I’ve been in the Transylvania region of Romania taking part in an International Haymaking Festival. During the week we called in to visit Viktor-bacsi (an honorific for older people translated for us as “Uncle Viktor”) who, despite ill health makes and repairs all the wooden hayrakes for the area – about 50 each winter. Viktor-bacsi uses 3 different species for his rakes: hazel for the stail, mountain maple for the heads and ash for the tines. Everything is cleft and shaped by hand for a combination of strength and lightness. It was wonderful too see him working and the simple but ingenious devices he had made for holding the various parts while shaping them with plane, knife and saw.
Each rake has 19 tines, all laboriously shaped by hand first into a long square taper and then a shouldered tenon is handcarved onto one end and the other end rounded with a knife. I sat with him in his small workshop and carved a few tines with him. The wood is all dried before assembly so the tenon is simply made to a push fit into the head – the shoulder stops it pushing further through and on top of the head Viktor-bacsi leaves 2mm of temon protruding which he peens over like a rivet head to prevent the tine falling out. We were shown how the split stail is fitted to the head and his method for getting the head straight and balanced. A lovely little touch are two bands of unstripped bark left on the stail just below the split as decoration.
During our haymaking, I worked with one of the rakes which has seen 20 summers of work. In that time the stail has been polished smooth by the hands that held it and the tines have been worn away to a quarter of their original length yet only one has broken in that time. A tool like this almost knows how to do the work itself and it was an honour to be using it.
While we visited, our host told us a story which deserves retelling. One day Viktor-bacsi was in the market and found 5 Russian scythe blades of uncommonly high quality for sale (the quality of Russian blades is very changeable and a knowledgeable mower will tap each one with a stone to judge the tool from how it rings). He promptly bought all 5, fitted them with handles and sold three for a profit. One he started using straight away while the last was put away. This would be his scythe for old-age, when he would need the best tool he could get and would have the skill and experience to truly appreciate it. That was 35 years ago. Just last summer the now 82 year old Viktor has judged it time to start working with this special tool.