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Scythe Buyers' Guide





A Discussion on Snath Design

The first two comments we received in reaction to our snathmaking instructions were as follows:

Hi Kai,

Thanks for the Slavic style snath making instructions. I'd say the instructions are crystal clear. My only suggestion is on Fig. #4 where you say "insert the grip" I would describe which way the grip points, and include more of the grip in the photo next to it. If I hadn't seen that style of snath before I think I might have put the grip in backwards, i.e. pointing towards me. It's hard to make out in the photo of the snath in use which way the grip is pointing as well. For somebody who has never seen that kind of snath or grip before it might not be that obvious.
---Botan Anderson

Botan is right. Kai failed to specifically mention it, although the photos of Fairlight demonstrating the scythe's use show the position of the grip.
The commentary from Henrik Jørgensen is more complex; our reply to him is below the letter.

Dear Vidos,

Thanks for this long-hoped-for addition to your homepage. These are my initial comments after only having scanned the text and illustrations. I probably don't have many technical questions or suggestions to add even after a more thorough reading, so perhaps these are my most important comments.

I'm a little bit amazed that you have decided to primarily explain how to make a Slovakian type of snath from pre-sawn lumber. Elsewhere on your homepage this type of snath is described as a "well-okay", but quite typical example of a local kind of snath still alive and kicking, but more due to tradition than good ergonomics. There's at least two Danish types of snath that I would consider superior. I didn't bring them to Canada and never really got to discuss them with you; my error.

But to the point: in my humble opinion the greatest, most important and close to only (apart from modifications of existing snath types to adjustability) recent innovation is "The Vido maximum soul and maximum sustainability type of snath" (free trademark with my courtesy). I was very close to being convinced about this even before my arrival at your farm, but I certainly very soon became so after having been handed a specimen by Peter with a wonderful, very curved one-metre blade (although it made me overambitious in the competition!). I treasure it highly, and it receives a lot of attention at local mowings; people immediately recognize the beauty and simplicity of the concept and want to make their own, just as I can't wait to get started building more for myself and others (too busy working and mowing right now).

I could elaborate a lot more on arguments for this, but wouldn't it be pretty silly to do that towards you of all people?

So I really think that you should go for promoting the "Vido Snath" (an abbreviated but still free trademark) instead of just mentioning it in a sort of parenthesis at the end of the chapter. The basic concept along with the techniques of mounting grips and blade could then be freely adopted by anyone to fit their local customs. I would, for instance, like to make a traditional Danish snath with two forward-curving grips mounted on the upper side of the snath along with types with cross-bars on the grips or at the end of the snath etc. Your homepage could perhaps present some illustrations of various snath designs and their original distribution?

So to cut the crap: Let's have the full story of how to make the Vido Snath (with infinite later additions about what time of year to cut what types of wood and how to store them when to strip off the bark and how to instruct your brain to make the proper search-image for a good grip when walking the woods etc.). The making of snaths from pre-sawn lumber (or how to saw a curved snath from a plank) could then be explained in an addendum - Slovakian equally along with many others.

Building some kind of snath and mounting a blade is of course essential to getting started, and I sense that you've felt an urge to get an instruction done because it has been badly missed on the worlds No. 1 homepage on all scythe-related matters. But still I urge you to hold back a little more, take some more trouble and get the real thing done!

Your friend

Henrik Jørgensen

Dear Henrik,

As always, I appreciate your constructively critical comments; they usually call for a continued dialogue from which we both learn...

The main reasons we initially suggest the home-making of a one-grip straight snath are:

1. It is relatively easy to make, which may encourage more people to actually do it even if they would not attempt to make a more complex (curved/two-grip) model;

2. It is easier to fit with a blade in such a manner that neither the right hand/wrist nor the left shoulder are strained during use.

3. Once folks figure out how to make, fit a blade to, and mow with this (in your opinion) inferior snath, they will be ready to experiment with making other "superior" models.

As additional food for thought, it is notable that in so many different cultures over such a wide geographical area (in all European countries east of Germany, Austria and Italy, including the Balkans and regions of the former Soviet Union, all the way through the Middle East), this basic snath--with minor variations--has remained the predominant one. The simplicity alone of making a straight one-grip snath could hardly be the main reason for its dominance, because all those cultures indulged in intricacy of design in other realms (architecture, clothing, musical instruments and more). Long aware of other snath designs, they seemed satisfied to keep their own...

