I’ll admit it, I’ve been forever fascinated with old ways of doing things. And even though I love the sounds and smells associated with making hay using diesel-powered equipment and modern, self-tying large round balers, I’ve always wondered whether I could pass muster with my ancestors and make sufficient hay to feed some critters through the winter using only a scythe, wooden hand hay rake, pitchfork and wagon. I’ve used a scythe off and on over the years to whack weeds, and I would always rather do something physical around the farm than go to the gym and run on a treadmill, so I decided that making hay the old fashioned way would be good for me. I already had access to an Austrian-style scythe and we had a few old pitchforks, but I needed something to handle the raking. I’ve seen vintage wooden hay rakes in antique stores — and they sell for pretty good money so I decided to have a go at making one myself. I took a look at some rakes online and even took a look at some “plans” in a couple of green woodworking books and then just decided to do like my German ancestors would have done when they hit the Dakota territory in the late 1800s — make do with what I had around.
My first step was to head into the small copse of woods in the center of the farm to harvest a Hackberry sapling of sufficient length and dimension to shape into the handle. I cut and limbed the sapling with a machete that the folks at SOG Tools sent me to mess around with. I next cut a Hackberry log about 30 inches long and 6-inches in diameter from a snag left by the dozers when they repaired one of the pond dams on my farm (my chain saw came in handy for this work). I carried these pieces along with a 20-inch by 8-inch diameter Black Walnut log, sourced from the same snag, back to my improvised woodworking shop in the barn and went to work.
To begin shaping the handle, I shaved the bark from the Hackberry sapling using a drawknife I bought in 1978 to shape boat parts (my boat building phase lasted about 10 years).
Once the sapling was free of bark, I shaved it down until it felt good in my fielder’s-mitt-sized hands. At one end, where the handle would be connected to the rake’s head, I shaved the sapling into a tenon that was roughly 1.5 inches by 1.0 inch in cross section – and I set the handle aside to dry out for a week or so. Meanwhile, I used a splitting maul and antique forged froe to rive out a Hackberry billet about 30-inches long by 1.5 inches thick by 2.5 inches wide. I used the drawknife and a flat-soled spokeshave to shape that billet into the rake’s head and then trimmed the ends with a handsaw.
By the time I got all of that completed, the handle was sufficiently dry that I traced the tenon’s cross section onto the center of the head and using a hand drill and chisels, cut a slightly tapered mortise that gripped the tenon snugly with just a few whacks from the mallet. I then located positions for 7 teeth and bored half-inch holes through the rake head, top to bottom. I took care to eyeball the drill so that the holes were more or less perpendicular to the bottom of the rake’s head.
Next, I used the splitting maul and froe to rive out Black Walnut billets that were about 5/8-inch square in cross section and 20 inches long. These I rounded to slightly more than 1/2-inch diameter with the drawknife and spokeshave and then I cut them to length. I got about three teeth from each billet. I left the center tooth considerably longer than the others. I next sized the teeth using my SOG Flash II folding knife so they would fit tightly into the holes I bored earlier.
Once sized, I used the SOG Flash II to whittle a crude, dull point on the rake teeth and drove them home with a hardwood mallet. Although the rake was fully assembled at this point, and I was tempted to try it out, every wooden hay rake I have seen uses some means to brace the handle and head in a triangular fashion. I’ve seen iron strapping, wire, steam-bent wood and sawed braces on antique rakes. I decided for this first and somewhat primitive attempt, I would use looped wire twisted taught like the diagonal on a fence brace to do the trick. It’s not pretty, but it works great.
So far, I’ve used the rake to put up a little more than a ton of hay and to gather at least that much fresh-cut forage for the pigs. It works surprisingly well with its 7-foot hand-hewn handle and riven head and teeth. I will probably make my next rake a little wider and will take the time to rive out diagonal braces and steam-bend and rivet them to the handle and head using a few square-shank copper nails and dished roves (left over from my boat building phase). I plan to put up at least 5 tons of hay yet this year (yes I know it’s late) — I’ll report on the progress and on the rhythmic joy of swinging a scythe later this month, hopefully.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper’s Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.