythe tutor. I carve spoons, bowls and other products from locally sourced greenwood. During the summer I teach scything around the UK.
This entry was posted in peening & sharpening, Scytherspace and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Sharpening and strickles

  1. JRC says:

    I lay no claim to expertise on scything. Journeyman at best. But from my experience with Austrian scythes, the edge is thin indeed. So as much as it may get blunted, it is just as likely to get a “wire edge,” i.e. fold over just a tad. So a wooden tool would not really whet, it would just straighten out the wire edge. This is very similar to what happens with a kitchen knife. You use a steel on it. Now most chef’s knives are stainless, very hard to sharpen. In fact they are harder than the steel! So what the steel is doing is straightening out a wire edge. I suspect the wooden tool on a steel scythe is doing the same thing.

  2. Richard says:

    A little late to post, but here’s a quote from The Troutbeck Village Association website and originally from an interview in the Oct 1957 edition of ‘Cumbria Magazine’ : ”A new edge was put on by the grindstone, and then the men kept sweeting up the blades with strickles.
    These were square pieces of wood, pitted with small holes. The usual way of making the holes was to tap the wood against the teeth of a saw. Some hard sand was mixed with fat and smeared on the strickle. The sand lodged in the holes and was held there by the fat. It was just the thing for fettling up a scythe blade.”
    It’s the only reference I’ve seen mentioning pitting the surface like this, so you could always give it a try.

    • Steve Tomlin says:

      It’s never too late to add good information, thanks. Interestingly I’ve just been given a copy of a section from “Life and Tradition in the Yorkshire Dales” by Marie Hartley & Joan Ingliby with a section on strickles which says there was special tool called a ‘strickle pricker’ which made small delfts (holes) in the strickle surface. According to this book they say tar, tallow or grease was used and then sand thickly added which could be aquired either by hammering a piece of sandstone or collecting from the shores of a tarn.

  3. wildseedman says:

    Sounds as if I now need a strickle pricker then! I have found that soap works quite well to hold the sand. Soap is made from fat of course, and is cleaner to use than tallow or grease – which is useful as I mainly use the strickle for demonstrations. Thanks for the feedback

  4. Bob Burgess says:

    Hi Steve, I have just found your post, and used it to answer a query on the French old tools website – you may find my answer of interest – see:
    As regards the grease used, I’d go for tallow, rendered pig fat – but soap is probably more hygenic and easier to obtain (tallow was used by plumbers for wiping lead pipe joints, so was commonly available uop to WW2 and beyond)..

  5. Bob Burgess says:

    Ref my last: Continental (and US) scythes are not sharpened in the same way as English ‘Crown’ scythe blades – they are sharpened on an anvil with a small hammer, peening the edge until it is wafer thin – the strickle just polished the edge, unlike an English scythes where a whetstone is more commonly used.. I guess strickles were used in the UK when whetstones were not available, or the scythesman couldn’t afford one (not all regions had local access to natural sandstone or millstone grit to make whetstones)…

    • Steve Tomlin says:

      hi Bob,
      Thanks for your comment and referencing me on the forum.
      My french is a bit rusty but I think you’re also saying that the strickle, when attached to the snath, forms a second handgrip. Actually, the straight snath normally only has a single handgrip and the left hand holds the shaft directly. The snaths were 7ft or longer meaning the strickle would be too high to be held during mowing. You can still see mowers holding the shaft in Eastern Europe where straight snaths are the norm.

  6. LB says:

    The way English scythes were kept in cutting condition in the field (according to a couple of 19thc farming manuals I’ve seen) was as follows:

    – The heavy, cigar-shaped scythe stone was used periodically to create a burred ‘saw’ edge on the blade

    – The strickle was used briefly at every ‘landing’ to maintain the edge

    The strickle, being much lighter, could be carried on the scythe (or on your person) all day, whereas the heavier stone could be left in one spot and just returned to when needed.

    This explains the difference between the stone and strickle in use (and agrees with modern users of the English type of scythe who argue that the stone is supposed to put a sawlike ‘burr’ on the edge). It’s not so much a matter of affordability, more of practicality when a group of you have several acres of hay meadow to get through.

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