For instance, although the common curved metal snath with two adjustable grips--a very cheap one to mass-produce--has been available in hardware stores throughout Slovakia for several decades, it never gained popularity. Instead, just one of the two major snath makers in that country--a family enterprise with three full-time employees--makes and sells, mostly through the same hardware stores, 10,000 of the classical wooden snaths each year. (Considering Slovakia's population of 5 million, and the longevity of a very well made ash snath, this is a statement that the scythe is not obsolete there!)

Further in defense of this rather simple design, I might add that of all the mowing styles documented and studied by
Dr. Otto Fleiss, the Slovak mower with his straight snath came in second, ahead of an Austrian and a Swiss mower who both used their traditional two-grip snaths. The way you, Henrik, mow with your German two-grip design would have placed you behind the Slovak mower as well...

In addition to Dr. Fleiss' concern with the "happy" state of the vertebrae, I consider it important to overall ergonomy that the elbows are carried relatively low. Many two-grip snaths in use today, curved or straight, do not encourage or even allow the left elbow to remain within that "relaxed comfort zone". Instead, all too often, it is elevated too much. The mower with the straight one-grip snath carries the left elbow low because the "underhand" position of the hand, wrapped around the shaft itself, puts it there naturally. (For a more comprehensive disclosure of why, during mowing as well as other activities, lowered elbows are desired, helping the shoulders and neck remain relatively relaxed, encouraging circulation and good flow of life force- "chi", please consult the nearest acupuncturist or tai-chi teacher!).

Although I do prefer what you refer to as "soul snaths" of my own making (none of which are very straight and all of which have two grips), I would rather mow with a well-fitted Eastern-style snath than most two-grip snaths on the market. Furthermore, inasmuch as my vision includes that point in time when all mowers experience "soul snaths" well fitted with sharp blades, it is a much more complex design for which to give a detailed "general formula".

Still, I have tried to share my empirical discoveries. In The Scythe Must Dance (2001) we provided diagrams of five different snaths with exact measurements, side view profiles, individual weights as well as what species of wood each was made of, the height of the user and the intended use. All that apparently wasn't enough; we have since had numerous requests for a "snathmaking recipe"...

In addition, during the past six or eight years I have taken time to explain the guiding principles of my snath design to dozens of people. Of the snaths they subsequently made which I saw later, very few would I be content to mow with... Some folks really messed up. (Perhaps I'm not a very competent teacher!) It is for this reason I've been reluctant to put simplified instructions in print. However, we do discuss the subject in An Ergonomic Scythe Handle on our website, with some photos of the partly-made "blanks" as well as finished snaths. As time permits we will continue to expand that section.

Moreover, making a snath is only half of the overall challenge. Fitting it with a blade so that both together make a harmonized pair may be as difficult to explain (chiefly because of the angle variability of natural wood and the array of blade models that people already own or can purchase). I do plan to explain the principles at length as part of a more complete "scythe use manual" we would like to finish by the spring of 2007. The chapters on snathmaking and blade fitting will no doubt be longer than many a casual scythe user will want to digest...

Until then, (or even in lieu of it) here's a suggestion:
You, Henrik, now have one of my "soul snaths". Niels Johansson--a very competent mower--has two. In addition, during the event on our farm you both had a chance to see and try out many more. Intelligent, awake and enthusiastic as you and Niels are, why not help me out--or simply for the benefit of all present and future scythe users, write some instructional text on how to make a "soul snath"?! You may want to do this for the Danish Mowers' Associations, and if so, please translate it into English for us. In fact, I would like this section to become a potpourri of ideas on snathmaking, be they complete recipes or just hints on refining existing models. And you, my friend, will be credited with instigating it!

Thank you very much


P.S. While I was in Europe this summer, another Dane had sent us just that--his own enthusiastic endorsement of the Scottish "sned" along with a drawing and two photos. This design led to the development of the North American snath which I have criticized so often... Now I hope you, Henrik, will not leave the world in the dark for too long, and share with us the complete instruction on how to make one of the superior Danish snaths!

The Second Letter from Henrik Jørgensen:

October 24, 2006

Dear Peter,

Different matters are finally getting settled somewhat now (i.e. superiors breathing down my neck kept at bay), so i can finally keep my promise of answering your response to my initial perhaps a little too critical comment to your "scythebuilding guide step 1".

