Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Zero-grip snaths from Finland

Photo by Pekka Helin, Museum of Central Finland
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In contrast with the typical Continental and American scythes having two grips, and the Eastern European scythes with one grip, this type of traditional haying scythe from Finland has a bent shaft with no grips. In Finnish its name is Väärävarsiviikate, which breaks down to:

Väärä ("false" or "wrong") +  varsi ("arm") + viikate ("scythe")

So it seems to translate to "false arm scythe". (Is it purely a coincidence that the French word for scythe is faux, which also means "false" or "wrong"?)

The blade is attached by wrapping with a wicker-like strip of a flexible branch, and tightening it with a couple of wooden wedges, as shown below:

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The scythe pictured below is from Southwest Finland. Note the difference in section views; one portion is round and another is teardrop shaped. The end of the snath is hollowed out to hold grease (more about that later).

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Modern-day scythe blades from Finland have a profile unlike the typical "continental" scythes. Instead of a right-angled rib, the Finnish blades have a wedge-shaped thickening at the back of the blade, as shown in the two profiles labelled "Finsk" near the bottom of the following diagram. The traditional Finnish scythes (Väärävarsiviikate) presumably have blades with profiles similar to the one labelled "Finsk". 

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The Väärävarsiviikate blades would periodically be taken to the blacksmith for renovation after damage or when the edges became too thick from repeated sharpenings. The blacksmith would heat the blade, reshape it by hammering, and then heat treat it. A grinding wheel was then used to restore the bevel.

All of this information is given as background for the following video from 1936. Seeing these scythes in action can be quite surprising. (The video starts after about 15 seconds of black screen.)

Direct link to video here.


The film opens with a man loosening the "wicker" attachment on a scythe and taking its blade, along with five other blades, to the village blacksmith for renovation. Afterward, the blade is re-attached with some new binding material, adjusted, then wedged tightly in two places. The hafted blade is then sharpened on a boy-powered grindstone. The scythe seems to be fairly light and nimble.

Meanwhile, lunch is packed into a wildcrafted backpack, and someone gets her dress stuck in the door on her way out (a scene for the blooper reel). The group convenes, six men with scythes and two women with rakes. The men gulp down some shots while holding their scythes, and they proceed to the fields.

The scything technique is amazing, cutting with both leftward and rightward strokes, and making a sort of figure-eight swing (more like an infinity symbol). The curvature of the snath is used to facilitate the turning of the blade from one cutting orientation to the other. For the most part, the hand positions remain the same during both strokes (with the left hand at the end of the snath), but starting at 5:31 one of the men is actually switching right and left hand positions as he swings. 

The alternating strokes cut toward the left front quadrant, and then toward the right front quadrant. With the six men lined up, the right/left strokes are synchronised, presumably to avoid injuries.

When the blade is about to be honed, note the dry whetstone hanging horizontally from the belt in a flap of fabric. At 5:57, note the grease being taken from the hollow end of the snath and rubbed on the palms and the snath.

Later, they all get busy with hay rakes. At about 6:27, one of the women reverses her rake and uses the top of the handle to move some hay.

Lunch follows with some very large "bagels", and then rest time. At around 6:49, note the woven soles of their shoes. Birch bark?

Hay is then dragged on a "sledge" made from a tree branch.  One man cuts and twists a "cord" made from whippy branches, and uses this to tie up big bundles of hay that he carries. Note the "Hay Pusher" technique starting at 7:42, with women and men paired up and each pushing a hay rake. 

After the hay is taken to the storage structure, at 8:19 a woman gets a drink of water from the lake using a dipper. A communal meal follows with no individual cups or plates or bowls. Drinks are taken from the same pail on the table, and food is shared from the same bowls.

The title of the video is listed as Hämeenkyrön heinänteko. Peltotöitä vuodelta 1936 which translates to "Hämeenkyrön hay-making. Field work in 1936". Hämeenkyrön is town in Southwestern Finland, with a present day population of about 10,000.

Altogether a remarkable video. 

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  1. Some information on present-day Finnish scythes:

    1. Väärä ("false" or "wrong") + varsi ("arm") + viikate ("scythe")

      Väärä ("bent") + varsi ("snath") + viikate ("scythe")
      Bent-snathed scythe, or scythe with a bent snath