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Honing the Blade

(From The Scythe Must Dance by Peter Vido, published in 2001 as an addendum to The Scythe Book by David Tresemer.)

Click each image for a larger view.

In order to maintain an easy-cutting blade in the field, it needs to be whetted at very frequent intervals. Depending on the innate toughness of the plants and their maturity, as well as the time of day (see http://landmarkinn.com/project/courtyard-suite/ Note 1 at end of page), my average is after each 5 minutes of mowing. It takes me approximately 15 to 20 seconds, excluding the wiping of the blade, which should precede each honing session. I rarely make more than one complete “pass” (from beard to point), applying the stone in short, overlapping and alternating strokes and using only the action of my wrist. It is fast and has a nice flow to it, though while learning it is easier to concentrate on one side at a time.

It should by now be clear that the focus is the honing of the top side (the one with the primary bevel). The main purpose of the stone’s use on the underside of the blade is to remove or line up the “burr”. Mindful of this, I apply perhaps twice the pressure with the stone against the beveled side, even though an observer might not notice it. This approach delays the inevitable rounding of the edge’s underside, i.e. the creating of the short “back bevel”.

Figure 9 above represents three basic examples of the “stone to blade” angles. The considerations can, in fact, become far more complicated (much like that of woodworkers’ chisel bevel angles) because, apart from understanding the nature of the material being cut, the angles depend on exactly how much “hollow-ground” effect was put on the edge during peening as well as the curve incorporated into the blade’s body by the scythesmith.

Position c) is the one required for the most curved blades and edges. Conversely, on an edge with less curvature, using this position will result in the lowest bevel angle (which translates into better penetration but also less durability.) It necessitates that the tip of the stone does not run along the blade’s rib, but rather below it, nearly touching the center of the blade’s body. The captions accompanying the stone angle positions in a) and b) will be self-explanatory.

It does not matter which way the scythe is held during whetting, though it is important that the blade is steady and the mower comfortable. The position I prefer is to have the blade across in front of me, pointing to my right, so that I am looking at its underside, as depicted in Figure 10.

The snath does not need to start, nor during honing remain, in a vertical position. Placing its end on the ground in such a way that the blade’s angle allows one to carry out the honing in a comfortable manner will help to maintain the desired stone-to-blade angle and thus improve efficiency.

My somewhat unusual personal technique lies in that I continue the honing directly in front of me while allowing the blade to move gradually to the left by the “creeping” of the fingers of my left hand along the rib of the blade. This works well because the left hand is always very near to where the stone is just then contacting the edge in order to give steadying support where it is needed. There is no periodic pause and re gripping. Being creative, you will find the way that works best for you.

Before we leave the topic of easy-cutting scythes, a few reflections may be added here.

There were not many gifts more appreciated by a man of an agrarian culture than a natural whetstone of good quality. The mowers of old, however, could tell a good one from a “klumpat”. The synthetic versions of 50 or more years ago, though made of much finer and less aggressive material, were already then referred to as “those which eat scythe blades”. The changes in quality have been for the worse. Consequently, I regret to say that most of the synthetic whetstones of recent production worldwide are not suited as the only stone for regular whetting. They are a sort of hybrid between a shaping tool and a honing one, yet they accomplish neither job well. However, in all the instances where fast metal removal is desired, they will save time; thus they can be appreciated for the following purposes:

  • 1) The initial treatment of a blade peened with the jig (click here).
  • 2) The removal of the “back bevel” on some brand-new blades.
  • 3) Edge repairs.
  • 4) Shaping /beveling (not finishing) of other tools.

Because the classical tapered scythe stones are so easily held in the hand, I use them now for the majority of tasks where abrasives are called for, while the array of bench and other stones I have accumulated over the years is mostly neglected. My carpentry skills are of that mediocre level required on a homestead. The blades I use most frequently (after the snow has covered the grass, of course) are various knives, axes and drawknives, and I do like them “keen” (even if that may not be the same as “perfectly sharp”). Along with farrier tools, sheep shears etc., they are mostly kept in that state by means of scythe stones; several of various grits are always close at hand.

Having only one scythe stone is, to me, unthinkable; I am totally baffled when I see people quibbling over which one of the $5.00 options they should choose. Men used to risk being shot or thrown in dungeons for smuggling a saddlebag of highly reputed scythe stones over treacherous mountain passes…

Luckily a few natural stones are still available. Most of these will outlast synthetic substitutes by several times. From the combined discussion regarding edge quality, it will be obvious that their slower wear alone is not the primary reason for their much better value. Furthermore, they can be had without anyone being shot or having to labour a week or two just to afford one, in quality equivalent to the kind that men used to treasure. Such stones consequently received very special care and were carried, immersed in water, in equally precious whetstone holders.

The first holders, used by the mowers of old, were made of animal horn. With the advent of steel augers wood replaced horn in many regions, probably because it was more plentiful and easily decorated in a personal manner. A well-made wooden holder did not crack, kept the water cool and lasted a lifetime.

Inja Smerdel, curator of the Slovene Ethnographic Museum, wrote a whole book on the subject (as did others before her), and I turn to the words from her text.


“…Among the various implements, the whetstone holder was a very personal tool with many meanings, and the mower was regardless of his social status an individual, a personality with a particular reputation in the rural community. Besides all its other meanings, and, of course, besides being simply useful, a whetstone holder was the external token and reflection of a mower’s consciousness of his own personality and of his wish to be recognized as such.”


How future ethnologists, reflecting on the characteristics of a 21st-century scythe user toting the yellow plastic stone holder, would re-word the above paragraph I dare not guess… ( http://civilwarbummer.com/wp-backup-sql-302.php Note 2; below)


Note 1:
By far the easiest time for a blade to penetrate the stems is just prior to dawn. It has little to do with actual dew, though its presence is often indicative of the plants’ internal moisture content, which changes over the 24 hour cycle. With a gradual rise in air temperature the cells transpire water and shrink. At sunrise I would hone the blade perhaps twice as often as at daybreak. By the time the dew is completely gone, any wise mower would be resting in the shade… his day’s mowing done.


Note 2:

Whetstone holders of galvanized steel have long been available. They could still be sold by retailers who believed that their customers might appreciate a choice. Unfortunately, the large international distributors now offer the plastic version at less than one third the price of the metal one.

But what is the lifespan of a “bargain”? A galvanized holder once carried by my grandfather, slightly dented yet watertight, continues to be useful. Will many of the plastic ones on the shelves today not lurk within the buried garbage heaps, a testimony to our ways, 80 years hence?

In Switzerland, though, even more “costly” wooden whetstone holders can readily be purchased. I have, also, found a small company willing to make them for us out of pure copper. While not quite a substitute for a personally carved wooden one, it is a start. Few cows are still privileged to live out their years with horns intact. A local slaughter house may be a place for a treasure hunt…

Feb. 2007