My criticism should be viewed in the light of my enthusiasm towards the "Vido style maximum sustainability, maximum soul and best ergonomy type of snath" that i finally got to posses a specimen of during my wonderful trip to Canada this summer. It has been my preferred snath ever since, and quite a busy one by most others but your standards, evoking a lot of marvel and admiration among those danish scythers, who got to see and perhaps even try it. So to put it short i was probably hoping for a guide on how to make this world leader, and not some intermediate step. Not that i'm personally in grave need of information after having met the man himself, listened to him, browsed his shop and come in possession of a master copy; i was thinking more about the rest of the world. On the other hand i can also understand your arguments, so the following will more or less be my input to the discussions, that i hoped for having with you this summer at your farm, and which i guess we both, together with the limited time and all the time-consuming difficulties you had, share the responsibility for not really getting done. Not to be understood as if we didn't have lots of good discussions; i particularly value the ending of the seminar with the detailed discussions in the instructors group especially on peening and honing, which put myself about a light-year forward (peening like an angel now), but still we didn't get to talk enough.

Well, that wasn't really putting it short, was it? I'll best pull myself together and try to follow a scheme with at least some kind of logic to it:

  • The Eastern European, Egyptian and what else "one-gripper".
  • The Middle European "two-gripper" and the Videan modifications thereof.
  • The traditional danish, and actually also most common swedish, "two gripper" (with local modifications).
  • Concerning 1. I first saw, together with Niels and our two swedish team mates, this implement wielded by the White Russian National Team at the memorable "Erste Weltmeisterschaft in Mannschaftsmähen mit der Sense" in Baiersbronn, Schwarzwald in the year 2000, that i have reported on our poor results in earlier. Very shortly to you (as i recall it in my first letter), but at length for the benefit, and allow me to add general amusement of, our mowers association (one of several priorities for translation for publication on The white russians, clad in beautiful folkloristic outfits, were very nice guys and claimed to have beaten polaks, ukrainians, balts and i don't remember who. They mowed perfectly with their very long snaths, but in a tranquil, perfection instead of speed-oriented manner, that didn't exactly owe them a top placing among the fast swiss, austrian and german teams.

    Their snaths were made of straight, young pine or spruce with a lower, forward turned grip of probably willow bent around it and held together with a piece of cord (metal or leather, don't remember, Niels might). They gripped the upper part of the piece of willow in a normal fashion with their right hands and the top of the snath with an "underhand grip" with their left hands. Niels was very enthusiastic (an uncommon state for him) about this seemingly very basic mother of snaths, and made a copy as soon as he got home.

    My next recollection of this tool is your own mentioning of it from Slovakia, where you characterize it as inferior to the austrian, but well usable and an example of local tradition prevailing. I could probably find the correct quote on your homepage, but i'll only take the trouble if you claim this to be misunderstood by me.

    Come to think of it, i probably learned about this snath already back in 1999 during Kjell's famous, inspirational lecture in Denmark, where he showed us a very long, straight snath, that he found somewhere in Eastern Europe and which he resolutely had sawed in two in order to get it home to Sweden in his flight luggage (don't remember anything about its handles so i got to ask him more about this).

    After this summation of my poor background on the subject, not even having tried out the damned thing myself, i only wonder how you can describe it, with the quoting of some biomechanics of the scythe-swing guru, as an ergonomically viewed prime implement for connecting a curved knife with a mowers body especially with respect to keeping both elbows low. There's something i simply don't understand here: as i see it the left hand is holding the snath palm upwards at almost shoulder height? This may bring the elbow low, but in a less relaxed manner quite similar to the Kjell Gustafsson snath...

    Your argument about the significance of the maintainement of this design in parts of the world with high levels of cultural sophistication is in my opinion quite far fetched. There's usually a lot of difference between the upperclass-culture of a region and its peasant-culture; the refinement of the first might as well have a negative influence on the development of the latter...

    Concerning 2. Another snath that i knew nothing about until our very educational, though as mentioned not exactly medal-winning, trip to Baiersbronn. Clearly a leader among the most successful teams. I even met a guy showing an aluminium edition made by some engineer acquaintance at the Porsche factory...

