First there was a request for help; when cutting our glades and meadows the rakes take a hammering and knowing I was a greenwood worker Em (Wildlife Trust Officer for Ceredigion) asked whether I could repair some snapped tines on her wooden rakes. My flippant response was that she should find funding to get us on a rake making course so we could all make and repair our own rakes. Em rose to the challenge and a few months on after receiving a grant from the Radcliffe Trust six of us from the Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales reserves team were at Bob Shaw’s woodland workshop outside Aberystwyth learning how to make traditional hay rakes.
Bob has been working the land all his life and is a true woodsman with a thorough understanding of woodland cycles, conservation, wood craft and sustainability and his enthusiasm for sharing his skills and knowledge was apparent throughout the day. Bob works with many groups in mid-Wales including youth groups, those with learning difficulties and the socially excluded. “All I can hope to do is inspire people” Bob said, and I would say he is successful.
Let’s get on with making rakes. After a cup of tea and a discussion about the difference between English and Welsh style rakes (we made Welsh style) we gathered around the outdoor work bench and Bob first explained there were a variety of materials we could use for the rake handle; round wood –simply a coppiced pole of ash, willow or hazel about an inch and a quarter diameter and this is best de-barked which will make it more durable and more pleasant on the hands; alternatively we could use sawn ash or riven ash, which would be the stronger due to the fibres not being severed as when sawn, which we would work removing volume until we had a round handle. Bob then ran through the processes involved for making the tines and cleaving a larger ash log to provide material for the heads.
Then we were off each of us cleaving a suitable piece of timber and axing the bulk of the excess volume away then shaping it on the bench to approx. 1 3/4” x1” with a plane and spoke shave being certain to remember to put a 5 degree angle on one side. We each shaped our sawn or riven handle material to nearly round with drawknives and planes and then clamped them into the vice for several passes through a stail engine – a kind of adjustable rounding plane. Bob fired up the steamer so we could remove any major bends in our handles. We tied string around logs about 4” diameter marked out 5/8” squares and split these into a dozen or so pegs which we then hammered through the tine cutter. After a satisfying and arm aching session of bashing these through the cutter Bob then told us we wouldn’t be using our tines, he would keep these in stock and we would use pegs made by others before us – these will have dried out and will not shrink once hammered into the head, the green head would shrink tight onto these dry tines making a strong joint. Each of us worked at our own pace and on different components so there were plenty of tools to go round (I have never seen so many greenwood working tools in one place than in Bobs workshop anyway!)
With our materials prepared we were ready to begin assembly of the rakes. Firstly we had to mark out and drill holes in the head to receive the ½” tines – good clean holes were needed so the head didn’t split as the tines were hammered in. Bob showed us a technique to getting good vertically aligned and parallel holes (and subsequent tines) by putting the 2 outside pegs in first and tying a loop of twine around to help “eye” the drill. After driving in the tines and trimming them to length we used a chisel to put a 45 degree chamfer on the outside edge of the tine which would prevent judder when pulling the rake. We bored a 1” hole through the centre of the head and used a rounding plane to put an equal sized tenon on the handle. Bob then showed us how to check the balance of the rake – you hold it as you would for work but just above the ground and keep adjusting the head, twisting it on the handle until it rests perfectly horizontally, then you drive it on tight. Then we added a hazel hoop which adds strength and support between the handle and head. In the entire construction only 4 nails were used 3 of these to help hold the hoop and one to prevent the head twisting on the handle.
Some of us had greenwood working skills before this course; others had never done anything like it. After a full and fun day we all left with a hay rake and we had all learned a lot. Being able to take material cut from the woods as part of active management and using a variety of hand tools and turn it into a tool to be used elsewhere on our reserves must surely be true sustainability? Also, to the best of our knowledge there is no one making traditional hay rakes in our area and now thanks to Bob Shaw sharing his knowledge there are six more people with knowledge of the skills and techniques and keeping the old skills alive is important. I for one know that raking is going to be far more satisfying now using the rake that I made!
All photos by Paul Thornton