I was recently inspired by an article written by traditional woodland craftsman Andy Bashham of Coppice Designs, based in North Essex. Over the last twenty years or so there appears to be similarities between Andy's carreer and my own and I couldn't help but agree with much of what he wrote in his article 'Me and My Billhook' published in the National Coppice Federations's (www.ncfed.org.uk) Newsletter The Cleft Stick.
The following piece uses some of the key points Andy raises to identify the best features of one of his particularly favourite billhooks and to compare this with my own experience with new Morris billhooks.
I have to confess to never actually owning an old billhook. When I first started out in coppicing 20 years or so ago I was immediately signposted towards billhooks made by A. Morris and Sons of Dunsford. These billhooks were the only ones Cumbrian Coppice Merchant Bill Hogarth would use, they were efficient, well balanced tools and their current manufacture based on 'old knowledge'. They were relatively easy to get hold of and worked reliable in professional conditions. They were also, and indeed still are, inexpensive to buy. Most of the old billhooks I ever came accross had loose, wormy rotten handles and a bit of a liability.
Properly tuned. Billhooks appear quite crude tools, there is not much to them, however if they are going to work easily, quickly and feel well balanced a few things need to be right. The profile of the edge can be too flat and the bevel angle too low which can make it appear oversharp and fragile, quickly loosing its edge. The opposite can be the case where the bevels are too short with distinct shoulders which will usually result in a billhook reflecting off the wood. In this instance the bevels need to be lengthened by taking the shoulders back and gently rounding them. The latter case is often the problem with modern billhooks made by the likes of Bulldog and Spear and Jackson. The satisfaction of working with a tool that is right in all respects is one of the reasons we do the work we do, a poorly tuned billhook may well put off budding new woodsmen. New Morris billhooks have forged blades with long gently convex bevels without distinct shoulders.
Combi-grind. Andy Basham suggests something I've not come accross before but it sounds like a good idea. He suggests maintaining a normal double-sided grind for most of the edge but to grind the edge nearest to the ferrule like a side axe i.e. on one side only (on the right for right handed users) to point stakes. This is something I hope to try out, especially useful if you want to keep your tools to a minimum. The alternative of course is to have another billhook ground on one side only dedicated to stake pointing. Morris will as a special order grind any new billhook with an asymmetric grind for us.
Sharpening. One problem with most new Morris billhooks straight from the factory: the edge usually has significant flats or burrs which need to be either ground off carefully on a bench grinder or filed down until the bevels meet. Once this is done it should only require small but regular honing to keep it sharp and working at its best. The most common method to keep a billhook sharp is with canoe stones, ideally 2 stones, one that is quite abrasive which removes metal and another harder less abrasive stone to remove the burr (or wire), the worst of the scratches produced by the first stone and to apply a little polish to the edge. Most canoes stones are lubricated with water to flush away the metal debris; when working outside it's an idea to take a sealable wide necked water container, to soak the stones before use. They can be used dry but quickly become clogged and less abrasive. If desperate, water from a puddle or spitlle is better than nothing.
Handles. Most billhooks will have a 'caulked' handle, one that is slightly oval in cross section with a 'nib' on the end. It's difficult to do accurate work with round handles that have the potential to rotate in the hand. The only billhook that might be forgiven for having a round handle is a double-edged billhook, very much a compromise so it works for both edges. The thickness of the handle can be a matter of personal preference, if it does not feel snug and comfortable in the hand it will feel like hard work and put unnecessary strain on your hands and arms. The thickness of handles on Morris's caulked handles can be variable, I have a personal collection of about 12, most with caulked handles in a range of widths, handy for courses with students with a variety of hand sizes!
Varnished or unvarnished? With Morris the handle default is usually varnished, which will protect the as handle from premature rotting but some people feel in wet conditions the billhook can too easily slip from the hand. Some people have taken to wearing those tight fitting grippy work gloves but personally I'd rather take a small towel and keep my hands dry, besides, without gloves it's far easier to use bailer twine to bundle material up. As a special order Morris will make up any new billhook with an unvarnished handle or you could just sand the varnish off.
Tapered steel or brass ferrules? A few years ago the price of tapered steel ferrules went up and had to be bought in large quanities so Morris moved over to plain brass ferrules. Brass ferrules are fine but not as hand friendly as the tapered steel versions.
Bill or hook? These are only abbreviated names but there seems to be more historical evidence for 'bill'. Bill Hogarth would refer to them as 'hooks' so that has stuck with me so you won't hear me refer to them, as 'bills'.
Best pattern billhook for general coppicing? I'm often asked this question. In the Morris range it's normally between the Newtown, Devon or Tenterden. All a similar weight and perform in a similar way to do the same work of harvesting small coppice rods from a stool then working the material up or dressing them out as well as cutting baler twine. I'm quite happy to use any of these patterns so long as they are sharp, newcomers might be better with the Devon with its robust blunted nose (or beak) which is less likely to be damaged if it hits a stone hidden in a stool. Also if a billhook is used to pick rods up off the ground the blunted nose is a bit safer as you pull it towards your other hand.
Harvesting rods from a stool with an upward or a downward stroke of a billhook? When I first started studying coppicing techniques most books would prescribe an upward sweeping stroke to cut the rod from the stool. The reasoning normally given was that the part of the rod still remaining on the stool would not be split and cause water to filter and linger into the stool and potentially cause rot or induce a damaging fungal infection. Guided by Bill Hogarth I have always found coming straight down from above the quickest and safest technique, holding the rod from above in one hand, the billhook comes down and in the opposite direction towards the ground. Maybe it has someting to do with the generally poor quality hazel and willow in the north east which invariably features a bend as it leaves the stool which we don't want. However chainsaws make short work of reducing and cleaning up the stool once all the rods have been harvested.
I hope this piece has been useful and helpful in identifying what the best features of either an old or a new billhook should be. Morris Billhooks, despite some idiosyncratic features, will always find a soft spot with me, a small independant maker with a unique history. They deserve our support, there are't many makers willing to continue with such a wide range of regional patterns and if you find a manufacturing fault with one of their tools they will always put it right (or we will).