    My first thought was, that this is really in principle similar to our traditional, danish snath. The grips are both placed on the upper side of the snath, held in basically the same way and only turned towards the mower instead of away from her. Here i'm of course talking about our traditional, wooden snaths and not the presently dominating, curved steel snath with two cumbersome, straight rubber-grips turned away from the mower. In the traditional Middle European scythe the grips are held with rather straight wrists, straining them more and giving a less efficient transfer of power than a somewhat upturned wrist (with a downturned handle). This is of course not an original viewpoint on my behalf, but clearly something that i've learned from you, given a lot of thought, and fully agreed to. My point is, and this is why Concerning 2 should really have been Concerning 2 and 3, cos' i can't discuss these two snaths separately, that in my opinion the traditional danish, and disregarding Kjell's' enthusiasm for the in Sweden rather local "overarmer" also main swedish, snaths already fulfill your requirements for ergonomically placed an designed handles. The forwardly turned, curved handles of this snath not only gives you an upturned wrist, it also makes you push it with your hands in front of the snath itself in a natural way instead of dragging behind with more need of using power of finger-muscles to keep firm control. Moreover, the smooth curvature of the handles gives you opportunities for adjustment, variation and relaxation, that you don't experience as fully with the grips of the Middle European scythe. It also rests effortlessly in your hands during the return-swing.

    I noted that among the many snaths in your workshop there was one, where you had experimented with forward turned grips. Or was it perhaps a lefthander? If not so, how do you like it?

    Usually the traditional danish snath has grips of equal length, thus putting the left elbow in a higher and perhaps not fully relaxed position. But quite often the lower handle was elongated in a similar way as the austrian (se picture on page 3 in URT, where the snaths belonging to standing persons 2 and 5 from the left have elongated lower grips, whereas the boy second from the right has grips of equal length). I asked my wife's uncle, who was born on a very small farm and whose father harvested all grain and hay by hand (he actually gave me his fathers old scythe with a nice, but rusty, 1 meter blade, that i'm going to restore, the snath itself is beyond repair) if this was done for better ergonomy, but he said that it was done to make space for mounting a special grain cradle (is that the word?), that was mounted at the top of the snath and rested underway at the stem of the lower grip. Hard to explain, but please note the slits on the lower handles of the snaths belonging to the two first mentioned men. This must mean, that they used the same snaths for harvesting grain. You may have to study these handles through a magnifying glass to see, that they are in fact curved forward. Also note the suggestive, but hopefully unintentional, manner in which they are rested against the ladies skirts! Anyway, this scythe was also used for hay cutting without the grain cradle and may be the one to go for. When i get around to building my first try at a danish edition of the maximum soul, maximum sustainability and best ergonomy snath this winter, this will be the one i'll try first.

    So we have these two snaths, that are in principle identical except for the direction of the handles and the fact that the austrian handles are straight or straight-angled and the danish are curved. Which is the better one? I have presented some theoretical arguments for the danish type above, but they are really theoretical, since i have almost only mowed with austrians for several years. The same is true for you i guess, but i think we should both give the matter some serious thought and make some practical comparisons.

    I guess this is how i really feel: first we made Kjell Gustafsson snaths because we were heavily inspired by him (we simply wouldn't be in business without him) and he gave us a fine work-drawing, then we made austrian snaths after Baiersbronn because they went along with their superior blades, once again neglecting our own tradition (but at least the blades are like the traditional danish although typically lighter, as you well know). It may be time to return to our traditional snaths be they superior, equal or at least not significantly inferior. We could then add the improvements of applying your principles to our traditional snaths to give the necessary personal fit, to fit the snath to the blade instead of the opposite (as illustrated by my translation of the danish textbook) and adding soul and sustainability. This is probably the ideal line, that i will follow unless you can shoot it down with some serious arguments.

    But things are not ideal; most danish wannabe mowers will ask: "where can i buy a wooden snath to fit my body?" And they make sense because the personal fit and the soul provided by wood will very reasonably be their basic priorities (and money is usually less of an issue than time with modern danes). Making your own is also significantly more demanding. This puts me in another dilemma: should i promote the new swiss made Schröeckenfux snaths with two different lengths and with both handles adjustable but un-danish, or should i take the trouble to try to make the danish manufacturer produce longer snaths and then, if i (very doubtfully) succeed promote them?

