Driving my old Landrover around the M25 is never one of my favourite activities but as I’d been invited by Simon Damant to run a wooden rake making course for the National Trust at Wimpole Hall near Cambridge I found myself dodging traffic once again. Simon organised the course as a part of the programme of activities at Wimpole and early on Saturday morning I started to set up by the large barn in the farmyard. The landrover felt at home next to the old Fordson tractors and as usual plenty of visitors mistook it for a part of the display.
Wimpole has a large working farm at the heart of the estate which is run as an organic rare breed farm and open to the public so as well as running the course we were a part of the display for the day. The cows in the yard were more than a little bumused at our antics though the visitors seemed to find it very interesting.
The weather allowed us to work outside rather than inside the barn and as we had a lot of work to do in the day it wasn’t long before everyone was hard at it making traditional wooden rakes.
I don’t normally use a the side axe to shape the rake heads, prefering to work with my drawknife, but Simon likes his axes and it was good for the students to do some axe work as well as relieving the queue waiting for one of the shave horses and drawknives.
I’m used to running polelathe turning courses and to me the rake making course is a natural extension of the same techniques but if you’ve not done any greenwood work before it’s a lot to master in a single day, so well done to everyone who managed to get the hang of cleeving, axing, shaving, rinding, sawing, drilling and bashing tines through the tine cutter.
With a choice of styles and sizes of rake to make everyone decided to make a full size (28inch head) hay rake with a split handle – which I know as a Sussex Style rake, rather than the bow or hoop supported head which I know as the Dorset style. but rakes come in all shapes and sizes from small garden rakes upto massive drag rakes.
There was an old drag rake in the barn and it makes one of my hay rakes beside it look small by comparison. As it’s name implies, with it’s heavy timber handle and head the weight of the rake makes it impossible to lift in use so it’s dragged along instead. I’m sorry about the poor photos but it was a busy day and taking pictures was not high on the priority list.
For those with a rake fetish this one has a head around 6ft in length with 12 tines set at around 6 inch spacing. The tines are 9 inches long, curved and sharply pointed. The handle (or stail) is made from sawn timber and braced. The head sometimes has a brace as well but in this case it’s massive enough (and heavy enough) to cope without one. Simon tells me that he knows it as a ‘corn rake’ which may also give some clue as to its original usage.
As well as organising the course Simon also has plenty of other things to keep him busy around the estate – some of his silver spangled Hamburg chickens were in the yard close to us. While collecting wood for the course earlier in the morning I got a tour of the 2000 acre estate (by highspeed landrover) and also a quick visit to his bee hives, flock of Norfolk horn sheep, ferrets and his two Dutch working horses (which are all separate from the animals on the farm).
Starting a little later than the rest on the course Simon soon caught up – here demonstrating speed sawing of the rake stail (or handle). You won’t be too surprised to learn that he seems to do everything at breakneck speed- and for the last 4 years has been England’s champion scyther, last year cutting a 5m square in 1minute 15 seconds (I won’t remind you who was second fastest in 1min 23seconds!). You might wonder why we saw the stails instead of cleeving the split. There is a good reason – if the split runs off (as they often do) the two halves will not bend symmetrically, so sawing the split helps to avoid a last minute accident and improves the look of the finished item.
Part of the reason for the course is so that the estate staff can make rakes for use on the farm, in the gardens and for sale in the shop in future. I think it’s an excellent idea. There is only one rake making workshop left in the country that I know of, but that can give a false impression as there are plenty of rake makers about making and selling rakes locally and at shows. The idea that rake-making existed only as a specialist trade is very debatable (as it is with the chair bodgers). It is my opinion that, like all agricultural hand tools, they have been made and mended on farms and particularly on estates for a lot longer than they have been made in workshops.
There was even time for a little gratuitous polelathe turning just to stop Simon from getting bored!
Though in the event we didn’t have time to get bored and I was a little worried that we might not get all the rakes finished by the end of the day. Getting so many sawn stails to fit with no accidents (snapped ends) was a little stressful, so I might try to do Dorset style rakes next time around!
If not the straightest of rakes they are no less useable for it and put to good use immediately in clearing up the shavings. I should also say that because of the time constraints, the straightness of the materials and the amount of skills to be learned we left the stails shaved rather than steaming, setting and then rounding them with a stail engine (a rotary plane designed to both plane and taper the stail).
I like them this way and to distinguish in future from the precision end of the market I might be tempted to call them ‘Rustic Rakes’?
Whatever you call them I think that they turned out very well and in the end we had 6 Rustic Rakes made and plenty of spare tines and bits for more rakes to come. I was very pleased at how well it turned out and I think everyone had a good day on the course. One of the rakes pictured here will even be in use raking asparagus on a local farm by the time I’ve posted this! I can add asparagus raking to apples and flax as new uses for wooden rakes!
Thanks to Simon for being a great host and for feeding me (nice pub) and finding me accommodation (even nicer hay barn) and to Peter Jameson for teaching me how to make Rustic Rakes in the first place.
Read Full Post »