    Some facts about the danish snath market are in their place here: apart from the curved steel snath with adjustable, but awkward, grips which is dominating and cheap (around 30 canadian $), but not long enough for tall persons, there is one danish produced curved ashwood snath with nice grips available at a length fitting people of no more than 170 cms. There's another one available through the catalogue of a forestry supplier (probably foreign produce), which would fit people of up to 180 cms. Both can well be shortened, but the grips are not adjustable, and the grips of the latter are very abruptly curving and absolutely not good. Our master mower Ole Andersen (page 33 in URT) shifted the grips from the former to the latter snath and also removed surplus wood from it. He actually did this twice, in the first instance removing too much wood causing the snath to vibrate too easily, but making him pleased with the second one. The picture on page 33 shows his snath before he changed the grips; you may be able to see, that they curve abruptly at the base and then go straight. The better handles are seen on page 38 but unfortunately at an angle, that does not show their curvature properly. We asked the danish manufacturer why they didn't make their snaths longer and they answered that they had in fact made a longer edition earlier, but it didn't sell!

    I'm planning to make a gathering of the key persons from the about 8 new mowers associations in Denmark, who were actually all inspired by URT or by the good newspaper-coverage of our association, next spring (still having some funds to draw from and possibly being able to allow free fare and accommodation) to give them information on the best buys of snaths, blades, peening equipment etc. and having told most of them already to hold back on investments until they could learn more.

    Where did we come from, Peter? Excuse me for my diversions and loss of focus, but since this is a discipline you master yourself, you ought to forgive me...

    Well yes, the traditional danish snath is never straight, but always curved in an S-shape or at least curved at the end. Most austrians are straight, as far as i know, but my knowledge on this doesn't reach very far. A snath with a curvature towards the end would (very generally speaking and all other things like) fit better on the typically low angled tangs of the austrian blades than the straight austrian snaths themselves. Is this crazy or am i crazy? I guess both, but i'd like to hear your opinion.

    For reasons of maintaining local culture and tradition, when this goes together with good ergonomy, which i think it does in our case, i'd probably prefer to promote the danish snath in the future. Gladly through a good, factory-made snath with a choice of lengths, but even better with the application of the Vido, you know which, principles of hand made snaths, which must have been almost the same here and anywhere else, in those days before factories took over producing the things you were used to making yourself.

    Another note on the danish snath: older editions are often relatively broad and flat which in my opinion makes excellent sense (an unplanned joke for people who understand both english and german!), because it gives more space for adjusting the cutting angle and also places more wood against the hardest strain, which is perpendicular to the snath. The newer factory-made snaths have closer to quadratic Cross-sections.

    The other traditional danish snath, which is also described briefly in the textbook, that i've translated for you earlier, has the grips placed at an angle of 90 degrees, i.e. the upper grip turned away from the mower, but with a cross-handle, and the lower turned upwards. This is perhaps a sort of transition to Kjell's' snaths, but still different. These snaths are traditional in Northern Jutland, where they even kept on going into the age of steel-snaths. I've seen them, but not tried them. I know an old blacksmith in Jutland who has several of them, and i wanted to take pictures, when i was there last week, but he was not at home. There are still other types of norwegian and finnish snaths, and i've seen very Gustafsson-like snaths on pictures from Estonia, but held differently!

    Since i finally got in contact with Grith Lerche, i'm going to look more closely at what we've got at our national museum stores (there's a very big collection she tells me) and also look more into the old reports from people who still remembered traditional haymaking, that were meticulously gathered, but never treated and reported, by the late cultural historian Ole Høst.

    In conclusion, i find your guide on how to build the Eastern European snath excellent, beautifully illustrated and with many good details, that can easily be transferred to the building of other types of snaths, but i won't promote it in Denmark for the above reasons. So please let it loose in cyberspace and don't wait too long with a follow-up on your own snath, which i then easily could fill in with the Northern European modifications. In this way, we could start making a world guide to making your own maximum soul, sustainability, ergonomy and local tradition snath wherever you are...!

    I had planned this letter to be filled with wonderful illustrations, that could have saved many of the above words. But i'd rather get it shipped off and get rid of my bad conscience. I can make digital pictures of some of the snaths and details, but others i only have as analog pictures or illustrations from books and articles. Kjell has it all in his big collection, and i'll try to make him send some digital pictures of selected Northern European snaths. But as you know he's not fast responding to demands of this sort...

    Looking forward to your response to all this and to learn more about the good news you mentioned on the phone the other day, when i was to busy to have a proper talk.

    Your friend,

    17 Oct. 2006
    Modified 25 Oct. 2006
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